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Archive for September, 2008

Tequila – The Run Down

Posted by Reese On September - 30 - 2008

From Tequila’s flavor and smell alone it may be easy to tell that this spirit is different from the others we’ve used thus far.  What you’re senses are picking up is Tequila‘s base, namely Blue Agave.  Blue Agave (agave tequilana) is one of a number of agaves that both grow natively and are cultivated in Mexico.  Although the other agaves are often used in making Pulque and Mezcal, Tequila makers can only use Blue Agave.  That brings us to our next point, the qualities of Tequila.

There are two qualities you should keep an eye out for when buying Tequila, mixto and 100% agave.  Not surprisingly 100% agave Tequilas must be distilled from a mash of fermented blue agave only, no other fermentables can be included.  Mixtos on the other hand must contain at least 51% blue agave.  The remaining 49% of the fermentable material can be other grains or sugars.  This means the distillers will use wheat or other grains as they are usually the most cost effective.  The resulting product doesn’t present as refined a flavor and is said to cause more hang overs.  Now it should be clear why I steer clear of the bottle of Jose Cuervo on my shelf.  I’d suggest sticking with 100% Agave Tequilas when mixing cocktails, the resulting drinks will be much better.

A couple more quick notes on the Blue Agave.  The plants, when growing in the wild, will send up a shoot after growing for about 5 years.  This shoot can reach 5 meters in height and is topped with yellow flowers which are then pollinated and the plant reproduces.  When cultivated for Tequila production this shoot is removed about a year after planting and used to produce more Blue Agave plants.  The resulting agave will then create a much larger core, or pina.  Once the plants reach 12 years of age they are harvested by Los Jimadores.  All the leaves of the plant are cut away and the pina, which now weighs as much as 500 lbs, is sent to the factory to be processed.

At the factory the pinas are halved and put in to large cookers which resemble giant ovens.  The pinas are cooked for anywhere from two to three days.  During this cooking process the agave’s starches are transformed in to sugars which can be processed by yeasts during the fermentation process.  Following the cooking the pinas are shredded.  Next the shredded pinas are fermented in a method similar to other spirits.  Finally the resulting mash is then fermented and either bottled immediately or aged.

If the Tequila is bottled immediately it is called a Tequila Blanco (or plata, silver or white).  Blancos are usually crystal clear, have a very pure agave taste and a bit of a sharper bite.  It’s the blanco’s agave flavor and bite that make it good for drinks with other strong flavors, such as this week’s cocktail, the Margarita.  If the distillers age the Tequila in barrels for a period of a few months the spirit is called Tequila Reposado, or rested Tequila.  Reposados tend to be light golden in color, are a bit smoother than blancos and have more of the wood flavors from the barrels.  It should be noted that not all “gold” Tequilas are gold from the barrel aging.  Some distillers will add carmel color to create the gold hue artificially.  This is primarily true of mixtos so make sure the bottles you’re buying say 100% Agave.  There are two final grades.  Tequilas aged from a few months to three years are referred to as Tequila Anejo and those aged more than three years Extra Anejo.  Anejos and Extra Anejos begin to have flavors similar to well aged whiskies from their time in the barrels.  These can be great sipping tequilas or can be mixed if you’re looking for a truly top shelf cocktail.

I hope this brief intro has shed some light on a sometimes mysterious spirit.  If you’d like some more in-depth information I’d suggest checking out “In Search of the Blue Agave.”  The site has a lot of great information and was a source of some of my facts above.  If you’d like to know more about the distillation process as a whole keep reading Cocktail Hacker.  I’m going to write a series of posts in the coming months on that very topic.  Until then, happy hacking.

The Margarita

Posted by Reese On September - 28 - 2008

We’ve been experimenting with cocktails for quite some time now here at Cocktail Hacker.  We have over a dozen drinks under our belt and not one of them has included tequila.  Which, as I’m sure some of you would be quick to point out, is wholly unacceptable.  So, in that spirit, this week we’re going to feature the cocktail that has become synonymous with Tequila, the Margarita.  You might be wondering why we haven’t covered any tequila drinks up to this point and the short answer is I don’t much like the stuff.  I have over 80 spirits in my collection and only one of those is tequila, and Cuervo Gold at that.  Which, near as I can figure, is as close as a living person can get to drinking pure death.  But, I’m willing and eager to change my mind on this spirit and I can think of no better cocktail with which to start my explorations than the Margarita.

We’ve all had Margaritas at some point in our lives.  I’d even be willing to bet that serious teetotallers could tell you what’s in one.  But have you ever had the true, original Margarita?  I know I sure haven’t.  Like the Daiquiri, the original Margarita is a simple affair and there are many currently implemented variants, but unlike the Daiquiri the Margarita you’re likely familiar with bears a fair bit of resemblance to the original.  There are a veritable pantheon of stories about the origin of this iconic drink.  I won’t repeat them here, but take a look, it’s interesting to see all the variations.  In addition to these reading materials Robert Hess’ Cocktail Spirit episode on the drink is also quite good, although the sound is a bit low.  In fact, I’m going to start my explorations with Robert’s recipe.

The Margarita - Robert Hess' Recipe
[Ingredients]
2 oz Silver Tequila
1 1/3 oz Cointreau
2/3 oz Lime Juice
[Directions]
1) Combine ingredients in a shaker
2) Shake to chill
3) Strain into a chilled cocktail glass with a salted rim
4) Garnish with a lime wedge

Astute readers should note the huge similarity between this cocktail and the Sidecar.  In fact, some of the recipes I’ve come across call for lemon juice rather than lime which would bring it even closer in.  I think you could possibly do a Tequila Sidecar with a nicely aged Anejo Tequila but that will have to wait for a later exploration.

Gin and Tonic – Wrap Up

Posted by Reese On September - 27 - 2008

The greatest thing I discovered this week experimenting with the Gin and Tonic was a renewed love of my first favorite cocktail.  The Gin and Tonic is an exercise in simplicity.  Two ingredients and a twist of lime.   But, as we showed in our tonic tasting just because the Gin and Tonic is simple doesn’t mean its easy to perfect.  In our reviews we suggested some tonics to get you started.  But what about the gin?

Like the Tom Collins, the perfect gin for this cocktail is extremely subjective.  When I’m mixing with a store bought tonic I like to go with a lighter flavor gin that’s not going to over power the flavors of your chosen tonic.  One of my favorites is Indigo.  It has a great citrus forward flavor that plays nicely with the tonic.  If you step up to a more powerful tonic, like our homemade version, you’re going to need a more powerful gin to balance out the flavors.  For G&Ts with the homemade tonic I’ve been reaching for gins with a stronger juniper punch.  Juniper Green is working well as are the couple from Bendistillery that I have in my collection.  To generalize match your gin with your tonic.  The resulting drink will be more balanced and the flavors will play off each other better.

Finally the garnish.  In most cocktails the garnish may add a touch of flavor, but not much.  It’s there as a cocktail decoration.  In the Gin and Tonic the garnish, a lime wedge, not only adds visual appeal but also a lot of additional flavor.  And, although I love my garnish squeezed into my cocktail, not everyone does.  So, hang a lime wedge on the glass and let your guest apply it if they so desire.  I’m hoping I don’t need to say this but I will just to be sure.  Don’t drop the unsqueezed lime into the drink before you give it to your guest.  No one likes having to fish their lime out of the drink just to squeeze it back in.

Tasting – Tonics

Posted by Reese On September - 26 - 2008

A key part of a Gin and Tonic (or Vodka Tonic if you must) is the tonic water.  A good tonic water will make the drink and can cover a lot of problems with the gin.  A bad tonic, on the other hand, can bring even a drink made with the most perfect gin down to the level of swill.  We decided to take one for the team and taste as many tonics as we could get our hands on (in the Boulder area) and figure out what we liked and disliked.  The tonics we were able to get were (listed in order of our preconceived notion of their tastiness, low to high): Big K, Golden Crown (Kroger Brand), Shasta, Canada Dry, Schweppes, 365 (Whole Foods Brand), Stirrings and my homemade tonic.  For this tasting there were four of us: Sean, Amanda, Aaron and Myself.

[Big K] This tonic had a nose that was not so great, which didn’t start us off well.  Aaron felt it tasted like “air with bubbles.”  Sean gave it slightly higher praise saying it was “sugar water with bubbles.”  Overall it was not at all sour, had very little quinine bitterness, basically Sprite with a touch of quinine.

[Golden Crown] This tonic too had little to no quinine bitterness which is especially interesting since it was less sweet than the Big K.  Usually when you add sweetness you will mute some of the bitterness.  We also felt this tonic was too lightly carbonated.

[Shasta] Amanda felt this one was a touch too sweet commenting “Holy sweetness batman!”  Shasta did have the most quinine of the three we’d tried to this point though which was a good thing.  Sean and I felt this tonic was on par for sweetness with the other two but added some additional bitterness and citrus sourness.  If you were throwing a party and expecting to go through a lot of tonic water this would be our recommendation.  It’s cheaper than Canada Dry and Schweppes and still has a nice flavor.

[Canada Dry] This tonic was Aaron’s favorite coming in to the tasting and remained as such.  Aaron liked that it was definitely carbonated, more so than the others we’d tried.  Sean also commented on the carbonation, liking the larger bubbles.  Amanda was the one voice of dissent for this tonic stating that it was “kind of muted and watered down” and as such she “wouldn’t drink that one.”  The overall consensus is that this one had more of a quinine bite, which is what I like in tonic, but slightly less sweet and sour than the Shasta.  Overall this is the favorite super market tonic of Sean, Aaron and Myself.

[Schweppes] As opposed to Aaron Schweppes was my favorite super market tonic coming in to the tasting.  As you can see from the above comment I change my allegiance.  Amanda thought this was much more like a proper tonic than Canada Dry and as such this is her favorite super market tonic.  Sean really liked the nose but felt the flavor was more muted than the Canada Dry.  Overall it seemed that this tonic had less quinine than Canada Dry but was a bit more sour, they were both on par for sweetness.

[365] In a comment I had given on Chowhound I had put 365 over Schweppes and Canada Dry in taste, I don’t any more however.  Sean liked the 365 more than Schweppes but it didn’t quite over take Canada Dry.  There is less bitterness in this one than either Schweppes or Canada Dry where the sweet and sour remain about the same.  Our feeling is that the cane sugar over powers the quinine.  If you’re morally against high fructose corn syrup I think this is going to be your best bet for super market tonic.

[Stirrings] This is the only store bought premium tonic water I got my hands on for this tasting and I can’t say we were impressed.  There is more quinine than some of the others but the sourness is less prevalent.  Sean liked the nose on this tonic the best of those we had tried.  This tonic, unlike some of the others, contains no salt and its also made with cane sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup.  We all liked this tonic but felt it wasn’t strong enough to stand up to a powerful gin in a G&T.  Were you looking for a good Vodka Tonic mixer I think this would be a good choice because of the nice flavors.  Overall I don’t think this tonic is worth the extra money, stick with Canada Dry or better yet, make your own.

[Homemade] Sean’s first comment I think sums it up very nicely “Yummy!”  We used 3/4 oz tonic syrup to 2 oz soda water to mix this up and felt it needed a bit more soda water.  Although at this ratio we did feel that this tonic would even stand up to the Old Raj, which is really saying something.  Overall we all liked this tonic the best and the best part, at least for me is the customizability.  Sean likes his tonic a bit less sweet where I like mine a little sweeter.  Not a problem with this tonic.  Mix it up a little less sweet and add simple syrup to up the sweetness if you so desire.

A great time was had by all and it was nice to experience all of these tonics at one time.  It really gave us a chance to decide what we liked best.  In summary, if you’re throwing a party and serving a ton of G&Ts pick up the Shasta, it won’t do you wrong.  For the everyday home mixologist we’d recommend Canada Dry, although Schweppes is also very good.  I’d reocommend trying both and deciding which you prefer.  And finally, if you have the time and motivation definitely try making your own tonic.  The results are truly a special cocktail.

There are two other premium tonics, Q and Fever Tree, that I’ve heard very good things about but haven’t gotten my hands on as yet.  If I can score some of these I’ll be sure to update the tasting notes to include them.

Ingredient – Tonic Syrup

Posted by Reese On September - 24 - 2008

There is a great thread on eGullet titled “You might be a cocktail snob/geek if…”  Well, tonight I can add another of my own.  You might be a cocktail geek if you make incredible homemade tonic syrup and immediately start thinking about what you can tweak to make it better.  Last night the cocktail hacker crew had a tonic tasting to coincide with our Gin and Tonic week.  I’ll be writing up our results tomorrow.  To go with this theme I made up a batch of homemade tonic syrup used the recipe posted by Jeffrey Morgenthaler.  This being the first time I had made Tonic Syrup I decided to stick with Jeffrey’s recipe nearly to the letter.

Two of the ingredients required a bit of foot work to find.  I found citric acid at a local home brewing / wine making shop.  The clerk was a bit startled when I said I was making my own tonic and later added that citric acid is usually purchased for barrel cleaning.  His next question was where I got the quinine from.  At Jeffrey’s suggestion, and most of the homemade tonic recipes for that matter, I used powdered red cinchona bark that I got from www.zooscape.com.  There are other online retailers as well, but ZooScape treated me well and I’d recommend them if you’re wanting to try this recipe.

Once I had all the ingredient prepped we brought them all to a boil then lowered the burner and allowed the mixture to simmer for 20 minutes.  Following that we moved on to the straining process.  The first step to this is to use a mesh strainer to remove all the big pieces.  This step will also remove a lot of the bark powder, but you’ll still be left with quite a bit of particulate.  To solve that problem there are a couple of routes you can take.  The immediate choice is to run it all through a coffee filter.  This method, although a good one, takes an exceedingly long time.  We tried it for a bit, but I got impatient so I tried my favorite filtering method.  We broke out my tiny Bodum French Press [Referrer Link] coffee maker and got to filtering.  The resulting syrup still has a bit of bark in it, but I think that adds a unique homemade look to the cocktail.

Once the syrup was strained we added the sweetener.  This is where I deviated from Jeffrey a bit.  I didn’t have any Agave Syrup and didn’t want to get any at this point so I sweetened with a 1:1 simple syrup.  I used the same proportion as Jeffrey suggests but the resulting product was a lacking a bit of sweetness so I’ve been adding a touch of simple syrup as I put it in my squeeze bottles.  Given that, I’m not going to list my altered recipe at this time or the recipe for the Gin and Tonic.  I will say though that this is, without question, the best tonic I’ve ever had.  It is bitter and sour but has great citrus flavor and the allspice really adds a nice note.  As usual I love the fact that I can vary the sweet,  bitter and sour components at will.  This is truly what cocktail hacking is all about.