Tuesday, October 28, 2014

People Love Balls

Like practically all modern bartenders, I love ice balls. They melt slower than cubes, and they look damn cool. Japanese barmen carve their spheres from larger blocks of ice and while I would like to master this technique, learning to do so is not in my Top Ten To-Do's. The spherical ice mold is made for people just like me. I bought my first set of sphere molds years ago, and stockpiled ice balls in the freezer. I even learned a cool trick to put a cocktail inside the ice ball. Here's a picture of a Rusty Nail:

The sphere mold worked like a charm, but its ease of use left something to be desired. It had two parts, one was a plastic hourglass shape and the silicone top fitted into it. To release the sphere required warm water and, most of all, a fair bit of patience. Refilling them meant trying to fill through a hole that was a bit small, then "burping" air out of the top.

Recently, Arctic Chill products asked me to review their ice sphere molds. As I mentioned, I am predisposed to a fondness for the result, but I didn't have high expectations for innovation in Arctic Chill's design.

I was wrong.

A pack of six arrived at my house a few days later. Already an improvement, as six is better than two. I unpacked them and found them to be composed entirely of silicone, pliable and bright blue. The design is executed in two parts, flat on the bottom, with one hole in the top. I was able to fill them easily, as the hole is larger in the Arctic Chill design. I took them out of the freezer while I made cocktails, and by the time I'd finished stirring, the two halves were easily separated. I put them into a Pumpkin Old-Fashioned, and you can, too. Order your spheres here and make your Pumpkin Pie Spice syrup just like this:

In a large saucepan, combine:

1 c. Pumpkin puree
.9 oz. Pumpkin Pie Spice
2 tbls whole cloves
2 tbls allspice berries
3 cinnamon sticks
6 c. water

Bring to a boil, then turn the heat all the way down for about an hour, up to two hours. Strain through increasing layers of cheesecloth and sweeten to taste.  

When you're ready to start drinking, stir an ounce of the syrup into 2 ounces of rye whiskey. Add a dash of Angostura bitters and enjoy!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Exciting Times...

It seems like a long time... since I've posted anything here, but that doesn't mean nothing is going on. I've had my hands full with all sorts of projects. I got a job writing for a magazine, and I'm putting together another cocktail competition. I'm gearing up to take part in a huge charity event in April, putting the finishing touches on a website, and as always, loving my life behind the bar.

I'm writing the cocktail column for Edible Milwaukee, and it is very cool. You know I love local, and it's great to be part of such a talented group. I'm really honored. The newest article is on DIY Tonic syrups, so keep one eye open until you pick up your copy.

The MadTown Shakedown is Monday the 24th at 7p.m. I'll be holding it at the HotelRED in Madison. This will be the third cocktail competition I've put together, and this has been so much fun. Madison is so generous. I'd be remiss if I didn't shout out my partners in this venture: the hotel's Executive Chef John Bauer, our sponsors from Death's Door Distillery and Quince and Apple Syrups, Guest Bartenders Jessi Stebbins, Jeff Spear, Grant Hurless, Kevin Lu and JR Morcanu (not to mention the bars that are giving them the night off so we can have them - I see you Graze, L'etoile, Heritage & Merchant!), and our judges. Who can forget our judges, who will selflessly taste each and every delicious cocktail and then have the nearly-impossible task of choosing a favorite? It's more than I could do, so I thank them sincerely for giving us an evening: Revelation PR's Brian Lee, ESPN's Greg Scalzo and Wisco Pop's Austin Ashley. Though the competition has a decidedly local lean to it, Belaya Rus is generously donating a case of their fine Ukrainian vodka. Edible Madison magazine is giving subscriptions to the winners, and I am amazed at how it feels like a whole city has pulled together to support a great cause: REAP Food Group. REAP is nourishing the links between the land and the table, to grow a healthful, just and sustainable local food system. 

If you want to help put some distance between the concepts "factory" and "farm," please join us at 7pm in The Wise lobby bar inside the HotelRED. For just $10, you can taste all the drinks and help choose the People's Choice award.

On April 24th, I'll be volunteering at a benefit for the Make-a-Wish foundation, called An Evening of Elegance. This huge event is in its fifth year, and one of the things that makes it so special is that everything: linens, food, wine, entertainment -- everything -- is donated, so every last dime raised can go directly to the foundation, putting smiles on the the faces of kids who won't have much more time. I'll be sponsored by the Delafield Brewhaus, which will be donating all the spirit and other ingredients for the night. I'll be making liqueurs, syrups, and booze-infused marshmallows for their coffee & cocoa bar.

Amidst this flurry of activity, I'm finishing up my website with its designer, Jason Lange. I've never made a website before, so it's been a great blessing to have his guidance. I'll be using it to promote my consulting services. You might've noticed some bars lacking imagination in the cocktail department, and there's no way the general lack of service has escaped your notice. I've spent years practicing and studying mixology and the nuances of luxury-grade service, and I'm ready to make bar programs more profitable and help bartenders make more money. You see it here. It's where I'll be posting pictures of cocktails and events, and promoting the importance of excellent service and intelligent mixology.

I'll still be documenting my experiments right here, so if you're a cocktail DIY-er like me, stay tuned. 

It's been enough to keep a girl busy! 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

MadTown Shakedown at HotelRED

We are definitely at it again! This time I'm partnered up with Chef John Bauer at Madison's HotelRED, and we are helping REAP Food Group strengthen the bond between local farmers and chefs. REAP Food Group is committed to a "healthful, just and sustainable local food system," and this is a cause worth supporting.

On February 24th at 7pm, some of Madison's most talented bartenders will go head-to-head in a contest with a heart. The MadTown Shakedown is a Chopped-style contest where the contestants won't know the ingredients before the clock starts ticking. Skilled professional mixologists will design and execute a cocktail featuring products from local producers like Old Sugar Distillery and Quince and Apple

You, my friends, can easily get in on this action. If you are a Madison bartender, reach out to me and enter this thing. There will be two first prizes: one for Judges' Choice and one People's Choice. Not everybody is going to win, but nobody is a loser when the goal is this worthy! 

If you want to join us as a guest judge, stop by The Wise inside the HotelRED and buy a ticket for just $10 and you can help us judge the People's Choice award. Taste all the drinks and tell us which was your favorite. All the money we raise will go straight to REAP Food Group.

Just want to hang out and drink for the cause? We got you. Belaya Rus vodka has generously donated some of their fine product for a signature cocktail for the evening. That's right: even your casual drinking is helpful.

Come out on February 24th and join us as we support a great cause. We'll enjoy music by Pat Ferguson and Friends, and some really great cocktails by some of the best bartenders in Madison. Better than that, all our party proceeds will go to helping local farmers and ourselves.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Malt Shop Cocktails

There are many
advantages to being me. I'm not bragging and I'm not lying - it's mostly great to be me. I wake up naturally almost every day. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I hear an alarm clock in a year. My life is deliberately simple so I am free to enjoy my activities and pursue my curiosities. I could go on, but you're getting the picture.

Since I've been serious about cocktails, my life has been filled with interesting challenges and delicious answers to these questions. I didn't expect it, but recently folks have been sending their products for me to try out. I'm pretty new at this, so I still feel bad when a thing just doesn't work out and I have to say something unflattering to a person who is, like me, out there hustling and trying to make a living. Some kind, sincere marketing person who has sought me out and offered to send me a present, hoping that I'll like it enough to tell somebody about my pleasure.

Sometimes, the product is wild and strange (remember the Fresh Cut Grass vodka?) and other times a little less exciting. This time around, however, the product really hit home with  me. If you follow cocktails, you know that soda-shop fountain cocktails are pretty hot right now. At first I was suspicious of this trend; it seemed a little like an extension of candy-flavored vodkas in its cultivation of our childish tendencies. Then the Universe sent me CTL Foods from right here in my home state. CTL Foods is based in Colfax, Wisconsin and they make malt powder. Malt powder differentiates an ice cream shake from a malt, and they act similarly to bitters in a cocktail. 

In a cocktail, bitters add depth but not much volume. So does malt powder. Bitters buffer the flavors of a cocktail, making them play a little nicer together. So does malt powder. Now, they cannot be used interchangeably, so don't get any weird ideas; but when you try your first well-executed malt cocktail you will know what all the soda-shop excitement is about.

If you live near a bar where these cocktails are sold, run there right now. Try a few and walk carefully back home. If you are a do-it-yourselfie like I am, order some here and try this one, pictured above.

Spicy Choco-Cherry Malted
2.5 oz. Almond Milk
1 oz. Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
.5 oz. Creme de Cacao
.5 tsp. CTL Foods Malted Milk Powder
2 ds. Aztec Chocolate Bitters

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Time is Right for Holiday Spirit

If I could make a Venn diagram showing the intersection of People Who Like Christmas and People Who Like Booze, I could show you that there is a definite subset of people who like Christmas and booze. Not everybody likes them both, and the enjoyment of one can improve the experience of the other, but the correlation is there.

You've probably guessed by now that I can't make a Venn diagram using a computer (and that I have an unusual affection for them). Now that the shock and disappointment have passed (if they haven't, take a minute), let's talk about making your own liqueurs and cordials for the holidays.

A little lesson first about the difference between the two: cordials are usually clear and fruity, liqueurs are usually boozier and creamy. Chambord? Cordial. Bailey's? Liqueur. Most people use these words interchangeably, so that's cool, but if you want to get it straight then that's the deal.

Cordials are, in my experience, prettier, easier to make and easier to mix with. There are almost endless varieties, once you get to thinking about flavors and combinations thereof. You've probably seen them in liquor stores. My local store has an entire aisle of flavors. You could buy these, show up with a bottle and your average holiday revelers will not posse up with torches and pitchforks to chase you out of town.

But, store-bought cordials and liqueurs are not special.

They are almost exclusively made with funky fake flavors from the funky fake flavor factory. I'm not sure what they're oversweetened with, but I have an inkling. The cordials that you make yourself are fresher-tasting and clearer-looking and a fraction of the price, and you can make your favorites using only ingredients found in any respectable grocery store. Liqueurs are a little trickier, but I'll teach you some cheats and you'll be good to start your holiday gift-giving.

The simplest, entry level cordials are a base spirit, sweetened and flavored. If you're new to this and you want to freestyle, choose vodka for your first run. I'll give you some recipes at the end.
Choose a fruit you want it to taste like, berries are a good choice for your first try. 

You'll need a few things: spirit, canning jars or resealable bottles, cheesecloth, coffee filters, superfine baking sugar, and your the berries. Pick up a couple of pints. Wash the berries, but don't bother drying them. Get a big, heatproof canning jar and mash the berries with a cup of sugar. One cup might not be enough; if it's not, you can add more later, but you can't take it back out once it's in. 

When it's sweet enough, put it in a saucepan with about a quarter cup of water. Simmer it until it thickens up a little. This will help give your cordial a more luscious mouthfeel than a thinner syrup will. Let it cool, then strain it through some cheesecloth. 

While that's going on, get a bowl big enough to mix the syrup with the spirit. Then strain this through your coffee filters until it's clear and beautiful. It's easier to strain this liquid through coffee filters than it is to strain the syrup through a coffee filter. While this is going on, sanitize your bottles. Your nana probably inverted them in boiling water, I superheat some water in the microwave and pour it in and on them. There are bottle washing kits and chemicals for sale at homebrew shops if you want to go that distance.

By now you've got everything you need to make holiday gifts for the ones you love. Any adult over the age of 21 can show up with a bottle of wine they bought at the last second. You are prepared to impress.

Bottle your creation. Make pretty tags. (Keep some for yourself.)

If you want to take it up a notch, here are a few recipes to try:

 Pomegranate Cranberry Cordial
1 16-oz bottle of pomegranate juice
1 c. frozen cranberries, thawed
4 tbls. grapefruit zest
1 bottle Rehorst Citrus & Honey vodka
1 c. superfine baking sugar

Put the berries and zest in a jar and add the juice. Mash them together with a pestle or the back of a spoon. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours. Pour it into a saucepan and heat it up, simmering until it is reduced by about a third. Remove from heat and let cool. Strain this syrup through cheesecloth and proceed as described above.

Now, I did warn you that making liqueurs is a touch trickier. They typically contain dairy and sometimes raw eggs. I could teach you how to make homemade Irish Cream, but everybody has already had Irish Cream. Search the Recipes section of my blog and see how it's done, right there in A-M. Here's some Salted Caramel Bourbon instead.

Salted Caramel Bourbon

1 14-oz. can of sweetened condensed milk
1 14-oz. can of fat-free evaporated milk
1 bottle Bulleit bourbon
1 vanilla bean
1 tbl. sea salt

Scrape the condensed milk into an aluminum pie pan and cover it tightly with foil. Heat the over to 425 degrees. Put the aluminum package into another pan, this second pan having sufficient water in it not to boil away for 45 minutes while the caramelization is occurring. When the timer goes off, let it cool. What you see in the pan will amaze you with its scientific goodness. It'll be about the color of peanut butter and its flavor will be totally inspirational. 

Sprinkle the salt on the caramelized milk. Slice open the vanilla bean and scrape out the seeds and combine all the ingredients together. Use a blender or a mixer to do it right. Strain if need be, bottle and give 'til it hurts.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Great Sconnie Sip-Off, 2013

When I conceived The Great Sconnie Sip-Off way back in 2012, I was really proud of Wisconsin. When the whole world seemed busy cutting corners and sacrificing quality, the old guard in my home state was thoughtfully making artisinal food and drinks that retained a connection to the land and tradition. I was high on craft bartending and it didn't matter to me one bit that I could barely organize a closet, let alone a cocktail competition. I hit up everyone I could think of for a venue, prizes and competitors. The astonishing thing was, everyone I asked for help was remarkably generous.

Some things never change. The second annual Great Sconnie Sip-Off, while still my baby, got lots of help from people who understand what I'm trying to do: spotlight local talent and support local business. I'm prouder than ever of the people who do the work that makes Wisconsin great. Their generosity and grace elevated this event and made it more than I could have, alone.

I got lots of support right away from the community in Madison: HotelRED was first on board with a generous donation of 2 overnight stays for the winners. Quince and Apple donated syrups and Yahara Bay was remarkably generous. Nathan Greenawalt at Old Sugar Distillery was neck-deep in his own event, but still took a minute to help a stranger and I'm grateful to them all. 

One of last year's judges, Angie West, was pivotal in helping me find a gorgeous location, The Hamilton on Milwaukee's East Side. Neither the venue nor its owner, Kimberly Floyd, could have been more welcoming. The first three professionals I asked to participate as judges didn't miss a beat before agreeing to join me.

Then Brian West launched Milwaukee's first Cocktail Week, and my event got on its calendar. I'm fond of the Wests, and appreciate their work to elevate Milwaukee's cocktail culture. I'm also grateful to every single cocktail enthusiast who walked through the door to support the bartenders who competed. It was impossible not to feel cool, in a room full of so many special people.

The night of the event produced a few surprises, like it always will, but The Great Sconnie Sip-Off took it all in stride. One judge and two competitors had a last minute conflict, but the distinguished panel of Jason Neu from Ray's Wine and Spirits, Great Lakes' distiller Doug Mackenzie and last year's champion, Lauren Peterson, made the calls that I could not. Four competitors brought their A-game and a roomful of people came together to enjoy their best work.

The four bartenders competed in the order they signed up, with the Milwaukee Art Museum's Micah Kaufmann going first. His Rum Butter Rum, inspired by the sound of bikes during Harley Week (you hear it now, right?), used local ingredients like Roaring Dan's Maple-Flavored Rum, Yuppie Hill egg white, Wienke's Marmalade, Spice House almond extract and Bittercube Blackstrap bitters.

The Hamilton's own Trip Duval was up next, sharing his Forgotten

Dreams with the room. 
His local ingredients included Kinnickinnic whiskey, a barrel-aged beer reduction from O'so Brewing Company in Plover and another variety from Bittercube, Cherry Bark Vanilla. This cocktail was the People's Choice.

The Great Lakes Distillery's products were featured in every drink, including the one made by its creator of house-made ingredients, Matt Tunnell. A very photogenic drink, his Pink Negroni contained just three ingredients: Rehorst gin, Rhubarb Liqueur and Rose' vermouth.

The night's final competitor was also the judges' choice. Nic Behrends' Honey Badger's Revenge showcased Great lakes Distillery's seasonal Pumpkin Spirit and Bittercube bitters. The judges called it a riff on an Old fashioned and it included a meringue, toasted with a torch, as garnish.

Congratulations to all the competitors, thanks to all the supporters and I'll see you next year!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Strange Drinks for Strange Times

You may recall that I made a deal to try Oddka Vodkas in exchange for reporting on my impressions. Their company sent me minibar samples to experiment with, and I had some mixed feelings about the project. Like it, and you look like a sellout. Dislike it and you look like something else, equally unappealing. 

In the end, I shouldn't have worried; I look like neither. Or both. The samples provided were all over the board. To me, some were interesting, and some were disappointing. I chose three that showed the most promise, and here's what I came up with.

My favorite flavor of the five was the one that drew me into this web to begin with: Fresh Cut Grass. It's my favorite scent, and made my favorite Oddka cocktail. I muddled cucumbers into the glass and added the Fresh Cut Grass mini with an ounce of lemon juice and three-quarters of an ounce of lavender-infused simple syrup. I shook it, double strained it and split it with my tasting partner. It was my favorite, but it was not hers.

She likes the cocktails that "taste like Christmas." There's sugar and dairy hidden in that formula. For the Apple Pie flavor, I shook it up with an ounce of cinnamon-infused honey syrup, then poured in an ounce and a half of 2% milk before whipping it with an Aerolatte milk frother to make a semi-stable foam that looked like a pretty cloud and tasted delicious. I ate what didn't end up in the glass, with a spoon.

I had really high hopes for the Wasabi flavored vodka. I understand that we can't get real wasabi in the U.S., but I like the green horseradish I've come to expect when I see or hear that word. I like the searing, vegetal flavor and the way I regret breathing out through my nose when I have wasabi in my mouth. The unnecessary sweetness and lack of heat in the Wasabi vodka made me sad. Determined to make something of it, I broke my own rule and added a greater number of ingredients than I think is seemly. First, an extra half-teaspoon of commercially-prepared wasabi paste. A smidge of cilantro and lemongrass, an ounce each of lemon juice and light lychee syrup. I worked too hard to make that vodka taste like something.

Overall, I think these vodkas are for another sort of drinker than myself. The mixology provided by the company recommends a lot of shot-drinking or some ginger ale/other soft drink. Having said that, in the right mood I'd buy one of the first two drinks and not feel ripped off. 

As for the other flavors in the sampler, I had such high hopes for Electricity. The literature promised a tingling sensation that just wasn't present for me, and its cloying fruity sweetness was just too much. I couldn't get with the Salty Caramel Popcorn at all. I don't doubt it will find a home somewhere, just not with me. I'm thinking freshly-minted college kids, throwing back shots. 

That's the truth about my experience.