Clear ice balls (and other shapes).

The icicle works.

Clear Ice Balls.

A while back we looked at a way to make clear ice and, while it works extremely well, it does have a couple of drawbacks. Not everyone can spare a whole shelf in their freezer for 24+ hours without seriously pissing off their family/flatmates. Some effort is required to shape the huge block into manageable sizes which tend to be a bit irregular (although I think that’s part of the beauty of them). And finally, the optimal shape for chilling a drink without diluting it is a sphere as it has the minimum surface area to volume ratio. Thus I have been directing my efforts to find a method of making appropriately sized clear ice balls with the minimum of equipment, expense and hassle for some time now. A variation of the directional freezing approach was always going to be the solution yet achieving that on a smaller scale is no mean feat. Various methods and devices I tried have failed for reasons too many and varied to discuss (although examples are; too cloudy, too small and too egg-shaped) but at last I have achieved my elusive goal. Or should that be “grail”. The method that follows uses a minimum of freezer space and churns out one perfectly clear and spherical ball every 24 hours with almost zero effort. It’s clearly not going to be much use for a busy bar but for home use it is truly the testes of the canine. If you too would like balls of diamond-pure ice proceed as follows:

Balls up! Freezer ready.

Buy a silicone ice ball mould of the desired size. If you wish to duplicate my technique exactly use one that makes 6cm balls and is physically about 7.5cm in diameter. Ebay or Amazon are good sources. Yes, if you really want you can get one in the shape of the Death Star, or a diamond or whatever will fit snugly. Part 2 of your kit is a squat double-walled vacuum flask. The Thermos Funtainer™ (with a slightly smaller ball mould) is often used for this method but I found this Proof (you can’t make this shit up!) branded one at Target for about $15 that was the perfect design being slightly wider at the top end (see picture below). When shopping for such a container take your ice ball mould with you to ensure a good fit. You want the mould to fit snugly into the container without dropping to the bottom or poking out too much at the top. And make sure that it’s not too tall for your freezer. Once you acquired both parts of your kit simply fill the container with water (tap, filtered or bottled – whichever you would normally drink*) right to the brim. Put it in your sink or a bowl as there will be some spillage. Now fill the assembled ice mould to the brim and tap a few times to remove any bubbles. Put your finger over the fill hole and place it upside down in the container allowing it to displace some water. Once the fill hole is under water you can remove your finger. Push down gently to seal and, if the seal is good, tip out the excess water. Simply place in your freezer for about 24 hours (depending on your freezer). You don’t need the whole container to freeze solid just the contents of the mould. Next day remove from the freezer and gently lever off the bottom half of the ice mould – which is now, of course, on top. If you have any difficulty it’ll do no harm to run some hot water over the mould to loosen it. Place your perfect sphere of clear ice into a clean freezer bag (or a fresh drink) and repeat – after removing the remaining ice and mould half with warm water. If your ice shape has a little stem from the fill hole simply chip it off with a kitchen knife. Try not to hold the ice with your fingers as the warmth can make it crack – I handle it by keeping it in a (still cold) mould half. After a few cycles you’ll have a small supply in your freezer and you can simply replace them as they are used. Simples. Use your beautiful clear ice ball in any cocktail where a large ice block is called for (such as a Negroni, Old Fashioned or Moral Turpitude) or as a way of chilling your favourite sipping spirit with minimal dilution.

Balls out! Note the shape of the inside of the container.

Oh, and clear ice balls are much easier to make – at least with this method – than they are to photograph as they mist up a bit at room temperature and show all sorts of reflections. The full clarity is only revealed when they’re floating in an ice cold stirred drink. Slight surface imperfections will also disappear once in a drink. If you’re wondering exactly what you’re supposed to do with a clear ice diamond – tune in next week for the next exciting episode of

Note: There are various pre-made solutions that claim to make clear ice balls but they are expensive, usually bulky and don’t seem to work for everyone – they certainly didn’t for me.

*There is a theory that water that has been boiled recently has less air in it and makes clearer ice. Despite some initial scepticism I’ve tried it and I think there really might be something to it. Although the improvement in clarity is marginal it can make the difference between almost clear ice and truly clear ice and it doesn’t take much extra effort.

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It runs rings around other cocktails.


Tiki means rum, right? Wrong. Ish. Tiki almost always means rum. The Saturn is a rare gin based Tiki drink that is really quite fabulous. I would have told you about it before but it needs three slightly quirky ingredients but, if you’ve been a good student, you’ll know all about, and how to make, orgeat, falernum and passion fruit syrup. Supposedly the winner of a cocktail of the year competition at the tail-end of Tiki in 1967 the Saturn is the work of J. “Popo” Galsini and one of a number of space-race themed Tiki cocktails (it was almost called the X-15). While the recipe has been kicking around for years in Beachbum Berry Remixed there seems to be a renewed interest in this one with it popping up in many bars and all over the internet. I’m not quite sure why as many of us Tiki-heads have been making them for ages. Maybe we’re at the start of a Tiki revival revival. If so, bring it on!

The Saturn is a very handy drink to have in your back pocket (no, not literally) for those who want a rum-free and relatively low alcohol drink but don’t want to miss out on all that Tiki fun. I’ve also discovered that the Saturn works rather well served “up” although some tinkering with the recipe is required. In fact tinkering is always required with the Saturn because the sweet/sour balance is heavily dependent on the sweetness of the three syrups, especially if they are home-made. Use the recipes below as starting points and adjust the lemon juice to match. Most of the online recipes call for a mere half ounce of lemon juice but I find this a bit light. Yes, drinks served with a lot of crushed ice – like this one – can handle a bit more sugar than those served strained but 2:1 sweet to sour is pushing the envelope of that rule. As always, we’re looking for this drink to be balanced. Not only in sweet to sour but also on the flavours each of those syrups bring. Your taste buds will tell you when you have it right. The original recipe calls for the Saturn to be blended until smooth but I’m no fan of slushy cocktails and always make mine the usual Tiki way with just a few short pulses of the blender. In any case, the Saturn is a drink that’s well worth the effort and an excellent choice to batch up for a Tiki cocktail party.


1.5oz / 45ml gin of choice.

0.75oz / 22.5ml fresh lemon juice.

0.5oz / 15ml passion fruit syrup.

0.25oz / 7.5ml falernum.

0.25oz / 7.5ml orgeat.

Pulse blend with crushed ice and pour unstrained into a Tiki glass.


Shake with cubed ice and strain into a chilled champagne coupé. In this case cut back a little on each of the syrups (or boost the gin and lemon juice by a quarter of an ounce each).

Toast “Popo”.

Saturn rising.

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Dark ‘n Stormy + Trump & Stormy.

Trump & Stormy – not to be confused with the Dark ‘n Stormy.

Dark ‘n Stormy™ + Trump & Stormy.

While you can’t copyright a cocktail recipe it hasn’t stopped a few companies trademarking cocktail recipes. The most interesting example of this is Gosling Brothers Ltd’s aggressive pursuit of anyone who dares to make a Dark ‘n Stormy™ – or anything a person might reasonably confuse with such – with anything other than Gosling’s Black Seal dark rum, ice and ginger beer (note that lime juice is not in their recipe). A number of cease and desist lawsuits have been slapped on everyone from rival rum manufacturers to cocktail bloggers. I find Gosling’s legal efforts particularly egregious for a number of reasons: a) I can see, to some extent, why Bacardi trademarked the Bacardi Cocktail (which is just a Daiquiri with grenadine) because if you order it as such it’s reasonable to expect the rum in it to be Bacardi. This is clearly not so with a Dark ‘n Stormy as the name contains no mention of the brand of rum used. b) Going after big companies like Pernod Ricard is one thing but harassing salt-of-the-earth cocktail blogger types is pretty despicable. c) In my personal opinion Gosling’s dark rum is not particularly nice rum and the standard (lime free) Dark ‘n Stormy™ is, frankly, a bit shit.

Gosling’s are not the only ones at this game as Pusser’s Rum have pulled a similar stunt with the Painkiller. It’s a rum business. While, thankfully still quite rare, such legal shenanigans are not conducive to the general well-being of the drinks industry are, in my opinion, also likely to be counter-productive to the companies involved. I, for one, tend to avoid buying or recommending their products.

The takeaway here is feel free to use any rum you like in your rum and ginger beer drink – just be sure to call it something else and Gosling’s will leave you alone. And put some lime juice in in so that it isn’t sickly sweet. I have a cracking and completely unrelated recipe that everyone seems to love and that I’m categorically not calling a Dark ‘n Stormy™ because I really don’t want to get sued. It’s big on flavour but low-ish on alcohol and uses the weirdly delicious Cruzan Blackstrap rum†. Make it with anything else and my lawyers will be on top of you like a President on a porn star…

Trump & Stormy.

1.5oz Cruzan Blackstrap rum.

0.75oz fresh lime juice.

Stir into an ice filled Collins glass.

Top up with good spicy ginger beer*

Toast Inu Ā Kena – the excellent rum and cocktail blog who fell victim to Goslings’ bully boys.

*There are plenty of options these days. Old Jamaica is great and widely available. Please note that ginger ale, which is similar but milder, doesn’t have the necessary punchiness for this.

†Unfortunately not available in Europe at the moment. Although I’ve not tried it yet Blackwell’s rum is said to be a decent substitute – yes, I was only joking about “my lawyers”. Failing that use the darkest, spiciest rum you can find.

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Monkey Shoulder.

A little monkey business.

Monkey Shoulder – a mixin’ malt for the masses?

As a quick primer on Scottish whisky (usually refered to as “Scotch”) for those who need it – the rest of you can skip on to the next paragraph – there are two main types; Single malt whisky is the real deal made in a time honoured fashion from malted barley which is fermented in wooden vats before being distilled in copper pot stills and then aged for many years in used oak barrels. “Single” meaning that it is made in one distillery – although the contents of different barrels are usually mixed – and “malt” meaning the whisky is only made from malted barley, unlike American and Canadian whiskies which use a mixture of cereals. Blended Scotch is a combination of single malt whisky, often from different distilleries, which is then mixed with what is called “grain whisky” which is an unaged column still distillate (think “vodka” here). At the risk of over-simplification single malt is usually sipped and blended scotch is usually with something fizzy. But where does that leave us cocktailistas?

Single malt whisky is a bit pricey to be mixing with but often we require something with a bit more character and class than a blended Scotch. I often recommend using mid-price spirits for mixing but in the case of Scotch the mid-range is a bit of a desert between the cheaper blends and the more expensive single malts. Apart from a few boosted blends such as Johnnie Walker Black Label and some young single malts such as Finlaggan* there’s just not much there. Enter a slightly unusual whisky called Monkey Shoulder which, around these parts, comes in at around €25 for a 700ml bottle and is, as it happens, none of the above. Monkey Shoulder is a blend of three single malt whiskies – so no “vodka” in there at all – from the William Grant & Sons owned distilleries, Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie. The first two are very well known single malt producers in their own right and the latter a distiller which mostly produces malt whisky for making blends. All are Speyside distilleries which produce unpeated whisky of a light and approachable style. This is a sort of hybrid whisky that is known as a vatted malt or a blended malt and is labelled as the latter. We’ve got some pretty good providence here so let’s see if this cheeky monkey fits our needs.

Monkey Shoulder comes in a surprisingly classy package for such a reasonably priced product. The simple squat bottle has three brassy monkeys sunk into the glass on the bottle’s shoulder and a nice wide natural cork with a wooden top which also has the monkey logo routed into it. I’ve seen worse corks on bottles three time the price of this one. A look on the bottom of the bottle shows, OK you’ve guessed already, more monkeys. With three more on the label that makes a total of 12 monkeys – I suspect someone is attempting a secret joke here. The labeling is refreshingly non-traditional but still rather elegant and includes some text explaining that the whisky’s name is derived from a repetitive strain injury formerly suffered by whisky distillers. The only thing I don’t like about the presentation is the rather meaningless “batch 27” statement that smacks of trying to add small batch cachet to a mainstream product. At the price we shouldn’t be surprised that there is no age statement and that it is bottled at 40% abv. I would expect that it’s also chill filtered and has some added colouring. Indeed I don’t see how Monkey Shoulder’s pleasant light copper hue would be achieved otherwise given that this must be a fairly young whisky. Sniffing the spirit reveals a nice floral sweetness with a hint of damp hay bale (oh, shit – I said I wouldn’t do this). Once sipped it’s honey, honey, honey, then a dry woody finish. The two main notes cancel each other out enough to prevent the overall profile from being too sweet. Despite it’s minimum legal alcohol content it doesn’t come over too watery and retains a slightly oily mouth-feel. Given how smooth it is I’m wondering if it’s had a little longer in the barrel than I expected. It’s simple to be sure, but really pretty damn decent for the price. Now remember, this is for mixing so we don’t need a lot of complexity that would be overpowered by other ingredients. We’re looking for a base flavour that can express itself in a cocktail and in that sense Monkey Shoulder fits the bill pretty well. It’s probably a bit sweet and one-dimensional for real malt-heads but it’ll fit our purposes perfectly well. Testing in a few cocktails such as a Penicillin and a Rob Roy totally confirms those expectations.

For mixing Monkey Shoulder scores a straight:


And becomes my mixing Scotch of choice, with the quality/price ratio being a significant factor. As a sipping malt this would only be a B- due to the lack of complexity.

*Finlaggan is my go-to smoky Islay mixing whisky.

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Jean & Tony.

The Jeanies out of the bottle now.

Jean & Tony.

It’s a tough life being a bartender*. Among many other frustrations you have to put up with the absolute inability of some people to order a drink properly. Case study: One busy night I had a large group of middle-aged Spanish† tourists looking somewhat confused at the corner of my bar. Eventually one separated from the herd, approached the bar and announced triumphantly “wan Jean en Tony”. I correctly deduced that he wanted a gin & tonic so made him such and politely told him the price. He held a finger in the air turned to his crew, turned back and said “en wan Jean en Tony”. This continued for some time, punctuated only by the odd “wan we ski coca” and my increasingly annoyed requests for a total number of Jean & Tony’s and We Ski Coca’s. Then they spent about ten minutes assembling the correct payment (yes, individually). Look; I can make seven gin & tonics and four whisky & cola’s in no time at all but, ordered like this, it takes an eternity followed by another eternity clearing the backlog that the first one caused. Fifteen years later I literally still have nightmares reliving that order. And I’ve never been able to pronounce “gin and tonic” correctly since. Let’s see if we can at least salvage something from the source of my PTSD.

Gin is a wonderful spirit but it sadly never gets much of a chance to fully express itself. I’ve been playing with the idea of a sort of super-concentrated gin and tonic for a while now and I was about to infuse some gin with tonic botanicals (mostly cinchona bark) when I spotted a bottle of Bitter TruthTonic Bitters; well that would save a lot of fuss! Combined with a little sweetness and a hint of lemon that would give us the absolute essence of a gin & tonic without all that pesky wetness. There’s nothing for your gin to hide behind in this recipe so make it a good gin; something with a bit of character and finesse. Something like the magnificently bonkers Drumshanbo Irish gunpowder gin. Does it work? Does the Pope wear a funny hat?

Jean & Tony.

2oz / 60ml of a good quality dry gin (I used Drumshanbo gunpowder gin).

1 teaspoon (5ml) simple syrup (1:1).

4 good dashes of Bitter Truth Tonic Bitters.

Stir with ice and strain into a chilled champagne coupé or Nick & Nora glass (pictured) containing a coiled strip of lemon peel. For extra lemonicity strain the drink over the lemon peel.

Toast bartenders. And please make their lives easier by ordering intelligently.

*Which is why I don’t do it anymore.

†Don’t get me wrong; I love Spain and all things Spanish. They are a wonderfully warm people with a great attitude to food and drink. And the whole gin and tonic revival started there. They are sometimes clueless at ordering in a bar though.

‡These guys make some very fine bitters and other products. Why their orange bitters suck so much is a complete mystery to me.

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Planter’s Punch.

I love it when a plan comes together.

Planter’s Punch.

The Planter’s Punch is completely different from any of the other recipes you’ll find on these pages. While it certainly sounds like a specific drink it is, in reality, more of a whole group of drinks founded on a single formula. Or should I say founded on a folk rhyme? But lets’s back up a bit first. The Planter’s Punch comes from Jamaica with a “planter” meaning a plantation owner and “punch” being a largely British (but originally Sanskrit) word for a diluted mixed drink often comprised of lemon juice, alcohol (probably arrack), sugar and tea – in other words an ancient cocktail prototype. But we’ll get to those another time. The Planter’s Punch is a very old rum version of the punch that is impossible to put a date on but probably goes back to the 18th century.

The rhyme that tells us how to assemble the Planter’s Punch goes like this: One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak. This is generally taken to mean ounces (or parts if upscaling) of lime juice, sugar syrup, rum and water (or perhaps juice or even ice) respectively. The problem that has troubled cocktailiens over the years is that this formula contains twice as much sweet as sour and leads to an unbalanced, overly sweet drink and as a result some liberties have been taken with the rhyme. Sometimes the first two items are transposed but that causes the rhyme to collapse – and there are many other unsatisfactory versions around as well. My theory is that the original version was bang-on but just misunderstood. I think what was meant was; one glug of lime juice, two spoons of sugar, three glugs of rum and four glugs of water. I mean seriously folks do we really think rural Jamaicans of old were dicking around with jiggers and simple syrup? We may as well believe they had waxed mustaches and artisanal leather aprons. The spoons would been roughly tablespoon size – giving us about an ounce of sugar – and if we takes the glugs as an ounce each, hey presto, a perfectly balanced drink. So, converted back to ounces, we’re at a 1:1:3:4 formula. Now, as you have no doubt noticed, that’s a lot of rum*. But Jamaicans know their rum so I’m not going to argue. With the formula down we can make a super simple literal version of “one ounce of fresh lime juice, one ounce of 1:1 sugar syrup, three ounces of Jamaican rum (such as Myers’s) and four ounces of soda water, all mixed in an iced Collins glass”. And pretty damn decent that is too. But where Planter’s Punch starts to get more interesting is when we play around within the given formula. Grenadine as some or all of the sweet is common, as is orange or pineapple juice for the weak. The classic Tiki technicians, Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic played around with this formula aplenty and as well as their various Planter’s Punch versions a considerable number of their other Tiki drinks have a striking similarity to it too. Unfortunately Dark Age (c.1970-2000) bartenders messed with the formula too and as a result there are plenty of pretty dire Planter’s Punch recipes kicking around – mostly heavy on the juice and (fake) grenadine but pretty light on the rum. We, of course, will be sticking to the original formula. For the sour we could go for lemon or grapefruit juice but lime would be the classic choice. The sweet options are endless but grenadine, falernum, ginger syrup, cinnamon syrup, passion fruit syrup, pineapple syrup or honey mix are all excellent contenders. The rum, ah, the rum. Well look, it just has to be Jamaican as we’re pretty spoiled for choice with the likes of Wray & Nephew Overproof, Myers’s, Appleton and plenty of others. The weak we should at least move from plain to sparkling water but as long as we’re careful we can use some of the more neutral (in sweet/sour terms) fruit juices such as orange or pineapple or even go for some coconut water or cold tea. That creates an almost infinite number of variations, so knock yourselves out. And remember there is no “correct” or “original” version of the Planter’s Punch so you have carte blanche to get creative here. I’ll hit you up with a powerful but tasty example to get you started.

Proof Planter’s Punch.

1oz/30ml fresh lime juice

0.5oz/15ml home-made grenadine.

0.5oz/15ml ginger syrup.

1oz /30ml Coruba NPU (or another “funky”) gold Jamaican rum.

1oz/30ml Wray & Nephew Overproof white Jamaican rum.

1oz/30ml Myers’s dark Jamaican rum.

2oz/60ml coconut water (unsweetened, unflavoured).

2oz/60ml soda water.

Stir with plenty of ice in a large Collins glass or Tiki mug.

Toast the poor souls who toiled in the sugar fields for little or no reward to give the world the sugar and rum it so desperately demanded. As for the slave owning planter’s themselves? Fuck ’em.

*Two ounces of rum would work perfectly well.

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Repo Man : The Margarita part 3.

Time for a Repo Man.

Repo Man.

Welcome to our third and final (well for now anyway) look at the Margarita and its variations. We’ve seen classic and modern versions but now it’s time for my own twist. As we discussed before there are three styles of tequila (at least once we’re down to the good 100% agave stuff) blanco which is unaged, reposado which is just slightly aged and anejo which is aged for over a year. You could say I’m a repo man* as I find that gently aged tequila to be just in the goldlocks zone; not too raw but also not so heavily influenced by the wood that it loses that characteristic tequila tanginess. While Julio Bermejo ditched the orange liqueur and replaced it with agave syrup I took a leaf out of Sasha Petraske’s book (well, not literally as it’s too good a book to be ripping up) and used honey syrup as my sweetener. But then I kind of missed the oranginess so I fired in some of my home-made orange bitters. You could also use Regan’s #6 (which are similar, if less intense) but if you leave an appropriate response in the comments I might be inclined to give away a few free samples. It might be arrogant of me to say so but I really enjoy the balance of reposado, honey, lime and a hint of bitter orange. I’ve traveled far enough from the classic Margarita recipes to have earned the right to give this its own name and it was a no-brainer for me to name it after one of my favourite films. It’s an intense drink but then a repo man is always intense.

Repo Man.

2oz /60ml 100% agave reposado tequila (Espolon in this case).

1oz / 30ml fresh lime juice.

scant 0.75oz  / about 19-20ml honey syrup (3:1).

2 or 3 good dashes of orange bitters.

Shake with ice and strained into a chilled champagne coupe. No salt and no lime garnish.

Toast Alex Cox for his brilliant 1984 cult classic.

*I actually did do a bit of repossession work when I was younger and quicker but the only piece I was packing was my lunch.

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Tommy’s Margarita : The Margarita part 2.

Rock on Tommy!

Tommy’s Margarita.

We looked recently at that Prince(ess?) of the tequila drinks; the Margarita. It’s history is as confusing as the myriad of different recipes. Thankfully there is a superb version of the noble Margarita that is simple and delicious and has a history that we can pin down with 100% accuracy. Perhaps the only confusion is that it wasn’t created by anyone called Tommy but by Julio Bermejo at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco back in about 1990. Well it was Julio’s parents Elmy and Tommy who had opened the place in 1965 so even that is easily straightened out.

It’s a deceptively simple drink containing only tequila, lime juice and agave syrup but consider this: Julio came up with this masterpiece of simplicity in the midst of the Dark Ages of the cocktail (1970-2000) when the Margarita was a monstrous slushy of cheap mixto tequila, sour mix and crushed ice rolling around for hours in a plastic tub which may or may not have been cleaned properly in living memory. What Julio saw – years ahead of the cocktail revival – was that high quality ingredients, simply but carefully prepared would create something immeasurably better than the commoditised restaurant drinks of the time. Julio used higher quality 100% agave tequilas such as Herradura reposado and the newly available agave syrup as well as freshly squeezed limes (that might sound like a no-brainer now but in 1990 nobody was squeezing limes) to mix his legendary Margarita that bore the name of the family business. The stripped back Margarita doesn’t need the orange liqueur component but lets you taste the wonders of agave – both in distilled and rawer form. If there was ever a drink guaranteed to convert the tequila doubters it’s this one. Better still, thanks to its simple ingredients, you can whip one of these modern classics up in a couple of minutes anytime the sun decides to show its face.*

Tommy’s Margarita.

2oz / 60ml good quality (100% agave) reposado tequila.

1oz / 30ml fresh lime juice – not more than a few hours old.

0.5oz / 15ml agave syrup.

Shake with ice and strain into desired glass: As with all Margarita variations the choice of whether to serve it “up” in a champagne coupé or strained into a tumbler of fresh ice is entirely personal – as is the salting of the rim. And garnishing with lime.

Toast Julio – and Tommy – Bermejo.

*By the way that reminds me: make sure to wash your hands extra well if squeezing limes then going out into strong sunlight as the combination can cause an unsightly (but not painful) skin burn that takes months to fade away. I’ve done it, it’s not pretty and it was making Margaritas that caused it.

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Margarita – part 1.

Hecho, let’s go!

The Margarita.

Without getting into the veritable maze of creation claims for the Margarita let’s just point out that this popular classic is surprisingly modern with no recipe appearing in print before 1953. Even in the (likely) case that there were older tequila/lime/orange liqueur cocktails, none of those were published prior to 1936 yet we know Americans were crossing the border into Mexico during prohibition (1920 – 1933) and it seems impossible that some kind of tequila sour wasn’t being offered to the thirsty gringos. The name of the drink is usually attributed to one lady or another who figured in the chosen creation story of the Margarita but there is another theory; The Margarita may well be based on an older style of drink called a daisy. The Spanish word for daisy is, yep, you guessed it, margarita.

The poor Margarita has become a bit of a train wreck in recent decades with the majority of those served being some sort of sour-mix slushy or fake fruit flavoured fiasco. Thankfully the idea that we are all children who can’t handle a drink that isn’t sweet, fruity and diluted has finally been overturned and we can at last see the Margarita for what it is: An honourable member of the sour family of cocktails which showcases one of the most interesting spirits in our cocktail arsenal. But then tequila itself has some issues that need to be dealt with first.

Tequila: The Low-down.

Tequila is a type of mezcal that is made from the agave plant (not cactus as is commonly believed) and whose production is highly regulated in terms of process and location. While mezcal can be made from any variety of agave, tequila can only be made from the blue (azul) agave species. It is vital to understand that there are two grades of tequila – “mixto” and 100% agave. The former is diluted with a “fuck-knows-what” neutral spirit but the latter is pure unadulturated agave deliciousness. Having rejected all mixto tequila on a life-is-too-short-for-inferior-tequila basis the remaining 100% agave tequila is sorted into three further types; white (aka silver, plata or blanco) is unaged, reposado is slightly aged (“rested”) and anejo is barrel aged for yet longer (at least one year). Tequila aficionados often suggest that blanco is the truest expression of the agave but I must admit to being more of a repo man – more of which later. So far, so good but one problem is that tequila is a very fragmented product. That is to say that there are a large number of competing products and that the selection varies considerably in different markets. Find a good 100% blanco or reposado that is available in your region but bear in mind that price isn’t always a good guide to quality in tequila and that personal tastes do vary. To get you started might I suggest that El Jimador is affordable, widely available and solid, if a bit on the dull side. If Espolon is available in your neck of the woods, go for it – it’s an excellent mid-price mixing tequila and as an added bonus has a picture of a skeleton riding a chicken on it.

Fixing the Margarita.

The best way to proceed with a drink that has been so horribly debased by The Dark Ages (1970 – 2000) is to forget everything we know about it and return to the source recipe. But which one? Well, it’s my belief that the starting point might well have been an equal parts (and how we love those) mixture of tequila, fresh lime juice and orange liqueur, shaken with ice and strained into a cocktail glass. With a salted rim? Probably not. Try that first and see if it lights your fire. If it does, one of the core reasons that is that orange liqueurs tend to be in the 35-40% zone – much higher than other liqueurs – and are working as a base as much as they are a sweetener. Stick this recipe in your belt as an easy to remember Ur-gerita and we’ll take a trip forward in time to the more modern “real” Margarita which generally follows a 2 tequila/1 Cointreau/1 lime juice formula. The first thing that strikes you is how tart either of versions are compared to the Margarita’s you’ve had before. There’s a good reason for this; the Margarita is supposed to be tart. If you’re still unconvinced add a teaspoon or two of simple syrup (more orange liqueur would skew the flavour balance too far) until it suits your palate. Remember the balance will be somewhat dependent on the sourness of your limes and your choice of orange liqueur. Speaking of optional extras, a tiny pinch of rough sea salt over the finished drink is all the garnish that is needed.

You’ll see some recipes that call for a mix of lemon and lime juice but I’m pretty confident that the lemon component was simply a cost-saving modification that stuck – and that should be taken out the back and shot. However, serving either of these versions in a tumbler over ice wouldn’t qualify as a crime. We’re not done with the Margarita just yet so watch this space for a couple of interesting variations.

Margarita (original?)

1.25oz / 37ml tequila (100% agave, blanco)

1.25oz / 37ml fresh lime juice

1.25oz / 37ml orange liqueur (triple sec, Cointreau etc.)

1 teaspoon (5ml) of simple syrup (optional – see text).

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled champagne coupé.

Sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt (optional).

Margarita (modern).

2oz / 60ml tequila (100% agave, blanco)

1oz / 30ml fresh lime juice

1oz / 30ml orange liqueur (triple sec, Cointreau etc.)

1 teaspoon (5ml) of simple syrup (optional – see text).

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled champagne coupé.

Sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt (optional).

Toast Margarita, whoever she was.


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Pisco Inferno + home-made chili liqueur.

Burn, baby, burn…

Pisco Inferno.

We recently looked at a very tasty classic cocktail – the Pisco Sour. Tinkering around with such classics is a fun way to come up with new drinks, most of the hard work already having been done for you. My Pisco Inferno is the result of precisely such jiggery-pokery. It’s a bit of a playful cheeky number this one. The idea is that the drinker thinks the name is simply (and it is) a reference to the classic 70s hit Disco Inferno and that it all looks a bit fun, lightweight and discoesque but when they taste it and get that tingling on their lips; “Ah, Pisco Inferno, I get it!” And that lip-tingling effect would be due to the secret ingredient – chili liqueur – which makes up the sweet component. Now there is a commercial chili liqueur called Ancho Reyes that is highly regarded but muy costoso and I didn’t want to burn through 40 odd beer tokens for an experiment. Solution? Make my own chili liqueur. At this point about 90% of the readers have tuned out because a) This guy is a cheapskate or b) This is going to be a lot of hassle. Congratulations remainers; you’re about to find out how easy, fun and yet subtly impressive making your own liqueurs can be. The principles below are applicable to the manufacture of any number of liqueurs using relatively dry flavouring ingredients – your imagination is the only limiting factor. Simply use any appropriate base spirits and make sure the strength of those extracting spirits is above 40%, fortifying them with a little high strength vodka or other neutral spirit (eg. Everclear/alcool blanc) if necessary.

Chili Liqueur.

In a clean jam jar or mason jar pour 120ml of tequila and 60ml of 50%ABV vodka. Add 6 large dried chili peppers (more if you’re a total chili-head), a swathe of thin lemon peel (little or no pith) and a teaspoon of peppercorns (I used some smoked ones I happened to have because: smoked!). Close and leave for 1 week, shaking at least daily. Strain out the liquid and throw away the solids. In this case a fine sieve should do the trick but more often you’ll need to use some unbleached coffee filters† to hold back super-fine particles. You should be down to about 150ml as some liquid is locked into the spices by now. This spice-infused alcoholic liquid is called a tincture and we’ll be dealing with those again in due course but basically we’re harnessing alcohol’s secret super-power of sucking the flavour out of almost anything. Now all you need to do is add another 100ml of 40% spirit (I used some vanilla vodka that I had going spare because: vanilla and chili – mmmm) and 150ml of fresh 2:1 simple syrup to your tincture. You now have about 450ml of a moderately spicy chili liqueur at about 26%ABV that should keep pretty much forever. See, that really wasn’t very difficult was it? You can apply the same basic formula to create any number of home-made liqueurs. Tip: don’t just use the main flavouring but consider complimentary flavours too (as above).

Pisco Inferno.

20z / 60ml pisco.

1oz / 30ml fresh lime juice.

0.75oz / 22ml chili pepper liqueur (Ancho Reyes* or your own).

1oz / 30ml egg white or aquafaba.

Shake hard with ice and strain into a chilled champagne coupé.

Wait for the foamy head to settle then sprinkle with something disco appropriate from the cake decorating department (as pictured or perhaps candy stars/silver baubles etc) which will remain until the end giving a sweet rewarding last sip to counter the bite of the chili.

Toast The Trammps for their 1976 disco classic.

†An even better solution are reusable superfine filters used for cold brewed and filter coffee. They don’t have the disadvantage of soaking up some of your precious tincture. Or ripping. Or running out. Or imparting a “papery” flavour. It’s also possible to “filter” by simply letting the solids settle to the bottom and then very carefully pouring out the clear part (a bottle with a abrupt neck such as a classic wine bottle is ideal).

*Given that I have not yet tested Ancho Reyes you might have to adjust the quantity for sweet/sour balance.

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