I'm going to make drinks this weekend for about 60 people at a wine dinner. I love wine, and I love that wine people share their wine that is truly admirable trait. It's just that, unfortunately, wine people are frequently the most slapdash when it comes to cocktails, their knowledge, their love of province and history goes out the window when you start talking about spirits. I don’t try to convince wine people to make cocktails with spirits they haven’t heard off— I offer them wines they haven’t heard of.
Instead of trading too many emails I just drew a picture of the plan that I have for the weekend's cocktail. It's times like this, where I really understand new job titles like "science communicator" because while I can explain everything going into the drink, frequently on a historic level, it's hard to briefly communicate why what I'm saying is very specific. And it's why smart people like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Brian Cox have such valuable careers because they can speak to normal people. I don't have that skill, but I can draw pictures.
This is a simple cocktail I came up with years back. Mostly, I used it to make money on the happy hour menu. But I also think that it's a drink as lovely, diplomatic and universally praised as Beyoncé. It has just three ingredients, and if the citrus is very fresh, you can forgo the bitters. I call the drink the "Playmate." I had originally wanted to name it after a 1970s playboy model; I thought it would be a cheeky nod. However, the 1970s seem to have been an era pre “nom de nudie” when models had sincere names like Ursula Buchfellner, Anulka Dziubinska and Ingeborg Sørensen, none of which are's particularly good cocktail names. However, with simplify in mind, the three ingredients in this cocktail each tell a story about how much of an ass pain making a three ingredient cocktail really is.
Pineau des Charentes
Pineau des Charentes is a beautiful aperitif which is also a great example of the United States government, and for that matter, most wine people, having no idea what they are drinking. Pineau des Charentes is not a fortified wine. TWIST! It is a fortified grape juice (unfermented juice & grape eau di vie) that is then aged after the fermentation has been arrested. It’s a fortified wine in the same way that adding cognac to a toddler’s juice for extra nap-time is a "fortified wine." This is a common practice in my imaginary French countryside. Pineau des Charentes is normally a grape you know, like merlot or cab franc that starts off juice of the aperitif. And while you can make great cocktails and enjoy $20 bottles that have seen 6 months in barrel, you can also go big with expressions aged for many years. There are 3 things you should know though: 1. it ain’t wine, in America we’d define it as a liqueur though at 18% ABV it’s frequently sold as wine, 2. most people don’t know what it is, Be ready for "uh, is that like a port?" and 3. no, you can’t sub something else for it— never ask “what can I sub for blank blank,” just use the internet and put in some effort.
Grapefruit bitters are not just grapefruit peel soaked in spirit. That would be a tincture. Grapefruit bitters will have a label reading “grapefruit bitters,” they are likely to be on a base of 40% ABV and be blended with other herbs and bittering agents. Scrappy’s, which happens to be my preference, is flavored with gentian for bitterness, some type of cardamom that I can not reveal, various parts of grapefruit that I can not reveal and other herbs that my friend Miles won’t tell me because secret ingredients are fun. However, you can buy them here if you want to figure them out. What can you substitute for grapefruit bitters? Well, try other brands of grapefruit bitters, perhaps orange bitters & a grapefruit zest, but, I’d just go with a sampler pack to see what bitters will do to your cocktails. When you try to sub these for each other, you'll see that while every bottle offers something new, they are not interchangeable in recipes.
I frequently say “use good tonic water, “ and yet, what that really means is “use real tonic water.” Quinine, the bittering agent in tonic water will require sugar to make it palatable, but accept no tonic water without the word “quinine” on the label. Otherwise, it’s just the effervescence of tonic with the squeeze of a lime needed to balance the sweetness. Should you use tonic syrup? Sure, if you charge it with CO2, an ISI charger, soda stream or something. But you you think you can mix syrup with club soda and get anything other than tan, flat bitter water, you are fooling yourself. Fever Tree is what I normally go with but Q is great too and often easier to find in large, 750ml format.
And then after all of that, the technique required to make a drink this simple gets overly complicated. I find that adding water, a.k.a. chilling with ice ingredients that go into royal style(in a champagne flute) cocktails ruins them. While this drink would technically be a highball, it's served without ice so it drinks more like a royal. The Pineau des Charentes and tonic water need to be ice cold for the effervescence to hold together in this cocktail. However, it's better for the grapefruit bitters to be room temperatureand dashed on top. At room temperature, they are more volatile and their aroma will show better.
Furthermore, it's basically worthless to put a zest inside of a flute. When a zest is almost completely surrounded by fluid, it does not affect the aroma of a cocktail in anyway. This is a case for zesting the outside of the glass, making the outside of the glass smell like the citrus and then dropping the citrus into the glass. I guest might think that they are smelling the actual citrus and the glass, but they're actually smelling the oils they have wiped off onto their hands each time they lift the glass for a sip.
This is a glimpse behind the neurotic curtain of me trying to make cocktails. The 3 ingredient cocktail, is the most troubling and requires the most care. No mistakes are allowed. It is the sumi ink painting of cocktails, no do overs and each ingredient must balance perfectly.