Bar Basics


Walking the dogs the other day when we stumbled onto one of the greatest neighborhood finds to date.  Several of the wild cherry trees along our street are covered with cherries this year. Last year I only identified one tree as a cherry. It had fruit, but the limbs were so high, my eight foot tent pole couldn’t reach the lowest branch. We had a lot of rain last year and a pretty wet, and for us, a colder winter. The plants around here must like that. We seem to be having a greener spring, with more pollen, more insects and it looks like, more cherries.

The trees (Prunus serotina) put out a good show of flowers in early April. That helped me find two that have limbs that I think I can reach. They are covered with fruit now, bit still a little green. We turned up two other younger trees while walking and one of these has ripe fruit ready for picking.

Picking is  a little awkward – I can only reach the lowest branch. One hand holds the branch while the other picks. I do this while clenching a small plastic grocery bag in my teeth to hold the cherries. Pretty awkward when I take the dogs to help provide cover – their leashes get held in the limb holding hand. Completely worth it though. The fruit is mostly pit, but the flavor of what’s left is great. The fruit doesn’t all ripen at once. Three trips back (last one without the dogs) has given me enough for two small projects.

Cherry Bounce 2010

Last year I did this with store bought fresh cherries. This year the neighborhood fruit will do the trick.

My standard infusion technique now is to just cover the fruit with the liquor.  The picture was taken after the first addition of fruit this past weekend. The second two visits gave enough fruit to get my preferred level of fruit to liquid.

One other side project – making some brandied cherries to use as drink garnishes. There are several recipes for this out there on the net. Here’s a representative one. They all involve cooking the fruit a short time in simple syrup, then combining with brandy and steeping for several weeks, plus or minus some spices. I took a short cut.

I mostly filled a Mason jar with sound cherries, covered that with water, then drained that off to measure the volume of liquid needed (3 oz). Next I combined 2 oz Cognac and 1 oz Cherry Heering. The Cherry Heering is sweetened. Next, I stirred in 2 tbsp of sugar and added 1/8 of a teaspoonful if lemon juice. I skipped adding any water and heating the mix. I wanted more alcohol to work as a preservative. The brandy mixture was then poured back onto the cherries in the jar. That will get set away in the dark for several weeks. The base recipe can be adapted to any liquor you choose,  just add one tablespoonful of sugar for each ounce of unsweetened liquor.

All of this is fairly easy (I didn’t bother to wash or pit the fruit).  I’ll do some more as the other trees ripen.

I noticed that the first cherries I added to the Rye were starting to look very pale (and the rye was getting a red tinge). I thought the Cherry Heering  might help prevent a little loss of color in the jarred cherries. We’ll see. Another thought is to use 1/3 port wine and 2/3 cognac. Updates will follow-

Starting point for the Brandied Cherries

The credit for this mix goes to Lucy Brenenan. I first saw this idea in her Hip Sips book of cocktail recipes. The idea came to her while eating a beet salad. She uses it as a base for a vodka sour called “The Ruby.” From that name you know she is using red beets. Her bar apparently goes through 10 bottles a week of the stuff. The recipe is here and here. She uses a 1:1 simple syrup per Hip Sips.

Lately I’ve been on a tear with golden beets. They showed up in our local markets a few months ago. They looked interesting so I brought some home and roasted them. The earthy flavor with a little sweetness is very enjoyable. I never would have thought to put them in a drink, but once I read about it, I was ready to try. Using golden beets would be my contribution.

The recipe calls for 1 ½ pounds of beets to 1 liter of vodka, infused for three days, “no more or less.” The liter measure makes it very scalable. For my first attempt, I thought I had enough beets. After peeling and dicing, the beets weighed in at 14 oz. That’s 58% of the 24 oz called for in the recipe, so I mixed my batch with 580 cc of vodka. I used some Tito’s that was sitting around. (Don’t get me started on the virtues of one vodka over another)

The vodka takes on the color of the beets fairly quickly. You get a beautiful colored vodka. I strained them out at three days. The aroma is striking. You really smell the beets. Amateur Cocktail Gal used the word “earthy” to describe it without any prompting. That word comes up a lot when people talk about beets.

We started off mixing up some sours using my standard recipe: 2 oz base liquor, 1 oz citrus juice, ½ oz 2:1 simple syrup. This cuts back a bit on the 3 oz of vodka called for in the original Ruby recipe. It was good, but the lime was a tad too prominent. Better to go with the whole 3 oz pour. The drink color is beautiful, and it seemed to hold a frothy head from shaking longer than other drinks I’ve made. I’ll keep the gemstone theme and call it a Citrine

Getting creative, I substituted ½ oz of Cherry Heering (I had some open) for the simple syrup. Good, but needs a whole ounce next go round to bring the cherry flavor up a bit more.

Final trial was to substitute a ½ oz of crème de cassis for the simple syrup. Cassis has an earthiness of it’s own that I thought would compliment the beets. This one was a keeper. The main disadvantage though was the final color. It was muddy. Appropriate for a drink based on earthy flavors, but it would probably have looked better in a red beet infused vodka. BTW this would be called a Vodka Cassis, one of a series of drinks that mix base spirit, citrus and cassis. (That from the Cocktail Database). I suppose you could also use a vintage, LBV or ruby port in place of the cassis.

Initial assessment: Neat idea, beautiful color in the vodka and pleasant flavor. Drinks made with it should highlight the color and the beet flavor. A simple stirred martini with dry vermouth with maybe a dash or two of an herbal bitter is the next mix to try. Or, maybe a Gimlet or Vesper variant…

What next? I have two more small batches going – one using silver tequila and the other one using gin as the base. “Earthy” can describe Tequila so that seemed like a match. The herb flavorings in the gin have the potential to marry with the beet. We’ll see. Also, chioggia beets showed up at our local market. Might be worth a try.

Time to get some posts up. Simple syrup seemed like a good place to start. I saw this called for in numerous recipes. When I tried to track down how it was made, I found several recipes. The recipe you use can have an effect on the drink. Bartenders went to use syrup to avoid the problem of undissolved sugar crystals in a cold drink. The potential trade off is the water that the syrup brings. It dilutes the other drink constituents. You can manipulate this impact by how you mix your syrup. A lower concentration, say one cup sugar to one cup water, will add more water and bulk up the volume of a drink. A higher concentration, three sugar to one water, allows you to use less volume of syrup and preserve the flavors in you other drink constituents.

 

The most commonly called for recipe is equal parts sugar to water – measured as volume. That means a cup of sugar and a cup of water. That gives you about 1½ cups of liquid when you’re done. Dale DeGroof (a working bartender) recommends a variation of this in his latest book and in an instructional video. He suggest filling an empty bottle half way with sugar and then topping it off with water. At the lower concentration, the sugar dissolves more easily so you can make it up quickly. It’s easy to make up on the fly, no heating or planning required. The lesser concentration brings more water to the drink. This is good, he points out, because today’s large cocktail glasses need the volume to fill the glass.

 

A one-to-one syrup needs to be refrigerated. In a busy bar, you’ll use it up before it has time to go bad. At home, you should stick it in the fridge. Even then I wouldn’t keep it for more than a few days. I once pulled some out after a week and noticed some cloudy stuff in the bottle – yuck! Not in my drink. You can add some grain ethanol (Everclear) or vodka to act as a preservative. The best solution is just mix it up as you need it. The sugar dissolves fairly quickly in the water at room temperature.

 

At the other extreme, in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, David Embury calls for a three to one mix. It almost makes sense for the home bartender to go this route. You get a syrup that is concentrated enough to last on the shelf and also to have a sweetener that doesn’t water down the drink. I tried this. After about a week, I had large rock candy sugar crystals forming in the bottle. That means some of the sugar was coming out of solution, weakening the syrup and making it of inconsistent sweetness.

 

When I mix now, I use a 2:1 mix. I’m not tending bar so I have the time required to heat the water to help the sugar dissolve. I add the splash of ethanol and keep it in the fridge for a few weeks. I’ve used Darcy O’Neil’s (former chemist, current bartender) recipe from the first Journal of the American Cocktail issue:

 

3-½ cups granulated sugar

½ cup corn syrup

2 cups of water.

 

Dissolve the sugar in the water then add enough water to bring it up to 1 liter

With this you’ll have a solution tht gives one teaspoon of sugar for each teaspoon of liquid measured. It is sweet and seems to keep for several weeks in the fridge. You’ll have 96 calories (6 tsp of sugar) in an ounce. One caveat, I have only found corn syrup with vanilla flavoring added. I’m still looking for some without.

There are several commercial simple syrup versions on the market. I have one from Stirrings. The label indicates that this is a cane sugar syrup with some lactic acid (preservative?) and doesn’t need to be refrigerated. It appears to be a one-to-one mix with 50 calories in an ounce. At around $4.50 for 12 ounces, it seems like a luxury. I also have a bottle of Fee Brothers “Rock Candy Syrup.” No nutritional information on the label, but it looks thicker and the label indicates that it should be substituted measure for measure for granular sugar. I suppose that makes it a 2:1 syrup like the recipe above. Price was a little more than the Stirrings. The problem is, there is this white flocculent material suspended in the liquid. I don’t want to open it to see what it is.

 

The 2:1 mix is my standard now. It also lends itself nicely to making flavored syrups, which I’ll comment on in future posts.