Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Well-Made Mint Julep

The mint julep still lives, but it is by no means fashionable. Somehow the idea has gotten abroad that the mint ought to be crushed and shaken up with water and whiskey in equal proportions. No man can fall in love with such a mixture. Poor juleps have ruined the reputation of the South’s most famous drink.
- Georgia newspaper, 1860s
As I prepare to leave for my annual Kentucky Derby trip, it seems fitting to do a post on juleps. A properly made mint julep is a thing to behold: ice cold, boozy and fragrant. A poorly made julep, however, is disgustingly sweet. Ironically, Churchill Downs serves one of the worst offenders at the Derby, a pre-bottled Early Times julep. It's not their fault, I suppose. You can't make that many mint juleps to order. But at home, you can experience the full potential of this great drink.

Most don't realize that a julep can be made with anything but bourbon, yet prior to the Civil War, genteel Southerners drank their juleps with brandy. Both versions are incredibly refreshing on a hot day. Whatever the base spirit used, there are a few rules to making a well-made julep.
  • Use good bourbon (or brandy). The base spirit is the star of this drink, so use the good stuff.
  • Do not over-muddle the mint. Doing so releases bitter chlorophyll in addition to the fragrant oils.
  • Use a proper vessel. A silver julep cup is preferable, but any metal cup will work.
  • Use the highest proof spirit you can find.  The drink has a lot of ice and will dilute quickly. For bourbon, I recommend high rye and high proof.  Four Roses Single Barrel and Old Grand Dad 114 are my personal favorites.
  • Go easy on the simple syrup. You can always add more.
  • Smash the ever-loving sh*t out of your ice. Either get a Lewis bag or use a kitchen towel and pulverize the ice with a mallet or rolling pin.  You are looking for ice that resembles gravel.
  • Slap a bunch of fresh mint to use for garnish.  The aroma this creates adds tremendously to the drink.
Now, some recipes.

The Classic Bourbon Mint Julep

- 10 mint leaves
- .25 to .5 oz. strong simple syrup (2:1 ratio)
- 3 oz. high rye, high proof bourbon*
- Mint sprig to garnish
Put the mint and simple syrup into the julep cup and lightly muddle the mint with the back of a bar spoon. 5 seconds should be sufficient. Add bourbon and fill with crushed ice. Stir the drink to combine and add more ice. Slap mint sprig and stick into drink for garnish and aroma.
*For a brandy julep, simply substitute good cognac for the bourbon.

The Georgia Mint Julep
Adapted from Professor Jerry Thomas (1862)*

- 10 mint leaves
- 2 oz. Cognac (I prefer Léopold Gourmel VSOP)
- 1 oz. Combier Pêche de Vigne 
- Mint sprig to garnish
Put the Combier peach liqueur into the julep cup with the mint leaves and lightly muddle the mint with the back of a bar spoon. Add the cognac and fill the cup with ice. Stir to combine and top with more ice and a mint sprig.

*Professor Jerry Thomas's recipe from the classic Bar-tenders Guide, Or How To Mix Drinks (1862) calls for peach brandy.  Unfortunately, there are no quality peach brandies in existence, as far as I'm aware. As a result, I prefer to substitute high quality peach liqueur (which contains a lot of sugar) and omit the sugar completely, which yields a superior drink.

And finally, the greatest tutorial (and history lesson) in the known world for making juleps by bartender extraordinaire Chris McMillan, along with a recitation of poetry by Kentucky writer Joshua Soule Smith.

Happy Derby!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Friday Cocktail: the Doctor Cocktail

The classic Doctor Cocktail is all about showcasing the hard to describe yet impossible to mistake "hogo" flavor present in some rums. The word "hogo" is derived from the French term "haut gaut" (translated "high taste") which was an 18th century term used to describe the funky flavor of wild game that had been hung to age. In the rum world, hogo is used to describe the funky and slightly sulphury quality that can be present in alcohol distilled from sugar. Pirates were assuredly drinking rum chock full of hogo, but most modern rum producers have figured out ways to minimize or eliminate hogo from their products. Rum and cocktail enthusiasts, however, have embraced hogo in the same way that scotch lovers covet medicinal flavors and cognac drinkers seek out "rancio."  And, when a rum with hogo is paired lime and sugar, the drink becomes pleasantly unique rather than overpowering.

The Doctor Cocktail employs two sources of hogo.  First, it uses super funky Jamaican rum.  On top of the rum, it uses uses Swedish Punsch, which is made with Batavia-Arack (an Asian liquor distilled from sugar cane and fermented rice) and flavored with rum, sugar and spices. The sugar from the punsch and lime juice make the good Doctor a very sippable drink, like a classic daiquiri turned up to 11. 

The Doctor Cocktail
Victor Bergeron (aka Trader Vic)*
As printed in Ted Haigh's Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails (2009)

- 2 oz. Jamaican Rum (I used Smith & Cross)
- 1 oz. Swedish Punsch (I used Kronan)
- 1 oz. Fresh Lime Juice

Add ingredients to cocktail shaker full of ice. Shake vigorously and strain into chilled coupe glass. Garnish with lime twist.

*Although I like the above recipe the best, there are several other variations. Here are a couple of them:
- Frank Meier (Artistry of Mixing Drinks, 1936) - equal parts rum and punsch with a teaspoon each of orange and lemon juices. 
- Harry McElhone (Bar Flies & Cocktails, 1927) - equal parts punsch, limejuice and lemon juice.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday Cocktail: Paper Airplane

I love the Paper Airplane for a lot of reasons. It is a tart and refreshing bourbon cocktail that uses one of my favorite amari called Amaro Nonino.  The Nonino has a silky grappa base (not typical) that is flavored with orange peel and saffron among a host of other flavorings, and aged in French oak for five years (not typical). The recipe is also easy to remember on the fly because it contains equal parts of its four ingredients.

The Paper Airplane is actually an adaptation of the Paper Plane, which uses the more subtle Aperol over the Campari. I like both versions but tend to have Campari on hand more often.

Paper Airplane
(Adapted by Toby Maloney, Violet Hour, Chicago, Illinois)

- 3/4 oz. Bourbon (I used Beam Signature)
- 3/4 oz. Amaro Nonino
- 3/4 oz. Campari
- 3/4 oz. Lemon Juice

Combine ingredients in a cocktail shake and add ice. Shake vigorously for 15 seconds and strain into chilled cocktail glass. No garnish.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sunday Takeout at Gio's Chicken

The best take out in the city might be on Hemphill Avenue at Giovanni di Palma's rapidly expanding Italian food district he calls Piazza San Gennaro. And no, I'm not talking about Antico Pizza Napoletana but it's sister restaurant Gio's Chicken Amalfitano. It is no secrety that Gio's makes "shockingly good" chicken. John Kessler described Gio's cooking method thusly:
The chickens cook in a roasting oven set at a “slow, low temperature” for a little more than an hour. After it roasts, the cooks chop the chicken through the bone into chunky pieces, then charbroil it in sauté pans with flavor-infused olive oil and seasonings until the skin crisps. Gio’s serves several flavors of roasted chicken, including one with sliced blood oranges and rosemary, and Amalfi style chicken with roasted olives and onion. After the chicken crisps, the cooks add some chicken stock and Romano cheese to the pan juices and serve it up.
The great thing about Gio's is that it works perfectly for take-out. I love Antico Pizza, but despite the air vent in the take-out box, the dough tends to get soggy by the time you get it home. There are no such issues with Gio's, where the pool of sauce is the prize.

This past Sunday, the Spring weather was ideal and I brought two of my favorites from Gio's for a post-Masters treat.

Arrancia Rosa

This is essentially the same dish as the Capri style orange chicken but made with Moro blood oranges, which have unique, almost berry-like flavors. This is available only while blood oranges are in season (winter and early Spring).  The blood oranges mix amazingly well with the rosemary and garlic.

Gio's serves the classic "hunter's style" chicken on Sundays only. It is pretty classic with bell pepper, San Marzano tomatoes and mushrooms, but the sauce is over the top good. I think it is the red wine in the sauce that sets it off.

1099 Hemphill Ave.
Atlanta, GA 30318

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday Cocktail: The McQueen

My Mezcal cocktail kick continues. Not content with one smoky spirit in this drink, John McCarthy of the now defunct New York cocktail spot Mary Queen of Scots also uses the incredibly smoky Ardbeg 10 year to rinse the glass. Yet, the sweeter Speyside single malt and agave syrup keep the smoke in check and make this a very drinkable cocktail. Though the McQueen isn't for everyone, anyone that isn't scared of smoky spirits will love it. 

The McQueen 
(aka the "Smoky Smoke Smoke")
John McCarthy, Mary Queen of Scots (New York, NY)

- 1 oz. Mezcal (Del Maguey Vida)
- 1 oz. Speyside Scotch (Balvenie 14 year Carribean Cask)
- .5 oz. Dark Agave Syrup*
- 1 dash Orange Bitters
- 1 dash Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters
- Ardbeg 10 year Scotch to rinse
- Grapefruit twist to garnish 

Stir mezcal, Scotch, agave syrup, and bitters in a mixing glass with ice. Mist or rinse coupe glass with Ardbeg 10yr. Strain into misted coupe. Squeeze and flame grapefruit twist.

*To make the agave syrup, mix equal parts dark agave nectar and warm water in a squeeze bottle. Shake to combine.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Sandwich Files: Star Provisions "Banh Mi"

Okay, so pretty much every sandwich at Star Provisions is worth its own post. Their "Banh Mi" is certainly no exception.  I'm guessing that they put the name of the sandwich in quotes on the menu because it is not traditional in some way. Who cares. It is one of the best sandwiches in the city.

The sandwich starts with a perfect crusty baguette smeared with house made mayo. The roll is stuffed with glazed pork belly and, on this particular occasion, roasted pork shoulder. The toppings -- carrot, cucumber, red pepper, pickled jalapeño, cilantro, and basil -- provide a vinegary and spicy counterbalance to cut all of the pork fat. 

This sandwich is unctuous and fatty in all of the best ways. Extra napkins are advisable.

1198 Howell Mill Road, NW
Atlanta, GA 30318

Monday, April 7, 2014

Weekend Roundup

Here's a roundup of what ended up being a pretty good food weekend.

I had not been to Abattoir in a couple years, and I was interested in revisiting it now that Hector Santiago (formerly of Pura Vida, Super Pan, and El Burro Loco) has taken over the kitchen. I get the sense that the restaurant is struggling. I was able to make a Friday night reservation on very short notice, and the restaurant wasn't full at 8:00. Until we walked in, I had forgotten how beautiful the Abattoir space is: a cross between a French bistro, a butcher shop and a Restoration Hardware catalog. We sat at the bar, which is always more fun with two people. 

The bar program is a weak spot. The menu had only four cocktails, all of which were uninteresting. Two were variations on the Buck family of cocktails (base spirit + ginger beer + lime): the Dark & Stormy with dark rum and the Acapulco Sun with tequila. There was also an obligatory Maple Manhattan and a vodka cocktail. The bartenders are willing to make other drinks, though they didn't seem to know, or have the ingredients to make, much beyond the basics. I wanted a scotch cocktail and got a Blood and Sand, which is a classic but would have been better served straight up. The whiskey selection is also quite limited, though I was able to have a High West Rendezvous after dinner, a personal favorite. I can't speak to the quality of the wine list, but it did feature a number of affordable bottles.

The food menu is much less offal oriented than it was last time I ate here. The wife and I shared several small plates, so I wasn't able to try any of the entrees. Among the highlights were the ox heart paté from an otherwise ordinary charcuterie plate, the chicharrones with two great house made hot sauces, and a braised beef rib special. While the small plates were good, the desserts were legitimately great. We ordered the fried strawberry pies, which were light and fresh, and an insane coconut tres leches cake.

Our meal was good but unmemorable. All in all, there are several better places within a square mile of Abattoir that are better for the same or less money. This is lone weak spot in the Anne Quatrano/Clifford Harrison family of restaurants.


Saturday was opening day at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market. To maintain my foodie cred, I picked up a couple bunches of baby ramps (wild leeks with a flavor that is a cross between onions and garlic). I think the hype around ramps is a tad overblown based on their limited availability during the first few weeks of Spring. They are essentially the Pappy Van Winkle of onions. Limited availability aside, ramps are quite good, and I was able to preserve mine by making a ramp compound butter, which keeps well and goes great on top of a steak. Recipe here.

Bell's Black Note Porter
I don't really keep up with all of the special release beers, but I happened to luck into two bottles of this year's Bell's Black Note Porter on Friday while shopping at Green's for something else. What an accidental score. This stuff is very, very good. Creamy with really nice notes of dark chocolate, espresso, vanilla, and oak. A lot of bourbon barrel aged beers end up picking up way too much bourbon, but the bourbon notes compliment this beer rather than overwhelm it. Although it has been a while, I think like the Black Note better than the Founders KBS.
The first two times I went to Bone Lick BBQ, I was fairly unimpressed. Saturday, though, was the first time I ordered their ribs, which just might be the best in the city. The dry rub is spicier than most places, which creates a perfect bark, and the ribs are pleasantly (and not overly) smoky. The meat is extremely tender but retains appropriate bite integrity (i.e., each bite pulls of the bone cleanly but does not completely fall off the bone). The sides are just fair and the service still sucks, but I will be back to Bone Lick whenever I am craving ribs.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Friday Cocktail: Dia Del Muerto

I have been on a huge mezcal kick recently. It's an agave spirit like tequila but has an intense smoky flavor due to the agave being roasted over rocks prior to distillation. Basically, mezcal is to tequila as peated Islay scotch is to unpeated mainland scotch. Because of its smoky minerality, mezcal stands in for whiskey in numerous cocktail riffs, like the excellent Oaxaca Old Fashioned. Tequila cocktails, on the other hand, are often citrus based drinks that, while good, end up tasting like variations of the Margarita.

Today's cocktail was created by Atlanta bartender Brad Tolleson, who took over for Paul Calvert at Pura Vida before it closed and is now at Restaurant Eugene. The Dia Del Muerto pairs Mezcal with bitter Italian amari and spicy Punt e Mes vermouth. It is a bit of a Negroni variant in this way. The addition of agave syrup provides balance for the mezcal and amari. Tolleson designed this drink to stand up to Pura Vida's pork and beef dishes. This drink is great for whiskey drinkers.

Dia Del Muerto
Brad Tolleson (Atlanta, Georgia)

- 1.5 oz. Mezcal (Del Maguey Vida)
- .5 oz. Fernet-Branca
- .5 oz. Punt e Mes
- .25 oz. Amaro Montenegro*
- .25 oz. agave syrup**
- 1 dash Angostura Bitters
- 1 dash Peychaud's Bitters

Combine ingredients in cocktail shaker and add ice. Stir and strain into a rocks glass with a large ice cube. Garnish with grapefruit twist.

* I have also used Cynar in place of the Amaro Montenegro with very good results.

**To make the agave syrup, mix equal parts dark agave nectar and warm water in a squeeze bottle. Shake to combine.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Tasting 3 Versions of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof

Heaven Hill released Elijah Craig Barrel Proof last year, which was lauded by pretty much everyone, even ordinarily tough critics like Sku. There have now been three retail versions of this barrel strength and non-chill-filtered bourbon, and nearly everyone agrees that the first batch (134.2 Proof) has been the best of the three. I've already been through one of those and recently cracked my second.

Prior to the retail release last year, I acquired two other rarer versions of barrel proof Elijah Craig. The first is a 127.6 proof single barrel bottle I picked up at the distillery for a hefty price (nearly twice that of the retail release). The second was part of of a barrel purchase I was involved in with the Georgia Bourbon Society. That barrel, which was 15 years old at the time it was selected, was dubbed the "Amnesia Barrel" because it took so long for Heaven Hill to bottle it that we nearly forgot about it. At bottling, the Amnesia Barrel was a month shy of 16 years old, making it truly one of a kind. (Heaven Hill barely let us do this, and I'd be surprised if anyone else has a barrel proof Elijah Craig private selection, much less one this old.)

The first batch of the ECBP has long since been drunk or stashed away for safe keeping, and the other two single barrels are not available for purchase. That makes these reviews generally worthless to 99.9% of the folks that might read this. Take heart, though, because Heaven Hill plans to release barrel proof Elijah Craig periodically, which will likely have a good bit in common with these bourbons. 

Retail Bottling (Batch 1)
Price: $40
Proof: 67.1% ABV (134.2 Proof)

Age: 12 Years
Color: Very Dark Brown (like Coca-Cola)

Nose: Sweet candies (think, Smarties) that I absolutely love in bourbon and old polished oak in perfect balance.
Palate: Loads of oak at full strength, but it is balanced by some brown sugar sweetness and red hot candies. With water, the oak subsides some and some caramel and vanilla come out to join the red hots. 
Finish: A full 40 seconds after a small full strength sip, the sweetness is still on my tongue. The finish becomes a bit shorter with water. 

Overall: A- 

Heaven Hill Gift Shop Barrel Strength
Single Barrel
Price: $75 (that is not a typo)
Proof63.8% ABV (127.6 Proof)

Age: 12 Years
Color: Dark Amber

Nose: Really nice. Cigar box wood with more candy sweetness (Sweet Tarts this time) and vanilla.
Palate: Black cherries and vanilla and spicy cinnamon at full strength. Water brings out more candy sweetness. 
Finish: Moderate in length and woodier and less sweet than the nose and palate would suggest. Water makes the finish longer and sweeter with a touch of lingering bitterness from the wood and a bit of classic Heaven Hill mintiness I don't get from the other two.

Overall: B+

Georgia Bourbon Society 
"Amnesia Barrel"
Price: $39 
Proof64% ABV (128 Proof)

Age: 15 years, 11 months
Color: Deep Amber (Grade B Maple Syrup)

Nose: Kiln dried wood, leather, and tobacco with subtle butterscotch and cherry cough drops. 
Palate: The wood is turned up to 11 on this one. At full strength, the tannic oak is at the forefront with some cherry and cinnamon underneath. With water, the wood subsides in a major way, and a touch of vanilla and caramel come through.
Finish: Very, very long and warm at full strength with lingering bitterness from the wood. With water, the finish becomes a bit more medicinal.

Overall: C+

Tasting these side by side was an eye opening experience, which made me really appreciate retail Batch 1 in a way I had not previously. The amount of oak in Batch 1 would ordinarily overpower a whiskey, but Heaven Hill's blenders managed to balance that woodiness with incredible candy sweetness. The gift shop single barrel had a lot of those same candy flavors, but lacked the depth, punch and finish that the retail bottle had. As for the Amnesia Barrel, I've really enjoyed this whiskey to date, but it falls way short head to head with the other two. This is a great example of older not always being better. If only Heaven Hill had bottled it closer to 15 years!