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

David Driscoll