Bandwagoneering: White Manhattan

Talking to bartenders, reading blogs, I’ve noticed a trend rising over the last several months: you take a classic whiskey cocktail, such as the Manhattan or the Sazerac, and you swap in an unaged (“white”) whiskey for the brown stuff. If you’re not familiar with white whiskies, they’re nothing more than unaged whiskies that have never seen a barrel. Spirits straight from the still, and cut with water (in most cases). You can say they’re like moonshine, but the key point here is that moonshine by definition is illegal. As my friend Matthew Rowley wrote, “If you can you buy it in liquor stores, it’s not moonshine.” (For more information: Simonson, Clarke, Cecchini, Rowley)

Legal white-dog whiskies, as the unaged stuff is called, aren’t exactly new to the market. I tasted some at Tales of the Cocktail in 2008. But they’ve been slowly gaining ground among bars and consumers since then and started making their way onto cocktail menus. As I mentioned above, one popular way is to replace the brown spirit in a classic whiskey drink with a white. I wanted to riff on this, but instead of using a white dog, I chose Bols Genever. It’s a favorite in our household, a malty botanical spirit that’s the precursor to modern gin. Bols tastes uncannily like whiskey, so I thought it would play well in this type of preparation. I tried a couple of different ideas–one using Carpano Antica vermouth–to re-create the Manhattan cocktail, but this is the one we liked best.

Nieuw Amsterdam

Stir, squeeze on lemon peel, discard peel.

Nieuw Amsterdam

photograph © Jennifer Hess

Royal Pain in the MxMo

Welcome to the latest edition of Mixology Monday. I skipped a couple of months, busy with other stuff, but I had to return for this edition–it’s the fourth anniversary of MxMo! Having been a part of this online cocktail party from the very beginning, I feel I must participate tonight–it’s a moral imperative. (Of the original MxMo gangsters–the MxMafia, if you will–it’s fun to see who else was in it from the beginning: Paul Clarke, Rick Stutz, and Darcy O’Neil.)

Tonight’s theme promises to be a toot: pain-in-the-ass drinks, hosted by Seattle bartender Mike McSorley at the blog McSology. I’m cheating a little. I’m not doing a pain-in-the-ass drink. I’m doing a DIY garnish, the humble cocktail onion. Something I wanted to do at the restaurant bar was pickle onions for our cocktails, but life happened, and I’m doing it at home instead.

My wife, Jennifer, has played a lot with pickled things at home, but I had never tried it, so I thought this was the time. Jen and I bantied about a bunch of ideas as to how to pickle our onions, but in the end I chose to go with a basic template from the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Imbibe.

In a pickle

The first PITA was simply finding the mofo onions. Just over a week ago, when I first started thinking about this, our local grocery had fresh pearl onions. This week, none. (Yes, I could buy frozen, pre-peeled pearls, but where’s the PITA of that? Also, where’s the goddamn flavor of that?) So we simply bought the smallest onions we could find–larger than a pearl but still perfect at the bottom of a cocktail glass.

Next, PITA: peeling the mofo onions. Jen’s initial idea was that I should blanch them, so the skins would just slip right off, but then she saw a comment in Imbibe that overcooking the onions will take away their crunch. We decided to peel them the hard way.

My adaptation of Imbibe‘s recipe is as follows:

Pickled Cocktail Onions

  • 12 ounces peeled onions
  • 1/2 tsp. coriander seed
  • 1/2 tsp. juniper berries (with these onions destined for a Gibson, that just made sense)
  • 1/2 tsp. white peppercorns
  • pinch of saffron
  • zest of one medium lemon
  • 1 quart vinegar (I used a mix of white-wine vinegar and simple white vinegar, as it’s what I had on hand)
  • 3/4 quart water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. kosher salt

Assemble coriander seed, juniper berries, white peppercorns, saffron, and lemon zest into a cheesecloth sachet. Combine water, vinegar, sugar, and salt in a saucepan over low heat. Stir until salt and sugar dissolve, about five minutes. Let cool to room temperature. Add spice sachet and onions and return to heat. Bring to a boil; allow to boil for just one minute, and remove from heat. Cool to room temperature and remove onions and pickling liquid to jar(s), discarding sachet. Leave at room temperature overnight, and refrigerate (for up to two months) in the morning.

photograph © Jennifer Hess

Now, after doing all of that, I had some pickling liquid left over and didn’t want to waste it, so I also pickled some ramps. For that, prior to discarding the sachet, I cleaned the ramps, added them to the remaining pickling liquid (with the sachet in), and brought it to a boil. I then immediately turned off the heat.

Now, Imbibe‘s recipe comes from Todd Thrasher of PX in Virginia, and he seems to be going for a sweet-and-sour variety of pickle. Having tasted the results, we’re not crazy about it. Neither of us are fans of the sweet-and-sour pickle; we prefer the classic sour. What we do absolutely love about this technique, though, is the texture of the onions. Very crisp and crunchy.

Next time around, I want to lower the sugar content, increase the oomph-factor of the spices, and play with different vinegars or vinegar blends.


A simple variant on the classic Aviation, using Hayman’s Old Tom gin. I chose the Hayman’s because I have a problem with the Aviation; I think it’s just a touch out of balance on my palate, with the lemon juice so heavy and the sweetening agents so light. (However, I know that if you bump up the maraschino and violet liqueur, you’re going to get a drink that’s just nasty.) Hayman’s is only mildly sweet, as far as Old Toms go, apparently, so I thought I’d try it. I like it.



  • 2 ounces Hayman’s Old Tom gin
  • 3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons maraschino liqueur
  • 1 teaspoon crème de violette

Shake over ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass; garnish with a lemon twist.

MxMo XLV Tea!

mxmologoXLV, XLV, hm. How does this work again? Subtract 32, divide by 9, multiply by … uh, wait, that’s not right. Oh, oh, I see. It’s 45. 45?! Geez, whodathunk. The theme this month, chosen by the boffins at Cocktail Virgin, is tea (tisanes included). Pip pip!

With a month or so to go before Cook & Brown opens, I’ve been thinking a lot about the cocktail menu. So when I’m mixing drinks at home, I often have an eye out for drinks that might play well on the menu, both immediately upon opening and also months down the road. To reiterate, the remit at Cook & Brown will be to source our ingredients locally when possible and to cook (and mix) with a seasonal focus. So if I’m going to play with tea, it should be local tea. That in mind, I returned to a farmers market vendor I’ve mentioned here before, Farmacy Herbs. A couple of their teas had promise, but for my purposes I chose the Unwind Your Mind blend, of chamomile, catnip, and lemon balm. One purpose of a good cocktail is to relieve stress and banish the worries of the day, and I thought a relaxing tea might help.

Relax and float downstream

I figured I’d add a little local honey and because they’re available right now, Meyer lemons. I shook it and topped it off with a little Q Tonic to make a refreshing twist on the ol’ Gin and Tonic. Not seasonal to dead of winter, sure, but should be lovely in the hotter months. Gotta think ahead, y’know. For the actual C&B menu, I’ll probably use the tonic from a local soda brand, Yacht Club, instead of Q. And eventually, I’d like to play with a house-made tonic.

Blackstone G & T

  • 2 oz tea-infused gin
  • 3/4 oz. Meyer lemon juice (will probably use regular lemon in summer)
  • 3/4 oz. honey syrup (equal parts honey and water heated on the stove)

Shake over ice, strain into ice-filled chimney glass. Top with tonic water.

DISCLAIMER: I am no longer a part of Cook and Brown.

Quick, Robin, to the Liquidlab!

Two weeks ago, I was in the Riverdale section of da Bronx, getting all mad scientist in Junior Merino‘s Liquid Lab. Junior’s a consultant and former bartender who created the Liquid Lab in a Riverdale apartment, as a facility where he can create and test new recipes for cocktails and food flavored with spirits. The Lab is stocked with thousands of bottles of spirits, liqueurs, mixers, and bitters–many of which are otherwise unavailable in the United States.

Gird Your Belly!

Junior’s wife, Heidi, had warned me in advance that I needed to start my day with a hearty breakfast, to provide a base for all the spirits and cocktails I’d be tasting. So after a hearty repast, I caught the subway up to the Bronx. When I arrived at the Lab, I met my fellow attendees: bartenders from Drink and Craigie on Main in Boston, and drink slingers from Hotel Delmano, Pranna, and Eleven Madison Park in New York. Rounding out the group was Village Voice writer Chantal Martineau, who’s beaten me to the roundup scoop, with her writeup here. We signed a release form (no photography or video allowed, which is why I have no pix of my own here), donned lab coats, and got ready to go.

The Gang

All photographs are the property of The Liquid Chef Inc. and are used with permission.

First up, though, was a true breakfast of champions: punch-spiked cereal. Talk about yer basic snap-crackle-burp!

Aroma Architecture

Next, Junior launched into a section he called Aroma Architecture. He passed around various herbs and greens, and urged us to sniff and taste each one, to think about using their flavors in cocktails, and also to think about how similar flavors come through in the taste of certain spirits. Some of these herbs are relatively common cocktail ingredients–mint, sage, dill, hibiscus. Others were surprising, but upon tasting them in this context, I could start to make some connections between my salad plate and my mixing glass; among these were baby chard, baby kale, carrot greens, borage, and pea shoots. When we started down this road, I knew I was in for a great time at the Lab because I knew I’d be tasting new flavor combos all day long.

Willy Wonka Cocktailing

Then we got into the heart of the Lab. Now, if you’ve never been, let me explain how it works. Junior secures sponsors for each Lab, for both base spirits and liqueurs. Each Lab is broken into five flights and mixing sessions. For each flight of base spirit, you blind-taste five examples of that spirit and discuss the flavors and aromas with Junior and your fellow participants. So, for example, you taste five piscos or five gins. Then you get to mixing with that base spirit.

The rules of the Lab are, you make two drinks per base spirit. Each of your two drinks must include the sponsor’s product, plus at least one of the sponsor liqueurs. Any other ingredients are your choice, using any spirit, liqueur, herb, spice, bitter, syrup, salt, or garnish that Junior has available. You mix up one drink, divvy it up among nine tiny cups, and distribute those out to Junior and the other guests (leaving one for yourself, of course).

The Lab!

That’s a Lotta Cocktails!

How many? Let’s rock some mathemagics now. For each base spirit, you’re mixing two cocktails, which means that over the course of the day, you’re creating 10 new cocktails. Eight other people in the room are mixing 10 drinks a piece (including Junior), and you’re tasting every single cocktail. Including your own drinks, that adds up to 90 cocktails. Zam! Now, each taste is only about half an ounce, but that still means, if you actually drink each one instead of just taking a sip, you’re consuming about 45 ounces of cocktail over the course of a day. That’s roughly 15 full-size drinks. Luckily for us, we had ample supplies of bottled water, but now you see why Heidi urged us all to have a large breakfast first.

Tipsy & Overwhelmed

Our base spirits, in order, were pisco, cachaça, rum, tequila, and mexcal. In each category, Junior had bottles of the spirit on its own, and he had several infused bottles. You could choose to use the plain spirit or one (or more) of the infusions. I wish I could tell you what I mixed up for these spirits, but I simply can’t remember, and it wouldn’t matter anyway because to be honest, my drinks weren’t that good. The thing you have to understand is that the Lab is fast-paced; I mean lightning fast. I was around professional bartenders here, who serve some of the top restaurants and bars in the Northeast.

In a very short time, we had to choose between the plain spirit and the infused options (tasting if you wished before you decided), then choose the liqueur, and then track down a third ingredient and anything else we wanted in there, and not just once, but twice. For an amateur, it was a challenge. I tried to get creative; I was grabbing bottles and herbs and whatever, just to see what worked together and what didn’t. Tequila, coca liqueur, and ginger-hibiscus syrup, with muddled electric Szechuan buttons? Why the hell not, what have you got to lose? (A bartender from Eleven Madison teased me at one point: “Why not use that? No one likes your drinks anyway.” At least, I think she was teasing.)

The Lab

But when I said my drinks weren’t that good–well, I don’t really know whether they were or not. It was a little beside the point, in a way. I mean, yeah, you want to make good drinks whenever you pick up a shaker. But often the cost of creating a really great drink is mixing your way through many bad ones first, until you find the right notes. I do know that at one point, I was playing with the tequila, and I paired it with Combier triple sec and something else. I realized the balance was off and added lime juice. Then I smacked myself in the head when I realized I had reinvented the fucking Margarita. Dammit!

My problem was, I was a little cowed by the talent around me, and I was letting it get to me, and starting to play it safe. After the fucking Margarita, I started taking chances again and having more fun as a result.

It’s Not Just About the Drinks, Though

At one point, Junior passed around plates of edible cocktails, and these were fun and surprising:

  • Macchu Pisco sour marshmallow
  • Siembra Azul tequila and Combier Liqueur D’Orange gummy
  • White chocolate, Castries Peanut Rum Creme, Chairman’s Reserve Rum, and Domaine de Canton truffle
  • Leblon cachaça and Vita Coco coconut-water popsicle

The truffle, of course, was amazing, but I think my favorite “edible” was the pisco-sour marshmallow, which really captured the essence of a pisco sour. Lunch, served I think after the cachaça round, was an amazing spread of booze-infused food. Here are just a few examples:

  • Tuna Lollypop: sushi grade tuna, marinated in whiskey that has been infused with pinepeppercorns, some asian spices, herbs, and grenache vinegar. Served with a cube of watermelon and topped with Koppert Cress Basil Cress.
  • Guava Chipotle BBQ short ribs: short ribs braised for 12 hours in herbs and cinnamon, and dressed with a bbq sauce made with guava, chipotle, and Chairmans’s Reserve Rum infused with vanilla and other spices. Served with a cipollini onion roasted with Royal Combier and topped with Koppert Cress Atsina Cress, that has light licorice notes.
  • Elotes: traditionally a staple in Mexican households, this dish is made by cooking ears of corn, then smothering it in a homemade Scorpion Mezcal aioli, queso cotija (aged dried cheese), and powdered chipotle pepper.

The Feast

Traditionally, Junior and Heidi then take everyone out for dinner and drinks. We wound up in the Bar Room at The Modern, a Danny Meyer restaurant connected to the Museum of Modern Art. This was a little heady for me, since the only other Danny Meyer place I had ever dined at was Shake Shack! Coincidentally, I was in the middle of Meyer’s book, Setting the Table, which covers the role of hospitality in business, so it was fun to both talk to the Eleven Madison bartenders about his book, and also see his concepts in action at The Modern. Everyone was pretty wiped out after dinner, so we chose to eschew the post-dinner cocktail round.

Was It Worth It?

Oh, hell yes. I’d do it all again if they’d let me, but I know they need to spread the joy around to many other bartenders. I took a lot from this day of creativity and rabble-rousing. First, as I said earlier, I loved sampling all the various herbs and thinking about creative ways to use them in drinks. Next, just being in the room with such talented and witty people was energizing. It made me really want to try to push my own ingenuity forward. It was also nice to see that nearly every bartender turned out at least one dud. Why wouldn’t that happen? You’re trying crazy new ideas, and not all of them are going to work. Finally, the day was just fun. Junior and Heidi kept a good, positive spirit flowing in the Lab and made it a really great experience.

I’d recommend Liquid Lab for anyone in the spirits industry; it’s that good.

Repeal Day!

Happy Repeal Day! On this day in 1933, Utah ratified the 21st amendment, fulfilling the three-quarters majority needed to repeal Prohibition, so hoist a glass of your favorite beverage today to celebrate. As for me, I’ll be in New York, preparing for a day of Willy Wonka cocktailing tomorrow, at Junior Merino‘s Liquid Lab.

I’m excited about this. A couple of times a month, Junior and his wife, Heidi, open the doors to his Bronx office to a small group of bartenders and spirits writers, allowing them to mix and discuss cocktails, talk about techniques and ideas, and sample unique and unusual ingredients, some of them otherwise unavailable in the United States. This is followed up with dinner and cocktails, and the whole day is paid for by liquor-company sponsors that Junior and Heidi line up.

I hope to have photos and a follow-up post in a few days.

Raising a glass in thanks

With Thanksgiving approaching, it’s time to plan for festive cocktailing! Mrs. Bitters has already started prepping our locavore Thanksgiving (there’s a story behind it being locavore, but you’ll have to wait for it), so now’s the time for me to plan my approach. I haven’t quite figured it all out yet. I know I want to get some Calvados and make a batch of sage simple syrup, so that I can mix up the Apple Sage Old Fashioned I created for the autumn issue of Edible Rhody (still on the stands, so if you’re local, grab a copy–it’s the one with the cranberry bog on front).

For my second drink, I’m still working my brain on it. In Friday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal, Malt Adovocate editor John Hansell edited a small advertising supplement on whiskeys. Included was a piece on cocktails by Gary Regan, or gaz regan as he apparently prefers to be called these days. Old gaz included four cocktails in the piece, one of which I think I’ll adapt for Thanksgiving. Here’s the gaz version:

Babbling Brook

  • 1-1/2 oz. scotch
  • 3/4 oz. B&B liqueur
  • 1/4 oz. absinthe
  • 1 lemon twist, for garnish

Stir over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add garnish.

As gaz discusses in his piece, scotch marries well with anise flavors, and we definitely found that to be the case here.

Earlier this year, I picked up a bunch of anise hyssop from a local herbalist. Back then, I used it in a variation of the New Orleans classic cocktail, the Vieux Carre. On Saturday, when we were at the market, we stopped by the Farmacy table to pick up some local honey for Thanksgiving baking. They happened to have as well some small jars of honey infused with the anise hyssop. I immediately started thinking about cocktail applications and eagerly bought a jar. I might do a variation on the Babbling Brook. Or, I might do a scotch Sazerac instead, with a syrup made from the hyssop honey. I don’t think I’ll go wrong either way.

How about you? What Thanksgiving-themed drinks are you planning to mix this year? Do you have special Thanksgiving snacks that pair well with cocktails? Sound off in the comments!