No, we didn’t go on a four day binge like Ray Milland in the 1945 movie, The Lost Weekend, but we did participate in two cocktail workshops at the Astor Center.
Saturday afternoon, Jon Santer, a mixologist, and cocktail instructor from San Francisco, came into town to teach us about gin cocktails.
Wait. Take the eeewww, “I don’t like gin” look off your face. Gin, like vodka, is distilled into pure alcohol, so you have an essentially tasteless base liquid; now add some botanicals: juniper is the only constant, then perhaps orange or lemon peel, cinnamon, cassia, or nutmeg. Think of it as a complex, flavored vodka and see, now you are happy again and back in familiar territory. Gin gives a drink more complexity than vodka, and not all gins taste alike so you do need to experiment to find one that pleases you.
To reinforce this, Jon had us mix a vodka Lemon Drop that is basically vodka, lemon juice and simple syrup. It tasted like your basic lemonade. Then we made it again, this time with gin, and now there was a complexity to the drink that hadn’t been there before, something that made you want to take another sip, something elusive and deserving of exploration.
And just to make sure that you are aware that you are now stumbling
into a category as confusing and diverse as wine, we started to learn
about ‘navy strength’ gin, and the even higher octane ‘Westbourne
strength’, and a sweetened old style gin called Old Tom. British Navy
strength gin was transported in the hold of the ship next to the
gunpowder barrels, and was required to be at a high enough alcohol
level that it would not ignite the gunpowder should there be a mishap.
Jon worked us through making increasingly more complex cocktails like
the Creole Lady, which introduced us to Shrubb (a kind of spiced rum
brew) and the technique of the ‘dry shake’, which is used when you have
egg white in a drink. Egg white adds a frothy head and a creamier
texture to a drink.
This class broke down the fundamentals of how to structure a balanced
cocktail, and on a much less esoteric level, how to hold, handle and
open a Boston shaker.
Sunday’s class, with cocktail historian, David Wondrich, was wonderful
as well, but in a totally different way. Now, we were making cocktails
that hadn’t been made since the dawn of cocktail time (roughly the
mid-1800’s). David selected four obscure cocktails that gave us a
fascinating portal into the origins of our drink imbibing past.
One of the first obstacles in making these drinks is determining what
the ingredients may have been, or what the units of measure
represents. What is a ‘wine glass’ full of brandy? Turns out its two
ounces. A pony of champagne? ½ of a wine glass, or one ounce. A
measure is three quarters of an ounce. We made a Blind Tom from the
1872 Barkeeper’s Ready Reference, (sugar, sour beer, grated chocolate,
a glass of good whiskey and hot water) which led to a whole discussion
on what type of chocolate would have been available at that time. Our
end of the table, which included the maestro Gary Regan and wine maven
Alice Feiring, decided it would have been dark, bitter chocolate
because the author of the guidebook spent time in the western
territories and would have been exposed to Mexican chocolate. Sour ale
is another ingredient in the Blind Tom, and here we speculated that it
replaced lemons that would not have been readily available in Colorado,
or the Dakotas.
It was literally a mind opening experience, the
socio-anthropological-cultural history of the cocktail is incredible,
and a window into another time and sensibility.
Once again, hats off to the Astor Center for creating these workshops.
The Center is rapidly becoming a magnet for the food and drink world,
and they are doing it the way it should be done.
Now, if I can master the art of getting the cocktail shaker open without hurting my hand, life would be swell.