Monday, March 04, 2019

Jayme vs. cocktails

I'm a little slow on the uptake sometimes, but it has taken an uncommonly long time to come to the realization that my online persona, of late, may be viewed by some as some kind of mixologist guru, well-versed in the arcane arts of cocktail mixing and spirit wrangling. Social media being what it is, even longtime friends and acquaintances seem to have bought into this illusion.

The honest truth is I ain't all that. Follow now as I take you on a short history of my relationship with potable cocktails of all stripe.

I know some stuff. This I do not deny. If you ask The Wife, she will confirm that I am something of an obsessive type, and that once I take an interest in a particular subject, I exhaustively research it compulsively hoard any knowledge gleaned. This is not limited to spirits and cocktails, but this is the subject we shall discuss today. Prior to this latest research obsession, I was "dumb as a box of hammers." Allow me to elucidate.

In high school I would drink the illicit beer, as most high schoolers are wont to do, despite not liking the taste. It was what the cool kids did, right? On one rare occasion, I managed to acquire some rum, and thought myself a genius akin to da Vinci when I mixed it with pineapple juice. Sad, I know. In college my favorite beer was free. When I turned 21, I partook in occasional legitimate cocktails as such august watering holes as Bennigan's, but Long Island Iced Teas and Alabama Slammers didn't make much of an impression on my palate, although I thought I was ever so sophisticated for ordering something consisting of more than two ingredients. This period, the early 1990s, are technically referred to as the Dark Ages by bartenders and cocktail historians alike. Still, at this time, I though bartenders were cool. I knew a few. They were cool. I was not cool, but if I became a bartender, then, by extension, I could become cool as well. There was a mysterious type of alchemy that took place behind the bar, even though pretty much every bartender I knew spent 90 percent of their time serving beers. My preferred beers of choice were Miller Genuine Draft and (if I were feeling particularly adventurous, Shiner Bock). My cocktail tastes, when not drinking the afore-mentioned beers, consisted of either rum and Coke, or bourbon and Coke.

At Texas A&M at the time, there were extra-curricular education classes held in the student center. One of these was a bartending class. A friend and I talked often of enrolling together--I think the cost was a then-staggering $40 for a six-week course. We never enrolled. I eventually graduated and instead of learning about cocktails, I developed my palate for beer. It took a while. A long while. I wasn't until I took up homebrewing that I gained a true appreciation for all the variety that was possible in the world of beer. I learned I was not a fan of the bitter, hoppy IPAs. Porters and stouts were more my style, but the insanely rich complexity of Belgian ales really blew me away and remain my favorite to this day. From there I got into mead making and quickly learned that mead, although made from honey, is not necessarily a sweet beverage, nor should it be. The Wife and I were also distressingly ignorant about wine, so we joined some wine-by-mail clubs and started sampling various options at local vineyards and wine merchants. We quickly learned that 1) most sweet wines are terrible, 2) most wine-by-mail-club wines are terrible, 3) she likes chardonnay and pinot grigio and 4) I like tempranillos and cabs. Pretty standard learning curve. But liquors? No, those remained a great mystery.

Fast-forward to 2016. Floating in the pool of our new home, surrounded by palm trees, The Wife made an offhand comment that we need a tiki bar to go with our tropical paradise. Thus began my descent down a very deep rabbit hole. Tiki, it turned out, had a very close, nay, inseparable connection to rum and mixed drinks. I started investigating further, and was surprised to learn that rum wasn't "just rum," that there were so many types and classifications. Wow! I ordered a book. Then another, them multiples more. Mixers! Liqueurs! Other spirits could be mixed with rum! Other spirits could be mixed without rum! I learned that some cocktails taste very, very good. Others were awful. We started hosting Dive-In Movie parties, featuring a specific cocktail selected to tie in with the film in some manner. It didn't take long to discover that some of the cocktails, despite a cool name and nifty presentation, were terrible, unbalanced things. Some were pure spirit, way too potent and harsh for a party drink. Others were syrupy sweet, almost nausea-inducing. Others used vodka to disguise the amount of alcohol in them. It didn't take long for me to start working to fix these, tweaking the recipes to bring them into balance. Some recipes were beyond repair. Others required just a modest tweak. Before long, I started getting Ideas and tried my hand at crafting original creations. The images accompanying this writeup, they're all cocktails and mocktails I've put together at home, upping my garnish game and building up my home stocks of liquors, liqueurs and syrups as I go along. I have very few recipes memorized and I'm quite slow in mixing up drinks, so I could never be a professional bartender. That said, I have a Rolodex that's full of recipes with more added all the time. That makes up for a lot. The end result is that after just two years of inconsistent-yet-continuous reading, I'm now fairly well-versed in the world of rums, have a shallow, yet broad knowledge of other spirit groups, and can mix up some decent cocktails on occasion. The knowledge base seems daunting, but this is a case where chipping away at it, just a little at a time, really adds up quickly. My palate still isn't developed enough to discern and appreciate the nuances of liquors taken neat, but I'm getting fairly adept at noting the quality of rum used in any given cocktail. Again, it's a learning curve. I know folks who've been sipping spirits for decades, and their knowledge puts me to shame.

So, where does one start if one is wishing to be less ignorant than I was two years ago? There exists a tremendous amount of resources on this topic. Probably the simplest (and least expensive) resources are podcasts. I listen to an array of podcasts during my daily commute, and have learned a great deal from them. Here are some favorites:

  • 5 Minutes of Rum The first booze-centric podcast I subscribed to, Kevin Upthegrove takes a bit more than five minutes to focus on a single rum each installment, sharing its history, tasting notes and a particular cocktail selected to highlight that rum's characteristics. Nice for short commutes.
  • The Speakeasy I am a relative newcomer to this one, which features ace bartenders/bar owners Damon Boelte and Sother Teague holding forth with a variety of interesting guest on all manner of topics and drinks from both behind and in front of bars. The personalities and interactive banter make this one a favorite.
  • Bartender at Large
    As near as I can figure, bartender/bar owner Eric Castro started this podcast/videocast in order to promote his documentary, "Bartender At Large," but the conversations he had took on a life of their own. He travels around the world interviewing international bartenders, distillers, brewmasters and more. The setup isn't terribly formal--the vibe is more like you're a fly on the wall at a late-night jam session, and the conversations are freewheeling.
  • Life Behind Bars I've only been listening to this one a few weeks, but I've become addicted. Hosted by Noah Rothbaum and David Wondrich, this one's more tightly scripted than the others, but the back-and-forth between the hosts ensures it never feels stilted. Each episode focuses on the history of a specific cocktail or similar topic. They're tight, direct and fascinating, and again, perfect for that daily commute.

The other set of resources are books. There are lots of books dedicated to cocktails and spirits, far more than I could list here. But I can share my gateway tomes and get you started in the right direction:

  • Smuggler's Cove by Martin Cate. This was the first tiki/cocktail book I acquired, and it's probably a good thing. It's a gorgeous book filled with a good number of tiki cocktail recipes. More than that, however, it gives a history of tiki culture and does a thorough breakdown of different rum types, explaining in clear terms why categorizing rum by color is no longer a meaningful system. Highly recommended.
  • Beachbum Berry Remixed by Jeff "Beachbum" Berry. This is the third book I got. It's actually a reprint collecting and updating Berry's two previous cocktail recipe books, Grog Log and Intoxica! We owe the Beachbum a lot, because over the course of two decades he researched and investigated, uncovering hundreds of tiki and exotic cocktail recipes that had been forgotten, thought lost, or both. Because of his efforts, we know how drinks are supposed to taste, and have original recipes with authentic ingredients.
  • Potions of the Caribbean by Jeff "Beachbum" Berry. This was the second book I got. Why do I recommend Remixed before it? Because Potions, while an amazing book and one of my favorites, if more a history of the Caribbean that happens to include cocktails along the way. Very good cocktails, and very good history, but if you're just looking to expand your recipe base, this might be a bit of a disappointment.
  • Sippin' Safari by Jeff "Beachbum" Berry. Notice a pattern here? Another of Berry's excellent books, this one sets the template that Potions so effectively followed, in that it's a history book with recipes along the way. This one covers tiki bars and cocktail culture in general. Excellent stuff.
  • And a Bottle of Rum by Wayne Curtis. This is probably the best book on the history of rum ever written. It's thoughtful, witty and engaging. There are very few recipes in here, but if you've taken my advice and picked up one or more of the books listed ahead of this one, you're not hurting for recipes. Fix yourself a Planter's Punch and sit back and savor this book.
  • Short Course in Rum by Lynn Hoffman. This one's more for the aspiring rum connoisseur, doing a deep dive into various rum styles, geographical regions, tasting notes and the like. I got this one early on, before I'd established a solid frame of reference. I'd say it's a good intermediate-level rum guide for when you've left Malibu behind but don't yet have a favorite rhum agricole identified.
  • New York Bartender's Guide by Sally Ann Berk. If it's cocktail recipes you want, this one has you covered--bourbon, gin, rye, scotch, vodka, rum, tequila, brandy, sake... it's has them all. A lot of those recipes are down right terrible, mind you, but among the dreck are all the genuine classics. This is a good resource when you want to try something new, and also an opportunity to take failed recipes and try your hand at "fixing" them.
  • The Cocktail Garnish Manual by Philippe Tulula. This is the best book on cocktail garnishes, ever. It might also be the only book on cocktail garnishes, ever. The prose is a little clunky at times, but there are tons of detailed pictures throughout, demonstrating concepts and techniques. It's all well and good to make a delicious cocktail, but it's quite another to make one that's just as pleasing to the eye. Look at the cocktails I've shared on this page--what about them captured your attention? You can't taste them, but they look good! I've been trying to improve my presentation of cocktails, and the garnish is a big part. This book gives plenty of tips to start with simple, yet impressive garnishes and get more complex and adventurous from there. Remember, some tiki bars have a staging staff come in hours before they open to prepare all the elaborate garnishes to be used that evening. It takes a lot of work and skill to make something look so effortless!
So, that in a nutshell is how I've gone from cocktail clueless to "presumed guru" in just two short years. There's still so much I don't know, however--I just recently purchased my first bottle of Rittehouse Rye and am exploring whiskys with halting steps. Scotch is next on my list, and after that mezcals and sotols are next up. I'll never know enough to be anything more than a dabbler, but every little bit I learn is that much less I don't know. Let me know I'm not alone on this journey--share with me some of your spirits learnin' you've picked up in recent years, and where that's taking you in the future!

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1 comment:

  1. I just realized I omitted the tipping point--sometime in late 2016, The Wife and I went out to dinner. She ordered wine, but for some reason I wasn't in the mood for wine or beer. I looked over the restaurant's cocktail menu, and saw something using rum called a "Dark and Stormy." Okay, I never ordered cocktails, but I thought I'd give it a shot. That simple, simple drink opened my eyes to the flavor possibilities that existed beyond the basic rum and Coke. That's the point I decided to get serious about leaning cocktails.