Category Archives: Cocktails

My Frangelico Problem, and a Cocktail Solution

My relationship with Frangelico began innocently enough (or not-so-innocently, depending on your perspective) in the spring of 2001. I was 18, and it was just a year after I had decided that bartending was a noble pursuit. I was infatuated with a 23-year-old woman, and was standing in her kitchen. We’d gone to dinner, and she’d taken me back to her place and put some coffee on. She also had an unopened half-bottle of Frangelico on hand. At the time, I thought this made her unbelievably sophisticated. Now, before you cry foul over this story of an older woman corrupting an underage drinker with alcohol, fear not: No booze was consumed that night because we could not get the damned bottle open. The cap simply spun around and around but would not unscrew. We both worked at it for several minutes using a variety of different techniques, but the result remained the same: The Frangelico was staying in the bottle that night.

I’ve been marked for life by this event. First of all, I can’t look at the silhouette of the Frangelico bottle’s pious friar without thinking of the curves of a beautiful, smart, and unpredictable young woman who was ultimately too much for me to handle.  (Some might find this to be weird, but my argument is that all bottles are inherently phallic anyway, so there’s really nothing new here.)  Secondly, the cap to that bottle is still spinning. I don’t mean that particular bottle—I’m sure she eventually opened her bottle and served it to a more mature man who was better prepared for its contents than I was. Back then, I didn’t know what to do with Frangelico (beyond putting it in coffee).  And now, even though I’ve opened many bottles since then, I still often find myself perplexed. Eleven years later, it’s just as mysterious to me as it was in that kitchen in Silverlake. So, in that sense, I still can’t get the darn thing open.

There are a lot of popular liqueurs that I banish from my home and from bars left and right, but there’s definitely nothing wrong with Frangelico.  First of all, it’s Italian, which means its sheik and artsy. Secondly, it’s “all natural.” And lastly, it’s really delicious. I don’t think anyone can take this over the rocks and complain it doesn’t taste good. But there’s a problem: It’s pungent.

I feel confident enough to work with nearly every ingredient in any bar. I’ve put together an entire menu of amaro cocktails. Absinthe? No problem. Strega, grappa, Islay Scotch, blackstrap rum, batavia arrack—throw them at me and I’ll knock them all down. As long as a spirit or liqueur is of fine quality in its own right, I will confidently make a delicious drink. But when it comes to Frangelico, I have often found myself shrugging my shoulders in resignation.

Frangelico is what is know as a noisette, which is French for “hazelnut,” and also refers to a liqueur featuring the same flavor. Although it markets itself as “the original hazelnut liqueur,” with “origins” dating back over 300 years, and has a bottle that calls to mind something old and traditional, Frangelico has actually only been around since the 1980’s.  It’s made with real hazelnuts, which are steeped in an alcohol solution.  This solution is then distilled again, resulting in a hazelnut distillate.  Then other ingredients are added, including cocoa and vanilla. Although I don’t know for sure, I would wager there’s fruit in there as well, berries in particular.

Frangelico’s modern origins are surprising for the reasons listed above, and for this one:  It doesn’t exactly play to a young crowd.  It’s been passed over by the craft cocktail movement, and lacks horrible TV commercials with a “bartender” explaining the subtle art of pouring Frangelico into a glass with ice. Instead, it sits on the back bar gathering dust, brought out only to go into a coffee, or when someone wants something sweet on the rocks after a meal.

A few months ago, I’d had enough of this. I decided that I would come up with new and interesting things to do with Frangelico. I figured that if amaretto can get play in cocktails, why not Frangelico? It turned out to be harder than I thought.

There are very few Frangelico cocktails out there that aren’t in the “dessert” category. It is seemingly always paired with one of the following: Coffee, cream, Bailey’s, Kahlua, Creme de Banana or Creme de Cacao. It’s always suffering the indignity of whipped cream, shavings of cinnamon, or, God forbid, playing along in a layered shot.  Recently, after I briefly explained my cocktail background and the challenge I had set for myself, one well-meaning liquor store employee excitedly explained to me that mixing equal parts Pinnacle “Whipped” flavored vodka and Frangelico would yield a drink that tastes just like chocolate covered pretzels. (I smiled politely and then narrowly avoided vomiting into a nearby waste bin.)

I worked at it for months during off hours at the bar and prime hours at home, pairing Frangelico with every conceivable ingredient, trying to come up with something that worked.  What I wanted was not a cocktail that accepted Frangelico, but one that needed it.  But it also had to be fresh, interesting, and something that compelled you to drink more.

Eventually, I came up with this. Although the ingredients may seem unexpected, I believe the combination works extremely well.

RUMFORD PUNCH
1oz Frangelico
1oz reposado tequila (I prefer Casa Noble)
1oz freshly-breweed genmaicha green tea
1/2oz freshly squeezed lime juice
Large pinch of cilantro (10-12 leaves)

Add the cilantro directly to a shaker with the rest of the ingredients.
Shake vigorously.
Strain the drink into an ice-filled rocks glass.

I’d encourage you try try it before rendering judgment.  The hazelnut and cilantro match-up is one I’ve long suspected would work, and have not been disappointed by the way this cocktail has come out.

So, I’ve gotten one Frangelico cocktail down.  Will it take another several months to create a suitable follow-up?  We’ll see.  But now, at last, I have something to produce whenever a guest asks, “Do you make anything with Frangelico.”

Despite my new discovery and many years of familiarity with this product, there are still times when I just can’t seem to get the cap off of the bottle. It spins, just like it did all those years before. It’s embarrassing. After all, I’m older and more experienced now, and shouldn’t be running into issues like this.  On nights when the problem has come up, bar colleagues and guests have assured me that it happens to every bartender once in a while. I always unconvincingly insist that it’s the first time it’s ever happened to me.

The Blood and Sand, Carefully Considered

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It can certainly be said that of well-known classic cocktails, the Blood and Sand suffers from a less-than-cuddly reputation. It could be the name, and it could be the ingredients. I certainly doubted the worth of the drink until I tasted it for the first time. On paper, it looks awful, which is one of the things I love about it. Modern cocktailing suffers from a number of disturbing trends, one of which is that many cocktails I find in bars and restaurants look amazing on paper but fail to deliver once mixed and served. Good cocktails are good for one reason only: they taste great. The Blood and Sand is no exception. When pressed, I might even say it’s my favorite cocktail.

As with many classic drinks, not much is known about the cocktail’s origins. But that doesn’t stop the Internet from being rife with details. The most common story is that it was invented to celebrate the premier of the 1922 film Blood and Sand, starring Rudolph Valentino as a matador. Most will also say that it was made with blood orange juice. (An understandable assumption given the cocktail’s name.) The truth is that the first printed mention of the drink is in Harry Craddock’s 1930 volume, The Savoy Cocktail Book. Unlike modern cocktail books, this volume lacked flowery descriptions of the recipes within it. (Mr. Craddock was probably betting on smarmy bloggers taking care of that a few generations later.) His recipe was simple: equal parts scotch, Italian vermouth (sweet vermouth), cherry brandy and orange juice.

It could be that the story of the blood orange cocktail invented for the premier of a film is true, simply being passed down orally until later being written down. I can find no record of anyone coming forward with evidence to disprove this story. But, the tale could have just as easily been made up by someone writing about the drink, later to be taken as fact. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how the drink came about. What matters is that it is truly delicious when made properly. When thinking about cocktails, the most important thing to consider is the taste. It all starts with ingredients.

The Scotch

Many people make the mistake of using a very lightly-peated or unpeated scotch. I’ve seen recipes calling for Glenlivet, Dewar’s, Oban and others. These scotches get overwhelmed by the other ingredients and disappear into the background. This leads some to worry that the Blood and Sand needs to taste “more like scotch,” and ambitious cocktailers often try to remedy this perceived imbalance by changing the proportions of the drink to increase the amount of scotch present, and/or using a total smoke-bomb. People who do this are missing the point.

Yes, there are some old cocktail recipes that just don’t work. For example, I will never agree with the “French school” view on the sidecar, a recipe that calls for equal parts lemon juice, cointreau and cognac. I, and most other people, find that to be un-palatable. Then the “English school” emerged, thanks (once again) to none other than Harry Craddock, who published an updated ratio for the drink in his 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book: 2 parts brandy to one part each of Cointreau and lemon juice. Most would agree this is a much better drink. We should all recognize that Craddock was a good judge of taste in this case, yet chose to preserve the equal-parts ratio for the Blood and Sand. Surely, he had a reason. Indeed, in the case of the Blood and Sand, we should seek not to reinvent the wheel, but rather to grease the axel: What matters are the ingredients; the proportions are perfect. In fact, they are vital.

Let us go back to the question of the scotch. Harry Craddock was working at the Savoy Hotel in London when he published his famous cocktail guide. The odds are very good that he was using something common: Johnnie Walker, or something like it. I certainly doubt that he was using anything light and delicate. (Sorry Glenlivet fans, but scotch makers weren’t widely using bourbon barrels for aging until the late 1930’s. In Harry Craddock’s London, the scotch would have been a bolder sherry-aged spirit). If we use Johnnie Walker Black Label as a benchmark, what this cocktail needs is something smokey and flavorful that will shine through to join (but not overpower) the other ingredients. Ardbeg or Laphroaig, although amusing to use, do not make for the best drink.

Lately, I have taken a liking to using Highland Park 12 in the Blood and Sand. It is well-rounded, smoky enough, but not so bold as to dominate the drink. It plays fair with the other ingredients. Sadly (but justifiably) the stuff is not cheap. Johnnie Walker Black Label works wonderfully, is affordable, and is likely authentic when it comes to replicating the cocktail as it was intended.

The Cherry Brandy

Some would have you believe that the cocktail has always been made with Cherry Heering. Of course it’s possible that this was the very liqueur the Blood and Sand was first made with. Peter Heering’s famous cordial has been the gold standard in cherry brandy for many, many years. But there were, and are, many other brands.

It is important to distinguish between “cherry brandy,” a term used for sweet cherry flavored liqueur that doesn’t necessarily have to contain any brandy at all, and cherry eau-de-vie, commonly known as Kirschwasser, or Kirsch. Kirsch, though delicious, has no business being in a Blood and Sand. I have also seen it happen that, in the absence of Cherry Heering, inexperienced bartenders and uninformed amateurs at home will try substituting Luxardo’s famous Maraschino liqueur. Anyone familiar with both products knows that this is not a wise choice, as the two liqueurs have little in common other than cherries.

It’s not much of a stretch to presume that Cherry Heering was the very “cherry brandy” that Harry Craddock used at the American Bar at London’s Savoy Hotel all those years ago. But I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that if he wasn’t using it, he should have been. You won’t find a better dark cherry liqueur on the market today, and evidence suggests that in the past 100 years at least, the product hasn’t changed much. You shouldn’t make a Blood and Sand without using Cherry Heering. Period.

The Vermouth

Craddock’s recipe calls for “Italian vermouth.” At the time, this was understood as meaning sweet, red vermouth, whereas “French vermouth” referred to the dry, white variety. Nowadays, of course, you can find sweet and dry vermouth from both countries, as well as a variety of other places. But I see no reason to try anything fancy by diverging from Craddock’s description. So, Italian vermouth it is. Punt e Mes is one of my favorite vermouths, but it’s far too bitter for this cocktail. Carpano’s other, more well-known vermouth, Antica Formula, is also disqualified. Although delicious, the vanilla in the recipe ends up being rather conspicuous in the finished cocktail.

My favorite Italian vermouth at the moment, and one I think goes best in this particular drink, is Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, a spectacular vermouth made from a 1891 recipe. This is a vermouth well-worth sipping on its own, a necessary quality in anything you are going to mix into a drink.

The Orange Juice

Here is perhaps the biggest point of contention when it comes to the Blood and Sand. It is a common misconception that the original recipe for the Blood and Sand called for blood orange juice. There are some who say that this is the “blood” in the cocktail’s name. It’s an odd notion, actually, considering that the red hues of both Cherry Heering and sweet vermouth could both just as easily be “blood.” I prefer to see things that way, with the scotch and the orange juice representing the “sand.” Harry Craddock certainly doesn’t specify anything more than “orange juice” in his recipe. Although, of course, it’s possible that the cocktail’s creator used blood orange juice, there’s no real reason to believe this is so.

As it turns out, blood orange juice is quite delicious in this cocktail. The tart, grapefruity notes of the juice lend an interesting character to the drink. But blood orange juice should by no means be considered necessary, and in fact I may prefer the juice of a simple Valencia orange over it. What is most important to consider, above all, is that whatever juice you use must be freshly squeezed.

The Recipe

To sum up, if I were to make a Blood and Sand right now with my preferred ingredients, it would consist of:

1 part Highland Park 12
1 part Cherry Heering
1 part Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
1 part freshly squeezed orange juice

I like 1oz across the board. It yields a drink big enough to say I mean business, but not so big that it becomes indulgent (not to mention tasteless). My general rule is: Always keep your cocktail just small enough that passing up a second drink would be pointless and shameful.

When made correctly, this drink is nothing short of divine. If you prefer things differently, I would love to compare notes.

Cheers.

The Martini: Mankind’s Finest Creation

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A woman sat at my bar and said: “I’d like a classic martini, please. Make it with Grey Goose.”

“I can’t do that,” I said. “Even if I stocked Grey Goose, which I don’t, I would not be able to make you that drink, because a classic martini can only be made with gin.”

Although some folks might have taken offense at my tone, this woman took everything I said in the instructive spirit in which it was intended. “Really? I had no idea,” she said. “I’ve never heard of a martini being made with anything other than vodka.” And then she asked, “What exactly is gin, anyway?”

It’s a sad story, but it has a happy ending. I made her a gin martini that she loved.

But it’s a sad state of affairs when our country’s most recognizable and iconic cocktail is more easily identified with the glass it is served in than its components or preparation. It’s gotten to the point where anything served in a “martini glass” becomes a “martini,” whether it be nothing but cold vodka, or a syrupy sludge tasting vaguely of watermelon. I sometimes serve martinis in a coupe glass rather than the traditional “martini glass,” and it’s not uncommon for a guest to complain that the drink I served them is somehow “not a martini” simply because it came in an unexpected glass.

So, in light of all of this information, let’s straighten things out right now: A martini is gin and dry vermouth, stirred with ice until chilled, and garnished with either an olive or a lemon peel. Or a cocktail onion if you wish to have a gibson. That is all a martini is or ever will be. You will notice I say it should be stirred. It should never be shaken. James Bond is a moron. I would never say that to his face, because he’d break my jaw with his pinky finger and then run off with my girlfriend. But, in my heart of hearts, I know he’s secretly a wuss. No real man would ask for a shaken martini and, good lord, ask for vodka in it. The only thing worse than a vesper is a straight vodka martini. Don’t do it. Just don’t.

Now we know what a martini is. It honestly doesn’t really matter what glass it goes into. You could pour one into my cupped palms and it would still be a martini. (Mad props and a huge tip, by the way, to the bartender that eventually makes that dream of mine a reality.)

I enjoy all manners of gin. I will admit that I believe it is easier to find bad gin than it is to find poor examples in other spirit category (with perhaps one exception in the case of tequila). This is largely because many upstart distillers in the United States decide to make a gin while they are waiting for their brand new whiskey to mature. The problem is that making a good gin takes a daunting amount of skill, and few people have it. Sometimes to find the best gin, you have to stick with the big names, because they are the ones who pay the big bucks for the best people. My preferred gins are Beefeater and Plymouth, plain and simple. Many people who know me as a fellow who gravitates toward esoteric, lesser-known labels, would be shocked to hear this, but it’s the honest truth. (That’s not to say that there aren’t smaller gins I adore. Oxley and The Botanist have both held my attention recently.)

If you were to make a martini for me right now, here’s what I would expect from you:

3oz Beefeater
3/4oz dry vermouth
(Noilly Pratt and Dolin are both preferred. It should be refrigerated if already opened. Otherwise, throw it away and open a fresh bottle.)

-Add the ingredients to a mixing glass and then add freshly-made ice. If the ice is large, crack it with a spoon into smaller pieces.

-Stir well. No more than 10 seconds if the ice is cracked, a bit longer otherwise.

-If you think you might have stirred it for too long, YOU DEFINITELY HAVE AND NEED TO STOP NOW.

-Strain into my cupped palms, or, if we are expecting polite company, into a martini glass or similarly non-embarrassing vessel.

-Don’t chill the glass in the freezer. The martini shouldn’t be ice cold, and one should never drink a cocktail out of a glass that is colder than the cocktail itself. If you must serve it in a cold glass, put it in the fridge, instead.

-Yes, that’s right. My martini shouldn’t be ice cold. If it’s too cold, I won’t taste the subtle nuances of the cocktail which have made the drink so beloved, and will have wasted your precious time and my own. Don’t go for “igloo cold.” Go for “I wish the bus would goddamned get here already because my ears are beginning to hurt a bit.” But no colder than that.

-Garnish with a lemon peel. Yeah, I know an olive is considered “classic,” but we are talking about what I would do, and I prefer a lemon peel. If you are out of lemons, a small green olive will be fine. None of that bleu cheese-stuffed garbage though. That’s just ridiculous.

I will drink my martini within 8 minutes. That’s how long I have before the thing gets too warm, unless we are sitting in an igloo or waiting for the bus, in which case I’ll probably have a bit longer.

This isn’t just how I would want you to make a martini for me, but how I think a martini should be made for all people. It is the closest one can get to the essential martininess to which we all strive. Alas, I rarely order martinis when I go out drinking. The martini pays a steep price for being the simplest cocktail around: It’s the easiest one to get wrong.