The importance of storytelling – Lost Spirits Navy Style Rum


I frequently make new and unusual cocktails for guests at my house. Something I’ve come to enjoy is telling a story about every drink I make. Maybe it’s the unusual spirit I’ve just acquired, perhaps an unusual combination of ingredients, or a tale of how a particular bottle came to reside in my bar. My wife and I occasionally do cocktail-themed dinner parties – friends know them as “Rumpocalypse”, and every drink gets a few minutes about its background and why I chose it. Telling people about what they’ve got in front of them creates a personal connection and often emboldens them to share their thoughts about the drink, which is helpful for me in knowing how to craft an even better experience for them.

Likewise, I use slow times at bars to connect with the bartenders, asking “Is there anything interesting you’re working on?” This often yields something off-menu and that the bartender is eager to talk about. When the drink arrives I ask them to tell me a story about it. Done at the right time, e.g not during a slammed Saturday night, you’ll often have an experience you otherwise might miss.

Recently, a story that grabbed me and which I enjoy sharing, is rum from Lost Spirits Distillery. Currently there are two iterations, both “Navy style”, at 55% and 68% ABV. The story of these rums is great for several reasons. First, they have a strong, dark, forceful flavor, very much in the Jamaican style with a ton of “esters”, which are a chemical compound that provides all sorts of flavors. In the case of Jamaican style rums, I find these esters to have a pleasant, fruit-like flavor like plum, raisin or banana.  The Lost Spirits rums are a dark red hue. You can easily imagine a pirate drinking it in the 1700s.

Next, although the flavor of these rums screams Jamaican or someplace else deep in the Caribbean, they’re actually made in Monterey, California, not far from where I grew up and went to college. I frequently drove through the farm fields in the region, and never once saw sugar cane, so the thought of a rum distillery there seems a bit alien, but very cool. These days many distilleries don’t grow their own sugar cane, and instead import molasses from elsewhere. What gives Lost Spirits an edge here is that they use baking grade molasses, which has more sugars than molasses that’s been refined more times to extract as much sucrose as possible.

Finally, and most importantly, the Lost Spirits story appeals to me because of science! While rum aficionados have come to expect that a deep flavorful rum needs to spend many years in the barrel, Lost Spirits uses deep knowledge of the chemical processes in play during fermentation, distillation and aging to focus and concentrate the flavor producing process.

A couple of examples:  During the fermentation process, distiller Bryan Davis deprives the yeast of nitrogen, thereby weakening the cell walls and stressing the yeast. Quoting him: “…properly managed the yeast can produce as many short chained esters as the first few years in a cask.” As for barrel aging, Bryan optimizes his cask preparation to get the goodness of long barrel aging in a shorter period of time. Again quoting: “We use a controlled charring process incorporating heat, flame, and even special frequencies of light to break the compounds we want out fast.” The full description of all the science (highly entertaining for a wonk like me) can be found here.

To my taste and sensibilities, the most natural comparison to the 55% ABV version is Smith & Cross. They have similar alcohol contents (55% vs 57%). The Lost Spirits is darker, with less fruit on the nose and palate than the Smith & Cross. In place of the fruit, I taste more of the molasses. The best simple description I have for the Lost Spirits taste is somewhere between Smith & Cross and Lemon Hart 151. There are several well-written reviews out there with more tasting notes, including here and here.

Although I can ease into sipping the Lost Spirits with its high alcoholic content, I prefer to use it in relatively simple drinks where its unique flavor elements stand out, rather than a multi-rum tiki concoction.  It certainly works well in tiki, but for something this special and relatively rare, I make sure to enjoy every drop to the fullest.

I’ve read that Lost Spirits Distillery has another style of rum on the way, this one being Polynesian inspired. Given my experience with the Navy Style, I’m grabbing as much of the Polynesian expression as I can as soon as it’s available!

My go-to recipe using Lost Spirits Navy Style rum is a variation of the Scarr Power from Rumba in Seattle. Rumba’s Scarr Power uses Smith & Cross and I simply swap in the Lost Spirits 55%. Much as I enjoy the Smith&Cross-based original, the Lost Spirits version is just fantastic.

  • 1.5 oz Lost Spirits Navy Style rum, 55% ABV 
  • .75 oz fresh squeezed lime juice 
  • .5 oz 2:1 Nutmeg syrup 

Add all ingredients to a small glass. Add a large ice cube or two, stir gently. Garnish with orange peel if desired.

I deliberately don’t shake this drink, so as to keep the dilution to a minimum. I also use a small old-fashion glass, ~ 5 oz, so that a single large ice cube is nearly submerged and providing just enough chilling and dilution as the drink is slowly consumed.

The curse of the oddball ingredient – A cocktail improvisation example

Almost anybody with more than a six pack of Bud in the fridge has acquired the oddball cocktail ingredient, used for one mixed drink but otherwise lies inert on the shelf, mocking them. If you’ve got a bottle of Kahlua, you can make a White Russian, and….. hmm… what else? The same goes for nonalcoholic drink components like syrups – Some article has a drink recipe calling for cinnamon-blueberry-bacon syrup which sounds yummy, and look, a recipe! So you make the syrup, it taste great, but after showing it off in a few rounds of the cocktail for friends, you’ve still got a half liter of the cinnamon-blueberry-bacon syrup left over. Now what?

My bar counter top and refrigerator is overrun with experiments with leftovers. Pineapple Gomme syrup? Check. Banana Infused Jameson Whiskey? Yup. Apple-cinnamon shrub? Indeed. Black-tea infused Smith and Cross – Bingo. Many of the brain cells I devote to improvising cocktails is spent trying to match up my bar of misfit ingredients with new ways to use them.

The experiment so far that’s given me the biggest challenge is the Porter Reduction Syrup I used in a previous blog post, Reverse engineering a cocktail: The Cup Of Awesome. While I deeply enjoy the Cup of Awesome, I can’t make it too often or I’ll grow tired of it. And unlike a fruit based syrup that’s relatively easy to imagine replacing an existing ingredient in a favorite cocktail, a heavy, beer based syrup stands out in the field by itself. It’s not similar to a whole lot else, thus the challenge.

The other challenge with the Porter syrup is it’s intense flavor. Your choice is to either let it dominate the flavor profile of the drink (like in the Cup of Awesome), or pair it up with something that also has a powerful flavor and adjust the ratios so that neither flavor wins out. As you may have seen in prior posts, I’m big on categorizing things, and one of the classifications I frequently fall back on is robust, full-bodied flavors – flavors that you’ll always pick out regardless of what else is going on. Some of my go-to base spirits in this category are:

  • Smokey Scotch (Islay)
  • Mezcal
  • Overproof Jamaican Rum
  • Blackstrap Rum

And as accent ingredients:

  • Fernet Branca
  • Campari
  • Chartreuse
  • Allspice Dram

Tonight I went through my lists, mentally pairing the Porter Syrup taste with the base spirit taste:

  • Porter and Smoky Scotch? Maybe…
  • Porter and Mezcal? Doubtful
  • Porter and Smith and Cross Jamaican rum? Not sure.
  • Porter and Blackstrap Rum? Hmm… This sounds interesting.

So Porter and Blackstrap rum it was. Blackstrap rum is a crazy uncle in the rum world. It’s made from blackstrap molasses, which is the lowest grade of molasses – what’s left after nearly all the sugar has been removed from sugar cane juice after multiple boilings. The crystallized sucrose becomes table sugar and other products. The molasses is what remains. The only generally available Blackstrap rum available here in the U.S. is from Cruzan. It’s very dark with a strongly molasses flavor and cheap. Not at all a sipping rum unless you’re a pirate. It’s usually used to add color to Tiki cocktails as the rum float. However, given that we’re trying to find a mate for our intensely strong and dark syrup made from reduced Porter beer, it doesn’t seem so crazy.

Now, how much of each ingredient? Since the Porter syrup is very sweet I don’t want to use too much, so my first stab is a 3:1 blackstrap/syrup ratio. With just those two ingredients you have something roughly akin to an Old Fashioned (whiskey, sugar, bitters), but from very much the wrong side of the tracks. The drink could work with just that. However, the egg white in the Cup of Awesome adds a nice texture to it, and works here as well, in addition toning down some of the sweetness from the Porter Syrup. While you could go 4:1 rum/syrup, the Porter flavor would fall too far into the background for my taste.

  • 1.5 oz Blackstrap Rum
  • .5 oz Porter Reduction Syrup
  • .5 oz egg white

In a mixing glass, whip the egg white with a small hand frother/mixer until it’s very foamy. Add the rum and syrup. Stir for 30 seconds, strain into a chilled coupe. Normally cocktails with egg-white call for extreme shaking rather than stirring. However, shaking dilutes this drink too much. Regarding the frother, get a decent solid blade like BonJour makes rather than the cheap $5 spiral whisk versions. It makes a big difference in how frothy your egg-whites get.

The “Big Picture” message here is that cocktail recipe creation isn’t necessarily some divinely inspired zen wisdom.It’s often just a matter of iterating over flavors and ingredients on hand, mentally mashing together in your head, then trying out the ones that don’t instantly seem like a bad idea. Kahlua and St. Germain anyone?

A bartender’s notebook for the 21st century

A well-established maxim in mixology circles is that bartenders should keep a notebook of recipes they’ve made, experiments in progress, and so on. Usually this is the form of a small spiral notebook or index cards. I completely agree that if you’re passionate about mixology, a good repository for your experiences and ideas is essential. What I disagree with is the archaic method of writing down by hand every worthwhile recipe or scrap of information. Notebooks can easily be misplaced, spilled on or any number of other calamities. Plus hunting for that one recipe with that one ingredient is tedious at best.

Being a technology focused guy, and having worked for Microsoft, I immediately saw the benefit of using OneNote. Before you think “Ugh…. too much work”, or “Ugh…. Microsoft…”  and stop reading, consider this:

  • It’s a free on the web, and runs in your browser – All you need is a free live.com account.
  • It has free mobile apps for IOS, Android and Windows Phone.
  • Any addition or change you make in one location seamlessly appears everywhere else.
  • Searching for anything (cocktail names, ingredients, etc..) is trivial.
  • The desktop version of OneNote rocks and is included in the Office suite – You may already have it.

Although I’ve never used EverNote, I believe it has similar functionality so you can probably substitute Evernote for what follows.

My main use of OneNote is recording each new cocktail recipe the first time I make it. It’s then really easy to look up later, perhaps when a friend is over and I want to show off the drink. Each cocktail typically gets its own page. The exception is when I’m working on a recipe and have multiple iterations.

Here’s what a typical page in my OneNote notebook looks like:

Entering recipes is really simple. If it’s my own recipe I just type in the ingredients. If it’s a recipe on the web, a simple copy/paste does the trick, and as a bonus I get the original page URL automatically. I usually include my impressions, and suggestions for what I might do differently next time.

It might seem like a lot of work to enter recipes, but you’d be doing more work writing by hand in a notebook. If you just enter one recipe at a time, you’ll probably spend 30 seconds total. Just get in the groove of doing it and not making a big deal out of it. Thanks to the magic of the cloud you now have your notebook backed up – You can’t lose it like a physical notebook. And once you’ve built up your collection, here’s a few ways that having your notebook online is awesome:

I have X. What can I do with it? Recently we had fresh grapefruits that needed to be used soon. What had I made with grapefruit previously? A quick search turned up every recipe I’ve made that uses grapefruit. The same goes for ingredients. Maybe you just got a new Old Tom gin, for instance. What can you do with it?

Suddenly you’re the bartender! At gatherings, people sometimes recall that I’m pretty good with a shaker and I’m now facing a random collection of spirits and mixers and expected to produce magic. What can I make? With OneNote on my iPhone I have a fighting change of finding a trusted recipe using the ingredients at hand.

The right device in the right place. Adding text on a phone is slow and error prone. I usually add recipes on my laptop upstairs, or sometimes on the iPad. But when I need the recipe I’m usually at my bar downstairs. Rather than running back and forth to the computer or trying to find space for my iPad on my bar, I just grab my iPhone knowing that the recipe is synced to it.

Even the simple page-per-recipe usage is worlds better than a handwritten notebook. But I go a step further, using sub-pages to loosely categorize drinks, e.g Tiki, Negroni Variations, and so on. I also make separate sections for things like:

  • “Best spirits” lists
  • Party planning
  • Recipes for shrubs
  • Bars I want to visit while travelling

Long story short, a notebook is an incredibly useful tool, but even though you enjoy pre-prohibition era cocktails doesn’t mean you have to suffer with pre-prohibition era tools. A little effort here pays big dividends.

Mixology via Pattern – Applejack, Falernum and Lemon

Just a quick post to capture tonight’s experimentation. Lately I’ve been intrigued by Applejack and finally acquired the Laird’s Bottled in Bond 100 proof variation. Apple is one of those flavors that pairs well with spice flavors. When thinking about cocktail recipes, known and loved flavor combinations are frequently an excellent starting point. For the apple flavor, the first flavor pairing that came to mind were flavors like clove and ginger, which happen to be two flavors found in falernum. Applejack & falernum? Sounds like the start of something great! I first hit the Google and see what other folks had come up with. To my surprise, it didn’t see to be a well trodden combination. Time to got it alone and experiment!

Applejack is first and foremost a base spirit and falernum is sweet and spicy. Sounds like a perfect occasion to apply the sour pattern. Since apple is a subtle flavor that’s easily overwhelmed, I dialed back the sweet and sour amounts to just a third of the base spirit. There’s also the question of lemon or lime as the sour component. My first instinct was lime, as lime and falernum are commonly found together in tiki drinks. However falernum contains lime so I used lemon to keep the flavors in better balance. My first attempt came out quite pleasing – you get the apple, the spice, a nice sweet/sour balance, and my wife’s seal of approval.

Apple In Tropical Paradise

  • 1.5 oz Laird’s Applejack (Bottled in Bond 100 proof version)
  • .5 oz lemon juice
  • .5 oz John D. Taylor Velvet Falernum

    Shake with ice and strain into a chilled coupe. A paper thin slice of 1/2 and apple would be a fine garnish.

    Beyond the basic sour pattern recipe, a dash of bitters, perhaps Old Fashioned, could add another level to an already nice combination. The drink above is just the first of several experiments with Applejack that I have planned.. I have a fresh bottle of homemade cinnamon syrup and who doesn’t love apples and cinnamon? Likewise, apple and maple is another great flavor combination I’ll be replicating in one of my near future drinks.

Craft Cocktails On a Budget – Making Your First Drink

My home bar has a large setup of spirits, shakers, strainers, glasses, garnishes and so on. I love when people visit and I share my enthusiasm for cocktails with them. Guests often tell me “This is really great, and I wish I could make something amazing at home, but I just don’t know where to start.”  This column is for these folks. We’ll walk through some practical and easy steps to making one really excellent drink, as well as build a basis for working up incrementally to additional types of cocktails.

It’s a time-honored tradition for spirits writers to give their version of “Just the basics you need to make cocktails at home”. Usually their lists include a cornucopia of doohickeys and scares off readers who want to start out incrementally and without a large investment.

For the cocktail example, I’m choosing the Margarita, a classic nearly everybody enjoys, is rarely made properly and requires a minimum of ingredients, all of which will prove useful in subsequent cocktails. I remember the first time I made a proper margarita for my mother – She deemed it a “Hotel Margarita” because she associated it with a version she’d one had had at a very swank hotel.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A decent tequila
  • An orange liquor, such as Grand Marnier
  • Fresh Limes
  • Ice
  • A cobbler shaker
  • A hand citrus squeezer
  • A small measuring cup or equivalent

Let’s go through the list:

Tequila: Try to use something decent without breaking the bank. Jose Cuervo Gold is a reasonable minimum, Sauza or El Jimador are better. No need for something super fancy like Patron at this stage. Sure, expensive tequilas are amazing, but you’ll be adding in lime juice and another spirit, so the subtleties of fine sipping tequila like Patron will be run roughshod over.

Orange liquor: Ideally, something like Grand Marnier, Cointreau, or Citronage. Less ideal: Triple sec. If you use triple sec, try not to use the $5 bottom shelve stuff like Hiram Walkers. Really, an investment in a bottle of Grand Marnier and Cointreau is a good investment as you’ll be able to use it in many other recipes. Whatever you use, think of it as the “sweet” in the drink, balancing out the lime.

Fresh Limes: I typically use the basic Peruvian limes, typically about 1 1/2 to 2 inches in size. When squeezed, I typically get an ounce to an ounce and a half out of each lime. I buy mine in big bags at Costco for around $5. Please don’t use bottled lime juice – It just doesn’t taste right, and whatever you do, avoid the Rose’s Sweetened Lime juice. Just…. No.

Ice: Believe it or not, “Ice” bears explanation. I have a fancy ice machine that make clear ice cubes. It’s fantastic. You don’t need that however. What you do need is new, clean ice. Either buy “party ice” in bags at the store, or use the ice from your freezer. If you do use homemade ice, for all that good and holy, make sure it’s fresh – Ideally made within the last day or so. Ice quickly absorbs freezer odors. Don’t infest your carefully created margarita with random freezer smells.

Cobbler shaker: There are two primary types of shakers you’ll see bartenders use. The “Boston” shaker is two pieces – one metal cup and one glass cup. The “Cobbler” shaker is thee pieces, all metal, like this:

There’s frequent debate about which type of shaker is better. For the home, I prefer the cobbler shaker as it’s less intimidating, less accident prone, and generally easier to use. Don’t just take my word for it, Jamie Boudreau, a cocktail legend also prefers them. You can get decent cobbler shakers starting at about $20 from Amazon. A good shaker that doesn’t leak is a worthy investment so don’t totally cheap out here. Oxo is a good brand to start with.

Citrus squeezer: A reasonable, metal hand squeezer runs about $7 at Amazon, although you can spend a bit more for a better quality one. I have different sized squeezers, one smaller for limes and a larger one for lemons:

You can also find variations that claim to do both. In a pinch you could use a reaming device, but I find you end up with too much pulp. Get a good hand squeezer. You’ll use it far more than you think.

Small measuring cup: At a minimum, find a shot glass with lines demarcating 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 and 1 oz. Alternatively, you can get a set of jiggers and spend tons of time remembering which size each one is. I much prefer the small angled measuring cups from Oxo which measure up to 2 oz, and which cost in the $5 – $7 range on Amazon. Here’s a small sample of my measuring tools, with the Oxo on the left:

 

Mixing the Drink

First, cut a lime in half then use the squeezer to start filling your small measuring cup to the 1 oz mark. A single lime may be enough, if not, start a second lime. Pour the lime juice into the cobbler shaker base.

Using the measuring cup, measure out 2 oz of tequila and pour into the shaker. Depending on how much you like tequila, and how strong you like your drink, you can go up to 3 oz of tequila.

Add 1 oz of orange liquor to the shaker.

Add enough ice to the shaker so that it rises just a little over the level of the liquid.

Put the top on the shaker and shake reasonably vigorously for about 30 seconds, Squeeze the sides and hold the top cap of the shaker with your thumb or index finger so that it doesn’t fly off.

Take the small cap off the shaker and pour through the built-in strainer into the desired glass. A personal choice is whether your margarita will be served up (without ice), or on the rocks (with ice.) If you chose to serve it up, use something like a martini glass, chilled in advance (hopefully.) If on the rocks, pour through the strainer into a glass, and then add enough fresh ice to come up to the top level of the liquid. Don’t use the ice from the shaker. It will dilute the drink faster than fresh, cold ice.

If you feel fancy and want to garnish the drink, and you really should, an easy garnish is to cut a small wedge of lime (maybe 1/16 of a lime) then make a small notch in the flesh so that it can hang perpendicularly off the side of the glass. Alternatively, cut some very thin circular lime slices (1 or 2 is fine) and float them on the surface of the drink.

Enjoy your Hotel Margarita. Taste carefully. Is it too sweet? Dial back the amount of orange liquor next time. Too tart? Reduce the amount of lime. Can’t taste the tequila? Add more! Figure out what ratios work for you.

Starter recipe:

  • 1 oz lime juice
  • 1 oz orange liquor (Cointreau, Grand Marnier, etc…)
  • 2 oz tequila

What’s Next?

You just made your first sour pattern cocktail and have a minimum set of tools. It’s really easy to expand your repertoire. Here’s some ideas that build on the margarita you just crafted.

Instead of tequila, use the same amount of light rum like Bacardi Silver (but hopefully better). You now have a basic Daiquiri. You can also use simple syrup instead of the orange liquor.

Replace the rum with gin, and the lime juice with lemon juice. You now have a White Lady.

To the basic Margarita recipe, feel free to add additional accent spirits. A variation my friends enjoy uses St Germain, which is a very sweet, floral liquor. Since it’s so sweet, I’ll dial back the orange liquor, as it’s also sweet. A good starting point would be 1/2 oz of orange liquor and 1/2 of St. Germaine.

Swap vodka for the tequila, lemon for the lime, and simple syrup for the orange liquor and you have a lemon drop, best served up.

The important lesson is to start simple and small, building confidence that you can make one cocktail as good as nearly any fancy bar.  When you’re ready for something new, incrementally add new spirits, mixers, and tools as necessary. Soon you’ll have your friends clamoring for you to make one of your amazing cocktails.

Cocktail Componentry – How a drink is built

 

Trinidad Sour

In cooking, we all know that different ingredients play different roles. You’ve got your proteins, starches, vegetables, spices, flavor enhancers like salt, and so forth. In the cocktail world there are similar categorizations. Let’s look at some very broad categorizations of common cocktail ingredients.

Base Spirits – These form the backbone of your drink and usually contribute the majority of the alcoholic content, as they’re usually at least 80 proof (40% alcohol.) Typically these are one (or occasionally two) of the following:

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