Halloween is a Saturday this year. A great chance to serve a few drinks. Our north Asheville friends are having people over again this year after the kids trick-or-treat. Always a great time. They’ve allowed me to contribute some booze. I’ve been trying to come up with something unique, delicious and worthy of Halloween night. I made a couple of false starts last week, pulled out some books from the cocktail library then had a revelation this past weekend.

I’m maintaining my love for the Manhattan that started back on July 4th with the Cherry Bounce Manhattan. That was a good drink. I pulled off a little of the Blackberry infused rye to make a few for a recent camping trip. Even better, a perfect combination with the light snow that was falling. For Halloween I want to add a little extra  <*punch*> to the drink. I played around with adding flavored liqueurs, but each one also added sugar. That made the combinations too sweet. The revelation was to infuse whatever flavors I want into the rye before mixing up the drinks! duh. Fortunately, I figured out this obvious solution while I still had time to get it done. I give you:

Fall infused Rye

  • 75cl Rye Whiskey
  • 12 oz frozen cherries
  • 1/4 cup cinnamon stick chips (~ 3 sticks)
  • 4 large strips of orange zest
  • grated zest of one orange
  • 10 allspice berries, crushed
  • 4-5 whole cloves

Infuse cherries and rye for 4-5 days. Add spices about 48 hours before straining. Add grated orange zest 12-24 hours before straining.

I’ve got some more Carpano Antica vermouth coming to mix up a few bottles of Halloween Manhattans. Why “Halloween”? Because that’s when we’ll drink them.

After having that revelation, I had another. Some people won’t drink brown liquors no matter how good the vehicle they come in. This came after discussing Martinis with a friend. He only drinks vodka based cocktails. Go figure. For those lost souls who want to party, but also want to keep the taste meter safe, I also have some vodka infusing with apples and cinnamon.  One of the false starts from the start of this process involved freshly made cherry syrup. I have a wine bottle’s worth of that left. I’m thinking it will be a good addition to the vodka, plus/minus some dry vermouth. Testing and final recipes formulation will occur on the 30th.

Apple infused vodka

  • 75cl Vodka
  • 6 apples, peeled. cored and diced
  • 1/8 cup cinnamon chips (~2 sticks)
  • 10 Allspice berries, crushed
  • 4-6 whole cloves

Infuse over 3-5 days, strain and bottle.

Can’t wait for Friday to take a first taste

Rye and Vodka getting ready for Halloween

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Not something I’d gravitate to, but one of the blog readers forwarded a link to another blog that runs a weekly cocktail contest. The theme for this coming week…Beer Cocktails. I’m a little conflicted about this one. Beer is where I started several years ago. The archetypal flavors in a glass of beer seem to express what the brewmaster wants you to taste – nothing more or less. The grains that were selected and their degree of roasting, the hop selection and timing of their addition conspire to make the drink. It isn’t meant to age or be messed with – the final product is what you get, just drink and enjoy.

That said, all cocktail mixing usually involves messing with the base drink to take it to another level. Even single malts aren’t immune from getting pressed into service for an occasional cocktail. We’ve done it with Champagne as well. What the heck, here goes.

I’ve been playing around a bit with rye whiskey, cherry brandy and juice, and sweet vermouth to try and come up with a Halloween cocktail. No final combination yet, but some of the ideas from that experiment were adapted to mixing with beer. Here’s what I came up with –

The Beer Heering

The ingredients shot

The ingredients shot

  • 12 oz Pale Ale
  • 1-1/2 oz Cherry Heering
  • 3/4 oz Orange curacao
  • lemon wedge

Add liqueurs to beer, squeeze lemon wedge into the glass and add as a garnish (or not). Stir gently and serve.

The amount of the liqueurs can vary to your taste, cut back the orange before you cut back on the cherry. The lemon helps cut down on the sweetness from the liqueurs. The beer is sufficiently bitter that you can skip adding another bittering agent. Remember that some pale ales are more hoppy (read: bitter) than others and the selection will affect the drink. I used Whole Foods house Pale Ale which is only mildly bitter.

Loyal readers of this blog might remember my struggle to come up with a drink I could enjoy that contains Campari. The Amateur Cocktail Spouse is a fan, but me not so much so. I inflicted a great number of blindingly bitter drinks on myself and friends while I played around with it. Campari and orange juice was the only one I enjoyed but I was forced to pass on actually drinking those after watching a video from the producer that called the mixture “one for the ladies.”

My great discover has been another Italian bitters called Cynar. It is made from artichokes, is not quite as bitter as Campari and is sufficiently obscure to be just the ticket. I saw a recipe that included this in a recent issue of Imbibe – the Norma Jean (apparently Marilyn Monroe was the Artichoke Queen at one point). This drink includes gin, Cynar, lemon juice, sugar and mint.  Seemed like a good mixture, minus the mint. After playing with ratios and ingredients I came up with tonight’s favorite, the Cynar-Gin cocktail:

  • 1 1/2 oz gin
  • 1 1/2 oz Cynar
  • 3/4 oz lemon/lime juice
  • 1/2 oz 2:1 simple syrup
  • 2-3 dashes of Fee Brothers Old Fashion Bitters

Shake with ice and strain, lime or lemon twist for garnish.

This is a very enjoyable drink that has a satisfying bitter taste without being over-the-top. The Old Fashion bitters give it a spicy nose. Don’t go up on the citrus or you’ll start getting a lemonade quality to the drink.

Pokeberry update: Something funny happened shortly after my last transfer. The pokeberry wine is now pokeberry vinegar. A lovely, thick mother of vinegar formed on top of the liquid pretty quickly after I strained it off the solids.  I blame the catch-and-release fruit fly trap I had next to the fermentation container as the cause. Too many fruit flies and too little attention to hygiene on my part. Oh well, it may turn out for the best. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of pokeberry vinegar, so I can claim to be the originator of that. More importantly, there is no longer much temptation to drink the liquid – and– the increased acetic acid may help preserve the color of the ink longer. I have read that acetic acid helps set the color when poke juice is used as to dye cloth or fiber.  I still have my first batch in the refrigerator and it seems to be okay. I’ll do some comparison testing of the two liquids and see how they perform over time.

The cap of fruit and pulp seemed to be settling, so I strained the berries today. I  first poured the mash through a screen sieve then transfered the pulp to cheese cloth to squeeze what I could from that. The color is holding up well:

Straining left a little less than half the volume of the combined pulp and juice.  I’ll let this settle again for a week or so then attempt to decant the liquid off any sediment.  Specific gravity is now 1.084.

I did find one other posting from someone who attempted this. Good information here.

I noticed lots of ripe pokeberries on plants around town this past week. My first batch had stopped fermenting and has been resting in the refridgerator for the last few days.  I want this ink thing to work out well and was thinking that I should not have added water to the first batch – it will dilute the final liquid a bit. I also thought I should have been a bit more scientific in my approach on adding sugar to the first batch. I don’t have a method to measure the final alcohol level in the batch. If it’s too low (or the sugar level is too high) the liquid could spoil.  Time to do another batch.

About two-thirds of the destemmed berries

About two-thirds of the destemmed berries

It took about half an hour Saturday morning to fill two shopping bags with pokeberry clusters. About 90% of the berries were ripe on the two plants I visited. Destemming my haul left 7 pounds of berries.  I have a hydrometer from my old wine and beer making days and used that to measure the specific gravity of the mashed berries – 1.060. Using the common assumptions you make when measuring grape must, that would give me a final alcohol of about 8%. That’s not enough. I added cane sugar (sucrose) in 1/4 cup increments  while checking the SG after each addition. Three additions (3/4 cup) brought it up to 1.102 or a potential alcohol of 13%. That should be plenty. For this batch I also used a Champagne yeast which can go to a higher final alcohol level and should ferment out all the sugar. It was bubbling about an hour after the dried yeast was added. I’m letting it sit at room temperature while fermenting to help extract color, another assumption from grape fermentation. Once it’s done I’ll put it in the fridge to “cold stabilize.” That will let the solids drop out, precipitate any tartaric acid(they may not be any) and also let the alcohol work to extract a little more color before I strain out the ink.

Mashed berries

Mashed berries

While all that’s happening I get to start thinking about the fun part of the project – naming the ink and figuring out packaging. This whole thing was inspired by Bad Monkey Juice black walnut ink produced by the students and faculty at the Fine Arts League of the Carolinas. Their name selection has set up a great precedent.

I’ve had my mind on these for a while. Pokeweed is just that – a weed that sprouts up in waste land all through North and South Carolina. It gets a bad wrap becuase it becomes more and more poisonous as the growing season progresses. You can eat the shoots when they first come up but you have to boil the greens and change the water once. The reputation is enough to keep people away, even though reports of poisonings are hard to come by. There’s also a history of people making Pokeberry wine, pokeberry pies and pokeberry ink. The Foxfire books report on one woman who made pokeberry wine so she could take a spoonful a day for arthritis. The Amateur Cocktail Spouse advises that lots of things are reported to be good for rheumatism. The point I took from it was – it doesn’t kill you. It might stove you up, but not fatally.

I was set to try my hand at some pokeberry wine a few years back when a family friend advised against it. He was a retired botany professor. His knowledge of the risks was not first hand though. With the blog geared up (and my life a little more settled) I decided to revisit the poke. A little searching around turned up that the offending chemical is quite concentrated in the roots and stems. There is reportedly also some in the seeds, but no mention of  any stuff in the fruit pulp or juice. My plan then was to make some wine without breaking any seeds-

Pokeberries have been ripening for about three weeks now. There are a handful of bushes in our neighborhood and a few more near my office. I made about 4 or 5 collecting trips as the bunches starting ripening. That gave me around 2 and 1/2 pounds of fruit. Since I didn’t have enought from any one trip, I destemmed and froze berries as I went. They accumulated in a Ziploc bag until I thought I had enough. My only injury was a yellow jacket sting about halfway through my gathering.

Enough berries

Enough berries

Once I had a enough, I poured what I had into one of my infusing jars (a “cracker” jar from Wal Mart, 6 bucks). I had frozen all of the berries, becuase I wanted them to rupture as they thawed (think of a frozen watermelon). That way I wouldn’t have to crush them and risk bruising or breaking a seed. The berries along with a 1/2 cup of sugar dissolved in 1 cup of boiling water were allowed to defrost overnight. The next morning I had a soupy mush. To this I added one package of Montrachet wine yeast. That last was because  I wasn’t sure if the wild yeast that should be present on the berry skins had survived the freezer. By the end of the day it was bubbling along.

So why go through this for something you probably shouldn’t drink? Here’s why: The color of these things is outrageous – a brillant magenta color. I’m trying to make a liquid with a stable color that I can use as ink. Reports are that the first copy of the Declaration of Indepence was written in fermented poke juice. We will find out if that’s possible.

One other thought: A dash or two would give a pretty cool color to a gin drink. As a test I popped a berry in my mouth. I survived. The flavor is extremely vegetal. I think a dash or two would be plenty in any drink.

Fermenting Pokeberries

Fermenting Pokeberries

Asheville has a new hotel/restaurant/bar. The Bohemian  Hotel opened a couple of months back, across from the entrance to the Biltmore Estate. It opened in times leaner than I think the owners had planned on. That said, they’ve done a good job bringing the bar and the restaurant in line with the current economic setting. We headed back tonight for my second and the Amateur Cocktail Spouse’s first visit.

The  Bar

The Bar

I booked our reservation through Open Table, not much of an accomplishment as they had open spots and welcomed walk-ins. There is a good laid-back vibe that gels with the local attitudes. We got they a bit early so we could hang out at the bar. Lynn had a nice gin-elderflower-grapefruit cocktail while I had my sights set on a Manhattan. I was still thinking about those cherry infused rye Manhattans from July 4th. The bar staff has done a good job coming up with some unique mixes. One involved cherry infused Jim Beam. With Manhattans on my mind, I asked if they could make one using the cherry whiskey. The bartender didn’t blink. A truely great drink was prepared and consumed. She left out the bitters, but that was  not a significant distraction from enjoying the drink, the ambiance and the present company. If I can do it anonymously, I’ll drop off a bottle of Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Bitters on my next visit.

My Manhattan - consumed

My Manhattan - consumed

Dinner followed with two melting filets and a nice bottle of Domaine Serene Evenstad (06). The wine list is well selected, leaning toward value, and priced appropriately with a reasonable mark up over retail – not the all-to-common confiscatory 200 to 300 percent markup that seems to be the norm nowadays. One quibble was the escargot apetizer (Where did the escar-go?).

A fun and enjoyable night. Give me week or two to get some proper bitters to the bartenders, then go and enjoy a Jim Beam cherry Manhattan.