Breaking Down Booze: Understanding the Lesson

Yesterday I posted the first part of what will hopefully be a Spock-like, long and prosperous series on understanding cocktails.  In the conversation with Erik, Eric, and Thad, you'll notice all three men are more keen to talk about the drinks they're making, than simply create another video tutorial where they actually make the drink.  You'll also hear their admiration for well-made, traditional cocktails, rather than new, exciting creations never before seen or tasted.  You'll hear me compare that philosophy to wine in contrasting old world proponents of Bordeaux and Burgundy to new world fans of big, juicy Napa cabernet.  If you're wondering where this school of thought comes from concerning the classic cocktail, perhaps nowhere else is it more accurately captured than in the pages of David A. Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948).

Neither a bartender nor liquor supplier by trade, Embury was a lawyer born in the later part of the 19th century who simply believed in the well-mixed cocktail.  While I get a kick out of how seriously he takes his craft, some people might consider him a bit of a snob.  In this case, however, it's either do it right or don't do it at all, which is what others would call professionalism.  What the interaction with Erik, Eric, and Thad has in common with the writings of Mr. Embury is the way in which they all discuss the cocktail.  Mixing Drinks isn't a book of recipes, nor is it a how-to of technique.  It's a deconstruction of theory and practice, where spirits and cocktails are meticulously categorized and discussed, far from today's modern age of give me a recipe, get me the booze, and watch me go!  Embury's first line in the book, however, is "anyone can make good cocktails," it's just that you need to understand the purpose of a cocktail, the ingredients you're using, and how they work together before actually entering the kitchen.  You wouldn't just waltz into a chemistry lab willy-nilly, would you?

You'll also notice that my first question in the video concerns the amount of money we amateurs end up spending when dabbling in cocktail alchemy.  It's quite a considerable sum!  Thad correctly points out, however, that getting serious about any hobby isn't going to be cheap.  He sounds like Embury who writes, "people fail to realize the absolute necessity of using only liquors of the highest quality. They are unwilling to pay $5.00 for a bottle of high-proof, well-aged liquor when perhaps they can get by with a low-proof, immature substitute at $2.89.  But, as has been well said, a chain is no stronger than it's weakest link." My own wife, an intimidating and impeccably well-dressed fashionista, will tell you the same thing when shopping for clothes.  You can't skimp when it comes to quality.  At least, not if you want to look good.  You need to buy clothes that fit, even if they're more expensive.  In fact, that's why they are more expensive - they make you look good!  The same goes for the booze in your bar.  That's not to say that there aren't inexpensive products out of quality, it's just that you can't mix great cocktails at home by trying to spend as little as possible. 

When we talked about what to show in the first video, I asked if anyone wanted to mix a Daiquiri since we were already talking about it.  Silence ensued from all three.  I understood.  What was the point of jumping right in, doing another boring tutorial to pile on to the already-available amount of cocktail strategy?  Much like Embury would have suggested, they wanted to talk about the drinks first.  Adding to the discussion yesterday, much of which centered around the Daiquiri, let's learn a bit about the cocktail before we try to create one.  Thad briefly mentions that the drink originated in a Cuban iron mine and that story is supposedly true.  An American mining engineer is credited with creating the drink using a tall glass of cracked ice, sugar, lime juice, and two to three ounces of white rum, which was then stirred with a long spoon until cold.

Embury's stance on the Daiquiri is made clear in his chapter on the subject, "it is, in my own opinion, a vastly superior cocktail to the Manhattan, yet most bars sell many more Manhattans than Daiquiris.  So far as I can ascertain there are two reasons why more Daiquiris are not sold: the use of inferior rums and the use of improper proportions."  Much like the three bartenders stated in the video, you need to start with a quality base rum, freshly squeezed lime juice, simple syrup made from raw sugar, and you definitely must balance the citrus with the sweetness.  That balance, however, must be determined by you: the drinker.  Embury likes it tart, but you might like it with more sweetness.  As you can see from the previous post, all three gentlemen have their own personal preference.  That's why making a great Daiquiri isn't about simply following someone else's recipe.  It's about understanding what it is you're supposed to be drinking, and then doing what's necessary to make it taste the way you want it.

Personally, I don't make Daiquiris at home, maybe because I just never really thought about it.  Like Erik, I'm a fan of the La Favorite Agricole Rum and I've always got an open bottle on hand.  While definitely more earthy and cane-like than a Cuban-style white rum, remember that the fun of mixing a cocktail is trying different formulae and finding the one that works best for you.  Since we've already decided that understanding a cocktail means understanding your ingredients, let's define the terms of what it is I'll be using, like Embury or any other lawyer would before a case.

Agricole Rhum - How does Agricole differ from regular rum, or the Cuban-style dry white rum Eric talks about in the video?  Whereas traditional rum is distilled from molasses, the byproduct of sugar refinement, Agricole is distilled from fermented sugar cane juice.  It's a style of rum first produced in the French West Indies after the plummeting sugar cane prices of the late 19th century forced many land-owners and distilleries into bankruptcy.  France had begun using sugar beets instead, which forced the cane owners to find a different usage for both their leftover product and their lack of molasses.  Why not just go straight to the juice and skip the molasses?  The result is a more herbacious and aromatic style of rum. 

La Favorite Rhum Agricole Blanc Coeur de Canne- Built in 1842, La Favorite used to contain two sugar refineries, until it was hit by the sugar beet crisis and forced into bankruptcy in 1875.  A hurricane later closed the estate until 1909.  Today, they produce Agricole rhum on two copper single-column pot stills, making about 500,000 liters per year. (more info at the importer's website)

I'm using California limes from Whole Foods and raw turbinado sugar.  Since I'm using Erik's recipe, I'll be following his advice about simple syrup.  I've always made it by boiling a cup of water on the stove, then dissolving in a cup of sugar.  Erik pointed out however that the "one to one ratio" is very important and boiling the water leads to evaporation, ruining that balance.  He said to stir it into cold water until it's fully integrated, which I didn't think would work.  I thought the heat was part of the process, but apparently not!  How did it turn out?

Obviously, I'm doing this here at work so I don't have all the luxuries of home with glassware and garnish, but the drink itself is quite tasty.  I can taste the earthiness of the rum, which is important.  The citrus is tart, but not overly so, and the cocktail definitely fulfills Embury's requirement that it "whet my appetite" as well as taste "dry, yet smooth." However, I'm curious to try it with a Cuban-style white instead of the Agricole.  I enjoy the flavors of the La Favorite, but I feel like I enjoy them more in a Ti Punch than in a Daiquiri.  Cuban-style white rum used to mean Bacardi, which, legend has it, was the original rum used for the Daiquiri when first invented.  However, the eventual U.S. embargo against Cuba forced them to open a distillery on Puerto Rico (which also helped them to avoid import taxation) where the rum is still made today. Thad and Eric recommend using El Dorado 3 Year from Guyana, but we're out of stock right now, so I'll have to wait until later this week.

As far as variations go, we obviously see the same formula in the Margarita, Whisky Sour, Caipirinha, and various other cocktails that use a different base with sugar and citrus.  However, Embury mentions a man named Constante Ribalagua and his bar La Florida in Havana.  Before he died in 1952, he was said to have "squeezed over 80 million limes and made over 10 million Daiquiris." Embury mentions that Ribalagua always squeezed his limes by hand (so that the oil from the peel wouldn't get into the drink) and strained his drink through a fine sieve to prevent even the tiniest pieces of ice from contaminating the texture.  Ribalagua made so many Daiquiris that he developed several variations, which he labeled one through five.  Daiquiri No. 1 was the standard formula, while No. 2 adds orange juice and curacao.  No. 3 uses grapefruit juice and maraschino and the variations go on and on.  See the book for more info.

You can see now how understanding one classic drink and mastering its creation can lead to a whole new world of experimentation.  I've got a lot of practicing to do!  You should do it along with me so we can compare notes!

-David Driscoll


Talking About Booze: A New Series on Drinking

Thad Vogler, Erik Adkins, and Eric Johnson discuss the modern daiquiri

When I first got the job as spirits buyer for K&L, I panicked a wee bit.  There was so much I didn't know, so much I still needed to learn about booze, and yet I was in charge of an entire retail store department and its inventory.  Single malt, Bourbon, Cognac, rum, and everything else on our shelves were under my domain, but I couldn't claim any authority or expertise when it came to mixing these ingredients.  Cocktails were (and still are) a big part of Bay Area pop culture and I wanted K&L to be an integral part of that scene.  I needed a crash course to get me started, but where does one go to learn more about cocktails?  There's no real Mixology 101 for the layman, and most cocktail classes I've seen are only an hour long, hoping to jam pack a few basic recipes into the session. 

I figured it would be best to just go out and drink, which I still think is a big part of booze education.  However, you need to sit at the bar and chat with the bartenders during their down time, making sure not to bother them or distract them too much.  That's how I met Erik Adkins, the bar manager for the Slanted Door and Heaven's Dog, two of the most famous cocktail destinations in the country.  I also met Eric Johnson there, just a few months before he would open Bar Agricole with business partner Thad Vogler.  These three gentlemen, along with a few other people you'll meet later, were more than happy to chat with me, night after night, as I posted up on a barstool, peppering them with questions about their craft.  We would share stories from the business and I like to think that my perspective from the retail side was of some interest to them (although in all likelihood they were just being nice).

Over three years later, I'm still not sure where to refer people who want to learn more about making great drinks (besides quitting their job and getting a barback position).  There are a hundred websites and blogs where you can find recipes, advice, learn techniques, and all the latest info when it comes to making drinks.  However, that's like learning to take photographs by reading instructions about shutter speed and aperture.  Sure, you can center a subject and grab the right exposure, but is there any substance behind the shot?  Then, just last week, one of my best customers asked me if I could help her find a class or seminar for learning to mix cocktails.  I didn't know what to tell her.  That's why I've decided to tackle that issue myself.  There's more to making a decent drink than just dumping in the proper measurements.  If following a recipe made you a good cook, we'd all be the masters of  There's more to it, however.  Practice, experience, and a dedication to understanding each element all play a role.  Unfortunately, those three things can't be taught. However, aside from spending each waking minute with a metal shaker and ice tray, listening to a veteran bartender talk about booze is perhaps the most helpful way to supplement the stack of cocktail books you have sitting on your coffee table.  Not everyone has the time or ability to pull up a stool at Bar Agricole, however.  

That's why, starting this week, I'll be going back to all the great San Francisco bartenders who taught me about cocktails for a series of dialogues that I hope will pass that knowledge on to other interested parties.  These won't be step by step instructions on how to prepare a Manhattan, but rather just snapshots of what these guys think when they think about cocktails.  I had an appointment to meet with Thad this week at Bar Agricole, but it turned into a threesome when Erik Adkins made a surprise visit alongside Mr. Johnson.  After debating the best way to get the conversation started, we decided it would be pointless to mix drinks no one would actually taste, so I just flipped on the camera and got things rolling.  Below is the conversation in two parts:


All three men agreed that the most important aspect of a cocktail is the concept of balance.  The yin and yang of sweet and sour.  The interplay between sweet and bitter.  Thad explained that the Daiquiri is the essential sour in that it's a combination of base spirit (rum) with sugar and citrus.  The relationship of the acidity with the syrup must be in harmony for the drink to succeed.  He recommended that, rather than trying to make an entire book of various cocktails, constantly searching for something new to try, newcomers should practice the same drink over and over for a couple of weeks.  In the case of the Daiquiri, he said to try different rums, different sugars, different levels of sweetness and citrus, until you've found the combination that best works for you.  Practice and experimentation lead to an understanding of functionality and it's that experience that results in a well-crafted cocktail.  Thad, Erik, and Eric all have their own unique experiences, therefore they each have their own personal recipe for a Daiquiri.  If you want to give it a go at home, try out all three of the following:

The Erik Adkins Daiquiri (find Erik at The Slanted Door, Wo-Hing General Store, or Heaven's Dog)

- 2 oz. white Barbancourt Rum (La Favorite Agricole Blanc if you're at his house)

- 3/4 oz. simple syrup (using one to one ration of raw sugar/water stirred into cold water, not boiled)

- 1 oz. fresh lime juice

Shake with ice and strain

The Eric Johnson Daiquiri (find Eric at Bar Agricole)

- 2 oz. El Dorado 3 Year Rum (or Havana Club White if you know someone traveling abroad)

- 1/2 oz. fresh lime juice

- one barspoon raw sugar

Stir the sugar into the lime juice to help it dissolve, then shake with ice and strain

The Thad Vogler Daiquiri (find Thad at Bar Agricole)

- 1 1/2 oz. El Dorado 3 Year Rum

- 1/2 oz. fresh lime juice

- 1/2 oz. simple syrup (using one to one ratio raw organic sugar/water)

Shake and strain

Give these three a try and see which one works best.  Or, if none of them suit your tastebuds, then try using different rums, different sweetners, and various types of citrus.  That's the key to understanding and mastering your cocktail.

-David Driscoll


We're Back At It

This week I was back at St. George distillery in Alameda, siphoning strange and magical elixers out of beakers with the mad scientist himself, Dave Smith.  Faultline Gin Batch #2 is in the works.  Same label, different recipe!  Think smoke.  Think citrus.

-David Driscoll


Catching On Later

Sometimes a musician won't be appreciated until long after their career is over.  Often, a film or television show won't catch on until it's been released on DVD (or Netflix instant like Arrested Development).  In the case of whisky, one of our completely overlooked casks from last year has recently caught on with some of our single malt customers and it's making me very happy.  Dave Smith from St. George Distillery texted me earlier this week, "Holy S%&! that bottle of Dailuaine is amazing!"  Of course it is!  Then, just a day later, another customer emailed and told me how that bottle made his entire weekend.  We ended up selling seven bottles in a week to people who were only now getting around to drinking this whisky, and the reviews kept piling up.  I mentioned this to a customer in the store, he bought one, emailed me that night, and was head over heels for the 27 year old malt.  Why now, I wondered?

Maybe it was because with all the hype and great reviews surrounding the Ladyburn, Brora, Bladnoch, and Glendronach, no really wanted to throw down an extra $130 for an unknown Diageo blending component. Maybe it's just that we're almost out of everything else, so by process of elimination it finally got its chance.  I'm hoping that happens with the 1998 Springbank Madeira cask as well, which to me was perhaps my favorite whisky from last year's stash.  I don't think it was the best malt we bought, but to me it's a unique snapshot as to what makes that distillery so special.  Lately, the smoke seems to be taking a larger role in the profile, adding another great peated option for people who don't want the intensity of Islay.  There's been a lack of sherry-aged, peated whisky as of late, so this might scratch that itch for some people.  In any case, I feel good right now because I've learned that not every barrel we purchase needs to take off right upon arrival.  It might take six months, or it may take over a year, but eventually the word will get out. 

It's always fun when you discover something wonderful when you didn't expect to.  I'm glad we're able to do that with booze from time to time.

-David Driscoll


Whisky Season 2012 Update: Rachel Barrie's Selection

There's a reason why I'm showing you a small ramekin of fried oatmeal mixed with onions to start this article.  Known as "mealy" in the town of Oldmeldrum, the home of Glen Garioch distillery, it's on the menu at the local diner just down the street from the whisky legend.  It's important to understand how important grains are to this part of Scotland.  They're a big part of the diet, both solid and liquid, and the aromas of barley and sweet grain hang in the air as you walk through town.  It's terroir, so to speak.

Glen Garioch was the big shocker for us on this year's trip to Scotland.  We didn't realize how beautiful the distillery was, how nice the people were, how important the legacy was, and how good the whisky tasted.  GG is the Morrison-Bowmore distillery you forget about.  You forget that it's one of the oldest in Scotland.  You forget that there's a lot of pride in its history.  A quick trip through the distillery, however, changes that.  We left as Glen Garioch superfans.  You can read more about that here.

By the time we made it to Glasgow over a week later, we had nothing but great things to tell the people at Morrison-Bowmore headquarters.  No person was more happy to hear about our experience than Rachel Barrie, who apparently grew up nearby.  She was so pumped that she went to the back and brought out a cask sample she had hand picked for Bowmore earlier in the week.  She wanted us to have it.  We took it.  It's coming.  Read on below!

1998 Glen Garioch 14 Year Old K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $87.99 (Pre-Order) - On last year's trip to Scotland, David and I stopped by Glendronach distillery on a whim, fell in love, and now it's one of the top whiskies we sell at K&L.  This year's version of that was Glen Garioch distillery in Oldmeldrum.  An old-fashioned, picturesque distillery located in the center of the quaint village, generating romanticism like you wouldn't believe.  Part of the Morrison-Bowmore portfolio, Glen Garioch's whisky creation has been put into the hands of former Ardbeg superstar Rachel Barrie, who jumped ship to Bowmore last year.  We weren't planning on selecting a cask of Glen Garioch, but after stopping by early on in our trip, we told Rachel how much we enjoyed our visit while meeting with her a week later. Being originally from the area, Rachel was so overjoyed we had connected so deeply with her own sense of youthful nostalgia, that she ran to the back to grab a cask sample she had picked out for Bowmore recently - a 1998 single cask aged in a hogshead that had previously held peated whisky.  GG had dabbled in the peated Highland style before 1994, but the whisky produced today is completely without smoke.  This very special cask, chosen by Rachel, has all the beautiful sweet grains we love about the malt with just a whisper of peat in the background.  The palate is elegant and lean, but the fruit and vanilla are concentrated in its core. The whisky tastes like the town of Oldmeldrum - old world, country, rustic, and down-home.  That's terroir in whisky.

-David Driscoll