Distilled Knowledge Cocktail: The Martini

Damn if I haven't tried to write this post more than once. But we all have our Things, and the Martini is one of mine. And there's a lot to be said about it.

Let's start with the recipe, because I know I have a handle on that. When I sat down to make a Martini for this post, it so happened that I could make a delicious version using just ingredients from Portland, Maine:

3 1/2 oz. Aria Portland Dry Gin
1/2 oz. Sweetgrass Dry Vermouth
Stir with ice and strain into - what else? - a Martini glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

Note for the home bartender: "Garnish with a twist of [fruit]" means take a strip or a small medallion of the peel of that fruit, twist it over the glass to express the oils into the drink, run it around the rim of the glass, and then drop it in. It occurred to me as I was writing that that it often shows up in recipes without explanation, and could easily be confused for, "Drop a piece of lemon peel into the glass," which wouldn't be quite as effective.

Ordinarily, Martinis are garnished with a lemon twist or a cocktail olive (the latter sometimes accompanied by some of the olive brine to make a Dirty Martini). It's easy to overlook garnishes when making cocktails at home, but if you won't take my word that you should avoid doing so in general, please at least take my advice and avoid it here. The Martini is disproportionately defined by its garnish, to the point that one variation - the Gibson - is distinguished today entirely by being garnished with a cocktail onion. There's more to that story, but...well, we'll get there.

I'm a twist man, myself. That little bit of lemon sharpens and highlights the citrus notes already present in the gin; the resulting cocktail is crisp and bracing. To my tastes, the olive garnish slows down the drink - and the drinker - with that heavy, salty/savory flavor. There's certainly nothing wrong with that, and I've enjoyed an olive Martini from time to time. I recommend trying both and seeing which one you prefer. Honestly, that's a good rule of thumb whenever you have a choice between two cocktails.

I also tend to like my Martinis on the dry side, as, it seems, do most Martini drinkers. But just as it's possible to have too much of a good thing, it's possible to have a Martini that is too dry, usually by preparing one without any vermouth whatsoever.

In fact, let's take a moment to review all the ways in which people insist on soiling the Martini's good name, shall we?

The Herzog Cocktail School's Official List of Martiniological Heresies

  1. Serving a "Martini" that's just gin, or gin with a garnish. Often cutesily accompanied by a "solemn look" in the direction of France, Italy, or the vermouth bottle; equally often served on the rocks in a cocktail glass. Even worse if you do this with vodka.
  2. Failing to assume that gin is the standard base spirit unless otherwise specified. If someone asks you for a Martini, respect them enough to assume that they'd have asked for a Vodka Martini if they'd wanted one. If you ask for a Martini, respect the bartender enough to assume they'll make it with gin; if you want vodka, ask for it specifically. "Gin Martini" should be as necessary a phrase as "Whiskey Manhattan" or "Rum Daiquiri."
  3. Assuming that anything served in a cocktail glass can be called a "Martini." For pity's sake, I see menus all the time that list the Sidecar or the Cosmopolitan under the heading, "Martinis." In fact, I can't count (or conceive of!) the number of times I've seen a "Martini Menu" on which not a single drink contained gin, vermouth, or any other kind of fortified wine.
  4. Ever applying the "-tini" suffix to a drink. Ever.
  5. Shaking your Martini without a very good reason. It won't "bruise the vermouth," as is often claimed, but it will dilute the drink needlessly and take away some of the delightful crispness the Martini naturally possesses. Unless you're drinking a Vesper, can explain why I made an exception for the Vesper, or are James Bond, stir.

But why all these rules, and what's the deal with the Gibson, anyway? Well, all that history is part of what makes this such a complicated drink to write about. But with thanks and apologies to David Wondrich, who covers a lot of this in more detail in Imbibe!, I'm going to give it a shot in a second Martini post (I did tell you I had a lot to say, didn't I?). Stay tuned for Part II!

    Distilled Knowledge Cocktail: The Old Fashioned

    I'd planned to finish this series between now and October 4th - I had friends over so I could bang out a bunch of the book's recipes at once - but, well, Christmas came early yesterday. I don't want to leave my preorder readers in the lurch, so I'm accelerating the Distilled Knowledge recipe series and pulling back the curtain on the full list here.

    I started with the [Felodipine] Greyhound, in part because "Does grapefruit juice get you drunker?" was one of the ur-questions that led me to write Distilled Knowledge. But I can't go any further without covering the Old Fashioned, the first drink to bear the name "cocktail."

    Let's talk about that name for a moment, because I remember how much it blew my mind the first time I learned where it came from.

    The first record we have of what a "cocktail" is comes from 1806. In The Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York, editor Harry Croswell defined the cocktail as:

     "a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters"

    (There's a scan of this available via Wikipedia, because we live in the future.)

    In those days, and for much of the nineteenth century, drink names referred to preparations that could be applied to a variety of base spirits, rather than to specific recipes. We do this occasionally today - one might order a "Brandy Manhattan" or a "Vodka Martini" and expect to be understood - but the standard assumption is that drink names are proper nouns, uniquely identifying the drinks they describe.

    Two hundred years ago, the names of drinks were descriptions. You'd give the base spirit you wanted and a word that indicated your preferred preparation. So you might, for instance, order a Brandy Julep, or a Gin Sour, a Rum Cocktail, etc.

    The story of how "cocktail" came to refer to the whole category of mixed drinks is a long and subtle one. David Wondrich covers it brilliantly in Imbibe! For our purposes here, all you need to know is that by the end of the nineteenth century, many things more complicated than the drink Harry Croswell described were referred to as "cocktails."

    But there were old-time cocktail drinkers who found this frustrating. How was one to order a stimulating liquor composed of whiskey, sugar, water, and bitters, when "whiskey cocktail" could now refer to a dozen different things?

    And so it was that this drink came to be called the "Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail." One can hear the conversation that led to this standard. It must have happened scores of times:

    "What'll ya have?"
    "A whiskey cocktail."
    "What kind of whiskey cocktail? An Improved Whiskey Cocktail, or a Fancy Whiskey Cocktail, or a Manhattan Cocktail, or - "
    "No, no, none of those things. I want an old fashioned whiskey cocktail."

    In time, we shortened the name to "Old Fashioned," as the number of people who cared about the old meaning of "whiskey cocktail" dwindled. Even in the early twentieth century, we were interpreting "old fashioned" pretty liberally, with muddled fruit of various types finding its way into the drink (beginning an argument that endures to this day).

    I prefer my Old Fashioneds simple and, well, old fashioned. Whiskey, sugar, bitters. A little citrus twist as a garnish is about as extravagant as it gets.

    Old Fashioned
    Place a sugar cube in an Old Fashioned glass. Soak it completely with Angostura bitters and muddle until the sugar is fine or completely dissolved. Stir in two ounces of whiskey. Optionally, place one very large ice cube in the center of the glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

    I've presented this as a set of instructions rather than as an ordinary recipe for a few reasons. The first and most boring is that this is how I actually make them, and I'd like to be honest. More philosophically, I think the ritual is an important part of the pleasure in this case, and it seems appropriate to give this most ancient of cocktails a paragraph rather than bullet points.

    For an Old Fashioned in this style, you should use a base spirit you'd be content to drink on its own. I used Gunpowder Rye from Portland, Maine, an excellent whiskey that fully embraces the natural spiciness of rye. I haven't seen it further south or west than Boston, but if it's available in your area, I recommend it very highly as a sipping whiskey.

    If you must muddle fruit into it, you have about a hundred years of precedent. Add a (pitted) maraschino, brandied, or bourbon cherry and a slice (not a twist; you want the juices in the flesh) to the glass and muddle them along with the sugar and bitters. The drink will be messier and offend some sensibilities, but it will still taste good.

    Soda water, on the other hand, has no place in this drink. People have been drinking the darned thing without it for two hundred and ten years. Take the hint.

    That'll do it for the Old Fashioned, at least for now. Stay tuned for more updates: there'll be one every couple of days from now until we've finished the list!

    It's Really Real!

    The books have begun to arrive! I have delivery confirmations from two states so far (Massachusetts and Florida), and Amazon is now listing Distilled Knowledge for regular orders rather than pre-orders. Christmas came early this year!

    If you've bought a copy already, thank you! If you haven't bought a copy yet, you can order one online and have it in the next few days.

    You can also wait until the official publication in October and come to one of the release events! Starting on October 6th, there will be more of these than you can shake a stick at (Northeast only, so far). Those events will be added to the official HCS calendar and listed on the Distilled Knowledge summary page as soon as we have registration information available.

    In the mean time, if you want to be sure you get all the Distilled Knowledge updates, you can sign up for the mailing list here!

    It's Real

    Ladies and gentlemen, I can confirm that the book has taken physical form: my copy of Distilled Knowledge arrived this weekend!

    I spent months trying to imagine what this moment would feel like. I gave up (often), because I really had no parallel for it. I would often joke that seeing my name on the cover would make me certain that someone had made a mistake, that my name had gotten slapped onto somebody else’s book somehow. I say, “joke,” even though some part of me probably thought that might happen. I really, really had no idea what to expect.

    I’m very happy to report that the feeling I actually experienced when I opened the box and saw my copy of my book was absolute, unbridled joy. Have you ever hugged a book? Literally hugged it. Squeezed it into your chest like it would dissolve into your body. I have. Books are harder than people, but it still works.

    I could ramble on about this forever, but I won't. Instead I'll answer some of your possibly-burning questions, after which I'll give you the recipe for the cocktail I devised the night I found out my copy of Distilled Knowledge was in the country and on its way to me.

    Does this mean I can get a copy now, too?
    Not yet! Unless you're reviewing Distilled Knowledge for a publication or something like that. This is a small initial order for reviewers and people who worked on the book.

    OK, so when and how do I get a copy?
    October 4th is still the landfall date. If you want to pick up a copy at your local bookstore, it should be available from then on.

    If you want to order a copy online, you can do that now, although it still won't arrive before 10/4. Distilled Knowledge is available for pre-order through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

    What if I want a signed copy? Where can I order that?
    You can't order a signed copy per se. If you order a regular copy or buy one at your local bookstore, I'll be happy to sign it whenever you, I, and it are all in the same room.

    You can also come to a book signing, and either buy a book there or bring one for me to sign! Our schedule of promotional events isn't out just yet, but I can say we're planning to focus on Boston and New York, where we'll be doing a bunch of events from October until the last drop of interest has been squeezed from those cities' populations. Other events throughout the Northeast are reasonably likely but have yet to be scheduled.

    If you live in other parts of the country (or in other countries), I hope we'll be able to do events near you, but it will depend to some degree on how well the book is doing, and I don't expect we'd be there before 2017.

    How do I know when promotional events are happening, and where, and whether they're signings or cocktail lessons or something else entirely?
    Sign up for the Herzog Cocktail School Mailing list! That is, by far, the surest way to get information about upcoming events. You can even choose to just receive information about Distilled Knowledge.

    Sign up here: http://www.herzogcocktailschool.com/contact/

    Is there, like, a one-stop shop where I can get any Distilled Knowledge information I could possibly need at once? That will be regularly updated as new information comes in?
    You bet! It's right here: http://www.herzogcocktailschool.com/distilled-knowledge/

    You said something about a cocktail?
    Frequently, yes!

    Here you go:

    Publication Cocktail
    1 1/2 oz. Rittenhouse 100º Rye
    1 oz. Angostura Amaro
    1/4 oz. Maple Syrup
    2 Dashes Crude "Sycophant" (Orange & Fig) Bitters
    Shake with ice. Strain into a chilled coupé glass.

    Note: This drink is definitely inspired by Angostura's Waffle Shots, which I encountered at Tales of the Cocktail last summer (and which are the primary reason I own Angostura Amaro in the first place). Waffle Shots consist of Angostura Rum, Angostura Amaro, and maple syrup, mixed together in a wide-mouth cup, with a quarter of a waffle dusted in powdered sugar and dunked into it. I can think of no better breakfast item for a tailgate, ever.

    The Waffle Shot is a richer, heavier drink than the Publication, which ends up being very whiskey-forward thanks to the Rittenhouse and gets a nice bit of brightness from the bitters. The drinks are also distinguished by the presence or absence of waffles.


    Distilled Knowledge Cocktail: The Greyhound

    (Not sure what the title means? The Distilled Knowledge announcement should fill in the gaps.)

    I'm counting down the days to publication with a series on the cocktails mentioned in Distilled Knowledge. They're an odd bunch, I'll grant, but each serves a purpose in the narrative.

    Pride of place goes to the Greyhound, the cocktail that taught us not to mix grapefruit juice with medicine.

    As you may have heard, it's a bad idea to drink grapefruit juice if you're on any kind of prescription drugs. It has a tendency to lead to higher-than-intended blood concentrations of your medications, with consequences that range from "mildly inconvenient" to "literally fatal."

    You may not know that we learned this entirely by accident.

    Researchers were studying the effects of ethanol on a blood pressure medication called felodipine. It was important for the experiment's success that the subjects not know whether they'd been given booze or not, so the researchers tried a variety of mixers (for science!) and concluded that the taste of the alcohol was best masked by grapefruit juice. 

    In the course of the study, they found that their subjects' blood felodipine levels were higher than expected across the board. Imagine their surprise when they realized they'd made a major scientific discovery "following an assessment of every juice in a home refrigerator one Saturday evening."

    Distilled Knowledge Greyhound
    2 1/2 oz. Double-Strength White Grapefruit Juice
    1/2 oz. Vodka
    Stir with ice. Serve on the rocks.

    If what you're looking for is a drink with the taste of the booze completely hidden, mixing five parts grapefruit juice with one part vodka is a surefire way to get there. It is not, however, the way the cocktail is ordinarily served; merely an approximation of the concoction the felodipine researchers were using.

    Note that if you'd like to add felodipine to this drink and make a Felodipine Greyhound, do not do so under any circumstances. Did you know that it's possible for your blood pressure to be too low? It is, and you don't want to find out what that's like.

    On the other hand, there are many other versions of the Greyhound that don't threaten your health nearly as much. These days, it's commonly made with a 3:2 or a 2:1 ration of grapefruit juice to vodka. Personally, I prefer the former; grapefruit juice can be quite a lot when it's the majority of a drink by volume.

    Contemporary Greyhound
    3 oz. Fresh Grapefruit Juice
    2 oz. Vodka
    Prepare as above.

    I still advise stirring, because shaking a drink that's mostly juice by volume just seems excessive. Note that a fresh grapefruit will yield about 3 oz. of juice, and the Greyhound needn't be a particularly exact drink; if you'd like to remember the recipe as "two ounces of vodka and a grapefruit," I won't stop you.

    With a pinch of salt and more around the rim, this becomes the Salty Dog, which I assume is so called because "salty Greyhound" doesn't have the same ring. 

    With a gin base instead of a vodka one, it becomes...the Greyhound. Yes, this is one of the (many) cocktails that got its start as a gin drink and evolved into a vodka one as tastes changed.

    It's first attested in the Savoy Cocktail Book, where it's mentioned as a variation on the older Grapefruit Cocktail, a concoction involving grapefruit jelly. In any case, it was a gin drink, and it would be some years before vodka came into vogue this far west.

    Savoy Greyhound

    "Take three and a half glasses of Gin and the juice of   1 1/2 good-sized Grapefruit. Sugar to taste, plenty of ice. Shake and serve."

    Near as I can figure, that works out to about seven ounces of gin, four and a half ounces of grapefruit juice, and sugar to taste. This would have been a batch, with each drink closer to three ounces total. Still boozier than the modern version, and much ginnier-tasting. 

    Once introduced to vodka, the Greyhound ran off with it and never looked back. And honestly, I can't blame it; I say this very rarely, but I think this drink makes more sense with vodka. It's a simple cocktail. It hits a few notes (sour, bitter, ethanol) and it hits them hard. Tossing juniper in there seems more distracting than enhancing in this case, and I expect most people who Really Like Gin will prefer not to cover its flavor with an even larger dose of grapefruit.

    That'll do it for the first installment. Stay tuned for more!

    Distilled Knowledge

    No more teasing hints: this is the real deal, the big announcement you've been waiting for. Ladies and gentlemen, friends, colleagues, subscribers, clients, and bitter rivals, I'm pleased to announce that I'm writing a book!

    Or, more to the point, I've written a book. That's the current draft of the cover up there. It's called Distilled Knowledge, and it's coming out on October 4th of this year. I know, I know, that's a long time to wait. But I'll have a lot of interesting things to share between now and then, beginning with this list of answers to the questions you might be asking right now:

    I know, right?

    What is this book about?
    Scientific topics that relate to drinking. If you've ever wondered why we age our spirits in oak barrels, how drinking makes you dizzy, or whether carbonated mixers really help you get drunker, you'll find the answers in this book.

    What makes this book different?
    You can read it straight through or use it as a reference equally easily. The information is broken down by topic, so you can get the answer to your question in a few hundred words and then resume drinking. 

    Wait, so it isn't a cocktail guide?
    Nope! Cocktail guides are a dime a dozen. Even good ones are relatively easy to come by these days. 

    Where did you get the idea for this book?
    I found myself trying to find hard scientific answers to random alcohol questions one too many times. It occurred to me that somebody should put all this information in one place; I just figured that somebody would be somebody else.

    How did you come to write this book?
    Timing and good fortune, and I'll never pretend otherwise. It's amazing what can happen when you run your mouth in front of the right people. But being the one with the idea and having a background in spirits didn't hurt.

    How can I get a copy of this book?
    It will be available for purchase at bookstores around the country and online. Boston and Cambridge have a great culture of local bookstores promoting local authors; to return the favor, I'll have a dedicated page on the website that lists local shops carrying Distilled Knowledge (along with other information about it).

    OK, I mean, that's cool and all, but is there a way I can get a copy and go drinking at the same time?
    Oh hell yes. There are going to be so many parties, signings, and promotional whoop-de-dos that you might even get sick of hearing about them. If you haven't already signed up for the HCS mailing list, do that right now to get invited to the launch party in Boston and hear about other upcoming events.

    Aw, man! I don't live in Boston - will there be a tour? Can you come to my city if there is?
    I hope so! But it's hard to say right now, particularly for places outside the Northeast. If you think your town is full of people who'd like this book, and you have some idea how to reach them, send me an email!

    What if I do live in Boston, and I think my town is full of people who'd like this book, and I have some idea how to reach them?
    You should email me, too! And if you'd like me to come do a talk or a signing at your company, club, bar, shop, neighborhood watch meeting, etc., we can probably arrange that!

    You promised me that you'd have a lot of interesting things to share between now and October 4th, and I'm bored. When do we get to the fun stuff?
    Thank you, my patient friend! Distilled Knowledge isn't a cocktail guide, but a lot of cocktails do come up in passing. From now until October 4th, I'll be publishing recipes for all the drinks I mention, with little tidbits about the sections they're in. I'll also be writing up some of the things that are now apparently part of my world, like my recent trip to the Book Expo of America.

    You'll be able to review all of those posts (including this one!) at the site's new Distilled Knowledge page.

    This is so exciting! What else can I do?
    Tell your friends and family and everyone you meet! This book is unlike anything currently on the market, and I'm very proud of it. Spread the word.

    Oh - I'll be offering special rates to mailing list subscribers in honor of the announcement. If you haven't yet, now would be a good time to sign up!