Month: July 2006

A Tonic To Cure You 

On a hot summer’s day one usually thinks of beer to drink. While in America, an ice-cold beer is the summertime beverage of choice, in the rest of the world beer is properly served at a warmer temperature and is less refreshing to those seeking the coldest thing down their gullet. On the other hand, most liquor doesn’t come to mind of being able to quench one’s thirst during a 100-plus degree day. But it can.

Enter the tonic. With either traditional gin or vodka, a few of these might make you forget all about that egg frying on the back seat of your car. Of course, you don’t want to overdo it. Drinking too much, even beer, on a hot summer’s day will help you learn the meaning of dehydration and you might also forget about that baby you left in the back seat as well. But you shouldn’t be driving anyway. I’m getting off topic here.

By it’s very definition a tonic is something that cures your illness. Gin and tonics started out as that, a medicine. When the British Empire was busy establishing colonies (in this case India) to reap the rewards of their labor, their journeys took them to tropical places where nasty bugs and diseases took their toll on the lowly soldier. To fight malaria it was discovered that quinine had a preventative effect in helping to avoid the disease caused by a parasite. The only thing was, quinine tastes awful in the quantities one has to ingest for malaria prevention.

In order for the commanders to get their soldiers to drink the nasty stuff they tried mixing it with water and making it carbonated. No go. It still tasted nasty. Then they hit on a brilliant idea. If you want to get soldier’s to drink something, add a spoonful of sugar. It helps the medicine go down. Only in this case the sugar was fermented and distilled in the form of gin, the most popular spirit amongst the king’s royal subjects at the time. The British had long ago figured out that soldiers with a little bit of “Dutch Courage” would do better on the battlefield anyway. Add a little lime or citrus to the mix and you’ve got a protection against scurvy too.

Over time, the tastes of this nasty mix became acquired. And, with modern medicines, the quantity of quinine was dramatically reduced to where it acts only as a flavoring in modern tonic waters. The Food and Drug Administration limits the amount of quinine in commercial tonic water to 83 parts per million, about one-quarter the amount in medicinal concentrations. Commercial tonic water is also sweetened with sugar.

Sometime in the mid-1950s vodka took over the number one spot in quantities of spirits sold. Someone got the bright idea to try that with tonic as well and the vodka tonic was born. These days, the proper way to order tonic drink is to call the brand of gin or vodka you want. My motto is “the better the spirit, the better the cocktail.” Once one acquires a taste for tonic it makes a refreshing drink by itself with a splash of lime. Also available are diet tonic waters without the sugar for those who are watching their swimsuit figure. Frankly, I have a hard time telling diet from full strength tonic, but after a few who cares anyway? And, after a few, I begin to look more beautiful as well.

Here’s a little more advice from a long-time tonic drinker: if you are throwing a party go ahead and get the liter-sized plastic bottles of tonic. Otherwise, get the small single portions. They cost more, but when you discover how fast tonic water goes flat you’ll thank me. One more interesting note, if you’re in a dance club and notice that someone’s drink glows under the blacklights, it’s probably a tonic and is a clue that you’re probably looking at an experienced drinker.

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The long and short of when a cocktail is not a cocktail. 

In today’s parlance, just about anything served up in a bar containing alcohol–other than wine or beer–has been mistakenly given the label a cocktail. As how the word “martini” now describes anything served in a long-stemmed triangular shaped glass, the cocktail has been broadened by definition to cover the whole range of spirit-infused drinks. By the old school definition, however, a cocktail is anything but, and other terms describing different kinds of alcoholic beverages have fallen out of favor. Now is the time to bring back these descriptive and lost names, if only to impress your evening companion and make one seem like a liquor aficionado.

The first appearance of the word “cocktail” in any publication appeared May 13, 1806 in The Balance and Columbian Repository, a New York newspaper. Described simply as, “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters–it is vulgarly called a bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said, also to be of great use to a Democratic candidate: because a person, having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else.”

One origin tale of the word dates back to colonial times when a cock’s tail was used as a decoration in tankards of grog and bumboo, some say to identify those drinks to teetotalers as ones containing alcohol. But ironically, it was not until prohibition that the term “cocktail” came in to popular use as a description of a specific type of beverage.

According to Cocktail, by Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead (one of the modern era’s best books on drinks and history of classic concoctions) the cocktail is defined as a three to five ounce drink in a long-stemmed glass no larger than six ounces. Imagine a miniature martini glass or a squashed wine glass. Cocktails should be served in smaller portions and contain a spirit, a modifier, an accent and a generous portion of water. Today’s 12 ounce martini glasses are right out and not suitable for serving a cocktail.

There are many other types of mixed drinks besides the cocktail. A properly stocked bar should contain a large variety of glasses suitable for serving the myriad of mixed drinks. They can be basically divided into two groups, tall (or long) drinks and short drinks. Tall drinks such as Collinses, fizzes, cobblers, coolers, crustas, highballs, sours, rickeys, juleps, puffs, swizzles, sangarees, tropicanas and bucks are served in, you guessed it, tall glasses. Available in a variety of shapes and sizes, the larger glasses are typically served with iced drinks, while the smaller are usually served sans ice.

Short drinks are served in, logically, short glasses, or glasses which hold less than 6-7 ounces. These include lowballs, neats (straight liquor also known as a shooter) and smashes (a short julep). To professional mixologists, the cocktail is just one type of short drink.

Despite the general bartender rule that a mixed drink, no matter what size, should have a proportional amount of alcohol to mixers (or water in liquid or solid form) whether you order a tall glass or a short glass may determine how intoxicated you may get. A 2005 study published in the British Journal of Medicine found that people, including experienced bartenders, poured 20 to 30 percent more alcohol into short, wide tumblers than in to tall glasses, even if pouring the same drink. Methinks we have the roots of a drinking mnemonic here. Short and fat, you’ll go splat. Long and tall …

Whisky vs. Whiskey 

On any chilly evening, there’s nothing more satisfying–if you don’t count sharing a sleeping bag for “warmth”–than a slug of whisky. Or are you drinking whiskey, with an ‘e’? It depends upon the origin of your bottle, and even then, it may not be so easy to get the spelling right. The debate never used to bother me. My interest in this discussion was always inversely related to the fullness of my glass. The older I get, however, the more I have a subconscious desire to make an ass out of myself–a direct relationship to same said glass.

The word whisk(e)y most likely evolved over a period of 400 years from the the Gaelic “uisge beatha” (Irish pronounciation: Ishka Baha; Scotish pronounciation: Ishga Baugh) which translates as “water of life.” Other early English spellings of the time included “usquebea” and “iskie bae.” By the time Henry II invaded Ireland the word had become “whisk(e)y” referring to any of the grain produced alcoholic spirits produced in the British isles. It was not until the 19th and later centuries that clear production and stylistic differences between Scottish, Irish, American, Canadian and Japanese whiskies were clearly defined.

Basically the naming rule is this: if it is from Scotland, Canada or Japan the word is “whisky” (without an ‘e’) and usually distinguished by its country of origin such as Scotch whisky. If it originates from Ireland or the United States, it has the ‘e’ and defined by its country (Irish whiskey), region (Tennessee whiskey), style (bourbon whiskey) or ingredients (rye whiskey). Here’s where it gets complicated: Some American bourbon and whiskey brands, for whatever reason, do not to spell their brand with an ‘e’. While Jack Daniels (a Tennessee whiskey) spells their brand with an ‘e’, the other Tennessee whisky, George Dickel, does not. Maker’s Mark, Old Forester and Early Times do not spell theirs with an ‘e’ either.

Historically, the Americanization of British words involved shortening, simplifying and/or losing letters. So why do most American whiskeys have an ‘e’? The Whisky Rebellion in 1794 doesn’t have an ‘e’. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ regulations (Title 27, Chapter 1, Part 5) which has definitions of the classes of spirits in the United States there is not a single use of the word “whisky” with an ‘e’.

My Irish brother-in-law, who seems to have an answer for everything, Had the following explanation: “It has something to do with the harshness of Irish Gaelic as opposed to the softer sounding Scottish Gaelic. That and the Scots, who settled in with the English quicker than the Irish, were more likely to roll over and accept English spellings,” he said with that Irish sparkle in his eye.

His theory of cultural pride carried over to the new world. If the distiller was Scottish, my Irish relative surmised, he made “whisky” while Irish distillers made “whiskey.” As far as the Canadian spelling goes, “They’ve always been willing to accept anything England has offered them,” he said. We haven’t pulled out the genealogical charts of famous distillers to test this yet, but it’s as good an explanation as any and enough to keep the debate going well past last call.

Today, the reason for the ‘e’ may be more business oriented. With international trade treaties, copyright and trademark laws, only spirits produced in Scotland can be called “Scotch whisky”. Other laws protect Canadian whisky and Bourbon whiskey just as they protect Cognac and Tequila as a defined product brand. My own theory about Canada is that they took the “e” out of their whisky but added it back in to their lingo somewhere else, eh?

I’m getting’ Noggin for Christmas 

When I was a child, our family made an annual pilgrimage to my Uncle Ed’s chicken ranch in South-Central Texas each Christmas (Not to be confused with the infamous Chicken Ranch in Nevada, which, for the record, I have never visited despite those photos on the Internet). The older folks–speaking Czech around the kitchen table playing dominos for hours–ignored the progeny too numerous to count. For most of the day we raised holy hell outside, fueled by my great grandmother’s homemade candy, kolaches and the huge bowl of eggnog she would make every year.

Eggnog is a staple of the holiday season. From Thanksgiving to Christmas it’s in the grocery store dairy section, usually only leaving the shelves as it expires in January. But that isn’t real nog. It’s not the real McCoy.

Historically, eggnog was a drink of the British upper class, originating in England sometime in the 17th century and most likely evolved from another English drink called posset made from eggs, milk and wine or ale. The name either came from a bastardization of egg-n-grog (a common name for rum during the colonial era) or ‘noggin’–a small wooden mug often used in taverns during that time.

Real nog is made from simple ingredients: raw eggs, whole milk, sugar, salt, vanilla and booze–no pasteurized, non-alcoholic stuff filled with chemical flavorings in the traditional stuff. With no reliable refrigeration back then, milk and eggs could be saved for some time with “preservatives” such as whisky, sherry, Madeira or any of the new spirits being imported from the Caribbean and the colonies, namely rum. As the drink migrated to new lands, wherever it took hold the alcohol used to “cook” the raw eggs in the recipe was what was available; rum in the Caribbean, coastal colonies and Mexico; bourbon and whiskey in the Colonial Interior; and brandy in France. At Uncle Ed’s, the old folks used all three, much like President George Washington’s recipe (which also included sherry), which was legendarily stiff. While my great-grandmother cut back on the amount of alcohol in the recipe to “cold-cook” the eggs, we could always manage to find an uncle on the couch engrossed in the football game with a bottle of the good stuff to “give us a taste” and top off our nog. Then we’d run back outside. We weren’t fooling anyone. The old folks knew we were drinking the nog. After all, when the games inside were boring, we became their entertainment. And by the time the real party started we’d be sleeping with visions of the previous night’s sugarplums.

Actually, the nog lathered us kids into a frenzy. We’d have egg fights in the chicken sheds, throwing the weaker in the pecking order among us in to the stock pond and trying to find a way in to the locked barn, which several of the more serious relatives advised us to stay away from. Perhaps it was the bloodstains on the door which made us heed their words and fueled our nightmarish nog visions.

Great Grandma Hosek’s Eggnog

(to be made in large batches only)

16 eggs,

One gallon whole milk,

One cup sugar,

One teaspoon salt,

Two tablespoons vanilla,

One quart of brandy, rum, bourbon or a combo of all three.

Separate eggs and beat yolks with sugar. Whisk while slowly pouring in spirits. Beat egg whites and salt until stiff. Fold in to the yolk/sugar/spirit mixture and then add the milk. Chill for an hour and serve with a dash of nutmeg of allspice.

WARNING: Of all the hangover inducing concoctions I have imbibed in my life, none has created more of a next-morning paralysis than overindulging in this recipe.

WARNING #2: Use fresh eggs. While the booze should cook out any salmonella, you are using uncooked eggs. And what with avian flu flying around … well, you have been warned.

Love Potions: The myth and reality of arousal

The idea of eating or drinking something to increase sexual desire has been around since the dawn of man. And while there is no doubt that alcohol can be called a very powerful aphrodisiac, its magic comes through a lowering of inhibitions, not stimulation. Unfortunately, the old adage that a “10” could alternatively be a “4” and a six-pack is a lot truer than some of us would like to admit. And while the socially lubricating effect of alcohol has resulted in quite a few unwanted pregnancies, the cumulative effect of too much spirits has the opposite effect, turning Mr. Johnson from a stand-up guy to one where he’s falls asleep.

Aphrodisiacs and their effects are in the mind more than anything and suggestively named drinks may do more for arousal through their subliminal nature. While there is no doubt that shooters and sippers such as “Sex on the Beach,” “Screaming Orgasms” and “Sloe Comfortable Screws” have been the primary drinks responsible for hookups among the college crowd, it can also be said that most young men and ladies are already primed for that. No one doubts the sexiness of drinking a body shot from a hunk or babe, but ritualized drinking and erotically named cocktails merely get the socially meek over the hump, so to speak.

There are other concoctions, however, that through the ages have allegedly had some positive results. Spanish fly, the legendary potion to stimulate lovers into wild abandonment has been called a myth by some, but in reality it is an actual insect–the green blister beetle. Spanish fly achieves its aphrodisiac’s status by irritating the urethra while being expelled by the kidneys. The irritation is allegedly pleasurable and may entice an erection, but ingesting more than 1.6 grams of the insect results in death after 24 hours. One recipe reference to a drink made with Spanish fly appeared in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. This fictional cocktail he dubbed “Victory Punch” contained Spanish fly, black rum, Napoleon brandy, paregoric (active ingredient–morphine) and Sterno. I say “fictional” because no one sane would attempt drinking such a cocktail–although the mental status of Burroughs has been questioned over the years.

Oysters have also been credited with being a sexual stimulant and there is no better way to down the mollusks than in an oyster shooter with tequila or vodka. A Greek physician first prescribed oysters to keep the sex drive alive sometime between AD 130 and 200, and perhaps because of the zinc content–needed for the production of testosterone–there may be some benefit. Mostly, though, if you are willing to put a slimy oyster in your mouth anything else following should be a pleasurable step up.

The Kama Sutra is an ancient tome detailing the ancient art of love making makes for good reading and offers suggestions for unique positions only a yoga master can accomplish, but it also has a couple recipes for love potions. The first, a drink made from equal parts ghee, honey, sugar, licorice, the juice of fennel bulbs and milk is said to enhance the libido. And if that doesn’t work an alternative concoction suggests boiling a ram’s testicle in milk and sugar. Yummy delicious.

While not a drink, PT-141 is currently in phase III clinical trials as a medication used in the form of a nose spray which enhances sexual desire in men and women. Unlike Viagra, which effects the vascular system and fixes erectile dysfunction, PT-141 may be the first real aphrodisiac that physically increases sexual desire through a compound. Interestingly enough, it was discovered as a byproduct of a sunless tanning agent when volunteer testers began getting aroused.

Snapping up the Schnapps 

Groundhog Day is officially over and recent storms have proven the little furry weather rodent right once again. It is a veritable winter wonderland, even as spring rapidly approaches. But there is one thing, one cool season ritual I have not done this season yet, sharing a bottle of schnapps with folks on the ski lift. If you are slicing the fresh snow on American slopes however, a belt of schnapps will be much different than if you were in the Alps, cavorting with Olympic fans this year.

The origin of the word is German and means a clear distillate derived from fermented fruits and grains with no extra sugar added. Basically, it is a form of European moonshine, with the fermented sugars coming from leftover pulp of juiced fruit. Typically made in smaller batches, European schnapps (German), eaux de vies (French) and grappas (Italian, made from the pulp and stems of pressed grapes) are often sold in fancy bottles. The American palette usually finds the tastes raw and harsh but, if you have the patience to acquire an appreciation for fine spirits like Scotch or Cognac, you may be able to appreciate the subtle flavorings and delicate character of a variety of schnapps.

In America, however, liquor companies have co-opted the term schnapps and make what is more like a European cordial, a heavily sweetened neutral grain spirit, flavorings from a cornucopia of sources and the addition of glycerine with gives the spirit a nice smooth, syrupy feel on the tongue. The key difference is that true schnapps are distilled from fruit, while a liqueur or cordial is often a spirit that has flavoring acquired through steeping, or marinating. By technical definition, most American made schnapps are liqueurs and cordials, but most people don’t know the difference, and if you try to argue the case with a liquor store employee they may or may not know the difference either.

In recent years, many new brands have come along with many new flavors. While most American cordials labeled schnapps hover between 30 to 40 percent alcohol (60 to 80 proof), some more recent brands are pushing over the 100 proof mark. Some are also quite blatant about the extra sugar, with crystallization of the sugar within encouraged to form in the bottle. With what seems like a new flavor every month–such a large variety of flavors like cinnamon, butterscotch and apple–it has even been spoofed in popular culture. A South Park episode focused on S’more Schnapps in which everyone gets hooked.

You can make your own “American” schnapps in your home using Vodka and whatever flavorings you want. You can add sugar but for a more European flavor you might want to leave it out. Simply start with a decent vodka and add pieces of fruit, peppermint leaves, or citrus peels to the bottle. Leaves may turn brown with time and you may wish to strain them out for aesthetic purposes, but preserved in the high-alcohol environment they usually don’t go bad.

Schnapps are the perfect thing to finish a meal with, or even served with strong flavored entrees such as lamb and wild game. They make great flavorings for cooking desserts. I like to experiment and make thyme schnapps from my herb garden or rose schnapps using wild rose hips I have gathered in the mountains. These make wonderful cooking additions to dishes and are fun to sit around the kitchen and try with friends.

Mezcal, Worms and Rites of Passage 

Unfortunately, it pains me to no end when I hear the youth of today ask each other, “Did you eat the worm?” Let’s clear something up right away. Tequila does not have a worm in the bottle. If you find a worm in a bottle of tequila it is either a gimmick and most likely black market tequila (not to mention illegal under Mexican law), or you may have found your golden ticket, much like the urban myth of the mouse in a Coke can. But try taking that to a Mexican court.

Worms can be found in bottles of mezcal. And even then, some high-end mezcals have dispensed of the little critter altogether. First, what is mezcal? Perhaps we can use a brandy analogy. All Cognacs are brandies, made from a distillate of grapes, but not all brandies are Cognacs, those being produced in a governmentally defined region in France. The same holds true for mezcals. All Tequilas are by definition, mezcals, but not all mezcals are Tequilas, those being produced in a specific region in Mexico.

Mezcals also differ as they may be made with agave cactus plants other than the blue agave that Tequila is required by law to use. In the past decade or so, distillers of mezcal, most regionally focused in and around the Mexican state of Oaxaca, have been producing higher quality versions of the spirit that rival it’s more popular amigo Tequila.

One common myth about mescal is that it is not related to mescaline, a hallucinogen from the mescal cactus, in any way, shape or form. This is another urban legend perpetuated by college students seeking out that “alternative” spring break experience. I must admit, though, in my youth I do recollect seeing things my drinking buddies didn’t after downing a bottle of the Mexican moonshine. I had flashbacks to a scene out of the movie Poltergeist and it was quite scary.

How the worm got in the bottle, however, is the fodder for heated debate. There are two types of worms that can be found in mezcal, guasano rojo (Cossus redtenbachi) the red worm and gusano blanco (Acentrocneme hesperiaris Wilk) the white worm. Both worms live their entire lives on the agave plant, usually the same succulent as used in the distillate of the spirit. Pseudo-connoisseurs say that the white worm is more tasty due to its higher fat content, but true connoisseurs avoid bottles with the worm altogether.

Arguments to its presence range from the worm acting as an alcohol hydrometer (the level at which it floats indicating alcohol content, or if it rots and disintegrates then the alcohol content is way too low) to a stamp of authentication, that the presence of the worm in the bottle indicates that this is, in fact, distilled from the agave plant in which the worm came from. That doesn’t explain one of the most popular bottles of mezcal behind any spring break resort’s bar. A brand simply translated as “1,000 worms” explains it all.

Yarrrrrrrr! Grog is Groovy, but Bumboo’s Better

The Golden Age of Piracy occurred during a short 15 year span in the early 18th century. From this era we have the stereotype of pirates today worn by millions of children on Halloween. Characters such as “Calico” Jack, Anne Bonny and Blackbeard come from this time and the resurgence of interest in pirates today has a lot to do with the popularity of Hollywood’s depiction of the swashbuckling seas (a few sexy pirate actors helps too).

Rum was one of the commodities that pirates valued as much as pieces of eight. Even sailors serving under the crowns of Europe coveted Caribbean rum. However, depending upon which side of the law one was on usually determined how one drank his rum.

As maritime journeys got longer, fresh water needed a way to avoid becoming algae filled and slimy. So, they tended to add beer, brandy or wine to the mix to prevent stagnation. To avoid scurvy during these long voyages they also added citrus juice to the mix. After the British took control of the Caribbean in the mid 17th century, they began adding rum to the mix but they usually gave the daily ration of rum to sailors straight. While good for morale in most cases, discipline, illness, accidents and the habit of some sailors saving their rations to binge every few days required a change in policy.

After the mid 1700s (interestingly long past the age of pirates) sailors serving the law typically drank grog, which was an evolutionary result based out of necessity more than just a byproduct of boredom and morale management. The new rations were mixed with water with a little citrus and made sailors very unhappy. The sailor’s name for this new mix was “Grog” named after Admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon who had a habit of wearing a grogram coat. Sailors called the new recipe “as thin as Old Grog’s cloak.” This daily ration became an official part of Royal Navy regulations until July 30, 1970 when the last whistle of “Up Spirits” was heard for British sailors after the House of Commons changed regulations.

Bumboo was decidedly different and more to the tastes of pirates and short-haul merchantmen who tended to stay in and around the Caribbean. With a diet already full of fresh fruits and vegetables (and reduced instances of scurvy) the citrus was removed from the recipe and cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar were added back in for a spicier, sweeter concoction. One or two glasses of Bumboo will have anyone squinting an eye and shouting “Yarrrrrrrrr.”

The following recipe is a modernized Bumboo recipe and does include a little citrus to help you prevent you from becoming a scurvy bastard.

Apple Bumboo
1 part dark rum (awww, go ahead give it two parts matey)
1 part apple juice
The juice from one lime
splash of Angustura Bitters
a liberal dash of nutmeg
a liberal dash of cinammon

Mix all ingredients in a shaker with ice and serve.