Tonic Water Comparison

Posted: 24th June 2015 by Cocktail Alchemist in Feature
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toniclineupMy favorite liquor by far has to be Gin.  There can be no greater expression of gin’s history and utility than the simple gin and tonic.  To that end I am always on the hunt for the next great tonic water.

History

Tonic water itself has a long history and it all starts with the main ingredient Quinine.

Quinine is used for two major purposes, the first is flavoring tonic water and the second is fighting malaria.  The entire reason to make tonic water in the first place was to serve it to people worked in malaria ridden portions of the world.

Quinine was originally derived from the bark of a south american tree called the Cinchona.  A hardy little tree that grows at very high altitudes in the Andes mountains.  The Cinchona contains several alkaloid chemicals and was shown to the Spanish by South American natives sometime between 1560 and 1782.

Because the chemical was so effective a treatment and malaria so common in parts of the world being actively explored at the time, use of the bark as a medicine became common among sailors in the Spanish and English navies.  When combined with the sailor’s ration of lime juice to ward off scurvy and their gin ration you have the beginnings of the gin and tonic as it spread across the British empire.

Modern tonic water bears very little resemblance to that originally crafted in its heyday.  The difference between a recreational use and a medical use is significant.  The US FDA limits tonic water to no more than 83mg per liter while a therapeutic dose is closer to 500-1000 mgs.

As a result modern tonics are less bitter and often sweetened resulting in problems for those seeking to create classic cocktails from older bar guides.

The Contenders

I have assembled five of the top contenders to the crown of #1 tonic water.  Discounting my own house made tonic syrup they are as follows:

Schweppes: Dating back to the 1780s Schweppes claims the title of oldest soft drink in the world.  The company has undergone some changes over the years as it has been bought and sold.  Schweppes brand is currently owned by the Dr Pepper Snapple Group based in Plano, Tx.  They also produce Canada Dry so I saw no reason to include that brand here as they are functionally pretty similar.

Fentimens: Using a recipe that dates back to 1905 the current Fentimens company was relaunched by the Great Grandson of the founder in 1988.  They claim to ferment and brew their sodas for 7 days.

Fever Tree: Based in London, UK their first product released 2005 was their premium Indian Tonic water.  They have since followed up with a number of variants including a naturally light, elder flower and Mediterranean variety.

Q Tonic: Founded in 2004 and based in New York.  Q drinks strives to make a high quality tonic water. They have also released a number of other lines including ginger beer, grapefruit and lemon.

Bradley’s Kina Tonic: Based in Seattle, WA and created in June of 2013 Bradley’s was the result of successful kickstarter campaign.  At present the Kina Tonic is the only product they have.  Unlike the others Bradley’s is a syrup which requires the addition of carbonated water.

The Rules

To make for a fair comparison we need to get each of these into an equal solution.  With one syrup on the bill that means figuring out a fair dilution.  Bradley’s website calls for 0.75 oz of syrup to 3 oz club soda.

So as a baseline we should use 3.75 oz of each product in out setup.

I don’t want to extend much above 5 oz total but a 1.5 oz shot of gin should be sufficient to make things work.

London Dry is the traditional element to use in this case and so I’m going to try two gins, Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray.  Both should give the more significant juniper flavors that this needs.

So our finished recipe should be:

3.75 oz Tonic water
1.5 oz Gin
Small twist of lime

With five competitors and two gins this is going to be a struggle to complete, but I throw myself on that grenade for you dear reader.

The Results

Flavor

In the end I wound up doing this in a couple of batches.  I brought the bottles with me and had various people taste them both with and without gin.

5. Schweppes: About what you’d expect, pretty mild.  Slightly sweet with low to minimum bitterness.  Rated lowest of all of the options.

4. Q Tonic: Lacking the corn syrup of schweppes Q tonic rated slightly higher with all testers.  The flavor was cleaner but also significantly more bitter.

3. Fentimens: There is a distinct lemony flavor to this tonic likely from the use of lemon extract or citrus oil in addition to the citric acid.  It was the only one of the bottles that disclosed the exact flavoring ingredients so it’s likely that others had similar items just in lower amounts.

2. Fever Tree: A close tie with the Fentimens for favorite bottled the fever tree was by far the smoothest of the five for flavor with gin.

1. Bradley’s: The far out winner for flavor was the bradley’s tonic.  I don’t think it was entirely fair as the Bradley’s was built as a flavorful tincture rather than a simple tonic but most people sampled were far more impressed with the flavor of this than any other tonics.

Price and Availability 

It should be said that all of these can be bought over the internet for similar prices as what you’d find in stores.

1. Schweppes – $1.25 for 1L, available pretty much everywhere.
2. Q Tonic – $2.29 for 9oz, Found it in three grocery stores and a number of liquor stores in various sizes
3. Fever Tree – $2.75 for 16.9oz, also in a four pack of 200ml for about $14, found in a couple of specialty stores
4. Fentimens – $3 for 9.3oz, found it in only one store and it wasn’t the kind of place I would normally expect
5. Bradley’s $10 for 8oz – this is the equivalent of about 11 doses at 3/4oz

Final Thoughts

The schweppes, Bradley’s and Fever Tree all have screw caps that close well keeping the carbonation in long enough to use up a whole bottle.  The Q tonic does come in cans and larger bottles with screw caps but the volume is daunting unless you’re throwing a G&T party.  Most of these recommend using the product within three days of opening so gauge your need versus the quantity because it goes flat quickly.

Again Bradley’s comes out the clear winner here because it keeps longer in the fridge and can be used in any quantity you want, the need for club soda to mix is a drawback but having a soda stream on hand makes that an easy adjustment.  It is sold in fewer places but obviously can be bought less often and stored for longer periods.

Update: Beer Syrup

Posted: 17th June 2015 by Cocktail Alchemist in Beer, Make Your Own
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beer syrupJust an update to my previous post about Porter Beer Syrup.  A Widmer Brewing rep dropped off a couple of 6 packs of Upheaval IPA as a tip in the tasting room and we needed the fridge space.  So, I took three bottles home and attempted to use the beer syrup process.

The initial result is a lot darker that I would have thought.  Upheaval is a pretty dark IPA already but this was almost as dark as the porter before I added the sugar.  Flavor has more bitterness than the porter but this is to be expected from the more hoppy IPA.  With an IBU of 85 /100 I’m expecting this to be more than a bit bitter even after adding sugar.

After it cooled down I was able to tap a bit and try it with a number of samples.  Overall on its own there is a lot of bitter flavor behind the hoppy nature of the IPA.

I took some of the syrup and made a pretty basic old fashioned.  I took the opportunity to try out my rejigger and my silipint at the same time.  The rejigger is a three chamber cap that simplifies the cocktail process somewhat.  In this case I used bourbon in the main chamber, IPA syrup in the second largest and lemon juice in the smallest.

The resulting old fashioned was a little on the strong side given the 2oz of bourbon and I think in retrospect I would have used slightly more syrup and less lemon.  Overall the hops from the IPA added some very good flavors to the bourbon.  I can see why hopped whiskey is becoming a thing.

Much like the porter cocktails I made the beer syrup adds a lot of complexity that would be tricky to obtain through spices or other flavors.  I’m now tempted to try with brandywine, cider or a good pilsner.

Silipint: Tool Review

Posted: 10th June 2015 by Cocktail Alchemist in Tools
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silipintI just received my first Silipint and I have to say that out of the box I am impressed.  This is a flexible pint glass made out of silicon.  It will not shatter, grips well in the hand and keeps a pretty even temperature regardless of the contents.  Because silicon has such a high melting point you could reasonably bake in this thing but more practically it is dishwasher safe.

I bought this after reading about them via the rejigger.  I bought this one on amazon for less than $10 but you can sometimes find one-offs and clearance version on their website for even less.

They also make cups in old fashioned, shots and various other sizes that I may pick up at another date.

One of my big complaints about the rejigger was the bad seal the device had with a standard pint glass.  The silipint flexes and conforms to even the most oddly shaped opening and makes for a much better vessel for the rejigger.

The flexible rim also allows you to pinch it slightly and create a more functional pour spout.

On the downside, the matte finish is slightly static friendly which in turn attracts dust, hair and all manner of other bits to the outside and occasionally inside of the cup.  Rinsing is easy but the grippy exterior means drying is a little fussy.  As you can see in the photo it holds onto water on the outside as well.  Even just sitting on a shelf the cup will pull in some dust and so must be washed before use every time.  A single trip through the dishwasher shows that it is safe to wash but if you’re using a powdered detergent it can leave quite a bit of residue which will require another rinse before using again.

There were no changes in flavor and it appears to treat carbonation in a pretty similar fashion to glass.  I love the item but recognize that you’re trading off fragile break-ability for fussy dust attraction.

Hazelnut Mother

Posted: 3rd June 2015 by Cocktail Alchemist in Make Your Own
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hazelnut mother pictureOne of the more neglected areas of cocktail making (IMHO) is the area of nuts.  There are many different and enjoyable flavors to be had if one does a little digging.  Amaretto is one such flavor, a popular light liqueur with the flavor of cherries and made from either almonds or apricot pits.  Nocino brings out the flavors of green walnuts, and lastly frangelico brings us the flavor of hazelnuts.

If you live in the NW or in Oregon specifically you will know the taste of the filbert as a part of your childhood.  Hazelnuts, or filberts as they should rightly be called grow in abundance here and can be had cheaply as raw, roasted, flavored or in any number of milkshakes and confections.

Taking a page from my attempts to make a good almond syrup I began to wonder that I hadn’t tried my had at any other local nuts.

Thus began my quest for a Filbert Syrup.

To create the syrup you first have to extract the flavors from the heart of the nut.  These are best expressed in hazelnuts when roasted.  I chose a quantity of raw nuts, shelled but with skins still on.  Placing them on a silpat on a cookie sheet I roasted them at about 300 degrees for about 10-20 minutes.  Keep a close eye on them, if they start to scorch they’ll give the entire thing a burnt flavor that you really don’t want.

Leaving the skins on was a decision I made given that the entire thing will be strained through cheesecloth in the end and peeling them is a giant pain.

After the nuts have been toasted you’ll want to open them up.  This can be done in a couple of ways.  You can soak them in a bowl of cold water for about an hour until they are soft enough to crush with a rolling pin.  This leaves you with a nice paste but is time consuming and since you discard the water I think you’re losing part of that early flavor.

The process I used is to place them in small amounts into a blender or food processor and chop them to almost a flour like consistency.  Once you have them done either way you’ll need to place them in an air tight jar with a cold water for about 4-6 hours.  Ratio should be about 3 cups water for every 2 cups of nuts, this should let you extract maximum flavor without having to reduce the milk later.  You’ll want to agitate the jar about every half hour, as you can see in the picture the bits tend to separate into lighter and heavier parts.

After your infusion is ready you’ll want to get a funnel and cheese cloth, strain the water and nuts through the cheesecloth and then squeeze the cloth and nuts to extract all the last bits of flavor you can the liquid should be a murky white/brown this is your hazelnut milk.

Measure the amount of milk you extracted, preferably by weight, and then put it in a flat bottom saucepan on the stove.  You’ll want to bring it to a boil slowly and then turn the heat down to a simmer.  Add a roughly equal amount of sugar or sweetener by weight.  A little less is ok as this does not need to be a thick syrup.  If you want something heavier you can make a rich syrup at double the weight in sugar.  Keep in mind that depending on the sweetener you may wind up with something where you only taste the sugar and not the nuts.

Allow the sugar to dissolve and then bring the syrup up to a boil quickly.  Once it has started to boil turn the heat off, stir for another minute and then allow to cool.

Store the syrup in an air tight container in the fridge, it should last for a few weeks alone, or for longer with the addition of a few tablespoons of vodka.

The flavors of this syrup are meaty and rich.  Unlike Orgeat it defies the fruit flavors and goes right for the earthy taste of root, bark and tuber.  The richness compliments chocolate, coffee and other parts of the mocha family.  Mixed with vodka and lemon juice there is a flavor not unlike birthday cake.

I call this product hazelnut mother because in appearance and texture it looks like a sourdough starter but it tastes divine.

flask-drunk_huntAt first blush this appears to be a simple cartridge game from the original Nintendo Entertainment System.  Fond memories and nostalgia for the days when you had to blow on your games to make them work properly will fill anyone old enough to drink at this point.

I know my own childhood was occupied by an NES light gun pushed point blank to the CRT of my TV trying to nail rapidly moving pixelated ducks.

So when the kickstarter for Inkwhiskey.com and their NES inspired flask came out I was intrigued.

Their current line runs to at least 10 styles including tetraquila, Kegaman, Metal Beer and my own favorite CastleVodka.

The flask itself is a neat piece of design, the tab of the cartridge is rubberized and fits snugly into the flask generally preventing leakage.  It also fits flush to the point where many many people have walked right by them thinking they were old games rather than barware.

It isn’t listed on the website but testing has shown the flask able to hold slightly more than 4 ounces.

As funny an idea as this is, the design still suffers from a number of flaws.  Like many flasks you will need a funnel to fill it properly.  The package includes a plasticized card which they claim can be rolled into a funnel.  Experience shows this to be folly.  The card is not a good funnel and often requires two hands to operate properly meaning you would need someone else to pour.

The opening of the flask is recessed into the tab slot, meaning you will need either a straw (recommended) or will need to put your mouth entirely over the cutout to prevent spillage.  Pouring from the flask itself is also difficult as the opening isn’t really a pour spout and is hard to aim.

Finally the flask is entirely plastic.  There is a reason most liquor bottles aren’t made of plastic and it has to do with the solvent properties of ethanol and the tendancy of plastic to leech unwelcome flavors and chemicals into the contents.  Judging from the plastic type I’m not entirely worried about chemicals, but plastic flavors wearing over time could be an issue if the flask isn’t properly cleaned.  Proper cleaning is another problem given the interior corners and unusual position of the spout.

For $20 I’m not expecting a great deal out of this item.  It’s mostly for the wow factor of drinking out of a game cartridge in front of other geeks.  If you’re actually trying to smuggle alcohol into an event or carry it with you there are many other more functional options.

Camp 1805 Distillery

Posted: 20th May 2015 by Cocktail Alchemist in Bar Review, Liquor Review
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220A customer recommended that I take a trip down the gorge to try out a new distillery in Hood River.  Camp 1805 is parked in a little industrial complex just a stone’s throw from the HRD plant right on the Columbia river.  Position wise you would not think that there would be much in the way of restaurant or retail in that part of the town.  Most of the commerce seems to go on in the south bank side as the town rises up the hill.

Given their location I suppose it was no surprise that they didn’t actually open until 3pm.  So the girlfriend and I made a day of it, driving down the gorge taking photos and exploring hidden gems until afternoon rolled around.  The site is actually a bar, which is different than many of the tasting rooms in Portland but encouraging as it means the bartender is going to be well versed in what kinds of cocktails go well with their products.

They were open promptly at 3, which is refreshing in this business where things can sometimes be lax.  Things were quiet since we were effectively waiting for them to open and it was the middle of the week.

The decor is very nice looking and new.  Their selection behind the bar was heavy on major labels with a good selection of mixers but lacking in the depth of a Kask or oven & shaker.

Their tasting flight included four offerings.  From what I gather their small batch nature means that the proof on some of these varies from batch to batch with 80 being the baseline and the end product going up to at least 93.

Endurance White Whiskey

Whiskey is a curious duck, the legal requirements say that it must be barreled but not that it must be charred or aged for any length of time.  For this reason white dogs always feel like a cheat to me.  This one spends all of a minute in an unchared barrel before heading to bottling.  The result is clean and has the flavors of the heavy wheat in the grain bill without the oak to temper or tame the alcohol flavors.  It wasn’t a biter for all that the version I was drinking was 93 proof.  I can see this getting much better with time and oak.  I’m not a big fan of white dogs so take my opinion with a lot of salt.  4/10

Mt Hood Vodka

A french wheat vodka purchased elsewhere and then cut with local water and bottled.  This was similar to a grey goose in both flavor and character.  At 80 proof I wasn’t surprised with the content but neither was I really blown away.  5/10 – nothing much new to see here.

Backbone Rum

When I first tasted this I thought I was drinking whiskey.  The flavor is quite potent, which again might come from the higher proof nature of some of the offerings.  The flavor was good for a silver but not quite as soft as say Cpt. Morgan White. 6/10

Aged Rum

This is the true standout of the ones that I tried.  There wasn’t any information about it on their website so I’m stuck with what I learned while I was there.  Their backbone is aged in Yellow Rose Bourbon barrels until it is ready.  Barrel aging is a tricky process when you’re not using new barrels, the flavors in the wood already can play as much of a role as the size of the barrel in how long it needs to age to get the right flavor.  The batch I tasted was not really a dark rum but has some very good flavors to it.  8/10

Nocino Walnut Liqueur

Posted: 13th May 2015 by Cocktail Alchemist in Liquor Review
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nocinoStone Barn Brandyworks is a Portland gem.  Hidden away in a small semi-industrial area off 20th and SE Powell they are constantly at work cranking out brandy, whiskey and liqueurs of impeccable flavor.

In the late summer they pick immature (green) black walnuts and then soak them in their own rye whiskey.  The end result has aged brandy and spices as well.  Because I’m often there during the summer I always get a chance to see them making it, but because this is barrel aged for about 6 months they don’t release it until around November.  It’s a smaller batch item and is not around all year, so when they run out it’s gone till next November.

This is a 375ml bottle and it runs in the $30 range.  I’ve not been able to find it on Oregon Liquor search so if you don’t drop by their tasting room you might only see it in some of the local bars.  It is strong and so you won’t need to buy a lot to go a long way.

Flavor wise this is a very mixed bag.  Rye has a very spicy scent and pairs wonderfully with the scent of the walnuts.  A kind of sweet and fruity nut scent.  On the tongue the walnut is brief with the rye and brandy playing nicely with oak and the other spices in the mix.

It is dark, almost black from the oxidation of the walnut juice.  With both brandy and rye as the base this drink pairs amazingly well with bourbon or brandy cocktails.  It can be added easily to sidecars, manhattans, negronis or even a simple old fashioned.  It is a pretty traditional Italian digestif and really goes well alone in a small cordial glass.

Bartools: Perfect Black and Tan

Posted: 6th May 2015 by Cocktail Alchemist in Beer, Tools
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blackandtanI’ve discovered my kryptonite.  I can see kitchen gadgets, drinkware, tools and any number of other items on the shelf but if their use is obvious I can ignore them.  At a recent trip through Williams Sonoma I wandered near the barware and nestled among the cocktail shakers and bottle openers was this simple coaster sized piece of steel.  It was sold unboxed, with neither instructions nor explanation.  The sole concession to marketing was the engraving around the edge promising the “Perfect Black and Tan”.

It was $9.95 and I was hooked.  From the photo it appears to be slightly flat but this could not be further from the truth.  The outer ring is designed to sit comfortably around the rim of a pint glass and leaves enough space for a collins or a slightly wider than normal bar glass.  The middle ring is recessed from the rim and has equally spaced holes in the bottom of the depression.

The center is a raised dome of steel, perfectly rounded.  Being of a single piece of steel there are no welds, seams or rough edges.

Not being a beer drinker I was not immediately familiar with the Black and Tan as a beverage. If you are (like me) unknown to this drink it is a combination of lager and stout most notably Guinness and Harp.  Porter and pale ale are also allowable but the original is as given.  The drink is supposed to be served in a pint with a relatively clear separation between the two beers.  A “Perfect” black and tan would have a firm line between the two without blending between.  The Guinness is usually presented on top despite the arguably higher specific gravity (thickness).

pousse CafeTo achieve this process the bartender will pour the Guinness over the back of a bar spoon or down the angled edge of the glass to slow the beer’s fall.  This is the same process would would use to create a Pousse Cafe only simpler because you’re using only one layer.

So the intent with this little gadget is to give you a bar spoon like surface to spread out the overall pour and prevent splashing and then allow it to drain evenly through the holes across the surface of the lager preventing a single point of contact from mixing the two beers.

This is a fantastic design and a well thought out item.  It is easy to clean, use and store.  Beyond those elements it is useful for more than simply the original intention.  You could use this item to create similar separated drinks in any other format so long as the glass allows for the drain openings.

I have not attempted an actual pousse cafe with this as most of them use significantly smaller quantities of alcohol and much smaller glasses.

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The name of this drink is something of a joke.  The two main components are an Advocaat egg nog liqueur and orange juice.  Advocaat is dutch and while the low country isn’t exactly above the arctic circle the name has kind of stuck.

The Recipe:

2 oz Egg Nog Liqueur (advocaat)29
2 oz Pulp free Orange Juice

There isn’t anything terribly complicated here, advocaat has some lemon custard flavors to it that blend well with citrus and as a morning drink has much to recommend it.

As an AM drink I also try to shy away from anything that requires ingenuity this early in the morning.  If you want to expand this beyond the 2 ingredient level you can also float a little cream on the top and add club soda which turns it into an Australian drink called a fluffy duck.

stgermainOne of the flavors that I most associate with springtime is the scent of elderflower.  Growing up in the high desert of New Mexico there was a time after a strong sudden rain when the morning glory that laced our little hilltop would open and wash the normally dry air with their scents.  It is one of the few times I can remember the desert smelling like anything other than sand.

St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur has some of that same clean fresh scent and a delicate flavor like little petals and new grasses.

The full 750ml bottle of this liqueur is huge, with giant fluted sides like a vase.  I have tried to make myself buy one in this size a number of times but my shelf sends me angry texts,  “Really?  SRSLY?” and I have to put it back in favor of the 375 or a couple of the 50ml size.  All of their bottles have the same style to them which makes the little 50’s quite cute and perfect for a little rosewater or lavender oil when you’re done.  Prices in oregon run about $4.50 for the 50ml, $19.95 for the 375 and 39.95 for the 750ml.  Seeing as you need only use this one sparingly the bottle will last for quite a while.

St. Germain is a 20% ABV which puts it nicely below a lot of other mixers and keeps the alcohol flavor down.

As a nice spring cocktail I recommend something simple.

1 oz St. Germain
2 oz vodka
Pineapple chunk garnish

Using extra pineapple juice rim cocktail glass with cane sugar, pour contents into mixing glass.  Stir vigorously over ice.  Strain into rimmed glass and garnish with pineapple on a long pick.

I would use something like a Portland Potato or Ransom’s The Vodka which both have a flavor to them which won’t overshadow the elderflower.

Another good cocktail can be found Here.  Cocktailtube has a great sour, it uses an egg white which might not perfect for everyone but it’s a good drink anyway.