The Bar Is Open

Grapefruit Martini: This One’s A Keeper

Sometimes, it seems, there can be a lot of joy and happiness in a martini glass.  And this is one of those times.

I should go on record here stating that I’m not a big grapefruit juice fan.  I like grapefruit — as a fruit — but am not equally fond of it as just juice.  Until now.  Also, of note, Jon is a big grapefruit fan, as is witnessed by the IPA beers that he prefers.  So, under one roof, we have the entire like/could-leave-it spectrum covered.

The GuysI was introduced to the Grapefruit Martini by my dear friend Sheri one day last summer when she and I were left alone while our husbands attended the US Open.  As midday gave way to afternoon, she looked at me with a twinkle in her eye and asked if I was up for an “experiment” — one involving grapefruit and vodka.  Since my normal cocktail of choice is usually something like a Lemon Drop, I had to appreciate the fact that this would be considered an experiment for me.  But, I was intrigued and very much game.

The key to this drink is the elderflower liqueur.  For the experiment, Sheri had had difficulty finding the exact liqueur that the recipe called for, so we tested the recipe using 3 different substitute liqueurs suggested by someone at the liquor store.  All made a good cocktail.

Debbie and Sheri  St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur

Months later when Jon and I were browsing our local liquor store (and I know that “browsing a liquor store” may not necessarily paint us in a very positive light), I recognized the name “St Germain” as the one that had eluded Sheri months earlier.  We brought a bottle home and Jon applied his never-fail mixology formula to it.  It’s all about proportions, people.  The result?  One of the most balanced cocktails he has ever shaken up.  All of the flavors come together perfectly in this cocktail.  Sweet, but not too sweet.  Tart, but not too tart.  Strong, but deceptively easy to drink.  Each glassful should come with the warning:  Respect the Drink.

And, as they say, the rest is history.  We have made this cocktail so many times in the last few weeks the output can literally be measured in gallons.  And we have served it to a variety of friends, all with very different tastes and preferences when it comes to their cocktails.  Each time, this recipe has received both a resounding thumbs up and requests for refills.  To put it plainly,  this one is a keeper.

We have had so many requests for our Grapefruit Martini recipe, it was only logical that we would post it here.

Cheers!

Grapefruit Martini

Click here to get recipe

A Journey Down Campari Lane

This was one of my first posts when we launched our blog.  I’m re-posting it because, get this, the first week of June 2015 has been declared “Negroni Week” — and I feel it’s my duty to give everyone ample time to prepare. Apparently, one of my all-time favorite cocktails is finally starting to catch on!

March 3, 2013:

The Hostess and I are in the middle of planning a trip to Italy with a large group of friends later this year. Actually, per usual, Debbie is doing all the planning and I haven’t done squat.  But I digress.

When I think of Italy, my thoughts invariably turn to how much Campari I’ll drink while I’m in the country of its birth.  Specifically, I’m a sucker for a Negroni, a gorgeous ruddy-colored cocktail that’s made of equal parts Campari, gin, and sweet Vermouth.  I first discovered the Negroni in the late ’90s while reading Paul Harrington’s cocktail book that I’ve mentioned in several posts.  I’d never heard of Campari prior to reading his book, and certainly had not tasted it.  But Mr. Harrington spoke glowingly of the bitter Italian liqueur, and I was intrigued that Campari has been a staple in the bars and restaurants of Italy since the mid-1800’s.  And Mr. Harrington also confessed to being a gin lover (essentially making him a kindred spirit) so the hook was set.

I decided that the best way to take the Campari plunge would be with the Negroni, a cocktail that first became popular in the 1920’s. It prominently features Campari’s complex flavors, and has the added benefit of being one-third gin, so it seemed like a great place to start.

I brought home a bottle of Campari, cracked open the top, and took a whiff.  Hmm…interesting.  Musty-syrupy-sweet, with maybe a hint of moist dirt.  (Dirt?  Seriously?)  Not much of a clue as to how it was going to taste…

Forgoing a sip straight up, I poured a shot into my trusty shaker, added ice and a shot each of Bombay Sapphire gin and sweet (red) Vermouth, and shook up my first ever Negroni.

Negroni Close-up

I poured the frosty reddish-orange concoction into my martini glass and pondered it for a minute, completely unsure of what to expect.  The Negroni appeared vaguely Cosmopolitan-ish, so I was kind of thinking of something sweet and easy-drinking as I raised it to my lips and took a sip.  Holy sweet Jesus!  It was assertively slap-in-the-face BITTER, like nothing I’d ever tasted.  And not at all in a good way.

I began to regret having bought an entire bottle of Campari, thinking “There’s no way I’ll ever use this up,” and I pictured the day in my distant future when I’d finally bring myself to pour out the rest of the bottle, dusty and unused.  I went back to the cocktail book to see if perhaps I’d screwed up the ingredients…but the only thing I’d missed was adding an orange-twist garnish.  I squeezed in a thick wedge of orange and ventured another sip, and then another.  Gradually more flavors began to emerge from behind the bitterness.  And by the time I’d emptied my glass and bitten into the orange wedge (which proved to complement the Campari perfectly) I’d decided the Negroni wasn’t completely awful.  I didn’t love it.  But a couple days later, when I was ready to try another one, I was surprised to find it rather tasty – especially with the big squeeze of orange.

They say Campari is an acquired taste and that you need to give it three tries, after which you either love it or you can’t stand it. I’ve now clearly fallen onto the “love it” side of that equation. Crave is not too strong of a word.  Hell, during our Negroni photo shoot the other day (at 10:00 in the morning) I couldn’t resist drinking one of our props.  That first bottle of Campari that I’d thought I’d never finish is a distant memory, and Campari has been a staple in my bar for over a dozen years now.  Finding a Negroni on a restaurant’s menu is a pleasantly unexpected surprise, and I’ll nearly always order one to see how the bartender makes theirs.  The classic Negroni is served “up” in a martini glass, but as often as not (and especially in Italy), it arrives on the rocks in a tumbler.  It’s equally great either way.  And I discovered long ago that I no longer need to use that thick orange wedge as my training wheels — a simple twist will be just fine, thank you.

Cheers!

Negroni and Campari

Click here to get recipe

Pineapple Daiquiri – A Happy Hour Trip to the Tropics

It’s that time of year when, for many of you, warm sunny weather just can’t get here fast enough.  So, we’re here to help.  Straight from our home bar to yours, here’s a solution for making it feel just a little bit tropical right in your own home. During happy hour, anyway.  We’ve perfected the recipe for a Tiki-bar staple:  The Frozen Pineapple Daiquiri.

To set the record straight, we’re not really big on fancy, frou-frou cocktails around here.  And we don’t drink much rum.  But Debbie does, ever-so-occasionally, like to blend up something tropical. (She has an outstanding Piña Colada recipe that we’ll share with you someday).  This week she was craving something pineapple-y. Specifically, a pineapple daiquiri.  We already had limes, frozen pineapple, and cream of coconut on hand, so I dug through our bar and found a few bottles of rum.  (Just because we don’t drink much rum doesn’t mean we aren’t prepared to provide our guests with that option.  We’re not savages, after all…)

Bottles of RumDebbie got a chuckle out of what I did next.  I uncapped the bottles, lined them up, and took a sniff from each one.  I wanted to find the one that smelled perfect for a daiquiri, and one of them (an unassuming bottle of Whaler’s Original Dark) had exactly what I was looking for:  A warm, sweet whiff of rum that gave me an intense flashback of sitting barefoot on a bamboo bar stool, under a thatched roof on a sandy beach, breathing in the humid, floral-scented tropical air, and sipping a frosty umbrella-garnished rum cocktail.  Just the kind of place where, if you can’t get there physically, the taste of a daiquiri should take you to in spirit.  So I fired up the blender, poured in the Whaler’s, and after a few minutes of experimentation we were enjoying two perfect pineapple daiquiris.  The key to the recipe, we decided, is using frozen pineapple rather than fresh. Frozen fruit in a blended drink results in a perfectly smooth and creamy cocktail that’s good all the way to the last sip (not much ice is needed, so the ingredients don’t separate as the ice melts).  These pineapple daiquiris turned out so tasty that we couldn’t resist heading “back to the beach” a couple nights later.

Pineapple Daiquiri Ingredients

If the blustery weather has an evening at your own private beach bar sounding good to you right about now, give our recipe a try.  It may be the easiest tropical cocktail you’ll ever make.  All you need is a blender, limes, a bottle of dark rum, a bag of frozen pineapple chunks, and some cream of coconut.  Oh, and to really set the mood, stock up on neon straws, tiny cocktail umbrellas, and mugs that look like coconut shells or statues of Tiki gods.  It’s like taking a spring break trip to Hawaii, minus the red-eye flights.

Cheers!

Frozen Pineapple Daiquiri

Click here to get recipe

Blood Orange Gin And Tonic – A Refreshing Spin On A Classic

For the most part, I’m a creature of habit.  It’s the way I’m wired. Google “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and you just may see my picture pop up.  So the other day when the Hostess handed me a cocktail suggestion for a gin and tonic garnished with something other than a squeeze of lime, I was justifiably skeptical.  Why, after all, would anyone want to mess with one of the world’s most perfect cocktail recipes?

But something was different this time.  Enter the Blood Orange.

Blood Oranges

Blood oranges have always fascinated me.  There’s just something about cutting into what looks like an orange, expecting it to look just like any other orange you’ve ever seen, and instead having it be this crazy dark-red color inside.  I guess I like the surprise of it, how it goes against that whole “creature of habit” thing.  So I decided to hunt down some blood oranges and give a whole new gin and tonic a try:  A blood orange gin and tonic.

Organic Blood Oranges

Good thing it’s February.  Blood oranges are seasonal and are generally only available during the winter months (like the Meyer lemons I covet this time of year).  Our local grocer had them on hand so I picked up a few and the experiment began.  And my first attempt was not a success.

I followed the steps I use to make the Hostess’s favorite gin and tonic, substituting wedges of blood orange for the lime.  The first thing I noticed was how pink the cocktail turned out.  My next observation was that a blood orange isn’t nearly as sweet as its color suggests.  Its flavor is more tart and slightly bitter, like a grapefruit, with maybe a hint of fresh berries, so I expected it to be a perfect complement for the bitterness of the quinine in tonic water.  But my first cocktail was WAY out of balance — all boozy and bitter and not very enjoyable.  Crap.

Turns out the answer was close at hand:  I needed a lot more than just a squeeze of blood orange to bring things into balance.  I made another round using a full 2 ounces of blood orange juice in each glass, and the result was amazing.  The combination of blood orange, tonic water, and gin comes together in a way that’s every bit as delicious as it is gorgeous.  Wow.  The blood orange gin and tonic is crisp, light, refreshing, and not too sweet — a mid-day sipper that would be a perfect alternative to a mimosa for your next brunch.  And, while many people think of the gin and tonic as being a summertime drink, this blood orange version makes it great year-round.

So much for not wanting to mess with perfection.  Cheers!

Fresh Squeezed Blood Orange Juice

Blood Orange Gin and Tonic

Click here to get recipe

Finally. The Best Bloody Mary.

I love a good Bloody Mary.  There’s just nothing like a frosty pint glass full of spicy tomato-y goodness overflowing with a salad bar of garnishes.  A well-made (and well-dressed) Bloody Mary is a thing of beauty.  But I have a confession to make:  I can’t make a good one to save my life.

Until now.

Bloody MaryAs much as I enjoy Bloody Marys, making a decent one myself has always been a kind of unachievable “holy grail.”  And maybe a bit of an embarrassing shortcoming as an amateur mixologist.  A big part of this is because Bloody Marys are traditionally enjoyed in the morning (often well before noon) and that’s just not the time of day when I do much experimenting with cocktail recipes.  No judgment here…but for me, I kind of feel like I’ve committed myself to an unproductive day if the vodka comes out while the coffee is still brewing.  So my efforts at perfecting a Bloody Mary recipe have been somewhat limited.

One of our friends makes an outstanding Bloody Mary.  A LOT of ingredients go into his creations; he looks like a mad scientist hunched over the bar as he measures and tweaks and fiddles to get everything just right.  It’s an intimidating process!  So, while it seems like something I should know how to make, whenever one of our guests suggests a round of Bloodys to kick off the day, I defer and ask if they have a favorite recipe and, if so, if they’d like to stand in as guest bartender.  Or we go out for brunch and leave the mixing to the professionals.

Not that I haven’t made a few attempts.  The fundamental ingredients are pretty well-known:  Vodka, tomato juice (or V8, which most enthusiasts seem to prefer), Worchestershire sauce, horseradish, various salts (garlic, celery, seasoned) and peppers, a dash of Tabasco, a squeeze of lime, and a nice, leafy stalk of celery.  Additional garnishes can vary widely, and this is a cocktail that benefits from a “more is better” attitude.  Green and black olives, dill pickles, peperoncinis, cherry tomatoes, jalapeño slices, spiced green beans, pickled asparagus spears, shrimp, oysters, bacon, the list goes on.  No wonder the term breakfast in a glass is so fitting.

Bloody Mary Garnishes

So how could it have been so hard for me to make a reasonably good Bloody Mary?  Mine always ended up tasting like something was missing (how is that possible when I already threw in everything but the kitchen sink?).  I still have detailed notes from several attempts going back more than 3 years.  I tried Chipotle-infused vodka.  I tried wasabi and Sriracha.  I tried more of this and less of that, but with so many ingredients it was impossible to figure out which ones were out of balance.  Frustrating.

Demitri's Bloody Mary SeasoningSo what, finally, was the answer in my search for the best Bloody Mary?  I’ve simplified.  Thanks to a tip from a local bartender (whose recipe is one of the best I’ve ever had), I’m using an amazing off-the-shelf seasoning mix!  A little part of me feels like this is cheating.  And maybe it is.  But the whole concept of our blog is how to make entertaining easy and fun.  So, by that definition, my Bloody Mary recipe is a complete success — because it’s easy, fun to make, and pretty darn tasty if I do say so myself.  In fact, it’s so easy and fun that, for those days when a Bloody sounds just right, we’ll be setting up a “do it yourself” (or DIY, for those of you not spending all your time on Pinterest) Bloody Mary station at our bar.  Try this yourself:  Set out the ingredients, garnishes, and a bucket of ice, provide the basic mixing instructions, and let your guests channel their own inner mad scientist.  No fuss, no intimidation, just perfectly-customized cocktails.  All before lunch.  Hmmm, that suddenly sounds like a pretty productive day after all…

Cheers!

Bloody Mary Bar

Do It Yourself Bloodys

Best Bloody Mary

Click here to get recipe

Hand-Shaken Cranberry Margaritas

The Hostess is on a serious cranberry binge.  Cranberries have recently taken over our kitchen.  And our blog.  Cranberry scones, cranberry layer cake, homemade cranberry sauce, those berries are everywhere.  If cranberry addiction was something that could get you checked into the Betty Ford Clinic, right about now I think I’d be looking into how to schedule an intervention.  But instead, I’ve decided to jump on the cranberry bandwagon myself.  The other day I took some of Debbie’s homemade cranberry sauce, shook it up with a little tequila and a few other ingredients, and ended up with something amazing.

I present to you:  The Cranberry Margarita.

Pouring a Cranberry Margarita

This margarita, for me, is a perfect example of what the term balance means when applied to the craft of the cocktail.  Cranberry is the primary flavor but it’s not overpowering.  Although there are a lot of different flavors going on in this drink, they all play well together:  It’s just tart enough to not be too sweet, sweet enough to not be too sour, it has the tiniest hint of spiciness, and it is so smooth that even your guests who swear they “can’t stand tequila ever since that one time in Mexico will enjoy this margarita.

You can use canned cranberry sauce, either whole-berry or jellied, but this margarita is at its very best when made with Debbie’s homemade cranberry cognac sauce.  Her cranberry sauce contains Grand Marnier, red pepper and other spices, and orange juice — which, coincidentally, are all perfect flavors when paired with tequila.

Years ago we experimented with cranberries in a blended margarita, with reasonable success, but I really, really prefer this new version that’s hand-shaken and served on the rocks.  Go on your own cranberry binge and break out a batch of these cranberry margaritas at your next happy hour.

Cheers!

Homemade Cranberry Cognac Sauce

Cranberry Margarita

Click here to get recipe

Holiday Punch – Champagne, Cranberries, and Spiced Simple Syrup

Last night the Hostess and I made another appearance as guest bartenders at Salon Rouge, one of our favorite local businesses, for their annual Holiday Open House.  It was our third year consecutive year, so I guess it’s now officially become a holiday tradition for us. While the mission of our blog is to teach our tips and tricks to others, we also know that it’s good experience for us to occasionally “walk the talk” and see how well our advice works outside the comfort of our own home.  Plus, we’re both regular customers of the salon so we’re happy that they give us this opportunity to help them out.

Each year Rachel and Karin, the owners, ask us to come up with a “signature cocktail” for the event.  As in past years, we needed something red (partly to be in the spirit of the holiday season, but mainly because of the “Rouge” in the salon’s name).  The past two years we’d served drinks (Pomegranate Martinis and Cosmopolitans) that were already in regular rotation at our home bar, but this year we decided to come up with something new.  The Hostess took to the interwebs and found several ideas to run past me.  Since we’d played with infused simple syrups last summer, I really liked one recipe that featured a simple syrup infused with cinnamon sticks and cloves.  Plus, two of the key ingredients were cranberry juice and champagne.  Red and festive?  Check!

We experimented and made some adjustments to scale things up to “punch bowl size” in order to easily serve a large group.  When serving cocktails from a punch bowl you need to consider a few things. First, you need to be prepared to replenish the punch from time to time so that the bowl stays close to full (there’s nothing sadder than a nearly-empty punch bowl crying “The fun is about to end”!).  Second, you want the punch well-chilled without having to add a ton of ice, since melting ice will quickly water down the top couple inches of your punch.  And third, in the case of a champagne punch, it’s best served “up” — you don’t want to ladle chunks of ice into your guests’ glasses.  Debbie solved the ice challenges with a spectacular cranberry “ice ring” that she made in a Bundt pan, and we pre-chilled all of the ingredients so that the punch was cold to begin with.  An ice ring is perfect for a punch bowl cocktail as it melts much more slowly than crushed ice. Debbie’s cranberry ice ring added a festive flair as, over the course of the evening, it slowly gave up its cranberries and they ended up floating on the surface of the punch.

Everything in the punch bowl was alcohol-free so it was easy to serve virgin cocktails to kids and non-imbibers:  We simply filled their glass halfway from the punch bowl and topped with sparkling cider.  And the rest of the crowd loved watching how we’d start by putting a dash of Grand Marnier into their glasses (“What’s THAT??“) followed by the punch and champagne.  Adding the bubbly to the glasses at the last minute, instead of directly into the punch bowl, made sure that everyone’s drink was fresh and sparkly.

Straining the Simple Syrup  Juices for Punch

Cranberry Ice Ring

Holiday Punch Bowl  Pouring Grand Marnier

Holiday Champagne Punch

So enough about the process.  Can I just say how incredibly GOOD this punch is?  Tart and tangy cranberry and light, refreshing champagne, layered over warm spices and rich-orange Grand Marnier.  I mean, seriously.  I’ll probably never again smell potpourri without craving a champagne flute full of our holiday punch.  Keep the ingredients for this recipe on hand from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve and you’re good to go for all your holiday entertaining.

Cheers!

Holiday Champagne Punch

Click here to get recipe

Celebrate Fall With A Caipirinha

Fall has arrived, and as the cooler weather and earlier evenings drive us indoors, I’ve decided it’s time to change the lineup at the Entertaining Couple’s bar.  Don’t you worry, this post isn’t about how to make some trendy, clichéd “fall cocktail” like a Cinnamon Apple Martini or a Pumpkin Pie Cosmo (come on…does anyone really drink these things?).  Nope, the direction I’m heading is all about complementing the change of seasons with a classic cocktail, one that has some history to it.  This is the time of year when people start looking forward to a mid-winter trip to the tropics, with visions of sunny beaches, to shake off the longing for the summer that’s now far behind us.  So the time is right to add a tropical cocktail to the mix:  The Caipirinha.

Tropical Cruise

CachacaI’m actually a little surprised it’s taken me this long to write about the Caipirinha. It’s one of my favorite drinks — especially when I’m in the tropics (or when I’m creating a tropical atmosphere at home) — and it’s a super fun cocktail to make. Plus, it’s the national cocktail of Brazil, which (to me, at least) makes it seem exotic and sexy.  A Caipirinha that’s faithful to the original recipe is made with cachaça, a Brazilian liquor distilled from sugar cane. Cachaça is similar to rum, but a bit less sweet, a bit more “raw,” and a bit more challenging to acquire a taste for. Here are some pronunciation tips.  Say “kye – purr – reen – yuh” for Caipirinha, and “kuh – shah – suh” for cachaça.  Easier than it looks, right?

I had my first Caipirinha many years ago in a Brazilian restaurant in Denver.  I’d heard (and read) about the Caipirinha but had never seen one on a menu before, so I was excited to finally try one. And it was awful.  The cachaça’s flavor reminded me of how paint thinner smells.  Blehh.  I wrote the Caipirinha off as something I didn’t like.  But a couple years later, I spent a week on business in São Paolo and figured it was only fair to try a Caipirinha in its home country. What a difference!  I’m not sure if the cachaça was better (probably) or if the Brazilian bartenders were more skilled at making Caipirinhas (again, probably), but whatever, I quickly became a fan. Now, instead of reminding me of paint thinner, cachaça makes me think of sun, beaches, and tropical good times.  (It also helps that, in recent years, good-quality cachaça has become widely available here in the United States.)

Half Lime, Sliced

Cut half a lime into four slices

Adding Brown Sugar

Add some coarse brown sugar

Ready for Muddling

Grab your muddler…

Muddling Lime and Sugar

…and muddle gently until juicy

Add Some Cachaca

Fill glass with ice and cachaça

Shake

Join glass with shaker

Serve

Shake and serve

Caipirinha

We’ve also found Caipirinhas in parts of the Caribbean; those are almost always made with local rum and they tend to be a bit sweeter than the Brazilian version.  (Purists will tell you that, if made with rum, it’s called a Caipirissima, while if you use vodka you’ve made a Caipiroska — which, incidentally, is Debbie’s favorite version.  Whatever you call it, these variations taste great as well).

I think the Caipirinha is the perfect antidote for the wintertime blues that are just around the corner.  Instead of dreading the change of seasons, throw a Tiki party:  Crank up the heat, turn on your favorite tropical music, slip into your flip flops, splash on some coconut oil, and shake up some Caipirinhas!

Cheers!

Click here to get recipe

Lavender — It’s Not Just for Grandma’s Bathroom

During the summer months the Hostess and I live in what I’m beginning to think of as “Lavender Country.”  There’s something about our sandy, well-drained soil, our clammy-cold spring weather followed by warm dry summers, and maybe even our area’s proximity to salt water and sea breezes that lavender plants seem to love. They spread like weeds in the yards throughout our neighborhood. The few tiny sprigs we planted three years ago have grown and multiplied into an army of bushes the size of Smart Cars.  There are lavender farms in the area and tourists flock to them during mid-summer to admire the purple fields and gawk at all the uses the farmers have dreamt up for their crop.  There’s lavender tea, lavender ice cream, lavender scones and muffins, lavender lemonade, lavender skin creams, potpourris, incense, soaps, oils, bug repellents, pillows, sachets, the list goes on.  And, frankly, I’m more than a little embarrassed to admit that I know what potpourris is.  Not to mention a sachet.  So I’ll skip the frou-frou stuff and instead talk about a use for lavender that I can really get behind: As the key ingredient in a Lavender Martini.

Martini Glass

About a year ago we started noticing lavender martinis on summer cocktail menus, and somewhere along the way the Hostess picked up a tin of culinary lavender so that we could try making one ourselves.  With the lavender in our own yard now in full bloom we decided it’s high time to work on our lavender martini recipe.  I started with the easy part — making a simple syrup infused with the culinary lavender.  Sidebar:  I have no idea what makes lavender “culinary.”  The stuff in the tin looks exactly like the dried flower buds that we sweep up by the pound this time of year.  I suppose if I wore a hairnet and disposable gloves while cleaning our patio (I mean, while harvesting our crop) our lavender might qualify as culinary as well…

Tin of Lavender

Crushing Lavender Flowers

Anyway, the lavender syrup was super easy to make.  As I crushed the flowers the aroma gave me a childhood flashback to the soap in my grandmother’s bathroom.  This memory only got stronger while the syrup was simmering on the stove.  Once the syrup cooled I tasted it to get a sense for the flavor I’d be working with, a little concerned that it might be overpowering.  I was pleasantly surprised by a not-too-pungent herbal flavor that tasted a lot like how our garden smells this time of year.  My goal was to create a cocktail that would highlight the lavender flavor while still keeping it subtle and balanced — the lavender martini had to taste like lavender, but not so much that it would remind people of soap.  Or, worse, a sachet.

I started by looking at how chefs cook with lavender, and especially at which other ingredients and flavors work well with it.  Lemon was common, so I figured my recipe would benefit from some fresh lemon juice, but for the first taste test I shook up nothing but plain, unflavored vodka and a couple teaspoons of my lavender syrup.  I then made a second round including a squeeze of fresh lemon, mixed up a third using a lemon-infused vodka, and a fourth with the addition of a little Cointreau.  I lined up several small glasses, sat down with Debbie, and the tasting began.  A couple versions were surprisingly crappy, while one stood out as being better than the others (the lemon juice made a big difference).  But even the best one wasn’t quite what I was after, so we plunged ahead with a few more attempts.  The secret ingredient that finally brought everything into balance proved to be a hint of vanilla.  I considered making a new batch of lavender syrup with a few drops of vanilla extract, but decided to keep things simple and just use a bit of vanilla vodka instead.

Lavender Martini Testing

We sampled the final recipe again a few evenings later, and then took the “quality assurance” step of inviting some guest-tasters over for happy hour to get their impartial opinions, which resulted in even more tweaking.  This was definitely not my easiest cocktail recipe!   But I’m really, really happy with the lavender martini that resulted.  Shake one up and let me know what you think!

Cheers!

Lavender Martini

 Click here to get recipe

Watermelon Martini – Summer Food in a Martini Glass!

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you know how the Hostess can go on and on during this time of year about “summer food.”  She really, really loves fresh, locally grown produce, and her summertime meals make ample use of the vegetables, berries, and seafood from the seasonal harvest.

Debbie’s love of summer flavors carries over to our cocktail recipes.  I’ve heard her exclaim, on numerous occasions while sampling fresh-picked fruits, “Wouldn’t this make a great cocktail?”  So it didn’t surprise me a couple summers ago when, after we’d cut into a fresh, sweet watermelon, she suggested that I should come up with a recipe for a watermelon martini.

Watermelon Martini IngredientsIt’s always a fun challenge to try to come up with a cocktail from a new ingredient, and this time was no exception.  I started with two parts vodka and one part Cointreau (that combination never lets me down as the basis for a good fruit-based cocktail).  The trick was finding the perfect balance of flavors for the watermelon-based mixer.  I started by muddling some watermelon, and was amazed at the amount of juice that comes out of a relatively small amount of melon (hmm, I guess that’s why it’s called a watermelon).

The watermelon juice was tasty, but the watermelon’s mild flavor wasn’t robust enough to keep from being overwhelmed by the liquor without a little help.  I’ve learned that a squeeze of citrus helps to smooth out a fruit-based cocktail, and in this case lime proved to be the best choice.  The tartness from a little fresh lime juice enhanced the watermelon’s flavor without covering it up.  Kind of like the way watermelon candy tastes good because it’s tangy, even though natural watermelon is sweet, not tart.  A tiny amount of agave nectar brought the cocktail’s flavor together perfectly. Success!

We’ve served quite a few rounds of our watermelon martinis the last couple years, and I dare say it may be our best summer cocktail.  It tastes like biting into a fresh-picked watermelon.  The vodka and Cointreau give it a smooth finish and they complement the watermelon’s flavor perfectly.  This cocktail is refreshing and not too sweet, so you’re craving a refill even before your glass is empty.  It’s summer food in a martini glass!  Just remember that the watermelon martini is a full-strength cocktail, so be a responsible host and don’t over-serve!

Cheers!

Watermelon Martini

Click here to get recipe

Lemonade

Did every kid, at some point growing up, have a lemonade stand at the end of their driveway?

I did.  And, given that this was one of my earliest business ventures, I like to think that those hours spent selling a cup of lemonade for a nickel fostered an everlasting entrepreneurial spirit in me.  But, in looking back on it, I’m amused at the business aspect of it all.  My mom bought all of the ingredients that went into the lemonade that I sold, yet allowed me to keep all the profits from it.  I guess what I learned is always make sure you have a generous venture capitalist with zero expectations of an ROI.

Lemonade Stand

Lemonade DispenserLemonade is one of those things that has been around forever.  Supposedly it originated in Egypt around 700 AD.  Can’t you see those cute little Egyptian kids selling lemonade from a stand for a coin?  And lemonade continues to be a favorite beverage today.  Talk about lasting popularity.  Tang didn’t fare so well, even if the astronauts drank it in space.

Today, lemonade is popular in its original form, or with some fizz added, or served with ice tea (an “Arnold Palmer”).  It’s also found its way into many cocktails, including several of ours.  Lemonade is an easy way to refresh a crowd.  So, if you’re hosting a barbecue or brunch, lemonade is a sure way to please many.  You can make it fresh from scratch using this simple recipe.  Or, you don’t feel like juicing a mound of lemons, you can buy one of the natural bottled brands like Simply Lemonade.  And, and easy way to spice it up is to just provide some vodka on the side for guests to add if they choose.  We like to serve vodka in those little airline-size bottles, in a bucket of ice, next to this generation’s version of a lemonade stand.

Happy Entertaining!

Lemonade and Vodka

Click here to get recipe

Raspberry Lemon Drop Martini – a Lemon Drop with a Twist

This is one of my favorite cocktail recipes.  It’s one of the very first drink recipes we added to our blog when we launched it nearly two years ago.  When so many of our returning guests arrive at our house, the first cocktail they ask for is my classic lemon drop.  But sometimes, when the mood feels just right to throw them for a bit of a twist, I’ll switch it up and hand them a Raspberry Lemon Drop Martini instead.

Raspberries

Our recipe for the raspberry lemon drop martini came about when a friend showed up with a bottle of Hangar 1’s Fraser River Raspberry vodka.  I’d never tried any of Hangar 1’s products before and, on a Raspberry Lemon Drop Martiniwhim, I substituted their vodka for the usual Absolut Citron in my lemon drop recipe.  I didn’t really know what to expect, and the result was a stunner.  The berry-sweetness of the raspberry-infused Hangar 1 vodka proved to be the perfect complement to the tartness of the lemon.  I tweaked the proportions a bit to find the right balance, and our delicious raspberry lemon drop martini was the result.  This is a cocktail I don’t hesitate to serve to anyone who enjoys a good adult beverage.  It even wins over the guys who might initially shy away from its pretty-in-pink color thinking it’s going to be too sweet for their manly palates.  And in spite of its harmless appearance, this drink commands respect as it packs the wallop of a proper martini!

The Hostess' Summer Addiction

Our raspberry lemon drop martini is particularly good on a sunny patio on a long, lazy summer’s day.  The Hostess says she gets the lyrics to Hot Fun in the Summertime stuck in her head whenever I fill her glass with one of these!

Cheers!

Raspberry Lemon Drop Martini

Click here to get recipe

Note:  While we’re huge fans of Hangar 1‘s products, we are not compensated in any way by them (nor, for that matter, by any other products we mention elsewhere on our blog.)  We choose products that consistently give us great results.  When it comes to cocktails we’ve found that it’s often necessary to be brand-specific to achieve that “just right” flavor.

Cinco de Mayo? Cinco Margarita Recipes!

So you’re thinking of throwing a Cinco de Mayo party this weekend? Really want to impress your guests with something way better than the usual neon green too-limey/too-sweet store-bought margarita mix? Here’s a margarita recipe (or five!) that will leave your friends begging for your recipe.  Each of our party-tested margarita recipes tastes SO much better than what you’ll get from that jug of José Cuervo brand mixer.   (And if you’ve already purchased said jug of mixer, see the first recipe for a tip on how you can still get great results using a store-bought mix).

Put on your party sombrero and count them off with me —

Uno!  Top Shelf Margarita.  Want the ease of using an off-the-shelf mixer?  Cut back just a bit on the amount of bottled mix and leave room for a splash of Grand Marnier alongside the tequila.  Then, squeeze in an orange and a lime, and you’ll have a golden-smooth, top quality margarita that tastes handmade.

Top Shelf Margarita

Top Shelf Margarita

Dos!  Blended Gold Margarita.  If you’re having a big crowd and you need to serve your margaritas by the pitcher, this recipe is for you! Track down a few cans of frozen margarita mix (Bacardi makes a great one), ignore the recipe on the can (use ours instead), and crank up your blender!

Blended Gold Margarita

Blended Gold Margarita

Tres!  Shades of Taos.  This is our premium, hand-crafted, all natural margarita.  Nothing but fresh squeezed fruit, a dash of agave nectar, Cointreau, and your favorite tequila.  The margarita that legendary stories are made from.

Shades of Taos Margarita

Shades of Taos Margarita

Cuatro!  Tangerine Margarita.  Another super-tasty hand-crafted margarita with an ultra-smooth tangerine-y twist to it.  This is our newest margarita recipe and it’s quickly become Debbie’s favorite. And several friends have reported back rave reviews after “quality testing” our recipe at their own parties.

Tangerine Margaritas

Tangerine Margarita

CINCO!  Pomegranate Margarita.  If you really want to break from the norm, this recipe is way different.  Festive deep pink color, delicious tangy pomegranate flavor, and a smooth finish of blanco tequila that leaves no doubt you’re drinking a margarita in spite of its outward appearance.

Pomegranate Margarita Shooters

Pomegranate Margarita

If you have questions or are looking for more suggestions, please leave a comment below and we’ll get right back to you.

Salud!

Got Limes? Try a Kamikaze!

I really get excited about “classic” cocktails.  Especially the cocktails dating back to the pre-Prohibition era that have loads of history associated with them.  The Kamikaze cocktail is not one of those.  The Kamikaze earned its status as a classic in a whole different way, by becoming everyone’s favorite bar shot back in the 80’s.  I’d venture to bet that the Kamikaze has been responsible for more hangovers and frighteningly poor decisions than pretty much anything this side of tequila.  And, honestly, given this cocktail’s name, should the prospect of a Kamikaze-soaked evening coming to a spectacularly bad ending really surprise anyone?

Kamikazi IngredientsAll of which is really a shame, because the Kamikaze is actually an outstanding cocktail.  It’s closely related to the Gimlet, the Daiquiri, and the Margarita, three lime-based classics that have stood the test of time.  The only real difference between each of them is the base spirit (vodka in the Kamikaze; gin, rum, and tequila, respectively, in the others).  The Kamikaze starts crisply tart and sour yet finishes slightly sweet, making it an easy drink to enjoy.  And, to over-enjoy.  As the Hostess may have done once, many years back, when she spent an evening ordering round after round of “Kazu-mockies”.

Regardless, I think it’s time to give the Kamikaze a fresh start. Shake it, sip it, serve it as a cocktail rather than a shot.  Next time one of your happy hour guests is open to trying something “a little different” and is looking to you for a suggestion, shrug off the Kamikaze’s reputation as a throwback to the Spring Break beer-and-shots crowd, and hand them a Kamikaze cocktail served “up” in a martini glass.  It’ll be a hit.  Even if it does bring back a memory or two they’d rather leave repressed.

Cheers!

Kamikaze

Click here to get recipe

Margaritas, Tangerine Style

“Money can’t buy happiness.  But it can buy tequila, and that’s almost the same.”  (Jose Cuervo advertisement)

There’s just something about tequila.  People either love it or hate it.  If they aren’t fans, it usually has something to do with a bad experience involving (a) Mexico and (b) spring break.  And, for most, that was many, many years ago.  A fateful night with tequila can have a very long lasting effect.

Those trips to Mexico, or just one too many shots at any time in any place, have ruined tequila for many a well-meaning person.  At one point in my life, I was one of those that was living a life of self-proclaimed tequila abstinence.  That was until the Bartender and his good pal Jose Cuervo convinced me to fall off the tequila-free wagon and give it another try.

Since then, our tequila horizons have broadened widely as we’ve explored various top shelf tequilas and a variety of cocktail recipes that made me realize that the cactus juice has a place in my life, as long as I embrace it with a little bit of moderation and decorum.

Which brings me to the purpose of all of this:

Tangerines

There’s a bit of an obsession going on around our house with tangerines.  Maybe it’s because it’s wintertime and our grocers’ shelves are stocked with Clementines and Cuties (which are extra-juicy seedless tangerines).  Whatever the reason, I am seriously celebrating the citrus.  I have been eating them for snacks and tossing them in our salads.  And then there was the mousse.  Oh, and the tangerine lemon drop martinis.  Now, just to ensure the scurvy is held at bay, we’ve managed to find a way mix tangerines with tequila.

Making Tangerine MargaritasNot that I needed another favorite cocktail.  But this may be the best margarita I’ve ever had.  If you’ve been a bit hesitant about tequila, say for the last decade or so, here’s a great way to slip back into it.  Our tangerine margarita is subtly fruity and deliciously smooth, so just heed the warning that you’ll often hear the Bartender say:  Respect the drink.

If there ever was a good reason to rekindle your relationship with tequila, or to spice up the tequila affair you’re already having, this margarita is it.  So, join in, and enjoy.  And invite some of your friends to come along.

Happy Entertaining!

Hostess’ Hint:  If you’re wondering how to select the best tangerines, here is a link with All Things Tangerine including tips for buying.

Margarita Shot Glasses  Tangerine Margaritas and Glasses

Tangerine Margaritas

Click here to get recipe

Top Off St. Patrick’s Day With An Irish Coffee

St. Patrick’s Day is a tough holiday for me to understand.  Sure, I’ve read about who St. Patrick was, what he did, and why he’s so deeply revered.  And the Hostess and I have several good friends who are Irish, St Patty Duck with Murphy'sincluding one in particular who is passionately so.  I get that the Irish are a fiercely proud (and gregarious) bunch with a tremendously rich heritage.  But to me, the celebratory rituals of St. Patrick’s Day (drinking copious quantities of Guinness, Jameson, and green-dyed beer while surrounded by people wearing goofy green outfits and feasting on cabbage), make about as much sense as honoring St. Nicholas by eating candy out of your socks or celebrating the day of Resurrection by hunting for eggs that were laid by a rabbit.

Oh wait.  I guess our tried and true traditions are more about the celebration than about making sense.  If we have a reason to celebrate what’s important to us, that’s good enough for me. Anyway, at the risk of offending those of you who truly understand and honor the great deeds of St. Patrick, I’m taking the low road this year and using his day to shamelessly plug our Irish Coffee recipe.  This versatile and tasty drink is perfect as an afternoon pick-me-up on a cold and dreary day.  It’s equally good accompanying a rich dessert after a big meal.  And it looks great, too.  So, this year, as you’re wearing your bright green beer goggles and your “Kiss me, I’m Irish” tee-shirt, and you’re teetering towards that final toast of the evening, go with the drink that has a little caffeine kick to it:  Channel your inner Leprechaun and hoist an Irish Coffee to St. Patty!

Sláinte!

Irish Coffee

Click here to get recipe

A Toast to Winter’s End

Depending on where you live, throughout much of the United States this has been a winter for the modern-day record books.  One that most people are looking forward to saying “goodbye and good riddance” to.  I have to admit that I’m the lone exception.  In the Colorado mountains where the Hostess and I spend our winters, the higher angle of the sun and above-freezing temperatures ushered in by the month of March bring about (in me, and a handful of like-minded ski bums) feelings of melancholy.  I’ve always been one for whom changing seasons trigger emotions: Excitement for what’s coming, and a bit of remorse for what’s passing.  And March’s arrival and the snow’s accelerating departure mean that the season of skiing that I so look forward to every year is entering its final few weeks. So even though it’s almost time to put away the snow shovels and break out the golf clubs, this time of year always leaves my heart feeling a little heavy.

Don’t get me wrong.  I can be just as excited as the next person about the coming of spring (see this post from last year).  And as an amateur bartender, I love that the change of seasons also means a change of cocktails.  Just as the Hostess always tells me that people shouldn’t wear white between Labor Day and Memorial Day, there are cocktail aficionados who believe that certain drinks are best reserved for the long, dark months of winter, while others go better with warm weather.  So I do get excited that it’ll soon be time to break out some warm weather cocktail recipes and shuffle some bottles from the back of the bar to the front.  Kind of like spring cleaning…but way more fun.

But let’s not rush these things along just yet.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how the Old Fashioned is a perfect mid-winter’s cocktail.  And before this winter completely slips away, it’s only fair that another one of my whiskey-based favorites — the Rye and VermouthManhattan — gets some headlining space on our blog.  I do like cocktails that have stood the test of time, and the Manhattan dates back to the late 1800s.  It has an air of class and sophistication, yet it’s quite easy to make.  Once you’ve selected your favorite rye or bourbon and the appropriate martini-style glass, it’s simply a matter of measuring out the right proportions and mixing up your cocktail.  The one trick I’ve learned is that, as much as I like using my shaker, the Manhattan is best when stirred, not shaken. Otherwise you end up with a frothy, foamy drink that’s not visually appealing (someone once said the receding foam reminded them of “pond scum”).  Personally, I like to make the Manhattan in a Boston-style cocktail shaker; I mix and chill the ingredients by slowly pouring them back and forth a few times between the two shaker halves before straining into a chilled glass. The result is a clear, crisp frosty-cold cocktail that’s hard to resist.

Manhattan

I must admit that, after a winter spent sampling various bourbons and ryes while perfecting my Old Fashioned recipe, I’ve really come to like and appreciate these darker spirits.  And this March it feels as though, as I prepare to say goodbye (for a few months, anyway) to my seasonal ski-bum lifestyle, I’m also saying farewell to some new friends like Mr. Woodford and Mr. Templeton.  So time’s a-wasting. Stir up a Manhattan and join me in a toast to the end of winter before the last of the snow is gone!

Cheers!

Click here to get recipe

Groundhog Day

It’s official.  Six more weeks of winter.  At least according to that cute little rodent turned meteorologist, Punxsutawney Phil, who saw his shadow yesterday.  Not sure why once a year we trust  a groundhog to do the weather forecasting, but that’s his, and his shadow’s, prediction for this year.  Depending on your perspective, the news about 6 more weeks of winter is either cause for celebration or time to drown your sorrows.  Either way, here’s a suggestion to help you make the most of the rest of winter.

Happy Entertaining!

Click here to get our recipe for Hot Buttered Rum

Hot Buttered Rum Batter

Batter Up!

Making Hot Buttered Rum

Just Add Water

Hot Buttered Rum

Click here to get recipe

Blueberry Martini? What a Great Idea!

It all started a year ago when a friend of ours showed up at our house with a bottle of Hangar 1 Maine Wild Blueberry vodka.  The Hostess and I go way back with Hangar 1’s excellent hand-made infused vodkas.  We love how a splash of their Fraser River Raspberry vodka turns our Lemon Drop into something uniquely special.  And I, being a bit of a spice-lover, really, really like their chipotle-infused vodka in a Bloody Mary.  So the bottle of blueberry vodka practically popped its own cork as it came through our front door.

Hangar 1 Maine Wild Blueberry VodkaSurprisingly, though, we didn’t immediately warm up to the blueberry flavor.  The vodka tasted great straight, so it seemed obvious that it would be a welcome alteration to any of our popular vodka cocktails.  I immediately set about experimenting (tough job, I know), and the timing was perfect as we had a houseful of thirsty lab rats, but in the end I wasn’t hugely satisfied with any of the results.  And the bottle ended up languishing in the liquor cabinet as I reverted back to serving our “usual” cocktails to our guests.

Last week, though, while ruminating with friends on various vodka infusions (and by ruminating I might actually mean consuming), the Hostess recalled our (now dusty) bottle of blueberry vodka and had an epiphany:  Maybe, instead of trying to force the blueberry flavor to complement one of our existing cocktail recipes, I should instead concoct something new from scratch:  A Blueberry Martini that would highlight the flavor of the Hangar 1 vodka.  Brilliant!

You probably read that and thought, “Um . . . duh!”

Yeah, well, remember that I’m a techie at heart and can be a stubbornly linear thinker, so it sometimes takes a pretty big slap upside my thick head to get me thinking outside my box.  Plus, once that’s Pouring a Blueberry Martinihappened and I’m on a roll, I tend to think that the brilliant idea was mine to begin with.  So I’m hoping to get brownie points from the Hostess for actually acknowledging, here in public, that the Blueberry Martini was indeed her idea.  But enough about me and my quirks.  For the recipe of our newly-launched Blueberry Martini, I took inspiration from the flavors of our Lemon Blueberry Muffins and combined muddled blueberries with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to achieve a not-too-sweet balance. And I think we nailed it!  My recipe successfully debuted during the Hostess’s recent “Girls Weekend” so it now has the Entertaining Couple’s official seal of approval. Plus, with all the anti-oxidants that are packed into blueberries, you can slurp these down practically guilt-free.  Give one a try, and leave a comment to let me know what you think!

Cheers!

Click here to get recipe

Blueberry Martini

Fun in the Snow Means It’s Time For Hot Chocolate

Baby, it’s cold outside!  And the snow has been falling pretty much non-stop for the last several days.  Around here, that is all cause for celebration.

Snowgirl

When you live in a mountain resort community, snow is a good thing.  And it’s a reason to be outside.  It’s like a big white playground, just begging kids of all ages to come out and play.  Sometimes snow can just be so much fun.

Hot Chocolate

If snow is for all ages, then the refreshments should be, too.  Hot chocolate appeals to all of us, young or old.  But there’s something wonderfully adult about this hot chocolate.  It’s a little bit of decadence in a cup, that you can wrap your hands around and enjoy marshmallow tip to chocolate-y bottom.  And if you’re really feeling like a grown-up, go ahead and add a shot of Peppermint Schnapps.  It all makes for a perfect combination of play hard/relax hard.

Happy Entertaining!

Click here to get recipe

Fun Sledding  Crash and Burn

Woohoo!  Faceful of Snow

In the Mountains  Fun in the Snow

Over the Jump  Oops!

The Bartender Crosses Over to the Dark Side: The Old Fashioned

Our blog is now partway through its second year, and in looking back at my cocktail posts I realized that nearly all of my recipes have featured bright and cheery drinks made with “clear” liquors, namely vodka or gin.  But now that we’re in the dead of winter the time feels right for cocktails to turn a shade darker, to become a bit more brooding and moody.  This is the time of year when beer drinkers notice a preponderance of dark, bold “winter warmer” seasonal brews on the shelf.  Wine lovers put away their Sauvignon Blanc in favor of Cabernet.  And cocktails made with the darker spirits – whiskey, rum, Scotch, and the like – are headlining the menu of your local watering hole.  So, too, has the darkness fallen across our home bar.

I’ve recently been dabbling with a drink that hearkens all the way back to the early 1800’s:  The Old Fashioned.  While to some, the name of this cocktail may conjure up images of their great Aunt Edna and her bridge club, I contend that today is the right time for this historic libation to become a staple at your home bar.  Premium bourbons have been increasing in popularity for quite a while now, and while the preferred way to serve these is usually straight up, with a splash of water, or on the rocks, there are those who enjoy how the addition of a few subtle ingredients can serve to smooth, complement, and highlight their favorite brand while not masking its flavor.  The bitter-sweet-orangey foundation of the Old Fashioned, in my opinion, performs admirably in this supporting role.  Think of this cocktail as a shot of bourbon with training wheels.

As with so many classic cocktails, there are endless variations on the Old Fashioned, beginning with whether the base liquor should be rye, bourbon, Canadian whisky, or even brandy (for you Packers fans).  Any of the above will work just great, so it all comes down to your personal preference.  From there, recipes consistently use sugar, bitters (typically Angostura), water, some type of citrus fruit, and a cherry garnish.  I’m a big advocate of liberal use of fresh citrus in my cocktails, so my recipe includes muddling a chunk of orange along with the sugar and bitters to bring out the citrus highlights.  And while some like plain water, I’ve decided I prefer that my splash of water be carbonated.

Orange Slices

Cut up an orange

Teaspoonful of Sugar

Add a teaspoonful of sugar

A Few Dashes of Bitters

Shake in a few dashes of bitters

Muddling

Then muddle it all together

I’ve become a huge fan of the Old Fashioned.  It’s a fun drink to mix, it’s a drink most people have heard of even if they’ve never tried one, and (thanks, probably, to Mad Men) it’s developing a certain coolness factor.  It’s a cocktail so historic that it even has its own glass named after it.  I’ll go so far as to say the Old Fashioned has become my “go-to” drink on these dark and cold winter days when it feels a little too right to start happy hour at 3:00 in the afternoon.  The intrigue (and the danger) of the Old Fashioned is found in its layered flavor.  It starts with the big robust slap of nearly-straight whiskey.  Then, a subtle bitter-orange sweetness begins to assert itself.  And by the last sip, the flavor has become so soft and mellow that it’s impossible to not want a refill.  And another.  And so on, until you’re curled up in a corner clutching your glass and begging for another round while someone phones you a cab.  Yep, the season of darkness is upon us.

Cheers…

Click here to get recipe

Old Fashioned

The Bartender Suggests a Cocktail for New Year’s Eve: The French 75

With New Year’s Eve upon us, our thoughts turn to reflections on the passing year, hopes for the coming one, and, of course, Champagne.  But I must confess, as one who enjoys mixing and serving cocktails almost as much as I enjoy drinking them, the act of merely popping and pouring a bottle of Champagne (or a nice domestic sparkling wine, for those of us who aren’t snooty) feels like it lacks something.  I personally love the anticipation of making a cocktail:  Laying out my bar tools, selecting perfectly-ripe citrus fruit, lining up the bottles, and my most favorite part, hearing the clatter of a scoop-full of ice hitting the bottom of my shaker.  Serving Champagne deprives me of all of this.

Until now.

French 75

French 75

One of the things I love about cocktails is that many of the great ones come to us with a colorful past.  Through the ages, people have tweaked and fiddled with spirits and ingredients as they sought to create great-tasting drinks, and the best recipes live on today with interesting names and stories.  Recently, good friends of ours introduced the Hostess and me to a Champagne-based cocktail known as the French 75.  This concoction, dating back to World War One and named for a devastatingly-powerful 75mm cannon developed by the French army, is to me the perfect cocktail for a festive celebration:  A nice pour of Champagne for those guests who simply must have a glass of bubbly to complement their New Year’s toast, combined with a bit of preparing, measuring, and shaking that satisfies my inner bartender’s desire to create something rather than just filling glasses straight from the bottle.  Plus there’s an added bonus in that it uses three of my favorite ingredients, namely gin, Cointreau, and fresh lemons.  And finally, this cocktail gets the Hostess’s seal of approval as being both “sexy and glamorous.”  Wow!  What’s not to love?

I suggest making a resolution to break ever so slightly from the norm during your New Year’s party.  Offer up this cocktail as an alternative to a plain-Jane glass of bubbles.  Just remember to caution your imbibers that, like the vintage gun it’s named for, the French 75 can deliver quite a wallop.

Cheers!

Click here to get the recipe

P.S.  One more thing to love about this cocktail is that it most definitely does not call for expensive Champagne.  On the contrary, it’s a spectacular way to serve the bottle of Cook’s that your buddy’s going to pick up on sale on his way to your party!

An Alcohol-Free Alternative: Cosmo Punch for the Holidays

A few evenings ago, the Hostess and I tended bar for a local business at their annual holiday open house.  In case you’re keeping score, this was my second gig as a guest bartender – back by popular demand (or maybe just because the Hostess did a good job of farming me out) for the same event as last year.  This year we decided to serve the Cosmopolitan.  The Cosmo is quick and easy to make and, with its cranberry flavor and festive color, it’s the perfect cocktail for Thanksgiving and Christmas entertaining.  Our Cosmopolitan recipe proved to be a big hit that evening, and I was surprised that, while most of my “customers” had heard of the Cosmopolitan, several had never actually tasted one.  One person even commented that she didn’t think people drank Cosmos any more; after a few sips won her over she agreed with us that it’s high time for those people to start again.

As with last year’s event, we also wanted to offer an alcohol-free alternative to the featured cocktail so I set about concocting something that would have the same signature flavors as a Cosmopolitan.  It needed the tartness of cranberry, the hint of tangy-sweet orange (normally provided by the Cointreau), along with the subtle bite of lime juice that holds all the flavors together in perfect balance.  Plus some effervescence to round out the edges usually occupied by the vodka.  After a few rounds of measuring, pouring, tasting, and tweaking, we’d created a virgin Cosmo Punch that was awarded the Hostess’ seal of approval.  We mixed up a punchbowl-full for the open house and it earned five-star reviews from drinkers and non-drinkers alike.  The best endorsements came from employees who first opted for the punch, then upgraded to Cosmopolitans once their shifts ended, and declared both to be equally delicious.

The fun and festive open house was a nice way for the Hostess and me to kick off our holiday entertaining season, and we enjoyed introducing (and re-introducing) people to the Cosmopolitan. Cheers!

Get recipe

Last Call for Margaritas!

Top Shelf Margarita - PouringI’m wrapping up my series of Margarita Month postings with a yet another tequila-based recipe, our Top Shelf Margarita.  This is actually the easiest of our margarita recipes to make, and because of its simplicity it’s the one I make most often.

I do need to point out, right up front, that we for the most part try to not be brand specific in our recipes, and that we don’t endorse specific products. But in the case of this recipe, there’s a key ingredient that, in my opinion, really makes the cocktail, and for which I haven’t found a suitable substitute…so let the endorsing begin.

A few days ago I wrote about my “signature” margarita, the one I call Shades of Taos.  My goal in creating that recipe was to use only fresh-squeezed fruit and no commercial mixes.  But not too long after that drink had been declared a success, a friend (and fellow tequila-lover) introduced us to Freshies brand margarita mix.  At that time, Freshies was a tiny company based in Telluride, Colorado, and they’d developed a loyal following of skiers, hikers, and other outdoorsy types.  And as with my hand-crafted Shades of Taos recipe, their mix’s key ingredients are lime, lemon, orange, and agave nectar, so I decided to give it a shake (pun intended, of course).  Yum.  The resulting margarita, after a few tweaks and happy hours (um, quality assurance cycles), was indeed reminiscent of my hand-squeezed cocktail but easier to make.  A great compromise for those times when getting a lot of drinks into a lot of hands quickly is important.

Since those days Freshies has grown and become somewhat more widely available outside of Colorado.  Keep an eye out for them, or check ‘em out on their website.  Cheers!

Bartender’s update:  We just heard from friends that you can now find Freshies margarita mix on amazon.com!  Give it a try in your next margarita!

Top Shelf Margarita

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Another Round of Margaritas: Shades of Taos

Shades (noun):  A present reminder of a person or situation in the past, as in “Shades of my younger days”

After several years of serving countless blended margaritas (and single-handedly helping to fund the retirement of dozens of Jose Cuervo employees), and after developing a passion for learning to make martinis and other classic cocktails, I embarked on a quest to develop a recipe for a cocktail-style margarita.  The Hostess had just given me several bottles of premium tequila for Christmas and I’d spent many evenings, unsuccessfully, pouring the “two parts tequila, one part liqueur, and lime juice” formula into my shaker, trying to hit on the concoction for a really tasty “on the rocks” margarita.  And I was failing pretty miserably.

I really wanted to create a margarita that didn’t require the use of an off-the-shelf mixer.  I’d experienced quite a few bottled margarita mixes over the years (including many of those advertised as “premium”) and most had resulted in artificial-tasting teeth-achingly bad margaritas.  But my early home-grown versions, while at least not having an artificial tinge to their flavor, were equally bad in other ways – they were harsh, too-tart, too-boozy, and basically disappointing.  So you can imagine my joy (and relief) when I finally hit on a combination of freshly-squeezed lime, lemon, and orange, a dash of agave nectar, a just-right anejo (dark) tequila, and Cointreau.

Shades of Taos - Pouring

This blend proved to be perfect.  Well, except that it also proved to be so smooth that over-consumption was a real threat, as we discovered one legendary evening during trip to Taos with some good friends.  It was the first “public” appearance of my new creation, and before we realized it, the four of us had consumed an entire fifth of tequila and half a bottle of Cointreau while using only four lemons, four limes, four oranges, and a few dashes of agave nectar as mixer.  Not pretty, and a little scary.

Somewhere during the latter part of that evening, while walking around town, the group agreed that my new margarita was a success and asked what I was going to call it.  (Huh, I’d never even considered that my cocktail might need its own name.)  So our “drinking team” (a group of overachievers if you’ve ever seen one) took that on as a task.  But happy hour had left us in a state where, while being the most brilliant, clever, and funny four people alive, we were also well beyond the point of remembering any remotely clever name that we might have come up with.  So my margarita went without a formal name for quite some time, referred to only as “those margaritas” when recalling our New Mexico road trip (the recollection usually accompanied by a slight shudder).  It was months later when my drink finally got its name.  We’d been invited to dinner at the home of the couple with whom we’d traveled to Taos, and they’d asked me to make “those margaritas” again.  As I handed out the first round, by way of a toast I said, “Shades of Taos!” as a reminder of the last time we’d enjoyed this cocktail together.  And the name stuck.

Shades of Taos MargaritaThe Shades of Taos margarita is at its best when you use the very best quality citrus fruit; it’s critical that the limes, lemons, and oranges are ripe and soft so that they yield the most juice possible.  You’ll be amazed at the smoothness of this margarita.  I suggest having a designated driver on hand if walking them off in a quaint New Mexico town isn’t a realistic option.

Click here to get recipe

Margarita Season is Coming

There’s something about that first really nice spring day.  Not that day where there’s still a chill in the air in spite of the sun being out, when you think it just might be warm enough to get by without a jacket but every light breeze convinces you otherwise.  No, I’m talking about that one day, when the sun breaks out early enough to really cut through the coolness of late winter, and it stays warm even as afternoon turns into evening, and there’s just something about the way it feels, the way it smells, that causes your subconscious to suddenly decide that it’s summertime.  Fleeting thoughts of barbecues, beach parties, and happy hours on the patio suddenly flood your mind as if they’d happened only yesterday, and your spirit fills with happiness and optimism for the coming warm and carefree days.  If you live as we do in a place with fickle weather, this first really nice day is all the more special:  Knowing it’s only a cruel tease, you savor every minute to help carry those warm feelings with you through the chilly weeks ahead.

I contend that the margarita exists specifically for the purpose of helping inspire those warm feelings of lazy summer days.  Maybe it’s the result of good marketing by the tequila industry, but when I think of a margarita, I feel the same emotions that are triggered by that first nice spring day.

Of course, the margarita will also always remind me of my very earliest experiences as a bartender, when the Hostess and I became somewhat notorious for serving blended margaritas at various functions for our extended “corporate family” after a work-related relocation took us to a different part of the country.  Back then we re-purposed a vintage airline ski boot bag into a travel case for an almost-vintage blender. And over the years our “blender well traveled” mixed many a margarita for friends and acquaintances in kitchens, family rooms, and ski condos throughout the Rocky Mountain area.  (As a side note, this also reminds me of the many dangers of over-serving:  One of our fellow partiers, years after spectacularly purging several helpings of my margaritas, unfortunately became the senior manager over my organization at work.  Having been the server, and first-hand witness, at this event was likely a career-limiting move on my part).  As my friends now hear as I hand them a cocktail, “Respect the Drink…”

But I digress.  There are many of you who’ve probably been wondering why it’s taken me so long to get around to writing a tequila post, so without further ado (and just in time for Cinco de Mayo) over the next few days I’ll be posting several of our favorite margarita recipes.  Whether you prefer rocks or blended, salted or not, there’s something here for everyone.  For starters, here’s the recipe for our Blended Gold Margarita.  Stay tuned for the next round!

Blended Gold Margarita

Resolutions, Remedies, and Research: A Tale of the Gin and Tonic

I’ve posted quite a few of my favorite drink recipes since the launch of our blog a few months ago.  Up to this point my focus has been on cocktails, so my recipes have generally followed the classic cocktail formula of two parts base liquor, one part liqueur, and mixer such as fresh-squeezed citrus fruit.  I haven’t yet written about the more basic mixed drinks because, well, how tough is it to pour a slug of booze over ice and then top up the glass with mixer?  Does anyone really need a recipe to make a decent vodka and cranberry? Bourbon and ginger ale?  Rum and Coke?  I think you get the idea. Recently, though, the Hostess and I were laughing about a New Year’s resolution she made a couple years ago, and I decided the time is right to talk about my favorite of all mixed drinks, the gin and tonic.

In the 20+ years we’ve been together, I’d never known the Hostess to drink gin.  Gin, like so many things, is an acquired taste and it’s not for everyone.  But we do know many people, myself included, who really like it.  Especially in the form of a martini.  And for whatever reason a couple of years ago, the Hostess started feeling left out of the gin party.  It seemed everywhere we went people were ordering gin martinis.  That’s when she announced that she was going to attempt to learn to drink gin, and she (jokingly, I think) made it her resolution for the coming year.  And so it was, the following spring while on an African safari, that she decided it was time to take the plunge.  During happy hour one evening in the bar of a modernized version of a British colonial hunting lodge, it seemed only fitting that we order a round of gin and tonics.  After all, it was the Brits stationed in the 19th century colonies of Africa and India who first used gin to help smooth the nasty taste of the quinine tonic they regularly drank as a malaria remedy, thus inventing this popular drink.  And it’s probably no coincidence that the tonic water commonly served in Africa (McKane tonic water, brewed and bottled in Namibia) tasted far superior to the brands we’re used to here in the U.S.

Honestly, I expected the Hostess to dislike the G&T as gin can be a pretty big step for someone who prefers vodka, even if a gin and tonic is kind of like gin with training wheels.  But at the very first sip she proclaimed it “not bad.”  She quickly acquired a taste for gin and has ordered it frequently ever since.  Now that’s a successful New Year’s resolution!

Back home, and without the benefit of McKane tonic water (why doesn’t anyone import this stuff??), I had to experiment with the ingredients and proportions a bit to find a mix that the Hostess likes as much as the ones she learned to drink “in the colonies.” Her favorite recipe starts with a squeeze of lime over the ice before adding the gin (she prefers Tanqueray) so that there’s a good amount of lime juice mixed in right from the start in addition to the lime wedge garnish.  It’s surprising what a difference the extra bit of lime makes.  And we were both perfectly happy with our stateside recipe until, while on a recent ski trip to Jackson Hole (oh the places we go in the name of field research), the barkeep brought out a bottle of tonic water we’d never seen before:  Fever-Tree, a small batch, natural, premium tonic water from Britain (named after the tree whose bark is the source of quinine).  Our bartender didn’t have any information on where to find this brand, but the company’s website said it was available on Amazon.com.  A few clicks later and a large box showed up on our doorstep.  Is this a great world or what?

So now we can create our very own properly British, and completely delicious, gin and tonic.  Although I do still occasionally check McKane’s website to see if a U.S.importer has picked them up…

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When Life Doesn’t Give You Lemons…

I never really considered how the phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” might apply to bartending.  But a few weeks ago, while visiting our son and daughter-in-law, we came home from an afternoon of shopping (which happened to include a trip to the liquor store) and, as I laid out the ingredients to make my classic Lemon Drops, I realized – horror of horrors – that I’d forgotten to buy lemons!  Fortunately, the Hostess talked me back down off the window ledge and suggested that, rather than scrap the Lemon Drops altogether, I could improvise and try using some of the tangerines that were in a bowl nearby.  I was pretty sure it wouldn’t work (yeah, I sometimes don’t roll with change very well) but I went for it anyway…and damn if we didn’t end up inventing a pretty decent cocktail!

I did have some justification for my hesitation at altering my usual recipe.  What makes a Lemon Drop so good is the freshly-squeezed lemon juice.  The lemon gives the cocktail a nice tart bite that complements the sweetness of the Cointreau and the lemonade.  I find tangerines to be more sweet than tart so was concerned that they wouldn’t measure up as a substitute for lemons.  To give them a fighting chance, I tried squeezing in an entire tangerine where I’d normally only use half of a lemon.  Wintertime tangerines (often sold as “Clementines” or “Cuties”) are seedless and super-juicy, and they gave the cocktail a rich orangey color along with a smooth and refreshing flavor that, surprisingly, was the perfect balance between sweet and sour.  I’m declaring the recipe a success!

Tangerini

So, in addition to being change-averse, I’m also not very creative when it comes to naming things.  The Hostess has suggested “Tangerini,” but since my goal hadn’t been to highlight the tangerine’s flavor (I’ll attempt that soon with a tangerine martini, and will report on it in a future post), I’m calling this the Tangerine Lemon Drop.  Clever, huh?

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Great Cocktail, Dumb Name

When happy hour approaches and I ask our guests if I can shake them up a little something at the bar, a response I often get is, “Sure!  What are you having?”  Often, especially if it’s a big group, I’ll stick with one of my standard crowd pleasers so I can make a big batch and fill a lot of glasses quickly.  But sometimes, when the mood is just right, I may suggest something more risky, something with a more complicated flavor that may, or may not, prove to be a hit.  The Aviation is just such a drink.

The Aviation is most definitely for you gin martini lovers.  When you’re looking for an unconventional twist on your martini, check out this pre-prohibition classic.  It’s a refreshing combination of a stiff pour of gin, a squeeze of fresh lemon, and a splash of a clear, complex 19th-century liqueur derived from sour Marasca cherries. I came across the recipe for the Aviation years ago in Paul Harrington’s cocktail book (read more about it in my earlier post) in which he calls it “the prince of classic cocktails.”  The drink caught my eye as one of the gin-based cocktails in the book that seemed simple to make.  Probably the hardest part was finding a bottle of Maraschino liqueur.  It seems like only the larger liquor stores carry it, and it’s usually hanging out on the bottom shelf, a few rows below the Goldschläger and Jägermeister (look for a tall green bottle wrapped in straw lattice).  The cocktail’s name has always thrown me a bit.  Why not something more, I don’t know, singular – like “Aviator” or “Airplane” – instead of naming the drink after a concept or profession or industry or whatever.  Word has it that when the cocktail was invented in the early 1900’s, manned flight was in its infancy and the drink’s name was meant to evoke the excitement and futurism of the aviation industry.   Maybe it’s just me, but that seems a little bit like if someone had named a cocktail “Social Networking” a few years ago.  Something doesn’t ring quite right when I say, “Here, try an Aviation!”

Anyway, it’s a damn fine cocktail regardless of its name.  It smacks you with the perfect balance of gin’s herbal bite, lemon’s sour tang, and the not quite sweet, not quite bitter, incredibly intriguing flavor of the Maraschino liqueur.  To borrow a quote from Paul Harrington’s book:  “The most wonderful thing about this drink?  It makes you smarter.  Trust us.”

Drink this one with caution, it packs a serious punch that has caught me by surprise more than once.  I can attest that smarter is not always better.

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A Little Respect for the Cosmo

With the holidays coming on, it only seems right to pay homage to the Cosmopolitan.  This crowd-pleasing cranberry-hued cocktail is one of the easiest martini-style drinks to mix, and its flavor and appearance make it the perfect holiday libation.  Because it’s easy to make, but impressive to serve, you may want to make this your signature cocktail at your holiday party.  Shake up a big batch and I guarantee you won’t have any leftovers.

Google “Cosmopolitan recipe” today and you’ll get over 3 million hits.  Everyone seems to have their own unique take on the ingredients.  We’ve sampled quite a few variations, and in my opinion there is only one way to make a proper Cosmopolitan. Use a top-quality, unflavored vodka. Don’t use triple sec; Cointreau is a must.  And leave the Rose’s Lime Juice on the shelf.  Any cocktail I’ve ever made using Rose’s tastes SO much better when I squeeze in a fresh lime instead…and that’s possibly never been more true than in the Cosmopolitan.

The Cosmo attained a bit of “fern bar” stigma when its popularity skyrocketed about 15 years ago thanks to a TV series.  I’ve known people who avoid ordering them because they think they’re cliché, which really is a shame for such an impressive cocktail.  If you’ve never tried one, do it.  You owe it to yourself to experience the incredible balance of sour-sweet-bitter flavors.  The pinkish drink looks like it will be overly sweet, but it will surprise you.  If you do prefer a sweeter taste, try sugaring the rim of your martini glass. And, if you’re intimidated by the color, because it looks too girly, you may just want to man-up and get over it.

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Our road show leads us to a Mocktini

Recently The Hostess and I volunteered to serve drinks at an open house for a local business.  The event was an interesting experience for both of us as it resulted in us fielding many questions about our own “business” that we’ve not really had to answer before.  No, we’re not caterers.  No, we don’t hire out to host parties.  And no, I’m definitely not a professional bartender.  We just love to entertain our friends and family, we feel like we’re pretty good at it, and we started this blog to share what we do so that others, like you, can entertain without the need for caterers.  And yes, everything we do is right here on our blog for all to see and share.

Anyway, I was quite flattered when the business owner asked me if I’d be interested in bartending for her event.  We’re always looking for ways to give back to our communities and were happy to be given this opportunity to help a local business.  The owner asked that we serve a “red” cocktail (because the name of her business is Salon Rouge), so we brought makings for our Pomegranate Martini (which, incidentally, was a huge success).  And she requested that we also serve an non-alcoholic “mocktail” version. Alcohol-free is not a something we often get asked for when entertaining at home, so we had to scramble a bit to come up with a recipe.  We deconstructed our martini recipe, experimented with ingredients, did some taste-testing, and now, just in time for the holidays, here’s our recipe for a festive Pomegranate Mocktini.  We mixed this up in a punch bowl and it was a big hit for all ages.  One little girl came back for a fourth helping saying it was the tastiest punch she’d ever had.  In her words, “Deee-licious!”

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(Is it bad that I kept thinking, “This would taste really great with a splash of vodka!”?)

Homely fruits can make great cocktails

This particular drink has been served at our house on countless occasions.  I can’t remember exactly when “pomegranate martini” became a household name around here, but I have no doubt we first discovered this desirable libation in some bar where it was on the menu.  No doubt it was good; and by good I mean there were going to be more of them in my future.  Perhaps being enjoyed in the comfort of my own home while wearing slippers.  Assuming  the history of this particular drink followed that of so many of our other house classics, the next thing that happened was I requested one at home and then Jon figured out how to make it.

While we’ve been drinking these for several years, I never really gave it a moment’s thought as to where pomegranates come from.  I mean, clearly the juice we use comes from the POM bottle that’s in the refrigerator, but I never really wondered about where it came from before it became POM.  While I don’t know the exact origins of the pomegranates that go into making POM, what we did learn recently while visiting Turkey is that pomegranates grow there.  Everywhere.  We found fruit-bearing trees growing haphazardly along backstreets, along dirt paths and along major roads.  Vendors on nearly every street in nearly every town were selling cups of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.  And almost without exception, every time I saw one of those sidewalk juice vendors squeezing the juice out of those poor homely fruits, all I could imagine is how good the juice would be mixed with a squeeze of orange and a shot of vodka.  Sigh. Alas, it was not meant to be.  Turns out that while pomegranates and their juice are plentiful in Turkey, vodka in a Muslin country is not.

Because of the amazing anti-oxidant/health promoting benefits that are associated with pomegranate juice, our standard toast for these drinks has become, “To your health!”  And wouldn’t you agree that a little dose of heathy goes a long way to making every hour happy?

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Resurrection of an old favorite cocktail: Grape Nehi

Those old enough to have been a fan of the 70’s TV series M*A*S*H may remember that Nehi Grape soda was Radar O’Reilly’s favorite drink.  As a kid at that time, I’d never heard of Nehi anything.  The only soft drinks I was aware of in those days were Coke, Pepsi, 7-Up, Orange Crush, and a bunch of crazy-ass “Cragmont” flavors that my parents would get at Safeway (24 cans for a buck).  I figured Nehi Grape was a mid-century relic that the creators of M*A*S*H had dragged up for historical authenticity, that it probably wasn’t very good since I’d never seen it myself, and I seldom gave it another thought.

Then, in the early 90’s, we were at one of Seattle’s yuppie watering holes with a dear friend of ours who insisted that we just had to try his new favorite drink, a “Grape Nehi,” and he ordered a round.  From my earlier preconceptions, I was expecting a sticky-sweet artificial-grapey-flavored mess of a drink, and was surprised to instead be presented with a gorgeous translucent purply-pink cocktail served “up” in a martini glass.  The first sip was a stunner: tart and lemony, ever-so-lightly carbonated, and balanced by a subtle dark berry finish that just begged another taste, then another round.  The Grape Nehi quicky became a fast friend of our happy hour crowd.  It was customary to order yours alongside a pint of locally-brewed Heffeweizen.  Something about the tart carbonation of the wheat beer melded perfectly with the flavor of the Grape Nehi.  I wheedled the recipe out of a bartender friend and for a couple of years this was nearly the only cocktail I ever made.  I even worked out the proportions for mixing up a large batch in a pitcher (an approach that’s definitely not recommended if any of your guests will be driving home!).  I never did come across an actual Nehi Grape soda but was always happy I could explain where the cocktail’s name came from.  Eventually, we all moved on to other cities and other cocktails and the Grape Nehi faded into the background.

A couple weeks ago we found ourselves reminiscing on our Grape Nehi era.  I decided to try mixing up a batch and realized I didn’t really remember the recipe all that well.  It actually took several iterations before hitting on the right proportions.  In the process I learned that, unlike many liquors, Chambord’s flavor does not stay fresh more than a couple months after it’s been opened.  That had never been a problem two decades earlier (when I could barely keep it in stock) but the dusty half-bottle I dug out from the back of my bar resulted in what one guest called a “Prune Nehi.”  After an emergency trip to the liquor store and a few more practice rounds, I think my updated recipe is even better than the original.  I hope you enjoy it as much as we do!

To be true to the classic, I suggest serving your Grape Nehi accompanied by a pint of good wheat beer, a two-fisted presentation that’s guaranteed to jump-start your happy hour.  Cheers!

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Our take on a classic cocktail

Not everyone is a fan of the classic gin martini.  It’s an acquired taste, and like caviar, or oysters, or even green olives, the gin martini is not for everyone.  But for some of us, there are times when there is nothing better than the chill against your lips, the herbal bite on the sides of your tongue, and the wisp of piney essence rising through your sinuses that only a crisp, clear gin martini can provide.

You’d think that something as basic as a stiff pour of gin, a few drops of vermouth, and a couple green olives would be a ridiculously easy cocktail to make at home.  But have you ever noticed how sometimes one martini tastes so much better than another, even when using the same brand of gin?  I’m convinced it all comes down to the mixing process.  It seems like every gin-lover has their own opinion on what works best.  Some keep their gin in the freezer and pour it directly into a chilled glass that’s been coated with a swirl of vermouth.  The “stirred vs. shaken” debate can be polarizing.  As you might have guessed, I have my own opinion, and since you’ve read this far you may as well hear it:

1.  I’m not afraid to taste a little vermouth in my martini.  I think people take the concept of a “dry” martini too far.  The original martini was 50% vermouth and, without some of this key ingredient, it’s not a martini in my book – it’s merely a glass of gin.

2.  Melted ice is not the enemy of a good cocktail.  Shaking a drink with ice does indeed introduce some water, but in a stiff cocktail like a martini a little water goes a long way towards smoothing out the taste.

3.  Two olives, skewered, is the best garnish.  One to eat early, to complement the flavor of the cocktail.  And one to play with, to stir the bottom half of the drink in anticipation, to be savored with the last gulp.  Some say that only an odd number of olives will do, but at my bar, one olive just isn’t enough, and three is gluttonous.

Of course, some people substitute vodka for gin.  But really, why would you want to?

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Three Lessons Learned from a Lemon Drop Martini

My signature cocktail is, without question, my Lemon Drop.  Our return guests expect them as soon as they walk through the door. Year over year I probably serve as many lemon drop martinis as all other drinks combined.  Hostess Debbie positively loves a good lemon drop martini, so years ago when I really got interested in developing my skills at mixing cocktails, the lemon drop was one of the first recipes I took on.  But mastering the lemon drop martini proved to be surprisingly difficult – and the lessons I learned in the process made me much better at bartending.

Lemon

Looking back, I had several different challenges to overcome.  First, I’m the kind of person who reads users’ guides cover to cover.  Next, I don’t like to deviate from a plan once it’s in motion.  Add those traits together and there I was, trying to convince Debbie that she really should be enjoying the crappy drink I’d served her because I’d carefully followed the recipe in my cocktail book so it had to be good!  So here’s my Lesson One:  Be flexible and open-minded, listen to what your guests like (and don’t like), and be ready and willing to make adjustments.  Your guests’ satisfaction (not your own) is what matters!

A challenge with learning any new cocktail is that you have a limited number of attempts in a given day to perfect your recipe before you (and your fellow tasters) get too snockered to distinguish the adjustments you’re making from round to round.  (This is why wineries offer spittoons.  Although, honestly, “swirl and spit” has never worked for me).  So it may take multiple happy hours of tweaking before you find the right proportions for a cocktail you can be confident will be a hit with your guests.  Lesson Two:  Don’t rush the process, and don’t get discouraged.  It can take much trial and error to find the right recipe.  Taking notes on what’s worked so far and what changes you’re going to try next time is a good idea, in case your “tasting session” results in short-term memory loss.

My early lemon drop martinis flat-out didn’t taste good.  I was basically serving up a too-strong vodka shot paired with a face-puckering slap of sour lemon.  The goal of any great cocktail is balance, where each of the ingredients complements the others.  My cocktail book suggested using simple syrup to smooth things out, but adding more of that only made the lemon drop sweeter, not more balanced.  So I tried different vodkas, tried adding triple sec, experimented with a squeeze of orange in addition to the lemon, and tweaked and fiddled with the proportions.  Weeks later my lemon drop had improved from “Yuck!” to “Huh, that one’s not quite as nasty.”  Progress, but I still had a ways to go.

Finally one evening I replaced the simple syrup with a splash of premium lemonade.  Wow.  The resulting lemon drop was crisp, refreshing, and perfectly balanced between sweet and tart, yet still packed enough kick to remind why people consider the lemon drop to be a martini.  Success!!!

Lemon Drop Martini

Which brings me to Lesson Three:  The key secret ingredient to a cocktail may be simpler than some exotic concoction you’ve made from scratch or spent a lot of money on.  It’s not cheating to use something off the shelf – all that matters is that your guests like the end result!

So now, when Debbie’s considering ordering a lemon drop in a bar or restaurant, she can tell merely from how one looks on the server’s tray whether or not it’ll be any good.  She says I’ve set the bar so high that, instead of taking a chance on the bartender’s recipe, she’d just as soon wait for one of mine at home.  That’s a pretty good endorsement!

Cheers!

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