Lost Over Jamaica – Jet Pilot inspired Tiki

Lost Over Jamaica tiki drink
Lost Over Jamaica

Of all the classic Tiki drinks (and I can seriously wonk out over the 1944 Mai Tai), a well-executed Jet Pilot with its mix of falernum, rich cinnamon syrup, and Jamaican rum funk is Tiki Valhalla. A descendant of Don the Beachcomber’s “Test Pilot,” the name personifies the ethos of the jet-age 1950s, but also conveys the slight preemptive warning that this drink “goes to 11.”
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A Summer Trip to Puebla – Strawberry, Spice and Tequila!

A recent confluence of events has had me writing and thinking about fruit shrub, Ancho Reyes Chile licor, and tequila. It’s not a stretch to picture the three flavors together – Ancho Reyes and tequila come from Mexico, and at least here in the U.S., there’s a good chance your fruit did as well. If you’re not familiar with the relatively new Ancho Reyes, it’s essentially neutral cane spirits infused with chile.
The genesis of the idea for my “A Summer Trip to Puebla” cocktail (Puebla is the town where Ancho Reyes originated) was my strawberry shrub, which I blogged about previously. While searching for the next great drink idea, I had the sudden recollection that the flavors of hot spices and strawberries go well together, and that Ancho Reyes provides a nice amount of warm spice without setting your mouth on fire or rendering you prostrate.
The vinegar and sugar in the strawberry shrub do a fine job of providing the sweet and sour elements that make up so many cocktail patterns. But a cocktail with just Ancho Reyes and strawberry shrub alone is too intense for most folks. Plus, to get to the typical 2 oz of 80 proof spirit in a drink would mean 2 oz of Ancho Reyes, which is a large volume of spice.
What I needed was something that would contribute to overall alcohol content, while letting me use a more moderate amount of Ancho Reyes – augmenting the chile flavor but not competing with it. A quick scan of my bar bottles and the choice was obvious – A blanco tequila, rich with its own floral notes, and also a good companion to spicy heat. I used Cabeza, a fine mixing tequila from the 86 Company.
A Summer Trip to Puebla
Build in lowball glass, fill with crushed ice and stir to mix. Garnish with mint leaves or other fitting garnish.

A Quick & Easy Strawberry Shrub for a Tasty Bourbon Cooler

Recently Mrs Wonk and I were at Seattle’s Staple and Fancy Mercantile for dinner, and I ordered an interesting sounding drink with pisco and strawberry shrub. My first sip was so good that I immediately knew I was going to make my own strawberry shrub, then reverse engineer the recipe and start making my own twists on it. A shrub in this context has nothing to do with big leafy plant in your backyard. Rather, it’s just a mixture of fruit, sugar, and vinegar. Yeah, vinegar. Keep reading – it’s delicious.

Shrubs are one of those trendy ingredients that pop up in a fair number of drinks at craft cocktail bars and restaurants. Pok Pok restaurant in Portland has built a buzz around their “drinking vinegars” which are delicious, but really just shrub with a more descriptive name. A lot of folks are unfamiliar with shrubs, and to be honest, even after a lot of reading about shrubs, I hesitated to dive in and make my own. With several different shrubs and interesting cocktails under my belt now, I can without hesitation recommend making your own shrubs for cocktail experimentation.

Any number of great web sites and blogs out there talk about making shrubs, the history and theory behind them, and interesting recipe variations. What I do well (or so I’m told…) is take vast quantities of information and boil it down to the essentials so a curious person can start building their own understanding. Here’s my “just enough to get started and make your own” introduction to shrubs and using it in a really tasty cocktail.

The making of shrubs goes back hundreds of years and really took off in colonial America. Before the advent of refrigeration, fruit was soaked in vinegar to make it last longer before it spoiled. After straining out the preserved fruit, the remaining liquid was mixed with sugar to form a sort of syrup that’s both tart and sweet.
Shrubs have three great properties that are ideal for making at home:

  • You can make shrub with just about any edible plant that has juice in it — and I’ve even read about shrubs made using vegetables. (Haven’t gone there yet myself…)
  • You can easily mix and match flavors by using multiple fruits or spices. Just pick an interesting flavor combination, and it’s highly likely to work.
  • Shrubs are shelf stable. The fruit juice, sugar, and vinegar over time create a stable ecosystem where mold can’t flourish. I’ve kept shrubs for many months on my countertop and they still taste as good or better than the day I made them.

Today, shrubs are made in a variety of different ways. Some use heat, some don’t, but the essential elements remain the same: Fruit juice extracted from fresh fruit, sugar, and vinegar. There’s somewhat general consensus that “cold process” shrub has the best flavor. In very simple terms, it goes like this:

  1. Obtain equal amount of chopped up fruit, sugar, and vinegar. Thus, if you have one cup of chopped peaches, you’ll need one cup of vinegar and one cup of sugar. Yes – really that much vinegar. Trust me.
  2. Mix the fruit and sugar in a bowl, mason jar, or appropriate non-reactive vessel. Mix well. It may look like a litter box at first, but press on.
  3. Wait a day or so, mixing occasionally. You’ll notice that the originally slightly moist sugar gets wetter and wetter. This is the hydrophilic nature of sugar in action: Sugar loves nearby moisture and draws it in. When mixed together, sugar literally draws out the fruit’s juices. It’s intense to see just how much juice can be extracted from a seemingly sturdy piece of fruit.
  4. Add in the vinegar. Let it sit for another day or two, mixing occasionally.
  5. Strain out the fruit using a fine strainer, cheesecloth, coffee filter, or equivalent. 
  6. Place the liquid in whatever container you’re using to store it. Let it sit for 2 or more days to let it settle. But feel free to take occasional samples.
  7. Sample the leftover fruit. If you like the taste, eat it. If not, chuck it. I happen to like it—especially pineapple.

Expressed in the simplest possible terms, cold process shrub is this:

  • Mix fruit and sugar. Let sit. 
  • Add vinegar. Let sit.
  • Strain. 
  • Enjoy.

Expressed that way, there really shouldn’t be any trepidation about making your first shrub. While fruit and sugar are pretty hard to mess up, the one variable you need to be aware of is vinegar selection. There’s a ton of different types of vinegars out there. In general, distilled white vinegar should be avoided as it can be harsh. Beyond that, use your brain and your taste buds. I’ve successfully used apple cider vinegar, coconut vinegar, and white wine vinegar. Some folks even use balsamic vinegar. If you’re making your first shrub, white wine vinegar is a good, safe (and cost effective) choice.

For the cocktail below, here’s what I used for the batch of shrub:

  • 1 cup chopped strawberries
  • 1 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1 cup sugar

Yields about 2 cups of shrub.

To the cocktail!

Because of the vinegar and sugar content, shrub can be a pretty intense flavor. For that reason, I tend towards 2 part of a base spirit to 1 part of shrub, with assorted accent flavors. While nailing down the pisco/shrub cocktail, it suddenly occurred to me that American whiskeys (bourbon, rye, etc…) can go really well with strawberry. A bit of lime juice pushes things nicely towards the tart side, and then the cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) blends with the strawberry flavor to bring it all home. If you use a less sweet cassis, you might need to add a wee bit of simple syrup to match the sweetness to your particular palate.

Kentucky Strawberry Bush

  • 2 oz bourbon or rye (I use Rittenhouse Bonded Rye)
  • 1 oz strawberry shrub (see recipe above)
  • 0.5 oz lime juice (or lemon in a pinch)
  • 0.5 oz cassis or other sweet berry liqueur

Build in glass, fill with crushed ice. Garnish with mint.

Eastside Distilling Below Deck Silver Rum

The day after the Iron TikiTender competition at TikiKon 2014, Mrs. Cocktail Wonk and I had an afternoon to spend in Portland. We made the requisite trip to Pok Pok for amazing Thai food, and the rest of the afternoon was spent at the Pearl Specialty Market and Spirits, as well as several distilleries. Portland has become a hotbed of small producers, and six of them are close enough to have banded together as a collective known as Distillery Row. On this particular Sunday, we had the opportunity to go behind the scenes at Eastside Distilling with the owner, Lenny Gotter. At the end of our visit, Lenny generously provided me with bottles of the Below Deck Silver Rum and the Burnside Oregon Oaked Bourbon. In this post I’ll cover the Silver Rum, while a subsequent post will cover the Oregon Oaked Bourbon.

The Eastside Distilling stills

Although Eastside Distilling is only six years old, they have a fairly large and diverse product line.  Most of their operations including fermentation, distilling, and bottling fit within a medium-sized room at the back of a single-story industrial building. There are numerous big blue plastic vats containing mash and distillates that take up a big chunk of the room. Eastside has an interesting, locally built still setup utilizing 100, 35 and 8 gallon kettles. In addition there’s both pot and column still “heads” which can be fitted to any of the kettles. The output from one head can be fed into the kettle of another to create a multi-still configuration.

Section of Eastside’s column still

The Silver Rum is distilled using a pot still configuration up to 65% ABV before being bottled without aging. Lenny told me that he has aged some of his rum, but not yet released any as of yet. As it is now, his existing barrel space is primarily devoted to whiskeys, but he’s considering the future release of an aged rum after he acquires more space for barrels.

To my taste, the Silver Rum is on the slightly sweet side relative to other silver rums and has a subtle fruity essence. To validate my initial tasting notes, I had a friend blind-taste the Eastside Silver Rum, Bull Run Distillery’s Pacific Rum (also from Portland), and Cana Brava, an aged, filtered white rum from Panama which I’ve covered recently. Although these three rums are substantially different in how they’re made, they are good representations of the spectrum of the non-blended white rum used in cocktails. My friend and I agreed that the Eastside rum was the sweetest of the three and was smoother than Pacific Rum. Separately I put it side by side with the well-regard Plantation 3 Stars Silver Rum and was surprised at how similar they were. At $18 per bottle, I’ll happily use the Eastside rum in daiquiris, mojitos, and similar cocktails.

Eastside Distilling’s bottling station
Some of Eastside Distilling’s vats

To take the Silver Rum out for a spin, I chose a daiquiri variation I particularly enjoy, using both a spiced-infused syrup and maraschino liqueur:

Eastside Daiquiri

  • 2 oz Eastside Silver Rum
  • 1/2 oz lime juice
  • 1/4 oz Clement Sirop de Canne
  • 1/8 oz maraschino

Shake over ice, strain into a chilled coupe.

While you could use 2:1 simple syrup here, the Sirop de Canne makes it substantially better, and it’s worth the effort to find it at around $15 per bottle. The Clement website describes it thusly: “…fresh pressed sugarcane juice is slowly reduced down over a low temperature with a maceration of crushed rolls of cinnamon, pulverized cloves, and cracked vanilla beans to make our spiced sugarcane syrup.” In short, yum! You need this!

Eastside Daiquiri

Besides the Silver rum, Eastside also offers other rums that start from a base of the Silver–Spiced, Ginger, and Coffee. I found their taste to be pleasing and nicely restrained in sweetness, i.e., they weren’t sugar-bomb liqueurs. I could easily picture experimenting with them to come up with some interesting cocktail recipes.

Eastside Distilling currently has distribution within Oregon and Washington State, and their spirits are offered in a number of restaurants and bars (listed on the Eastside web site). And as mentioned earlier, stay tuned for a post covering Eastside’s Burnside Oregon Oaked Bourbon.

Czeching out Oddball Tiki – Punchy’s First Strike, The Strike Two, and Becherovka

The Strike Two cocktail (recipe below)
Sometimes you come across a cocktail recipe and think: “How on earth does this work?” Such was the case with the Punchy’s First Strike, a cocktail originating at Tavern Road in Boston. The recipe goes like this:
Punchy’s First Strike (Tavern Road, Boston)
  • .75 oz Cherry Heering
  • .75 oz Clement Créole Shrubb
  • .25 oz Allspice Dram.
  • .75 oz Becherovka
  • .75 oz lemon
Dry shake, pour over crushed ice in a double old-fashioned glass.
Garnish with 5 dashes of Peychaud’s.
Based on the ingredients, this recipe at first seems like it’s following the Tiki pattern – Cherry Heering and Allspice Dram are frequently used in Tiki drinks. The Clement Creole Shrubb is a rum-based orange liqueur from Martinique, similar in flavor, sweetness and proof to Grand Marnier. And while lime is usually used as the sour component in Tiki, lemon is the second most common citrus choice.

Yes, this is certainly starts out like a Tiki concoction – Just add a couple ounces of rum and we’re off to the islands. Except…. What’s this Becherovka? This isn’t rum! In fact, Becherovka is nowhere close to rum. Becherovka is a 76 proof herbal-bitter spirit from Czechoslovakia, made from a secret recipe of 20 spices and only the finest water with impeccable credentials, if you believe Becherovka’s marketing.

Becherovka
While Becherovka is labeled as a bitter, the bitters category is very broad. For instance, Campari and Jagermeister are both bitters. Campari and Montenegro with their strong citrus elements are on the opposite end of the taste spectrum from the central European kräuterlikörs such Jagermeister, Becherovka and Kuemmerling. To my palate, Becherovka is bracing and makes me think of Aqua Velva after-shave, but with nice touch of Christmas-y cinnamon warmth. I’m probably not selling the Becherovka well right now, but if you like other strong, bold bitters, you should grab a bottle. You could sip Becherovka but I prefer it for mixing in cocktails. The Cocktail Wonk never endorses shots, so put that idea out your head right now.

Back to our recipe – We have nearly a classic Tiki recipe, except that we’ve replaced rum with an herbal, after-shavey Czech spirit. Believe it or not, the end result is magical. The herbal bitters balance out the sweet orange and cherry components. While a ¼ ounce of Allspice dram can sometimes overwhelm a drink with clove, in the Punchy’s First strike the Allspice Dram plays nicely with others. At Tavern Road, the bartender told me they set out to create an “Adult Hawaiian Punch.” From that perspective the recipe really works – A little on the sweet side without going overboard. If you’ve ever needed an excuse to buy Becherovka this drink is a perfect reason. And if you decide to not go the Becherovka route, keep reading for a non-Becherovka variation.

When making this drink don’t skip or skimp on the Peychaud’s bitters. Use five healthy dashes at the end after the drink is ready to go in a full glass of crushed ice. It gives the drink a dramatic look, and if you don’t immediately stir it the Peychaud’s stays on top till you’ve consumed most of the drink, after which you get a nice uptick of flavor as you draw out the last few sips.

Lately I’ve been tinkering with the bones of this recipe to make something else a bit different. My efforts have focused on switching out the Becherovka for something else interesting using a bit more mainstream ingredient. The key thing I wanted to retail while replacing the Becherovka was the warm, spicy, Christmas-like element.

My first stab was to use Chairman’s Reserve Spiced rum as it has a lovely cinnamon-forward spice flavor that I thought would work well. However, with only ¾ oz of the Chairman’s Reserve the spice got lost in the orange and Cherry Heering Flavors. Next, I tried Fernet Branca as the stand in for Becherovka. If you’re down with the mouth-full-o-wintergreen-lifesavers aspect of Fernet Branca, it’s interesting but not as accessible as when using Becherovka.

Experimenting – Punchy’s First Strike at left, Fernet Branca version at right.
Finally, after one last futile scan of my liquor inventory, it hit me – A good Becherovka replacement is already in the drink! The five dashes of Peychaud’s bitters as a garnish on top are nice, but using a full ¾ ounce of Peychauds in place of Becherovka makes the drink outstanding. At 70 proof, Peychaud’s is roughly the same strength as the Becherovka and equally as bitter. It also has the pleasant cinnamon/nutmeg essence that I like about Becherovka.

Bitter, sweet, and very, very red! I’ve dubbed my version the Strike Two:

Strike Two
  • .75 oz Cherry Heering
  • .75 oz Clement Créole Shrubb
  • .75 oz Peychaud’s Bitters
  • .25 oz Allspice Dram.
  • .75 oz lemon

Dry shake, pour over crushed ice in a double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with lemon slice.

Talking Rum with Erik Carlson and House Spirits’ Bridgetown Rum

House Spirits of Portland, Oregon is dipping their toes into the rum pool with their new Bridgetown rum, part of their limited release, small batch series. House Spirits has made a name for themselves with their Aviation Gin, Westward malt whiskey, and other releases. To help define the character of the rum they partnered with Erik Carlson, the bar manager at Stoneburner and Bastille, and one of Seattle’s better known craft bartenders. Having studied Erik’s cocktail list at Stoneburner, I can tell he’s passionate about tropical style drinks, although certainly not limited to them. Thus he was a natural choice to work with House Spirits team, which he did over a number of sampling sessions.

Having attended the Bridgetown Rum launch party at Bastille, I was sufficiently intrigued to acquire a bottle and chat with Erik during a visit to the bar at Stoneburner. The Bridgetown name is a nod to the capital of Barbados, considered the birthplace of rum and home to Mount Gay, Foursquare, Cockspur and St. Nicholas Abbey rums. Bridgetown also alludes to the bridges between Ballard (a Seattle neighborhood) where Erik lives and Portland, about 170 miles south, where House Spirits is located.

Erik described to me the details of Bridgetown rum making process. It starts with “Barbados style” molasses, which is unsulphered, baking grade molasses and is fermented with Guadeloupe yeast strains. After double distillation in copper pot stills, 80% of the distillate is aged for six months in used House Spirits Westward whiskey barrels. The other 20% is aged for 3 months in New #2 char American Oak barrels before the two parts are brought back together. For the flavor profile, Erik targeted a mixing rum that merged his three favorite styles:

  • Agricole – Straw, grass and sugar cane
  • Jamaican – Funk, molasses, baking spices
  • Barbados – Ripe fruit, vanilla, butterscotch

In its substantial, individually numbered bottle, the Bridgetown’s color is a light-to-medium gold. Although intended as a mixing rum I first nosed and sipped it neat. There’s an initial enticing hint of Smith & Cross style Jamaican funk. This quickly turns to a bit of moderate burn and tails off to a woody finish. Yes, the Bridgetown is not a sipper. Instead, its flavor profile is more attuned to cocktails where the blend of rum styles is an asset. To me, the agricole and Jamaican notes are equally present, with the Barbados a bit less evident.

The obvious choice for testing out a rum like this is the Daiquiri. However, to mix it up a bit I went with a variation of the Daiquiri’s slightly more sophisticated cousin, the Royal Bermuda Yacht club:

Royal Bridgetown Yacht Club

  • 2 oz House Spirits Bridgetown Rum
  • ½ oz lime juice
  • ¼ oz Dry Curacao
  • ¼ oz Falernum
  • ¼ oz simple syrup

Shake with ice, strain into a chilled coupe.

In cocktails the Bridgetown holds its own but plays well with others like a good mixing rum should.  It’s nice to see that the Bridgetown rum is further expanding flavor dimensions of rums from craft distilleries along the West Coast of the US.