Robert Capa + gastrique

Slightly out of focus?

Robert Capa.

Other than cocktails my interests include photography and history and all of those happen to converge in the person of Robert Capa, the godfather of modern photojournalism. Capa’s partial autobiography Slightly Out of Focus is a surprisingly amusing account of his experience of the Second World War in which alcoholic beverages serve as punctuation, starting with a Martini in the opening pages. Famous for always being with the first wave of advancing troops Capa wryly suggested that this was simply to get the first pick of any looted booze. Despite living a life that was beset with horror and tragedy he lived it to the full and with a wicked sense of humour. I can think of no-one more deserving of a cocktail named in their honour.

Capa was a Hungarian Jew who fled Fascism to Paris and then America and as such the cognac and Unicum components of this cocktail represent his journey – although if I’m totally honest I tried various versions and the cognac one was simply the tastiest. Hold up! Uniwha? Ah, sorry, my bad. Unicum is a wonderful Hungarian bitter that sits somewhere between Jägermeister and classic Italian amari such as as Averna or Ramazzotti. It has an almost perfect balance of bitterness and sweetness with hints of coffee and Fernet. It’s made by Zwack, comes it this superbly medicinal bottle flask, has roots back to 1790 and is one of the few bitter liqueurs to get much attention in older cocktail books. I loves it. I also loves that it’s only 14 notes for a 500ml bottle. The careful addition of it to what is otherwise a fairly simple sour creates a sort of genre-busting aromatic/sour hybrid that works very nicely if you are very careful with the sweet/sour/bitter balance. The sweet component can be simply a good home-made pomegranate grenadine but there is a way to take it to the next level if you don’t mind a bit of cookery. Still here? Great. We’re going to make a gastrique:

Gastrique (red wine/pomegranate).

Put in a saucepan 250ml (about one cup) of fine white sugar and add just enough water to make it damp. Heat it on a high heat while stirring until it melts and then starts to caramelise. I find a light golden colour to be optimal in this case but you could let it get darker if you like. Now add 250ml of decent red wine vinegar all at once. Be careful as it will spit and splutter a bit and caramel is very hot. At this point it may look pretty gnarly but don’t worry and just keep heating and stirring until and any chunks are re-incorporated and it looks smooth again. Now is the time to add your chosen flavouring, in this case 60ml/2oz of pomegranate molasses (sourced from any middle-eastern store). Stir in until smooth, let cool and put in a sterile bottle. It should have a thick syrupy consistency and will keep for many weeks in the fridge. Gastriques can also be made with other vinegars and flavourings. 

Trust me that it’s worth the extra effort to make some gastrique for your Robert Capa as you get a much greater depth of flavour than using grenadine alone. The man himself never spared any effort to get close enough to take some of the most dramatic photographs of the 20th century. His luck ultimately ran out when he stepped on a landmine in Indochina in 1954.   

There were actually a number of successful mid-century photographers with Hungarian roots and we may well be naming some variations of the Robert Capa after them in due course. As Capa himself once replied when asked what it takes to be a great photographer, “It’s not enough to have talent, you also have to be Hungarian.”

Robert Capa.

2oz / 60ml cognac (VS or VSOP, whatever you can liberate).

0.75oz / 22ml fresh lemon juice.

0.5oz / 15ml pomegranate gastrique* (see text)

2 teaspoons / 10ml Zwack Unicum.

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled champagne coupé. Garnish with a large orange twist – an essential flavour component in this drink.

Toast Robert Capa (aka André Freidmann) 1913 – 1954.

*You could get away with using a similar amount of home-made grenadine but you’ll be missing out on a whole extra layer of flavour complexity.


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Hip Flask Hack #1

Take it hip to hip rocking through the wilderness.

Hip Flask Hack #1

Hogmanay is imminent and if you’re going to be out on the randan for the bells you might want to take something in a hip flask to fortify yourself against the elephants. Scotch is a typical hip flask swally but let’s give it a bit of a boost with some warming additions. There are some evergreen favourites such as the Rusty Nail which is a combination of Scotch and Drambuie and the Whisky Mac but I prefer to go for this simple DIY infusion which is more vibrant and less cloying. Infusions are a lot easier than they sound and this one is a super simple overnighter that occupies the middle ground between a whisky liqueur, an Old Fashioned and a hot whisky without the heat. The resultant magical elixir is by no means a cocktail and thus has no name, story, or toast associated with it. Sorry Cindy.

Measure into a clean glass container (such as a jam jar or small mason jar) the amount of Scotch that will fill your hip flask – typically 6-8oz / 180-240ml. A decent blended Scotch such as Monkey Shoulder or Johnnie Walker Black make a good base but you just as easily use your favourite blend, single malt or, better still, a bit of your infinity bottle*. Cut a thumb sized chunk of fresh ginger into very thin slices (no need to peel it first) and add them to the whisky. Next take a nice fresh orange and cut a long spiral of peel, preferably using a channel knife (pictured) and then do the same with a lemon**. Add the peels to the mix along with two teaspoons of fine white sugar. Seal, shake until the sugar is dissolved and leave overnight. Next day, strain off the solids with a very fine strainer (or paper coffee filter) and add to your hip flask. Simples. You could just as easily use bourbon, cognac or even aged rum as a base and you can add some seasonal spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg or five-spice if that’s what floats your boat – just be aware that you might not get a lot of extraction from them in such a short time and you’ll need to strain through cloth or coffee filters.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my regular readers.

Yuletide greetings and a Happy 2019 to both of you!

*Which is what’s in that innocuous looking Billy Lawson’s bottle.

**If you have any dried orange and/or lemon peel those will also work very nicely. I’ve tried it both ways and I have a slight preference for using dried peel in which case use 2 teaspoons of dried lemon peel and 1 teaspoon of dried bitter orange peel (or vice versa). Mrs Proof,  on the other hand, prefers it with fresh peel. What can you do?

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Park Avenue.

So good. I (should’ve) strained it twice.

Park Avenue.

If there’s one city that deserves the title Capital of Cocktails it’s the city that never sleeps, New Amsterdam, the melting pot, Gotham, the big appletini; New York City. Because of this there’s barely a part of NYC that doesn’t have a cocktail named after it. Usually that’s particular boroughs or neighbourhoods but this time we’re zooming in on a particular street. Park Avenue runs close to Central Park and is also home to the Waldorf Astoria (301), itself an important edifice in cocktail history. The Park Avenue is by no means a well known drink and is one of many resurrected by Ted Haigh in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. Not every recipe in the book is particularly accessible as there are many peculiar ingredients to navigate but the Park Avenue is both simple and rather tasty with one caveat: The original recipe felt just a bit out of balance to me. We certainly shouldn’t be afraid of modifying old school cocktails as there are perfectly good reasons that older recipes may need adjustment. Certain ingredients may have been reformulated over the years to be less or more sweet or may have become more or less flavourful. Fruit in particular has been continually bred to be sweeter and therefore it’s hard to know what 1940s pineapple juice tasted like – anyone who is old enough to have tried it being unlikely to still have enough marbles to remember. In this case the problem was that the vermouth was overpowering the pineapple and gin components and therefore I’ve taken the liberty of cutting the sweet vermouth by a quarter ounce and boosting the pineapple juice by the same amount. As a result we can taste each ingredient and balance is restored.

Park Avenue.

2oz / 60ml gin.

1oz / 30ml fresh pineapple juice (or at least unsweetened).

0.5oz / 15ml Italian/sweet vermouth.

2 teaspoons (10ml) dry curacao (other orange liqueurs would be fine).

Shake with ice and strain* into a chilled cocktail glass.

Toast the Capital of Cocktaildom – NYC.

*Although I forgot to for the picture, this is a cocktail which benefits from the extra smoothness of double straining.

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The State I am In.

I was puzzled by a dream.

The State I am In.

The serious cocktailist should take inspiration wherever it is to be found. A while a go I was listening to a track by Belle and Sebastian and took the line “When she saw the funny side, we introduced my child bride to whisky and gin*” as something of a challenge. Could whisky and gin co-exist in the same drink? Sounds crazy. Game on. Belle and Sebastian are a Scottish band named after a French novel so, to me, there had to be a mixture of Scottish and French ingredients. Our bases of whisky and gin are hardly a difficult task as the Highlands and Islands are replete with superb options in both (I went island for each of them) and fortuitously the French produce a vast and varied pantry of both bitter and sweet liqueurs that we can work with. First let’s deal with the base**.

As we’ve discussed split bases are an interesting and (mostly) recent development in cocktailia but surely whisky and gin is taking it a step to far? Well, I can report that if you are extremely careful with the balance they can complement each other quite well. The trick is not to let one overpower the other and that means the proportions should be adjusted for each gin/whisky combination. For example, if you have an aversion to smoky whisky and used a mild unpeated malt instead I would start with an ounce of each and fine tune from there.

As for our modifier and accent components we’ll take the gentian bitterness of Suze and the floral sweetness of St Germain which dance rather well together. We’re close now but not quite there. We might normally turn to bitters to bring it all together but the French and Scottish are not big bitters producers (OK, they’re not bitters producers at all). Yep, you’re right. A few drops of absinthe is in order here – if it was good enough for Don The Beachcomber it’s certainly good enough for us numpties. That it ties in with the original novel’s French Alpine setting does no harm either.

There’s no doubt that The State is an unusual drink with its slightly oily mouth-feel and subtle if slightly peculiar flavour combinations. Let’s just say it’s one for the more adventurous cocktail fan rather than the casual drinker. To me it’s at its best served very cold and if you make sure that the mixing glass and drinking glass are well chilled and stir for a little longer than usual you should be able to get it down to a bracing  -3°C or under. Don’t neglect the garnish on this one as a little lift from the lemon oil makes a significant difference. Get the most out of it by twisting over the glass and rubbing the peel around the rim. If you’re feeling sinister spray a little absinthe over the finished drink.

The State I am In.

1.5oz / 45ml Blackwood’s gin (or another quality Scottish gin).

0.5oz / 15ml Peated Scotch malt whisky (I used Finlaggan).

0.5oz / 15ml Suze.

0.5oz /15 ml St Germain elderflower liqueur.

6-8 drops of absinthe (J’adore Grande Absente 69).

Stir well in a well chilled mixing glass and strain into a well chilled Nick & Nora glass (you want this one cold and crispy with a fair amount of dilution).

Garnish with a twist of lemon peel. Optionally, spray some absinthe over the finished drink.

Toast Belle and Sebastian.

*Not recommended behaviour.

**How low can you go?
Death row? What a brother know
Once again, back is the incredible rhyme animal
The uncannable D, Public Enemy Number One
Five-O said, “Freeze!”—and I got numb
Can I tell ’em that I really never had a gun?


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Fully repaired!


While everyone has heard of the Manhattan it’s less well known that New York’s other four boroughs also have cocktails named after them*. Today let’s look at the Brooklyn – a drink with issues. The main components of the Brooklyn are rye whiskey (or very often bourbon) and dry vermouth with added dashes of Amer Picon and maraschino liqueur. Now, I know some of you are thinking “I know where you’re going here, this is all going to be about the difficulty of getting Amer Picon outside of France!” but a) I’ve covered that already and b) we have even bigger fish to fry with the Brooklyn. I’ve always found the Brooklyn a bit dodgy but mostly put that down to my ambivalence to dry vermouth. I can’t have been the only one who had problems with this drink as there are a whole host of other variations (mostly by NY bartenders associated with Milk & Honey) which are named after neighborhoods of Brooklyn (we’ll get to those some other time) which perhaps suggests some dissatisfaction with the “original” recipe. But recently I was reading an article on the excellent Cold Glass blog called In for Repairs: the Brooklyn Cocktail. While you should really read the article, Doug’s point is that the earliest known version of the drink by Jacob Grohusko in 1908 called for a sweet vermouth but this was erroneously changed to dry vermouth soon afterwards and has remained so ever since. A similar story to the Aviation then. After almost injuring myself in a mad dash for my mixing glass I was immediately in full agreement. History is also in agreement as rye and Italian vermouth were faaaaar more common ingredients in turn-of-the-century New York than bourbon and French vermouth. This repaired version, while similar to the Manhattan (well, duh!), has extra layers of complexity from the maraschino and Picon. While it’s tempting to fire some bitters at it, do be aware that Cold Glass has only done this to compensate for his lack of Amer Picon**.

My version varies slightly from the Cold Glass one because I am lucky enough to be in possession of actual Amer Picon (as well as my own version of Amer Boudreau) and because, as in the Manhattan, using Punt e Mes keeps the drink from being too sweet. For similar reasons I decided to stick with a lemon twist as garnish but the cherry version is certainly a viable alternative.

Brooklyn (repaired).

2oz / 60ml rye whiskey (Rittenhouse being a good choice).

0.75oz / 22ml Punt e Mes (a bittered sweet vermouth).

0.25oz / 7.5ml Luxardo maraschino liqueur.

0.25oz / 7.5ml Amer Picon (or Ramazzotti and 3 dashes of orange bitters).

Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon or a cocktail cherry.

Toast Jacob and Doug the inventor (possibly) and savior (probably) of the Brooklyn.

*Someone recently rectified the long standing omission of poor old Staten Island but it’s got a lot of catching up to do.

**I’d fully agree that the simplest decent solution to a lack of Amer Picon is Ramazzotti with a few dashes of a good orange bitters such as Regan’s

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The Selkie’s Tears.

Somewhere, beyond the sea…

The Selkie’s Tears.

Look, we’ve known each other for quite a long time, right? Well, there’s something I need to tell you. It’s something I’ve been in self-denial about for many years and I only now feel able to talk about. I don’t like dry vermouth. Yes, I know you thought I liked every kind of booze and the Tiki Gods know I’ve tried to like dry vermouth but there we are. Phew. In a weird way I feel better now. It was trying to make this

The Selkie’s Tears.

1.5oz / 45ml Monkey Shoulder Scotch whisky.

0.75oz / 22ml Lillet Blanc.

0.5oz / 15ml The King’s Ginger (a Scotch based ginger/lemon liqueur).

2 or 3 dashes of Bitter Truth celery bitters.

Stir with ice and strain into a chilled Champagne coupé.

Garnish with a sprig of raw samphire.

Toast the Selkie folk who live amongst us but yearn for the sea.

drink work that made me realise this terrible flaw in my palate. It seems to demand some dry vermouth to balance the sweetness of The King’s Ginger but, meh, then it tasted like some kind of broken Martini. Luckily I just love Lillet Blanc which, while technically doesn’t have the required bitterness, somehow works perfectly in The Selkie’s Tears. But then this also troubles me as I normally have a pretty good understanding of why a drink works and this time I’m at something of a loss. It just does. Maybe there’s just enough bitterness from the celery bitters and just enough saltiness leaching out of the samphire garnish. Of course I could just be wrong but to me this combination quite wonderful. It’s a fairly subtle affair that I think is letting each of the ingredients express themselves without stepping on each others’ toes. There’s no doubting that it’s very much a whisky drink so if you’re not a Scotch fan you might not want to go here, but if you are give this one a whirl. To be honest, this cocktail is, as yet, untested on any other human – although my Selkie friends seem to love it* – so I’d be more than happy to get some feedback.

Now I do understand that there are a couple of unusual ingredients here so let’s run through them all:

Monkey Shoulder. An excellent mixing Scotch that is a blend of malt whiskies. It’s affordable, available and gets an “A” in my book.

Lillet Blanc. A French aperitif with a slight lemony edge and a subtle but rounded bitterness. Essential ingredient in the Corpse Reviver #2 and the Vesper. Also tasty on its own with ice and a slice. Once opened keep refrigerated and/or vacuum stoppered.

The King’s Ginger. A 41%ABV Scotch based liqueur with ginger and lemon notes that claims to be ancient but I’m pretty sure isn’t. It’s none the worse for that though. Having said that it’s a bit tricksy to mix with and might best be used to add a bit of oomph to a dull blended whisky on a cold day.

Celery bitters. I used Bitter Truth ones which are quite delicious and are part of their handy traveler’s set which is an essential sampler for the bitters beginner.

Samphire. A salty, crunchy and super-tasty mini-vegetable that grows by the sea. Basically it’s vegan bacon. The fish section of supermarkets or your local fish shop probably stock it. The usual advice is to steam or boil it. Nonsense – it’s best raw. Any leftovers can be chopped up and used to spruce up a salad. Word is that it doesn’t freeze well.

*I think it’s the samphire they like.

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Jet Pilot (+ Test Pilot).

Puncheous pilot.

Jet Pilot.

When it comes to Tiki it’s safe to say that almost all the best drinks were created by three big names; Don the Beachcomber Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, and Donn Beach. They were actually all the same guy but when you’ve dabbled in prohibition era rum smuggling it’s probably wise to have more than one name. Whatever you want to call him – let’s just go with DB – he was the undisputed godfather of Tiki, actually inventing whole new genres in both cocktails and dining. He might have been a great cocktail innovator but he was a far from brilliant businessman and many of his copy-cat competitors did much better than he did – Trader Vic (creator of the Mai Tai) being the most notable. Today we’re going to look at an imitation Beachcomber drink [gasp] which comes from one of Steve Crane’s lavish Tiki restaurants, the Beverly Hills Luau, and dates from the late 50s.

Don’s many competitors were desperate to serve drinks as good as his in their own faux-Polynesian restaurants (there is, after all, no copyright on cocktails) but DB was shrewd and kept his recipes a closely guarded secret. Competitors tried to get around this by stealing his bartenders only to discover that even they didn’t know the complete recipes as Don put key ingredients in plain bottles with enigmatic labels such as Don’s Mix and Spices #2*. The vast majority of their attempts were pale versions of DB’s rich complex “rum rhapsodies” but there is one marked exception that, in my humble opinion, rises above the original. The Jet Pilot is an attempted copy of DB’s 1941 Test Pilot** which was a pretty decent drink but by no means one of his best. The reason the Jet Pilot succeeded while so many other copies failed is that the recipe shows a similar attention to detail that you see in original DB drinks, the considered mix of rums, drops of absinthe and dash of Angostura bitters being typical Beachcomber touches. We don’t know exactly who created the Jet Pilot for the Luau but I’d bet my last bottle of red label Lemon Hart 151 that he was trained by the Beachcomber himself.

The Jet Pilot bears more than a passing similarity to DB’s most famous creation, the Zombie, which we’ll have to address sooner or later. The problem is that you could write a book about the Zombie and all its variations. In fact someone has. My preferred Zombie recipe is a complex one so the Jet Pilot makes a better starting point for the Tiki newcomer. While you could consider it a Zombie Light, do be aware that it still packs quite a punch.

Jet Pilot

1oz /30ml dark Jamaican rum (eg. Myers’s or Coruba).

0.75oz /22ml overproof Demerara rum (Plantation OFTD is probably your best bet here***).

0.75oz /22ml gold rum (take your pick but I like Coruba NPU in this).

0.5oz /15ml fresh lime juice.

0.5oz /15ml white grapefruit juice.

0.5oz /15ml cinnamon syrup.

0.5oz /15ml falernum.

6 drops of absinthe.

1 dash of Angostura bitters.

Briefly blend (a few short pulses) with a cupful of crushed ice. If lacking a blender add an ounce of soda water and shake hard with the crushed ice.

Pour unstrained into a DoF glass and garnish with something that looks vaguely like a jet plane.

Toast Steve Crane, whose Luau restaurant pulled off the best imitation Beachcomber recipe ever.

Yes, yes, alright. I know you want the original Beachcomber version too:

Test Pilot

1.5oz/45ml dark Jamaican rum (eg. Myers’s or Coruba).

0.75oz/22ml white Spanish style rum (eg. Havana Club 3, Brugal).

0.5oz/15ml fresh lime juice.

0.5oz/15ml Cointreau.

0.5oz/15ml falernum.

6 drops of absinthe.

1 dash of Angostura bitters.

Mix as Jet Pilot.

*Most of his recipes remained secret until the late 1990s when they were painstakingly decrypted by Tiki archaeologist Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. As I’ve said many times before his book Beachbum Berry Remixed should be your Tiki starting point. The Jet Pilot appears in his follow-up Sippin’ Safari which goes into more detail on the history of Tiki.

**Not all Tiki drinks have tropical names. Those of the 1940s often have aviation related names followed by a space era fad in the 1950-60s.

***Originally Lemon Hart 151 but that can be very difficult to find. Hamilton 151 is a good substitution but is almost as difficult to find. If you’re in the UK Woods 100 navy rum will get you pretty close.

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The Good China.

Me old china.

The Good China.

There’s nothing like a cup of tea served in the good china. And this is nothing like a cup of tea but it is best served in some nice vintage porcelain. Fortunately there’s no need to wait for your granny to pop her clogs before you can make one of these – simply get yourself invited to a hipster’s house and slip a bit of their Royal Stafford into your coat pocket while they’re checking on the progress of their kombucha. Or get some for peanuts at a charity shop or flea-market. Once you’re tooled up in the bone china department you’ll find The Good China to be a nice civilised (and relatively low alcohol) drink for the gentler moments in life where a Navy Grog or Zombie would seem a bit uncouth*. I originally concocted it with a white port base but more recently I’ve become partial to using Lillet Blanc instead. Feel free to go either way or even split the base between the two, which, to be perfectly honest I only just this moment considered. Don’t be put off by the Earl Grey tincture as it really simple to make and elevates your GC to a higher plane.

The Good China.

2oz / 60ml of dry white port, or Lillet Blanc (or even an ounce of each).

0.5oz / 15ml Heering (a cherry brandy).

0.25oz / 7.5ml Fernet Branca.

2 dashes of your home-made Earl Grey tincture (see below).

Stir with ice and double strain into a well chilled bone china cup.

Garnish with a lemon slice which can squeezed into the cup. Or not.

Toast charity (aka thrift) shops – the source of all our best cocktail receptacles.

Earl Grey tincture.

Throw 2oz/60ml of 50% ABV vodka into a clean jar. Add 2 teaspoons of the very best loose leaf Earl Grey tea that you can find**. Leave it for about two hours, stirring a couple of times for good measure. Yes, it will become very strong and bitter. Strain through a fine mesh strainer and bottle***. Congratulations you’ve just made the easiest bitters in the world. Well technically it’s just a tincture – the extraction of a herb in alcohol.

*Well, we can pretend anyway.

**You’ll probably have to buy a bit more than that or they’ll get pretty pissed off with you at the tea shop. Trust me on this.

***Little (50-100ml) brown glass bottles know as “Boston rounds” are ideal, preferably with a dropper or dasher top. You can find them at aromatherapy suppliers and on ebay or Amazon. Get a few – we’re going to be making some bitters soon.

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Ward Eight.

Worth the wait? Ward Eight=W8=Wait. Never mind.

Ward Eight.

Here’s a drink that’s both 19th century (just) and that we have a pretty solid history for. There’s also pretty widespread consensus on the recipe. It’s not too often that all of that happens. The Ward Eight was created in 1898 Boston by Tom Hussion at the Locke-Ober bar to honor politician Martin “The Mahatma” Lomasney a candidate for the state legislature. Ward Eight was a poor part of Boston that was key to his election. The fellow won the election and some time later voted in favour of prohibition thus putting the bar out of business. There’s gratitude for you.

The Ward Eight is almost always encoded as two ounces of bourbon, half an ounce each of lemon and orange juice and a teaspoon of grenadine. But the problem is that, as written, it’s just not that good. Which is puzzling because Esquire magazine listed it in it’s top ten cocktails of 1934 (which was the first year after the end of prohibition and thus a big hairy deal). I’ve been messing with the Ward Eight for a long time, convinced that somehow it must be a good drink. I tinkered with the proportions but it still it seemed a bit lame and incoherent. Then one day it hit me like I was shot with a diamond bullet, right through my forehead  – they weren’t drinking bourbon in turn-of-the-century Boston, they were drinking rye*! Talk about barking up the wrong tree! It turns out I’m not the only one to reach that conclusion and these days you can see a few of the more reputable cocktail websites calling for rye. So, yes, I should have looked around a bit more widely in the first place. Lesson learned. With rye restored to its rightful place and with a little flexibility in the amount of grenadine (we have little idea of how sweet it might have been 120 years ago) to bring it into balance the Ward Eight is finally something worth drinking again. Our two lessons for today are a) always check around a bit for more enlightened recipes and b) never trust a politician.

Ward Eight

2oz / 60ml rye whiskey (Rittenhouse works particularly well).

0.5oz / 15ml orange juice (strictly freshly squeezed).

0.5oz / 15ml fresh lemon juice.

1-2 teaspoons / 5-10ml of grenadine (preferably home-made)

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled Martini glass**.

Garnish with a maraschino (or amarena) cherry or two.

Toast Tom Hussion, creator of the Ward Eight.

*The near extinction of American rye whiskey for much of the past century explains the switch to bourbon in this and other cocktails. Thankfully rye is back in vogue and should be subbed back in where appropriate – which is generally any whiskey cocktail originating in the northern part of the USA in the years before prohibition.

**I know I’ve railed against the V-shaped Martini glass but the Ward Eight is always whispering to me that it wants to be served in just such a receptacle. Given its age and experience who am I to argue? Other such demands are received for the Martini, Aviation, Manhattan and Corpse Reviver #2.

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Mexican Standoff: A mixing reposado showdown.

Tres amigos.

Mexican Standoff.

We’ve talked a little bit about tequila before but this time we’re going to dive a bit deeper in a quest to find the ideal mixing tequila. As we know, tequila comes in two main types mixto which is tequila mixed with a neutral spirit and 100% agave which is, well 100% agave. You could reasonably compare it to the difference between blended Scotch and single malt Scotch. Except that while I’m happy to make cocktails with blended whiskey I’m never mixing with mixto. Glad we cleared that up. Once we’ve nixed the mixto we need to choose between three sub-types of tequila; the unaged blanco/plata, slightly aged reposado and properly aged anejo. My personal preference is the middle grounder, reposado, which smooths out some of the rougher edges of a tequila but doesn’t go so far as to overpower the agave flavours which anejo sometimes can. Sounds like we’re getting somewhere right? But here’s the rub. Tequila is changing. Many previously trusted brands have recently changed to a more industrial technique for extracting the sugars form the agave. This diffuser technique increases yield and hence profit but the flavour of the tequila suffers. A lot. But then it gets even worse. The loss of flavour is often offset by the addition of artificial flavourings. I need to take a break now until my face has returned to a normal colour                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        It’d be unfair to name names when so many brands are at it but I noticed a very marked deterioration in my previous “house” reposado to the point that I won’t be buying it ever again. It’s a real shame that the “100% agave” mark that used to be a guarantee of a decent quality tequila can’t be relied upon any more but fortunately help is at hand. Tequila Matchmaker is an excellent website (and app) that shines a light on all this jiggery-pokery and, with the help of some ratings, allows us to make a more informed choice of tequila.

To the showdown.

Recently I’ve been trying to settle on a new standard “house” mixing tequila not least because people tend to look at you a bit funny when you have so many different bottles of tequila on the shelf. My goal was to find a sub-€30, 100% agave reposado tequila that was at least reasonably available*. I decided to compare a few of those with a good quality but more expensive benchmark. The candidates are: Topanito €23. My placeholder mixing repo of late but I’m wondering if I can do better. El Espolon €23. Highly regarded by the agave-heads on Reddit r/tequila. Calle 23 €26. I’ve heard good things about this one on Tequila Matchmaker and elsewhere. Don Julio €33 (not pictured). Our benchmark. A bit of a gold standard in tequila but a bit pricey for an everyday mixer. If any of the others get anywhere close to this they’ll be doing very well.


The bottle looks a bit cheap but, while plain, it’s at least sealed with a decent natural cork. It’s a little darker than the others but for all we know that could just be some added caramel colouring. It tastes a bit “hot” and has an interesting earthy flavour indicative of a lowland tequila. Definitely the outlier of the four in terms of flavour. Interestingly TM shows this to be the most traditionally produced of the four – bonus points! Definitely a very interesting tequila and great value but maybe just a little too quirky for what we’re looking for here.

El Espolon.

I love the squat bottle with its wide hardwood topped natural cork and funky decoration. Just a touch sweeter than the others. Quite smooth and well behaved but somehow just a shade less exciting than the others. Pepper and agave notes are present and pleasant. Again, superb value at this low price.

Calle 23.

I had a minor issue with the synthetic cork being far too loose on this one and I had to replace it with another one to keep a decent seal**. Otherwise it comes in an attractive tall bottle with the agave print on the rear of the bottle giving a nice 3d effect. TM tells us that this is a no additive tequila which is a big plus for me and, indeed, it seemed to have the most natural taste with a nice balance of agave and pepper. Quite similar to the El Espolon but just more together.

Don Julio.

Yes, the benchmark Don Julio is better than the others seeming a little more elegant and refined. But not by much and its edge is barely noticeable when mixed. For mixing I wouldn’t consider it worth the €7-10 premium but for sipping it would still be my choice.


What I found remarkable was how little there was to choose between these. Especially once mixed into a Tommy’s Margarita they all tasted great. I’m going to choose the Calle 23 as my stock repo for now but I’d be happy to recommend any of these for mixing into a Margarita (preferably Tommy’s), Paloma, Repo Man or Tijuana Tonic.

If you’re wondering what I did with the rest, well, I started a reposado infinity bottle of course.

Extra credit.

For those who’d like to nerd out on the details of tequila production (including the evils of the diffuser) I’ll pass you over to the expert hands of

*A bit tricky as the fragmented nature of the tequila market means that different brands are imported into different regions.

**  Which is why one should never throw away a decent cork but keep them for just such eventualities.



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