Monday, September 28, 2015

Martini Mondays #3 - The Vesper Seduction

Only lust and gluttony are worth a darn.
  --John Steinbeck

Since Daniel Craig took on the mantle of James Bond, the most famous cinematic spy of all time, the Vesper martini has been one of the most prevalent variants in pop culture. Going retro and reaching back to the first Bond novel, screenwriters Purvis, Wade and Haggis give Craig everything he needs to one-up his predecessors, at least as far as drink ordering is concerned.

In the original Casino Royale novel, Bond specifies--

"Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?" Bond eventually christens the drink, the Vesper, after the beautiful woman he falls in love with. Like its namesake, the drink is beautiful, seductive, and more than a little dangerous.

A particular alchemy comes into play with the Vesper. The mixed cocktail far exceeds the sum of its individual parts. Remember last week's vodka discussion? The "one part" vodka ups the strength of the drink without skewing the flavor profile. The substitution of Lillet for traditional vermouth swings things in a fruit direction, rather than a botanical one. If you mix to Bond's recipe, it's also quite a large drink.

I've tinkered with the concoction over the years and tried recipes from other places, but still adhere to the gin/vodka/Lillet core. One addition I took from the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia is the idea of an absinthe rinse in the glass, which adds a cold, bracing tang.

Vesper #11

1 oz. Green Hat Gin
1 oz. Dogfish Head Jin
1 oz. Absolut Vodka
1 oz. Lillet Blanc
Dash Scrappy's Lime Bitters
1 t. Absinthe
Lemon Peel for garnish

Fill your cocktail glass with crushed ice and pour the absinthe over; swirl it in the glass to give the inside a coating rinse. In a shaker with ice, combine the rest of the ingredients, and shake furiously until the shaker itself is frosty. Dump the absinthe and ice from the well-chilled glass and strain the cocktail directly into it, garnishing with a twist of lemon.

The Taste

When crafted well, this drink tastes like chilled air, liquid oxygen, and it's so bracing when it goes down, you just want to quaff more. All the components seem to blend into a sinuous coolness that defies description. It smells a little like tart citrus with a whiff of anise from the rinse, but the flowery Green Hat and the Vanilla-tinged Dogfish Head merge with the Lillet to deliver something you have no right to expect.

The danger with this drink, of course, is that it's quite large by cocktail standards (and you'll notice I eliminate 1 full part of gin) and you can just keep drinking them. Like Vesper herself, you can get yourself into deep trouble very quickly. She'll double-cross you with a wicked hangover. After an evening of drinking these on my spacious porch, one iron-livered friend of mine put it the next morning, "I now understand what the phrase 'reeks of gin' means."

Next week - Ingredients Matter


Monday, September 21, 2015

Martini Mondays #2 - The Vodka Question

One martini is all right. Two are too many, and three are not enough.
    --James Thurber

Once you establish the classic, as we did last week, the door opens to endless variations of ingredients. Dozens of gins are available everywhere these days, and each brings something to the table when talking about martinis. More or less flavor overall. More or less body. More or less botanical profile. And that's just talking about gin, without considering the vermouth or garnish. Then come the variations in base spirit. While James Bond films have popularized the vodka martini, vodka presents an interesting question.

Let's establish a couple of ground rules for the weeks to come. (1) Every twee drink name that ends in "tini" should not be confused with an actual martini. So, Chocotinis and Appletinis are not what we're discussing. They're a marketing gimmick where sweet drinks are dumped into cocktail glasses to ride a true martini's coattails.  These drinks are made for people who want to get their drink on, but don't actually like the taste of spirits. (2) I'm a minimalist when it comes to garnishes. I don't want a meal in my glass. I want a good, old-fashioned, ice-cold cocktail.

Vodka is designed to be essentially flavorless, making it the ideal mixer if you want to add punch to non-alcoholic beverages, but on its own is not particularly interesting. Using it in a martini, vodka yields the stage to the vermouth and the garnish. If you use last week's classic recipe substituting vodka for gin, you end up with a slightly vapid, flowery, citrus-forward dink. How to improve on the base vodka martini? This brings us to garnishes.

The eternal argument of lemon twist vs. olive as garnish in a martini reaches extreme proportions in the "dirty" martini, which includes various amounts of olive brine in the mix. Any olive will add a salty, vegetal spin to the drink, no matter the base liquor. I happen to think it ruins a gin martini. However, vodka is a different matter.

The Dirty Vodka Martini

2 oz Kettle One Vodka
1 oz Martini Extra Dry Vermouth
1 dash Olive Brine
1 dash Angostura Bitters
Garnish with olives to your personal taste

Where this martini is concerned, I agree with Bond. Shaking is the way to go. It should be brutally cold when served.

The Taste

As long a you don't overdo it on the olive juice, you won't be overwhelmed by salt. In my version, the color actually comes from the Angostura and the bitters adds a sharp edge to balance with the viscous mouthfeel of the olives. This version is milder and softer than you might imagine.

A note on the olives: really, whatever you like is what you should go with. I avoid ones that are stuffed with anything, because then that tends to dominate the flavor. For me, smaller olives are better because the large ones tend to feel rubbery and meaty if they sit in the drink too long.

While the dirty vodka martini will never be at the top of my goto list of drinks, its popularity and appeal are undeniable. In case you were wondering, I would never dirty-up a gin drink. I'm not insane.

Next week: James Bond's OTHER big contribution to martini lore.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Martini Mondays - Welcome!

Civilization begins with distillation.
    -William Faulkner

Welcome to a few weeks of ad hoc discussions about perhaps the most famous drink of all time. Be forewarned: this will not be exhaustive in any way, just enough information imparted to justify some solid thinking and drinking. With a subject as wide and deep as this one, how to kick it off?  Best to start at the very beginning, with the classic Martini Cocktail.

As you'll find with most drinking lore, dates and origin stories vary widely, but the general outline goes something like this: distilled liquors have been around for a long time, but in the mid-late 1800s vermouth comes on the scene and then some genius thinks to combine them. The result is the classic duo of bartending, The Manhattan and The Martini. Between 1880 and 1915, experimenting goes on everywhere, and many of the recipes still exist today. Any bartending book will feature multiple combinations generally lumped under the Martini moniker.

As a baseline for the weeks to come, I'm drinking today the generally accepted classic Martini. I've mixed this one with readily-available ingredients that you can find in most liquor and grocery stores. To mix any proper drink, you need plenty of ice. Pre-chill your glass, so you can maintain the temperature of the drink, then mix your drink by stirring in a separate vessel over ice.

The Classic Martini
The Classic Martini

2 oz. Aviation Gin
1 oz. Martini Extra Dry Vermouth
2 Dashes Angostura Orange Bitters
Lemon twist

Stir liquid ingredients over large ice cubes until well-chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist the lemon over the glass to release essential oils and garnish.

The Taste

The drink should above all be cool, steely, and bracing in the mouth. The Aviation gin is clean and neutral, with notes of juniper, rosemary, and citrus. The flavor of the cocktail takes round botanical notes from the vermouth, and the bright twist of lemon. This drink is always a fitting end to a Monday workday.

Welcome to #martinimondays.

Next Week: The Vodka Question

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Drinks are Coming

A unifying theme in my life seems to be booze, so I'm going to stick with my strengths. Over the next few weeks, I'm planning a series on cocktails, specifically the Martini. I'm going to explore a few of my favorite variations, share the recipes, tasting notes, and a little bit of the history - and legend - of the iconic cocktail. Join me and drink along on Martini Mondays.