(Recently, my friend Luke quietly published a book of poetry. It's called Abacus, and you can buy or download it here. I created a signature cocktail for the launch party, and because I sometimes get asked how I go about inventing a new cocktail, I thought you might like to see my thought process for this one. It's a longish story, so I've broken it up into six pieces, each of which will be a separate post and conclude with a recipe. Last week's chapter, "What's in a name?" can be found here.)
Chapter 4: Taking stock. Now what have we got?
Incorporating all of the above - the inspiration of Lautrec, the idiosyncratic taste for Gibsons, the love of absinthe, the necessary presence of kirschwasser - I came up with a first draft of the drink. It was going to have a dry gin base, with a quarter or half ounce of kirschwasser, a twist of lemon, a dash of Peychaud's, and possibly a rinse of absinthe. I wanted to import the structure of the Earthquake and adapt it for the audience. I'd paired Peychaud's and kirsch successfully before, so I was confident about that. The one hesitation I had was with the absinthe, which I worried might not play so nicely with the heavy dose of stonefruit. Other than that, I felt confident that I'd just be tinkering with the volumes.
Boy was I wrong.
The absinthe was a clear nonstarter from the very first try. It was complicated, it clashed, it overpowered everything else if there was too much and stuck out like a sore thumb if there was too little. Gone, totally gone.
But once I'd dealt with the absinthe problem, I realized there was a bigger one: the gin. The savory notes of the gin were really coming to the fore, and not in a good way. I thought it might be a problem with the particular gin I was using, so I tried another. And another. Each one worse than the last.
The actual problem was the kirschwasser, of course, which is a tricky ingredient. First of all, it's a strong presence. You usually get all the kirsch flavor you could possibly need with just a quarter ounce. But it's also simultaneously fruity and dry, and either characteristic can pop when you least need it to. You can't reliably use it for a fruit accent, because you might end up drying the cocktail out instead; you can't reliably use it as a better-than-vodka way to dry out a recipe, because the fruitiness can imply sweetness to the palate. And it has the tiniest hint of woody plant matter, like a cherry stem left out in the sun to dry, which you have to figure out a way to work with to have any hope of using this stuff in a cocktail.
It will fight you. Sometimes it will win. But if you can get the hang of it, kirschwasser is an incredible ingredient.
And given that it actually showed up in the book of poetry, I wasn't about to take it out of the recipe. So if it was clashing with the gin, the gin had to go. With the absinthe already gone, that left me with the following recipe:
1/4 oz. Kirschwasser
1 dash Peychaud's Bitters
Yeah, not gonna happen. It was time to take this back to the drawing board.
You'll see how this turned out next week, but for now I do feel compelled to say that there is a classic cocktail that uses both kirschwasser and gin, just not in the way I was trying to. It's called the Acacia, and it doesn't go anywhere near bitters or absinthe, balancing the dry gin/kirsch palate with warm, rich, sweet Bénédictine, another favorite ingredient of mine. In other words, I had a decent idea and was playing with it in the wrong sandbox:
2 oz. Gin
3/4 oz. Bénédictine
1/4 oz. Kirschwasser
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon peel.
Note that the garnish is very important in this drink. Twist it over the glass, run it along the rim, and then drop it in. That slight hint of citrus ties it all together.
Stay tuned for next week's post, "Chapter 5: Trusting your gut, even when your gut gives you every reason not to."