Reverse engineering a cocktail: The Cup Of Awesome

In this post I’m going to take a little break from posts laying groundwork ideas and wonk out – illustrating the kind of fun you can have once you’ve mastered cocktail basics.

Recently I came across a post on Gizmodo: “Turn Your Favorite Beer Into Your Favorite Cocktail”. In brief, it describes how you boil down (reduce) beers into a much more concentrated form, then mix them with sugar to form a beer syrup. The article starts out making syrup from porter beer, and then expands to other beer styles. Intrigued, and having had some prior luck making other syrups, I purchased some Kona Brewing Company Pipeline Porter, which includes kona coffee in its ingredients. Following the directions, my resulting porter syrup was quite lovely. I was smitten!

After making the requisite suggested cocktail from article (The London Mule, also very tasty), I was keeping an eye out for other cocktail recipes where the dense, dark malted barley and coffee tastes could be put to use, but other than some Old Fashion variations, nothing obvious was coming. As luck would have it, my friend Kevin came over one evening and I was browsing the mental list of bars that we might visit later that evening.

One of the venues I came up with was Seattle’s Knee High Stocking Company. Browsing the company’s web site, I recalled that one of their more popular drinks is “The Cup of Awesome”. On the menu its ingredients are listed as “Voyager Gin, stout beer reduction, egg white, agave, bitters, shaken and topped with nutmeg.”  I’ve had it before and it truly is a Cup of Awesome. Suddenly it occurred to me that I had this fantastic porter syrup, and that it might make an amazing Cup of Awesome variation. The problem was, the menu provides ingredients but no amounts! I was going to need to “reverse engineer” the Cup of Awesome, much like in a previous life where I reverse engineered Windows for fun and profit.

In a prior post on cocktail patterns, I outlined how many cocktails follow a few simple rules for ingredients and quantities. Unfortunately, the Cup of Awesome doesn’t fall into one of those patterns. However, some meta patterns gave me a starting point. In this case, the Cup of Awesome only has one spirit, the gin. Typically a cocktail will have between one and two ounces of a base spirit, so I have a starting point there.

Next, while I didn’t have stout reduction and agave syrup on hand, I inferred that the two blended together would make a sweet, strongly flavored and viscous liquid, much like my porter syrup. Again reaching back to my cocktail pattern recognitions, I knew that it’s rare for a cocktail to have more than ounce of syrup in total. So I’d start with an ounce of porter syrup and adjust upwards or downwards as necessary.

Next is the egg white. The egg here acts as a thickener, giving the drink a silky smooth mouth feel. Based on prior observations I knew that for an egg white to be effective, it would have to be whipped up in some manner.  As for the amount, I would expect it to be anywhere from a ½ ounce to 2 ounces. Determining the exact amount might involve breaking a few eggs. Ha! And lastly are the bitters – Which style? So many to choose from!

One of the cardinal rules of reverse engineering is “Use every advantage you have.” In this case, one advantage is that I could just go to Knee High Stocking Co, order one, and watch what the bartender does. While I could ask the bartender exactly what the ingredient amounts are, that’s a bit awkward – Sort of like asking a restaurant chef to tell you the exact recipe for some sauce they made so that you can make it yourself at home. If the bartender wants to volunteer the recipe, great! But I don’t want to create an uncomfortable situation, so silent (or nearly silent) observation is called for.

At Knee High, the bartender free poured some of the ingredients, and what she did measure, I wasn’t close enough to discern the exact amount. However, from simple observation I could tell there was a fair amount of egg white and a pretty long pour of gin. As for the bitters, they were Angostura – No great surprise there, but good for me because I have them on hand. Watching her assemble the drink, I noticed all the ingredients went into the glass and then she used something like a handheld milkshake blender to whisk everything briskly and the egg white into the desired state.

Back home I was now fairly confident I could come fairly close to the Knee High’s Cup of Awesome. While I didn’t have the fancy milkshake blender, I did have a coffee foam frother. It certainly wasn’t powerful enough to whisk the whole drink, but it’s strong enough to do just the egg white by itself. I considered my first attempt to be quite delectable, and a pretty close approximation:

In a cocktail shaker, crack an egg and get as much egg white as you can into the shaker.

Using a battery powered milk frother, whisk the egg white for about 2 minutes, thickening it as much as possible.
Then, add:
  • 2 ounce gin – I used Tanqueray
  • 1 ounce porter syrup
  • 3 dashes Angostura bitters
Add ice, shake for about 30 seconds. Strain through a fine mesh strainer into a wine glass.

After a minute or so, a nice foam head will form. Grate nutmeg onto the foam.

Update #1: My friend Kevin, also a cocktail wonk also experimented with this recipe. Here’s what he came up with, definitely a bit closer to Knee High’s in taste:

  • 1.5 oz gin
  • 1 oz stout reduction
  • .75 oz agave syrup
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Fresh Grated Nutmeg

In addition, Kevin made upped the ante in two ways. First, he acquired the handheld blender that Knee High uses. I subsequently acquired one as well and it makes an enormous difference in frothing the egg whites up. Second, he observed that fresh ground nutmeg really makes a big difference over pre-ground nutmeg. Why? Because the smell you get from fresh ground nutmeg is much more intense than store-bought pre-ground nutmeg, and the scent primes your palate for the drink that follows.

Update #2: I was recently at Witness, a new Seattle bar owned by Greg Holcomb, formerly of Knee High. Chatting with Greg I told him about my reverse engineering efforts. He confirmed two useful tidbits:

  • 2 oz of gin, not 1.5
  • When making the stout reduction, clove and cinnamon are added in.
And with that, I have a whole new batch of syrup to make up.

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