Category Archives: Cocktails

Bourbon Tasting Party

This past weekend we noted the chill in the air and the naked trees. Time to experiment with the warming comfort of some amber liquid. Bourbons have become quite popular over the last little while. Rob has always liked them and I am learning to appreciate this drink. I got a bit of a taste for bourbon on our trips to New Orleans.

As with many alcoholic beverages, side by side comparison is a great way to find out what you like or don’t care for. We decided to host a bourbon tasting event with a small group of friends (8 is a nice number for this). Some of our guests were experienced, but everyone was learning.

Bourbon 1

On hand we had 9 bourbons for tasting. Elijah Craig, Buffalo Trace, Knob Creek Single Barrel, Woodford Reserve, Basil Hayden’s, Bulleit, Booker’s and Maker’s 46, and for research purposes, Buffalo Trace White Dog, an unoaked, young “fresh” bourbon (moonshine). We provided ice, small shot glasses for tiny tastes and comparison, and whiskey glasses for the committed.

A southern food theme seemed apropos. As well we included many smoked items and cheeses that pair well with bourbon. With that in mind, we decided on pork ribs basted in black currant sauce and cheese grits as main fare. The ribs were rubbed and slow-cooked and then glazed with a BBQ sauce that was made with bourbon and black current jam.

Bourbon 6

They were accompanied by smoked nuts, dark chocolate, smoked shrimps, scallops and salmon from Boucanerie Chelsea, pomegranate, persimmon, physallis and apple, a charcuterie platter with ham, peppered salami and summer sausage from The Piggy Market, and crackers paired with a strong Roquefort, Prima Donna, St. Angele, mimolette from Jacobson’s, and Gjetost cheese as well. The Gjetost is noteworthy because it is a caramel cheese that’s not sweet and really goes well with apple and bourbon.

Bourbon 5

Bourbon 8

Bourbon 13Small bottles of water on hand are also a good idea, to cut the bourbon if desired but also to help guests pace themselves. For dessert, Rob smoked some pecan and butter tarts with apple wood.  We had enjoyed the happy accidental marriage of pecan pie and wood smoke in Nachez, Mississippi and were trying to recreate it with limited success. The smoke was a little bitter. Pecan chips might be the way to go.

Bourbon 7Guests tried and experimented throughout the evening, the women settling in and committing sooner. Personally I already knew I enjoyed Elijah Craig but found that I also really liked Basil Hayden’s. Both are smooth and milder than the more spicy, peppery choices offered. Side by side tasting really allows you to discover. Near the end of the evening, one of the guys got brave enough to open the White Dog. We included this for learning purposes. This is where Bourbon starts. And ends, had it been the first thing I tried that evening.

Bourbon 4White Dog. What can I say. This should be partaken of, upon reflection, only if the occasion arises where you are in your car. You have already tossed the gun out of the window, are being pursued by police at a high rate of speed and are about to hit the the tire spikes at the road block erected in your honour and then die in a hail of gunfire. Vile. I consumed less than a half teaspoon and my throat was as raw as if I had vomited bile for 24 hours. Not recommended.




The 2013 Sazerac Crawl

You really can’t go long when reading about New Orleans before you come across the Sazerac. It has a long history and has evolved through the generations to become the drink it is today. It’s very hard to get one outside of New Orleans  and get a good one.

The trick is in the ingredients. The purported tradition is to use Sazerac Rye Whiskey and Peychaud Bitters, both New Orleans inventions and products. This no doubt being due to the the promotion departments of these local products. Like any local specialty, people are passionate about a good sazerac. Who has the best? What is the correct way to make it? What are the perfect ingredients? Lots of opinions and none are fully right or wrong. When reading the online foodie boards (Chow, Yelp,  etc.) there seems to be a regular question about who has the best in New Orleans, and as always with these sites the answers reflect the responder’s experience and taste (or lack thereof). But sometimes you can find thoughtful, well-researched responses that influence your decisions.

We decided to settle this question for ourselves with a Sazerac Crawl. We picked 6 places from these “best of” lists that were close enough together to walk a route between them. They represented a mixture of the traditional and the new, the places that are famous for doing it one way for decades and the new bars who are riding the wave of the current haute cocktail culture. Some of them served food, a necessity to keep us able to work through the night with clear heads. We’ll also add a bonus Sazerac from dinner the night before, making a total of 7 to review.

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Here’s a link to the map route in Google Maps.

There was a fairly wide variation in ingredients and techniques across the bars we visited. The type of Rye Whiskey, the use of Cognac in addition to, or instead of the Rye, whether the class was seasoned with Pernod, Herbsaint or Absinthe, and whether Peychaud bitters or other bitters were used. Here is our rundown of each one we sampled. We’re rating the drink, the experience and the service.

1. SoBou – New, high end cocktail Bar in the W Hotel, French Quarter.
Their drink was called Taylor Bird Sazerac. SoBou uses a combination of Sazerac Rye and Cognoc,  seasoned the glass with an Herbsaint spray, and finished the drink with their own blackberry and walnut bitters, crowned by a twist of lemon peel. The cocktail was very smooth, and the ingredients were all very present.

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The mixologists, Andrew and Abigail (who writes and excellent blog called RyeGirl) are knowledgeable and engaging on a variety of topics but their passions about cocktails are clearly evident. We chatted with other patrons, a couple from Alabama who were sampling a variety of cocktails, so it was excellent to see these bartenders in action.

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No good crawl starts on any empty stomach so we ordered some cracked, spiced olives and a blue crab mousse with a mix of blackberry and caviar, with long spiced crackers. All was delicious.

Sazerac: 5    Service: 5   Experience: 5

2. Old Absinthe House, Bourbon Street
Upon entry it was evident that this establishment had sacrificed its history (opened in the 1700s) for the party-hearty Bourbon street tourist dollar. The walls were covered in stapled-on business cards and NFL helmets were hanging from the ceiling.

The Sazeracs were made with a Pernod swirl, Sazerac Rye and Peychaud bitters. Half-way through, the bartender decided to re-tie her ponytail and get right back to making them. The glasses were wet when we got them. Were they rinsed clean? The cocktail was thin tasting. The whiskey was barely there — watered down maybe? The other ingredients were prevalent, but the drink was pale and disappointing.  We left  un-finished drinks on the bar.

Sazerac: 1    Service: 1   Experience: 2

3. Arnaud’s French 75
We were accosted by Cigar smoke as we entered the bar. I recalled reading that this was a cigar bar, but it wasn’t bad at all once inside. It actually set an ambient tone that was helped by the dark walnut panelling and the bow-tied and business-like bartenders.

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Arnaud’s Sazerac was the real deal: Old Overholt Rye (a popular substitute), a Pernod swirl and Peychaud bitters, made in the classic style. It had a nice citrus nose from the lemon peel rubbed on the glass rim, and the bitters came through. This was a very, very good Sazerac.

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We talked with a nearby couple who visit the city every month and took dinner recommendations, which we definitely needed by this time.

Sazerac: 5    Service: 3   Experience: 4

It was half-time in our crawl and we definitely need to take a break and eat something. GW Fins had been recommended at our previous stop. They posted a great fish-oriented menu, so in we went.

As we sat down, hot sweet biscuits were brought by our table and were served to us directly off the baking sheet. They were crumbly and delicious. We started with grilled shrimp with a smoky onion relish.

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Maureen had a grilled scallops and mushroom risotto. I had grilled grouper with a red pepper and sweet potato hash. It was rich and succulent. Both our serving sizes were perfect. By American standards, they were skimpy, but the fish was fresh and the dishes were complete.

With full bellies were were ready to get back to the crawl:

4. The Sazerac Bar, Roosevelt Hotel
This is purported to be THE place for Sazeracs. Hell, they named the whole bar after the drink. What you find out, of course, is that it’s a licensed name and the claim to tradition is somewhat suspect. But that’s fine. It was a elegant bar in a fine hotel with history all of its own. The biggest thing it had going against it was a bar load of hollering frat boys and shrieking 20-something girls making the place very loud. Ugh.

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This was the first bar to offer a choice of Sazeracs, one based on cognac and one using Sazerac rye. I tend to see a Sazerac as a whiskey drink, the other ingredients there to soften the rye and to add to the experience. I found their rye-based sazerac to have an good partnership between the whiskey and the other ingredients. It had the most whiskey burn of all the Sazeracs we tried.

The Cognac-based drink is a thing unto itself. It doesn’t compare and doesn’t stand up to the whiskey version. I am happy to chalk this up to personal preference, and it shows the wiggle room there is in choosing ingredients for this classic cocktail.

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The spoiler for the evening was that the bill for the two drinks came to $29. The Cognac version was $17. In other locations, the price averaged, $7-10 per drink. The bar was clearly milking any association they had to the history of the cocktail, but the price was unwarranted.

Sazerac: 4 (Rye) 2 (Cognac)    Service: 3   Experience: 2

5. Mr. B’s Bistro
This drink was shaken into glasses, so its ingredients had a different impact on one other. The other ingredients were the star here. You could taste the Pernod, Peychaud bitters and lemon distinctly. The whiskey was barely present, however the drink was pleasant and unique among the ones we tried.

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We were sitting at the bar and all of the food being delivered to our neighbours looked spectacular. In our pre-crawl research we noted that Mr. B’s BBQ Shrimp were a must-have. Who were we to argue. We ordered a serving each not quite knowing what to expect. The bar staff were moving a mile a minute and while harried, they were friendly and helpful.

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This dish’s relationship to BBQ as we know it is in name only. Sautéed head-on shrimp were finished with a sauce that was rich with butter, black pepper and Worchestershire. It came with a small load of good French bread because there would be much sopping to do. We were both quite surprised at how good this dish is. It may just be the best thing I have put in my mouth, and that’s not just the sazeracs talking. We’re going back for these before we leave, AND we’ll be recreating them at home to be sure.

Sazerac: 4    Service: 4   Experience: 5

6. The Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone
Our final stop on tonight’s crawl brings us to the famous bar in the Monteleone Hotel. The Carousel is a beautifully appointed space, but very loud this evening. We find a small table, the only available, at the very outskirts of the bar, near the dining area. This does nothing for ambiance or the experience. Sazeracs seem best enjoyed belly up to a bar with fellow patrons to strike up conversations with.

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The sazerac at the Carousel is dominated by the whiskey. It is less strong than the cocktail at Roosevelt but more so than at Mr. B’s. We sip our drinks for a bit and quietly leave. It’s fair to say that by this time in the evening, remaining objective becomes difficult. Having 6 of any drink will create an uphill battle for whoever is 6th in line, but we did attempt earnestness in our appraisal.

All in all, it’s been a terrific evening, not just for the Sazeracs, but for experiencing the establishments and the people you meet on the way.

Bonus Sazerac: K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen
We tried the Sazerac at K-Paul’s the night before our crawl. Having done so, I should warn against ordering the Sazerac there as a before-dinner drink. By definition you have an empty stomach, and their Sazerac is easily a double, maybe even a triple.

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It was a very good one, with evident whiskey, and bitters notes and smooth, yet with s slight whiskey burn, but there was way too much and it hampered the enjoyment of the meal, which was notably very good

Sazerac: 3.5   Service: 5  Experience: 4

To experience a Sazerac closer to home in Ottawa, we’ve found that Absinthe, Town and Union (albeit with a cognac variation) all make cocktails that hit the mark. To make it ourselves, we found it was next to impossible to source the Peychaud Bitters in Ottawa but finally were able to order some online from an American Bartending Supply company, and next time we make one, we’ll be applying some of the techniques we learned on this trip.

Authentic Irish Coffee

You used to see Irish Coffee on the dessert drink menus in the 80’s but now rarely. It has been replaced by Spanish or Brazilian coffee concoctions that are overly sweet, with a sugared rim and whipped edible oil product. Cherry on top. Worse, if you do spy Irish coffee, it is Spanish coffee dressed up with a  shot of Bailey’s. I vaguely remember my parents owning a set of Irish coffee glasses, but I think they just ended up as adornments for my dad’s rec room bar. Irish coffee seems to have had its moment in the sun and then faded away, allowing its gaudy cousins to take the stage. A quick check of Wikipedia reveals that Irish Coffee was likely invented in the late 40’s in Shannon, Ireland by a chef at the port. He added a shot of whiskey to coffee, to warm chilly passengers. The owner of the Buena Vista in San Fransisco tried in earnest to recreate the recipe but could not. He traveled to Shannon to get it and he brought it back to the United States.

Pepper and Chibi, our welcoming committee at Meg and Pat's, for our reintroduction to Irish Coffee.

My friend Meg introduced me to authentic Irish coffee in her home one day. I was skeptical at first because there is very little sugar in the drink. I take a full teaspoon in my Timmies. She assured me this is how her Grandmother made them and the way it was made in Ireland. Irish coffee is a good strong brew with a shot of Irish whiskey, topped with barely sweetened thick cream that floats on the surface. The coffee is drunk through the cream. The “head” remains as you drain the glass as it would on a well-poured Guinness.

Meg came to know of this recipe in a round-about manner. While working in Halifax, an Irish client, originally from Belfast, was astonished that a good Irish girl did not know how to make an honest-to-goodness real Irish coffee. He took it upon himself to share the recipe and technique with Meg who had been too young to learn it from her Grandmother. Meg later made the drink for her own mother who exclaimed “that’s exactly how my mother made it!” So a recipe comes full circle and here it is:

Meg’s Grandmother’s Authentic Irish Coffee.

Whipping cream at room temperature, lightly whipped to just before the peaking stage. It should still run off the back of a spoon.
about a teaspoon of brown sugar sprinkled over the cream
1 ounce per glass of Irish Whiskey (Jameson’s)
Coffee (Happy Goat in a french press is nice)

Whip the cream and sugar to just before peaking. Put cream into a vessel you can pour from. Rinse your Irish coffee glasses in hot water to pre-warm if desired. Pour an ounce of whiskey into the glass. Fill the glass to within an inch of the top with hot coffee. Pour the cream into the coffee over the back of a spoon. This allows the cream to float on top of the coffee instead of sinking. No cherry. No sugared rim. The simplicity of this drink allows quality ingredients to shine. The naturally sweet cream is delicious without a ton of added sugar. The teaspoon of sugar is necessary to help the cream float (according to Wikipedia). Authentic Irish coffee is a real treat and a lost art that you need to discover and share with friends on a chilly night.




















A Margarita Missive

Maureen and I LOVE margaritas. But, that statement comes with a long list of qualifiers. We’re talking about REAL margaritas here. The real deal. The genuine article. Before I talk about what makes a great margarita, I feel it’s critical to point out what DOESN’T make a great margarita:

  1. Bar mix – sweet and sour, margarita mix, some fluorescent limey, sugary syrup.
  2. Blended Ice – leave it for the Slush Puppies
  3. A glass the size of your forearm.
Wrong, wrong and wrong.

A real margarita is strong, tart, refreshing and, well, MANLY. Just like a daiquiri (don’t believe me? Look it up). It’s one of the simplest cocktail recipes out there. I’m really not sure why so many bartenders are so game to screw it up.

Here is the recipe for the real-deal Margarita, courtesy of Wikipedia:

1 ounce tequila
Dash of Triple Sec
Juice of 1/2 lime or lemon
Pour over ice, stir. Rub the rim of a stem glass with rind of lemon or lime, spin in salt—pour, and sip.

Got it? THAT’s a margarita. It comes in a small old-fashioned glass because there’s just not that much to it. It tastes of great tequila and fresh lime and just enough orange liqueur to take the edge of the bitterness of the lime and to provide a TOUCH of sweetness. It’s slightly paler than the colour of the pulp of the inside of a lime.

I can only imagine that a few of the party bars conspired to pervert the margarita as a party drink, to pad the volume with cheaper ingredients to justify higher prices. Of course, if most people ordered a margarita in a bar in Ottawa and a REAL margarita was put in front of them, they’d ask’ “What the hell is this?”, and I recognize that. It’s gotten to the point that many bartenders will argue that they make real margaritas, but when asked, “Does it have sweet and sour mix in it?”, they say “yes.” and when I make a face, they’ll say “…but not too much”, as valid a reply to this question as “Did you shoot the mailman?”

Funny story, and completely true: When traveling, we stopped at the hotel bar for a nightcap and asked the bartender to make us a couple of margaritas, but only if they had no sweet and sour mix in it. He proudly told us that they make their own mix, which was commendable but still wrong. I took a different approach and asked if he could make me one with an ounce of good tequila, a dash of Triple Sec and the juice of 1/2  a lime, on the rocks, no salt?

Oh, YES!

He told me that it would be awful and whipped one up and smugly presented it to me to prove his point. “You try this.” he said, implying that it was way off base. I took a sip and it was wonderful — and why wouldn’t it be? I told him so and he just looked confused. Then I read aloud the American Bartender’s Association recipe for a margarita, which was exactly what I asked him to make for me. He was humble and gracious and made one for Maureen and in fact, when we were about to leave he made us a “triple” margarita to bring up to our room to share on him.

Now, I don’t want to take away anyone’s favourite sugary, alien-fluorescent green faux margarita, but it has the same name. Can we fix that? Can we call it Margarit-ade?

I suppose I just have to keep doing what I’m doing now, which is to give bartenders the simple recipe to follow.

I really do have to go back to Guero’s in Austin where they know how to make real margaritas and the only variation is between ones with great tequila and ones with really great tequila.