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By Ron Fisher

If Dale Carnegie had known how to make a Mai Tai, he could have saved himself all the time and work writing “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. This cocktail will make you popular. Make no mistake — the Mai Tai is no <frou-frou> tiki drink – it’s a delicious and sophisticated cocktail, and it can really wow a crowd.

“Trader Vic” Bergeron claims to have invented the Mai Tai in 1944 at his restaurant in Oakland, California. When he offered his creation to friends from Tahiti, they took one sip and said, “Mai tai roa ae.” In Tahitian this means, “Out of this world, the best.” With that, and some (shameless) self-promotion on Vic’s part, a legend was born.

Those of an age will remember Trader Vic’s at one of two locations in New York. The restaurant originally opened in 1958 at the swank Savoy-Plaza Hotel (now the GM Building), and in 1965 it migrated with its Samoan Fog Cutters, Zombie Cocktails, and faux Polynesian décor across the street to a basement room in the Plaza on Central Park South. When the Plaza changed hands in the late 1980s, the new owner deemed Trader Vic’s “tacky” and closed it down. Who was the new owner? Donald Trump. Once upon a time there were more than twenty Trader Vic’s in the U.S., but today, there are just two – Atlanta and the Bay Area – as well as a few spots in Europe and the Far East, and a number of restaurants in the Middle East.

The Mai Tai has a fairly standard bill of ingredients, but for one. There is the base, rum; a modifier, lime juice; a flavoring; Cointreau or Curaçao; and a sweetener, orgeat syrup, which is almond-based. It’s the orgeat (pron: or’ zhah) that makes the Mai Tai special. The bad news is that orgeat is expensive, hard to find, and, as far as I know, only used in a Mai Tai. The good news is that you can make your own quite easily using almond extract.

The almond flavor in a Mai Tai is subtle — it lurks in the background and is hard to identify by taste. It complements the orange-y essence of the Cointreau, but neither of them dominates. It offsets the tartness of the lime, but not completely. Most people take a few sips, develop a quizzical look on their face, and ask, “What <is> that flavor?” And then they’re hooked! Do beware if any of your drinkers have nut allergies – you will not win any friends serving them a Mai Tai.

To make an orgeat substitute, mix almond extract with a sweetener. You can use simple syrup, but my go-to cocktail sweetener is agave nectar. It has a richer flavor than simple syrup, and is perfect for any recipe that calls for brown sugar, honey, or a heartier-flavored sweetener. Only in cases in which you want a clear or brightly colored drink – mojitos and daiquiris, for example – will simple syrup be the sweetener to use. Another advantage with agave is that there is no mixing involved. Agave nectar is available in the cooking-ingredients aisle at the grocery store, it’s not expensive and a bottle will last for ages.

<<The Mai Tai>>

2 oz. dark rum, or preferably 1 oz. light and 1 oz. dark

¾ oz. fresh lime juice

¾ oz. simple-syrup orgeat substitute or ¼-½ oz. agave substitute (see below), to taste

¼ oz. Cointreau or Curaçao

Mix all ingredients in a rock’s glass and add ice. If you like a sweeter cocktail, add a little more orgeat substitute. Note: 1 tbsp. = ½ oz., which is good to remember when mixing. Wondering if you got it right? If the cocktail is subtly sweet, subtly sour, and subtly almond, you got it right.

<Orgeat Substitute>

½ tsp. almond extract

1 oz. of simple syrup, or ½ oz. agave nectar.

Mix ingredients together. Agave should be warmed.

1 oz. of simple syrup is 1 tbsp. of sugar dissolved in 1 tbsp. of water. Agave nectar is twice as sweet as simple syrup, so you need half as much. Either recipe will make two cocktails, depending on desired sweetness.

By Ron Fisher

You’re having guests for dinner and you remember that one is pregnant, or one does not drink for some reason or another, or, because of the distance to be travelled, one has opted to be a designated driver. Don’t these folks deserve something better than a ginger ale or a seltzer with a twist of lime?

Enter the mocktail, a rather sheepish name for an interesting drink, albeit one without booze. Better to call it a ‘Cocktail Without’.

When you build most cocktails, you typically have a spirit, a modifier and something else to enhance the flavor. For example, in a Manhattan, there is rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters. The spirit does a lot of heavy lifting in a traditional cocktail, but a non-alcoholic drink can’t rely on that, so you need some sharp flavors to pick up the slack. It also has to be attractive, quite frankly, if only to show off a bit.

Google ‘mocktail’ and you will find a variety of interesting concoctions. In many cases, the recipes are very complicated, introducing a range of flavors and mixtures (lychee-passion fruit purée) to make up for the lack of alcohol. Tasty, to be sure, but not very practical. <ROTR> found some recipes that don’t require any advance preparation and which have ingredients that are fairly easy to come by. Making them involves muddling – mashing up the ingredients in a glass – which is more work than just pouring liquids, but these drinks look good, taste great, and are well worth the effort.

Cucumber Lemon Cooler

6-8 slices of cucumber, cut into small pieces

1½ oz. lemon juice

1½ tsp. light brown-sugar syrup (dissolve sugar in an equivalent amount of water)

6 oz. club soda

The trick with this drink is to get as much juice out of the cucumber as possible. If you have a juicer, or some type of press, it’s easy – juice the cucumber. If not, you’ll have to muddle the cucumber in the bottom of a thick-walled, tall glass. A muddler looks like a small baseball bat, and instead of holding the knob, you grab the barrel and use the knob to do the mashing. If you don’t have a muddler, you can use the handle of a large wooden spoon, or any other blunt instrument that you can safely hold. Muddle the cucumber to a soupy pulp and strain the juice into a separate tall glass. Add the lemon juice and sugar syrup and stir. Fill the glass with ice and club soda, and garnish with a cucumber wheel. This is a light and very refreshing drink.

Virgin Ginger Rogers

¼-½ tsp. light brown sugar

10-12 mint leaves

1 piece of ginger, ¼ in. thick and the diameter of a quarter

¾ oz. lime juice

6 oz. ginger ale

This time, we are muddling mint, trying to get the flavor out of the leaves. Put the sugar into the bottom of a tall glass, then the mint leaves, and muddle, using the sugar as grist to scrape the mint. When the mint leaves just start to fall apart, add the ginger and lime juice, and muddle until the ginger begins to crumble. Strain the liquid into a tall glass, add ice, and then fill with soda water. Garnish with a sprig of mint or a lime wedge. This drink has great color and the sprig of mint really gives it pizazz.

Nola Mule

5 oz. ginger beer

2 oz. pineapple juice

1 oz. lime juice

2 tsp. simple syrup

Here’s one you can just mix and serve. It comes from the bar at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix (a wonderful place to enjoy a cocktail, either inside or out). Make sure that you use ginger beer, which has a much stronger kick than ginger ale.

Lastly, as a cocktail writer — an advocate of drinking — I would like to make a brief comment about those folks who have decided to step away from alcohol. It is perhaps the most important decision they have ever made, it was not done easily, and anything we can do to help is a small task indeed. If it means taking a minute or two to muddle some mint or a cucumber so that they can feel part of the crowd, it is time well spent.

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By Ron Fisher

We all associate the mint julep with the Kentucky Derby, which sells thousands of them every year, but the cocktail existed well before its adoption by Churchill Downs. There are references to the drink that date to the late 1700s (many citing it as a remedy for stomach ailments). In fact, it wasn’t until 1938 that the Derby took ownership of the mint julep, largely as a way to promote Kentucky’s bourbon in the years after Prohibition.

For such a simple concoction – bourbon, mint, sugar, and ice – the fussing and nitpicking over how to make one “correctly” rivals anything I have seen with other traditional cocktails. Handling the mint, the consistency of the ice, the type of cup (silver or glass), whether to include a fruit garnish, and even the length of the straw and how to insert it into the glass are all subjects of deep scrutiny. You think I’m kidding? In his 1939 opus, “The Gentleman’s Companion”, Charles Baker writes, “A julep is more than a mere chilled liquid; it is a tradition which is to be respected…No man can rough and tumble his julep-making and expect that luck must always be on his side, that a lovely arctic frosted thing shall always reward his careless ignorance.”

It’s all so complicated. Thinking about this, I am reminded of a previous life, when I worked in a banking group in which we had an in-house lawyer. Before going out to negotiate a transaction, he would tell me, “Here are the three things you need to get – A, B, & C. Everything else is brownie points.” Off I would go on this odious task, listening to the lawyers go back and forth about this and that, but when A, B, & C came up, I put my nose down, my fist on the table, and I always went back with what I was told to get.

In that spirit, there are three things you need to know about making a mint julep: the mint in the drink, the ice, and the mint as a garnish. Everything else is, well, brownie points.

When building the cocktail, you need to infuse a mint flavor into the liquid. There are two ways to do this: gently muddling six to eight mint leaves in the bottom of a glass with simple syrup, or steeping the mint with the simple syrup (which you need to do if you are making in bulk, discussed below). If you are mixing the juleps individually and muddling, you want the leaves to remain intact, so the muddle is more of a series of taps. Alternatively, fifteen or so aggressive stirs will achieve the same result.

Next, we have the ice. Every recipe in the world calls for crushed ice, so far be it from me to disagree. If your refrigerator has an ice crusher, you’re in business. Otherwise, get out your blender, fill it with ice, and hit the switch.

Lastly, the mint garnish. When we made juleps in the <ROTR> test kitchen, we tasted the drinks before and after we garnished with mint. After only muddling, we got a flavor of mint. With the muddled mint and a garnish on the top of the glass, it was a symphony of mint. The difference was astounding. Try it and you’ll see what I mean.

As for the other <accoutrements>, if you have silver cups, by all means, use them. They look great, they keep the drinks cold, and the condensation that forms on the outside adds to the allure. You want to garnish with fruit? Fine, just don’t overpower the mint. And, if you want to serve the cocktails with a straw, cut them short so that your nose will be that much closer to the mint at the top.

<<<The Mint Julep>>>

3 oz. bourbon

1½ oz. simple syrup

6-8 fresh mint leaves (without stems)

4-5 stems of fresh mint, for garnish

Crushed ice

In the bottom of a julep cup or a medium-sized glass, add the simple syrup and the mint leaves. Muddle lightly or stir aggressively. Add the bourbon and some crushed ice, and stir. Then, add enough ice to fill the glass and insert the mint garnish, so that the mint protrudes well above the surface of the ice. If you want to be fancy, use a chopstick to make a hole in the ice and insert a straw that rises two inches above the top of the glass.

If you are making many juleps at one time, or muddling isn’t your thing, you can substitute the simple syrup and mint leaves with minted simple syrup. <It does not replace the mint garnish>, which is a must.

<Minted Simple Syrup>

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

8 stems of fresh mint leaves, destemmed

Combine the ingredients in a saucepan. Stir frequently until it reaches a simmer, then cover and remove from heat. Allow to cool, remove the mint leaves. Use same proportion as above.

By Ron Fisher

 

They say that Scotch is an acquired taste, most likely because of its smoky flavor. My father was a Scotch drinker, and when I was growing up, I would get a sip of his drink every hither and yon, so I acquired the taste without much thought on my part. That said, it’s a complex spirit, and enjoying it can be quite an adventure.

 

Scotch starts with barley malt that has been cooked above a peat fire. Barley malt is barley that has been moistened, allowed to sprout and kiln-dried. In Scotland, the malt is dried in kilns with a porous floor directly above burning peat, which gives the malt, and hence the Scotch, a smoky flavor. By contrast, with Irish whiskey, also made from barley, the malt is dried over a non-porous floor, and thus the smoke never meets the grain. Because of the smokiness, Scotch doesn’t mix well, and there are very few Scotch-based cocktails, which we will return to in short order.

 

Scotch has deep roots. The earliest reference to distillation in Scotland is an invoice from 1495 for barley malt that had been sold to Friar John Cor (how often in history we find monks fermenting and distilling!). Only whiskey produced in Scotland can be called Scotch. It must be predominantly made from barley and aged in oak barrels for at least three years. Ageing, which allows a slow evaporation through the pores of the wood, makes the whisky smoother, and the oak gives it both flavor and an amber color. Among whiskies, Scotch requires more ageing than bourbon, and bourbon more than rye.

 

There are two types of Scotch that one finds on the shelves at the liquor store: single malts and blends, although both names are a bit misleading. With a single malt, the word ‘single’ refers to the distillery, and not the malt. This type of Scotch (think of Talisker, Balvenie or Macallan) comes from one distillery, and is made only with malted barley, but is still typically a blend of different barleys or even different years. Blended Scotch (Chivas, Dewar’s, Johnnie Walker), which is 90% of the whisky produced in Scotland, contains whiskies from more than one distillery and uses malt from barley and other grains (wheat, oats, corn). In both single malts and blends, distillers mix the whisky to keep the taste consistent, since different barrels and different malts can impart different flavors.

 

The accepted custom is that a single malt is consumed straight up. In my college years, I was travelling with some friends in Scotland, and at one bar, one of the guys asked for the local single malt on the rocks. The bartender rather emphatically put his hands palms-down on the bar and, leaning directly towards my friend, said, “A blend you can have with ice, but a single malt (with ice),” his voice rising, “you’ll not have in this bar!” So, I always drink single malts straight up, if for no other reason that I’m still too scared to do otherwise. Actually, adding water to a single malt, a few drops per ounce, won’t dilute it but will add to the flavor. The water unravels certain amino acids and ‘opens up’ various compounds within the Scotch. Try it – you’ll taste the difference.

 

Which blend or which single malt to drink is really a matter of taste. Single malts can be expensive, but they are very distinctive, and finding one that you enjoy, both the aroma and flavor, is a real treat. There are excellent blends, as well, which are as ‘crafted’ as the single malts. Johnnie Walker Black is a hearty, smoky Scotch that stands up to water or seltzer. Cutty Sark is light in color, and besides being the Scotch that my father drank, there are stories that it was Hemingway’s choice because he could have a double and everyone would think it was Scotch and water.

 

What cocktails can you make with Scotch? There is only one. The <Rye on the Rock> test kitchen went through all the cocktail books and made almost every Scotch-based cocktail that we could find – a Rob Roy, a Rusty Nail, the Mamie Taylor, and a Blood and Sand – and we didn’t like any of them. Once upon a time, the British drank Scotch with ginger ale, but we didn’t like that either. The one which passed muster is noted below.

 

<<Scotch and Soda>>

 

2 ounces blended Scotch whisky

5-6 ounces soda water

 

Put Scotch into a tall glass. Add ice and soda water. Enjoy.

 

 

 

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