How to Invent a Cocktail, Part VI of VI

(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, "Trusting your gut, even when your gut just gave you every reason not to." can be found here.)

Chapter 6: Reaching a recipe by technique and tinkering.
Cognac ended up being a really good choice, and very little more was required besides mucking around with the proportions. I left the absinthe out, kept the Peychaud's in, traded the lemon twist for lemon juice, and held onto the kirschwasser as the star ingredient. I also added simple syrup, which deserves a story of its own.

For a long time, I thought of simple syrup as existing for the primary purpose of making drinks sweeter. And I suppose that's technically true, but it's not the only thing it does in a cocktail, and in many cases it isn't the most noticeable or the most important. Given how long I've been at this and the whole scientific research thing, it surprises me that it took me so long to appreciate the other benefits of simple syrup.

First of all, it affects the mouthfeel of the drink. Simple syrup adds viscosity, and it doesn't take a lot to make the drink as a whole feel richer and fuller-bodied. If you try using different concentrations of simple syrup (e.g., 2 parts sugar to 1 part water, instead of 1:1), you'll notice that the same volumes have different effects on the texture and feel of the drink. We often forget it, but cocktails are a tactile experience, too.

Second, sweetness affects your perception of other flavors present in the recipe. There's a theory that your body interprets the sugar as a sign that this is good, calorie-dense food, heightening your awareness of things like, for instance, the fruity flavors of raisin and cherry in this drink. It also seems to round out sourness, which may be why we add sugar to drinks that use citrus juice. We don't have a perfect, complete map of the changes in perceived flavor due to added sugar (at least, not that I know of), but if you find yourself working on a recipe that seems to be just a little bit off, and you aren't sure what's the matter, try adding a quarter of an ounce of simple syrup and see if that improves it.

That was the technique I used, and it paid off so well I ended up doubling it. After some tinkering with the other proportions, I settled on a recipe I was very happy with. The color ends up being a warm, slightly red- or orange-tinted amber, reminiscent of the old streetlights with sodium bulbs. That tipped the scales, and the drink officially became the Nightglow.

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Nightglow
2 oz. Cognac
1/2 oz. Kirschwasser
1/2 oz. 1:1 Simple Syrup
1/4 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
2 dashes Peychaud's Bitters
Shake all ingredients with ice. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and serve.

I designed this using Courvoisier, which is my go-to cocktail Cognac and makes this a damn fine drink. Most of the Cognacs you'll come across can be substituted for one another, but I find that Hennessy has a harsh overtone and too much wood, and so I try to avoid using it unless the recipe specifically benefits from those elements.

Having said that, at the launch party for Abacus, there was one bottle each of Hennessy and Courvoisier, and I decided I'd rather use a 50:50 blend in each drink than have 100% Courvoisier at the beginning of the night and 100% Hennessy at the end. I was very pleasantly surprised by the results. So if you're the sort of person who keeps multiple cocktail Cognacs in your house, you should give this a try with an ounce of each. (And we should be friends!)

That's all for this series! If you've got a reason to commission a cocktail recipe from me - whether it's for an important person in your life, a special occasion, or the hell of it - this is the kind of process I'll go through to make it. Email info@herzogcocktailschool.com if you'd like one of your very own!

How to Invent a Cocktail, Part IV of VI

(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
Lemon Twist

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:

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Acacia
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."

How to Invent a Cocktail, Part III of VI

(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 goes into this artist's cocktail?" can be found here.)

Chapter 3: What's in a name?
Cocktail names are fascinating. They evoke the exotic, the powerful, the hazy and bygone, the impossible-to-place, and the strange. Even something as mundane as a left hand acquires a sense of ominousness or ethereality when it becomes a cocktail name. Whose left hand is this? What will it do to me? (And why is it liquid?)

The fact that alcohol's effects on us are at once so familiar and so inscrutable is probably responsible for this. We talk about distilled spirits the way that our ancestors talked about actual spirits: a grandparent might have a long and close relationship with one, or a friend might not get along with another, and we talk about the capricious and distinct effects each one has on us when they take over our bodies, and the fact that none of the details are consistent from person to person doesn't affect our certainty in the slightest. Of course we name our drinks to offer meaning without understanding. 

I have always found it easier to fit a recipe to an existing name than vice-versa. Like my poet friend, I find constraints to be creatively useful, and the puzzle of creating a drink that's relevant to its title is often more fun than trying to create something ex nihilo. Fortunately, poetry shares the tendency of cocktail nomenclature to connote without denoting, which makes a book of poems a good place to start when naming a drink.

A few of the titles jumped out at me, particularly "Magnetic North" and "Nightglow," and the partial title "Trackless Trailhead." And there were individual lines tempted me, too: "Slowly Turning Galaxy," "Roiling Gray Haze," "Breaststroke Kirschwasser Wavelengths."

Kirschwasser being a favorite accent ingredient of mine and actually mentioned by name, I decided it had to be incorporated, and considered naming the drink either the Kirschwasser Wavelength or the Nightglow, after the poem in which it appeared.

There are certain cocktail ingredients that manage to feel like they're supposed to be part of one's bar without having many (or any) classic recipes that call for them specifically. Dubonnet is one, a fortified wine that you rarely need in practice unless the Dubonnet Cocktail is your thing. Kirschwasser is another - an unfortunate thing, given what a wonderful ingredient it is, but even the best drinks that call for it have faded into relative obscurity over time.

Like me, David Wondrich is a fan of kirsch, and particularly of the Rose, a 1920s cocktail known to us today almost entirely because of him. It's delicious, it's low-proof, and has a lovely soft pink color. If you're observing Lent, you might want to keep it in mind for Laetare Sunday (and if you're not, you might want to keep it in mind for breakfast).

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Rose
2 oz. Dry Vermouth
1 oz. Kirschwasser
1 tsp. Raspberry Syrup or Raspberry Liqueur
Stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
Optionally, garnish with a maraschino cherry.

Stay tuned for next week's post, "Chapter 4: Taking stock. Now what have we got?"

The Martian Water

If you aren't living under a Red Planet rock, you've probably heard the news by now: NASA has officially confirmed the presence of water on Mars.

Not indications that there was water there millions of years ago, not water frozen into ice at the poles, but actual evidence of liquid water on Mars today.

It's no secret that I think space exploration is cool (or that it is, objectively). Taking a tip from the inventor of the Moonwalk, the Savoy Hotel's Joe Gilmore, who never let a historic moment pass without a cocktail to commemorate it, I've decided to come up with something for the occasion.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Martian Water:

Complete with a plant of the sort you'd find on Mars.

Complete with a plant of the sort you'd find on Mars.

The Martian Water
1 1/2 oz. Laird's 100-Proof Applejack
1/2 oz. Cocchi Americano
1/4 oz. Kirschwasser
1/4 oz. Campari
1 Dash Regan's Orange Bitters
Stir with ice and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a twist of orange. Sip while looking skyward.

Note that the orange twist is not depicted in the photos, because I didn't have any oranges at the time. Trust me when I say that it belongs. It's amazing what those oils can do.

Neat color, right? Above all, I wanted to evoke the rusty red-orange of the planet's surface, which gave me the Campari + aged spirit idea. I also took structural inspiration from the Aviation, created a hundred years ago to celebrate man's conquest of shallower skies, and also a color-driven cocktail. Its maraschino gave me the idea of adding kirschwasser; its visual and historical cousin, the Yale, suggested fortified wine. The quinquina also conveniently alludes to the Twentieth Century Cocktail, which, despite actually being named for a train, is thereby indirectly named for the period when human exploration of the heavens began.

I could claim that the orange elements were my answer to the Aviation's lemon juice, or another nod to the allegedly-Red Planet's actual color; but the truth is, they're in there for flavor alone. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

You know, like these ones.