My 2017 Cocktail Resolutions, Part 2: Going Beyond Bourbon

Though my home bar sports a few dozen different bottles—whiskeys, gins, vodkas, brandies, amari, and on down the line—I fully admit that the ones that get emptied fastest are the bourbons (and sometimes the ryes). I make no bones about American whiskey being my spirit of choice, and my knee-jerk cocktail is often bound to be a whiskey sour, a Paper Plane, or a Manhattan.

But woman cannot live on whiskey alone, so my second cocktail resolution this year was to challenge myself to branch out a bit and turn to other types of booze when mixing drinks.

Into Brandyland

As part of my efforts to learn more about brandy (so I could share that knowledge with all of you, natch), I spent some time in that world in February and March, so much of my branching out happened in that particular family tree.

There were Sidecars, of course, and they were predictably delicious, but I also went a bit farther afield.

The Saratoga cocktail from Julie Reiner's The New Cocktail Hour

The Saratoga cocktail from Julie Reiner's The New Cocktail Hour

So, yes: the Saratoga from The New Cocktail Hour by Julie Reiner does in fact have rye in it, but it also has cognac, sweet vermouth, and orange bitters, so I'm totally counting it in my not-just-American-whiskey tally, especially since it was delicious. (I'm sure these charming pressed glass Nick and Nora glasses enhanced the taste even more.)

Andrew Friedman's Bardstown

Andrew Friedman's Bardstown

Next up was the Bardstown cocktail from Seattle bartender and bar owner Andrew Friedman. I picked this one while flipping through the book West Coast Libations because, let me be honest here, it was the drink that required the least effort (no infusions, no emulsions, no special syrups), and for which I had all the ingredients on hand. 

Was one of those ingredients rye? Yes. Yes, it was. You might sense a theme here. But what if I defend myself by noting that this beauty also has applejack, and thus fits with the whole brandy theme?  (Bonus: I served it in one of these classic "bamboo stem" coupes.)

Bardstown

By Andrew Friedman of Liberty Bar, Seattle; from West Coast Libations by Ted Munat

2 oz. Rittenhouse 100-proof rye

1 oz. Laird's applejack

1/2 oz. Cointreau

1 dash orange bitters

1 dash Angostura bitters

Long orange twist, for garnish

Stir all ingredients with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with the orange twist.

 

The A.J. cocktail: just crazy enough to work

The A.J. cocktail: just crazy enough to work

I wrapped up my time in Brandytown with a cocktail called the A.J., from Mittie Hellmich's Ultimate Bar Book. The A.J. combines applejack, grapefruit juice, and grenadine, and, on paper, looks suspect at best. (Applejack and grapefruit??) But friends, somehow it works.

Last Stop: Campari

I wish I could tell you that beyond my tinkering with various brandies I got into some truly creative stuff, and finally figured out what to do with that bottle of Ramazzotti, or that crazy-ass coca leaf liqueur my friend Rob gave me for my birthday back in, um, 2011, or that rhubarb liqueur that's been all but untouched for years now. 

In fact, I did none of those things. But I did keep putzing around.

Tequila, let's do this.

Tequila, let's do this.

On one of the coldest nights we had all winter (yes, that's a relative measure in Northern California, but still), I dusted off my bottle of silver tequila, squeezed a grapefruit, and made Palomas. Tequila is a spirit that has never excited me (and sorry, mezcal, but smoky just isn't my thing), but in the Paloma, I can start to see its appeal.

Celebrating St. Patrick's Day a la Dale DeGroff

Celebrating St. Patrick's Day a la Dale DeGroff

St. Patrick's Day here at In Our Cups world HQ involved not green beer (or, in fact, any beer) or terrible shots, but instead a round of Wild Irish Roses, Dale DeGroff's take on the Jack Rose, which subs Irish whiskey for applejack. That bottle of Bushmill's at the back of my bar hadn't seen so much action in years. (Love those Libbey Royal Fern glasses? Find 'em here.)

Tally ho, sbagliato!

Tally ho, sbagliato!

Finally, I rounded out March with the Negroni Sbagliato, the "mistaken" version of that classic with Prosecco standing in for the gin. (And check out those charming Libbey Tally Ho lowballs!) If I'm drinking something bitter and bubbly, there's a 99% chance it's an Aperol Spritz, so, hey, double pat on the back for a cocktail that's neither a spritz nor features American whiskey. 

I've got plenty more exploring to do over the coming months—I will open that bottle of falernum! I will figure out something to do with cachaça other than make Caipirinhas! And dammit, Ramazzotti, I'm coming for you. And let's be honest: I didn't actually go way out in left field with most of my cocktailing over these last couple of months. 

But it did feel good to crack open some infrequently used bottles, and to get myself out of my whiskey-first habit for a bit. If you, like me, have neglected bottles hanging around your home bar, I definitely encourage showing them some love.

Booze School: Brandy 101

Class is in session! Welcome to Booze School, a new occasional series dedicated to demystifying spirits, sharing some fun facts, and giving you enough smarts about booze that you're confident in your ability to pick out a bottle or order a glass you'll dig.

Because it's the spirit that most befuddles me, I decided to start with brandy.

OK, What Exactly Is Brandy, Anyway?

There are so many things that fall under the brandy umbrella that, if you're anything like me, it's easy to become baffled by what the spirit actually is. In the most basic terms, brandy is a spirit distilled from fruit, and occasionally from herbs. (And without re-muddying the waters, I also tried a nettle brandy while in Croatia last year, but let's ignore that for now and stick with the fruit thing.)

The most common fruit used in brandy, by a mile, is grapes. Cognac, Armagnac, grappa, pisco, and many American brandies are grape-based. There are some differences in how different grape-ish brandies are distilled (grappa uses the skins, seeds, and stems left over from winemaking, for instance, while pisco, cognac, and Armagnac use grape juice or wine), in the grapes used to make them, and in how they're distilled and aged—hence the vast differences in the end products.

There are plenty of other brandies that rely on other fruits: Armagnac comes from apples, kirsch from cherries, slivovitz from plums, and Hungarian palinka from apricots, to name just a few. I've yet to hear of brandy made from bananas, pineapples, mangos, or other tropical fruits, but otherwise, if it's a fruit, there's a solid chance there's a brandy (or eau de vie, or schnapps, or rakia) made from it.

When Is a Cognac Not a Cognac?

Though the whole world of cognac can get complicated quickly (more on that in a moment), one aspect of it is pretty straightforward: cognac is simply grape-based brandy from the Cognac region of France. In the same way that all Champagnes are sparkling wines, but not all sparkling wines are Champagnes, all cognac is brandy but not all brandies are cognac. 

Same basic deal with Armagnac: it's brandy from a particular area in France, so not every brandy can be called Armagnac, but all Armagnac can be called brandy. Because it is. Capice?

VS, VSOP, XO, WTH?

Unlike other brandies, cognac has a grading system that indicates how long the youngest bit of brandy in each blend has been aged. (Like non-vintage Champagne, cognac from different years is blended, so a barrel of cognac will contain brandy that ranges in age.) Those abbreviations you see on cognac bottles? They tell you things.

  • V.S. (Very Special): A cognac blend in which the youngest brandy has been aged for at least two years in an oak cask.
  • V.S.O.P (Very Special Old Pale), also sometimes called Reserve: A blend in which the youngest brandy has been cask-aged for at least four years.
  • XO (Extra Old) or Napoléon: A blend in which the youngest brandy has been cask-aged for at least ten years. Prior to 2016, the requirement here was six years of aging, so presumably if you were to go out and buy a bottle of XO cognac right now, chances would be decent you'd be buying a six-year, not a ten-year.
  •  Hors d'age (Beyond age): The national cognac bureau in France (yes, there's such a thing) officially says that Hors d'age is the same as XO, but in practice, distillers sometimes use it to indicate cognac that's been aged beyond the ten years at which the scale tops off.

There are other bits of potential bafflement on cognac labels, just as there are on many wine labels, but we're sticking with the basics here. Want to nerd out? The Wikipedia entry on cognac is happy to oblige.

How to Drink It

Brandy is delicious in cocktails (but of course); stay tuned for an upcoming blog post in which I dive into that very subject. Perhaps the most famous of this lot is the Sidecar, with cognac, triple sec, and lemon juice, but if you do some digging, especially into older cocktail books, you'll find plenty more.

Some would argue that where brandies—and cognac and Armagnac in particular—really shine is sipped on their own. Do you need brandy snifters, with their big, balloon-like bowls and narrow mouths? Not necessarily. Their shape is designed to warm up the spirit a bit as you hold the snifter in your hand, thereby releasing more of its aromas, and then preventing those aromas from escaping by narrowing the glass toward the top. So while something like a coupe wouldn't be great if you want to sit down and slowly sniff and sip your brandy, a stemless wine glass would totally work. 

There's a delicious and incredibly varied world of brandies out there. Get sipping!

My 2017 Cocktail Resolutions, Part 1: Balance Boozy with Light

I'm not exactly a master of keeping New Year's resolutions (let's not count how many years I've vowed to drink 64 ounces of water a day—though I'm still trying to stick with that one), so I tend not to make many of them.

However, this year I figured I'd try something a bit different: instead of going for the usual, I'd set goals related to cocktails. Hello, motivation! And to keep things even more interesting, my plan is to work on one resolution per month, rather than making a whole batch at the beginning of the year and then having to try to keep them all going at once.

So join me on this year-long adventure of (let's be honest) completely softball goal setting and achieving. First up: lightening up.

Un-Dry January

Many people aim to take a month off from drinking after the holidays, which has spawned the idea of dry January. First of all, were I to lay off the hooch altogether, I'd pick a month without 31 days (hello, sweet 'n' petite February). But second of all, unless I had a compelling medical reason not to drink (or consume carbs, or enjoy chocolate, or start every damn day with coffee), trying to go cold turkey for a full month would just make me feel grumpy and resentful.

However, that doesn't mean there's nothing to be said for taking it a bit easier this month as a way of resetting and rebalancing after the holidays. 

Keeping Level

This tasty sipper is the Apparent Sour from bartender Bobby Heugel. Three ingredients, lots of deliciousness.

This tasty sipper is the Apparent Sour from bartender Bobby Heugel. Three ingredients, lots of deliciousness.

Enter The Art of the Shim: Low-Alcohol Drinks to Keep You Level, by Dinah Sanders. Sanders argues that while delicious high-test cocktails—that is, those made from full-proof spirits (whiskey, vodka, gin, etc.)—are delightful, sometimes they're not quite right. Maybe you're having a drink before or after a dinner that includes lots of wine, for example, or maybe you're enjoying some day drinking. In both cases, hitching your wagon to Manhattans may leave you tipsier (and fuller) than you want to be. So, shims to the rescue.

Shims are cocktails made with amari, vermouth, sherry, cordials, or lighter liqueurs that don't pack the same punch as full spirits (think Chartreuse, allspice dram, and the like). These aren't necessarily simpler cocktails than their boozier kin; they're just less alcoholic. As Sanders writes, the goal of a shim is "more drink, less drunk."

Test Run

There are a few dozen recipes in this book, each categorized by Kind (such as Spiritous Dry or Juicy Bubbles), Mood (Spicy & Stimulating, Lively & Cooling), and Era (Prohibition, Years of Reform). They also run the gamut from exceptionally easy to bartender-ly involved (i.e., involving homemade spiced syrups and the like). 

I picked one of the easiest in the book, Bobby Heugel's Apparent Sour, because I had just come off a five-day hellscape of a cold and was feeling lazy. But while the cocktail took only slightly more than zero effort on my part (shake Aperol, St.-Germain, and lime juice; strain; consume), it had a delicious complexity, and, as the name suggests, was pleasantly tart. 

It also had the benefit of not wearing me out as I sipped it while I made dinner. Bonus.

I'm not going to claim I've gone completely without boozy cocktails this month, but it has definitely been nice to take things in a lighter direction for a few weeks. And in the two remaining weeks of January, I have plenty of more complex shims to choose from in Sanders' book. 

It's all in the name of sticking to my goals.

 

 

My Thanksgiving Drinks Plan

I considered traveling for Thanksgiving for about a New York minute, then promptly reconsidered and decided to host a potluck Friendsgiving for any of our peeps in the Bay Area who are also sticking close to home. Yes, I have to clean the house and make sure we're well stocked with enough plates, silverware, and glassware (um, not really an issue on that last one), and I'll be cooking a few things, but the potluck-ish-ness of this feast means the entirety of the meal doesn't fall on me. 

In the spirit of keeping things simple and low-stress, I'm also keeping the liquid part of tomorrow's menu straightforward and unfancy. Here's what's on tap.

Booze-less Options

We'll have a handful of kids joining us for Thanksgiving, but even if we didn't, I'd plan some fun stuff that doesn't have alcohol in it, because it sucks to be the person who's not drinking for whatever reason and has only water or milk to choose from. 

I always keep a stash of interesting soft drinks on hand (holla, San Pelligrino!), so those will come out, along with sparkling water with "spikers" like lemon and lime juices and simple syrup. But the centerpiece will be this Sparkling Apple Cider Punch from Liz DellaCroce of the Lemon Bowl. Will there be a bottle of bourbon next to the punch bowl for those who want to go that route? Yup huh. I'm all about choices.

Wine and Beer

I'll have a couple bottles of wine on hand (because I always do), but in general, I'm leaving this category up to my guests. I generally try to have one bottle of red and one bottle of white at the ready when things kick off, just in case the person responsible for bringing more of either of those gets stuck in traffic, but beyond that, my friends will decide where we go on our wine journey.

And to round things out, the friend who knows the most about beer (and also happens to be German) will bring a 6-pack or two for those who want to go with brew tomorrow.

Cocktails

Thanksgiving is not the time for me to hang out behind the bar mixing drinks, but I'm also kind of constitutionally incapable of having a party of any kind that doesn't include at least a few cocktails. So in addition to the spikeable punch, I'm going to put out the makings and recipes for a couple of dead-simple drinks that guests can make themselves:

The Paper Plane: equal parts bourbon, Aperol, Nonino, and lemon juice, and 100% delicious

The Paper Plane: equal parts bourbon, Aperol, Nonino, and lemon juice, and 100% delicious

  • Sam Ross' classic Paper Plane, with equal parts bourbon, Aperol, Amaro Nonino, and lemon juice
  • The Applejack Old Fashioned from Julie Reiner, which replaces rye with applejack and sugar with maple syrup, and is basically autumn in a glass.

After-Dinner Drinks

Is there any meal that calls out for after-dinner drinks as much as Thanksgiving dinner? I'm gonna say no—which is why tomorrow will be the time when I pull out from my bar everything that's a dessert wine, a cordial, a liqueur, a digestif, or an amaro and let everyone choose their own adventure. There will also be tea, coffee, and hot chocolate for the non-tipplers, those whose livers start to cry uncle, or those who just want to mix things up a bit. 


2016 has been a doozy for many folks, so I'm even more excited than usual to be able to bring together a bunch of people I dig for a day of eating, drinking, talking, laughing, and generally being reminded that there's still plenty of awesome in the world. However you're celebrating tomorrow, I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving and plenty to be grateful for in the year ahead!

Raise a Glass

Earlier this year, I had friends over for a mid-afternoon party in honor of a pal who'd recently gotten a new job. The dining room table was crowded with a crazy array of food people had contributed to the potluck lunch. Edith Piaf's Greatest Hits were on the stereo. 

Drink-wise, the festivities started out classy, with Martinis and a batch of subtle and delicious cocktails that featured brandy and homemade grenadine, courtesy of my friend Kam, then went rapidly and precipitously downhill when I dug out a bottle of Watermelon Pucker from the back of my bar and dared anyone brave enough to take a swig. (The verdict: liquid Jolly Ranchers mixed with general perplexedness at the existence of said bottle in my possession the first place. Let's not talk about it.)

We ate and drank and listened to "Padam" and "C'est Toi" and talked and gossiped and laughed. It was a simple and unfancy and utterly delightful afternoon, and it was roughly a million times better than just wishing Geri well at her new gig via Facebook. 

Our highly connected modern lives are amazing—I love being able to stay in touch with friends across the country and around the world with a few clicks—but would I rather be able to catch up with my people over drinks in my living room than through email or texts or social media? Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes.

Yes, makers of midcentury glassware, we get it: cockTAIL.

Yes, makers of midcentury glassware, we get it: cockTAIL.

At their best, cocktails bring people together, and, at the risk of going all manifesto-y on you, I gotta say that I'm pretty sure that's what we need more of right now. (Cue that Carpenters song.) You can of course enjoy that togetherness at a bar, but there's also so much to be said for inviting the people you dig into your home. 

I started In Our Cups to indulge two of my great loves: seeking out amazing vintage cocktail ware, and then letting that cocktail ware inspire me to have people over. Sometimes I get all fancy, with carefully chosen drinks and themed appetizer spreads, and sometimes—well, sometimes I force Watermelon Pucker on my friends when they least expect it. 

But the point isn't the fanciness, or the lack thereof: it's the people, and the music, and the laughter, and the gossip. It's the temporary setting aside of phones and talking face-to-face, no software required.

Raise a glass with me, won't you? Raise a glass to opening your home, welcoming your friends, and being together. There's nothing else quite like it.