Stocking Your Bar: Part 3 Mixers

wpid-0141222_161248.jpgBy this point you should have a basic idea of what kind of alcohol you actually want to drink.  Even if that idea is as simple as “Vodka”.  If you don’t then please see Part I and Part II of this series first.

I have heard stories from friends and customers many times that they “just can’t drink X” because it does something to them either physically or emotionally.  I can understand, having a friend find out the hard way that they are allergic to juniper *after* three gin martinis is an un-fun evening.

Having narrowed the field down from the six or seven major types of alcohol to just one or two is a major accomplishment.  Now comes the harder part.  From here you have to start finding brands that you like and adding mixers to make cocktails.

Finding favorite brands is tough.  The only working method is to go through them one at a time and give them a chance.  Each is going to be a bit different and will have something that appeals to one person over another.  Experience is everything.  This can get expensive quickly if you don’t find one you like early.  You can use my airplane bottle method from part 1 of this series but that won’t work for every brand.

On the other hand, finding mixers and liqueurs is a good deal easier.  Cocktails generally fall into a couple of basic categories.  I choose to break them down into Citrus, cream, fruit, spice/herbal and mocha but this is by no means an industry standard.  Each of these has a couple of flagship products that are accessible to all drinks in that category as well as a few that defy category entirely.

Citrus for example is headed by liquors like Cointreau, Combier, Gran Mariner, limoncello, triple sec and Curacao.  Mocha is led by Kaluha and creme de cacao.  Cream liquors are most commonly associated with Irish cream, or newer liqueurs like rumchata, rumpope and advocaat.  The fruit liqueurs are generally non-citrus such as cherry herring, Parma, or Amaretto.  Spice or herbal liqueurs come from a number of roots but are monastic such as chartreuse, benedictine, kummel or aquavit.

Depending on your preference each of these is a good start for making drinks in the category of your choice.  Having a bottle of each would prepare you for cocktails of almost any stripe.

For example Cointreau or Combier are both examples of Triple-sec a generally clear liqueur made from bitter orange peels.  Triple-sec is the base spirit for classic drinks like the Cosmo and the Margarita.

Application of these mixers to your existing base of spirits, sodas and syrups will give you thousands of quick combinations with little effort and a maximum level of compatibility.  Your best option is to pick an area that you think you want to explore and pick up a smaller bottle of one of the core liqueurs.

As with anything choose flavors that you would pick elsewhere.  Don’t drop money on a chili pepper vodka if spicy foods are not to your liking.  Don’t drink Creme de Cassis if you’re not a big fan of black currant.

Once you’ve got your mixer, your juice and your base spirit a simple 2,1, 1/2 combination is usually enough to get you going.  For every 2 ounces of base spirit add 1 ounce of liqueur and 1/2 ounce of fruit juice.  If that appeals to you somewhat you can work on the proportions until it’s perfect.

Make Your Own: Grenadine

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Further efforts in my loving quest to bring everyone the benefits of self-produced mixers abound.

Aside from fruit juice one of the most popular mixers for various cocktails is Grenadine.  Many of you may not be familiar with this mixer, I know because I’ve had at least three people say “What’s Grenadine” when I mention working on this article.

 

 

 

Grenadine comes from the french word Grenade, which means pomegranate.  Pomegranate is actually a concatenation of the words for apple and seeds.  Long way to go linguistically to get to this one but at least it makes sense.  Grenadine is a syrup made principally of pomegranate juice and sugar.

 

 

What is shocking is the quantity of grenadine brands on the market that don’t actually contain pomegranate juice.  Most of them are water, corn syrup and red dye.  This rather bland conversion has taken place over a number of years.  The quantity and potency of the red dye has grown somewhat more important than the flavor and you will find grenadine in a number of drinks where presentation paramount but where you might not expect pomegranate flavor to be important.

 

 

 

 

 

The revival of cocktail culture has caused a resurgence of good grenadine on the market.  Fee brothers and Stirrings both make an excellent bottled version.  Fee brothers is about $11 for 4oz.  The stirrings can be had for about $6 for 12oz.  From personal experience the stirrings is not very thick.  It’s plenty sweet and has a good flavor but it’s watery.  It is made from pomegranate concentrate, “natural flavors”, and is colored with “fruit and vegetable juice”.  If you look on the back of the bottle it actually says 30% juice, which means that the rest is probably water.

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I’ve never been steered wrong with a fee brothers product but still, $2.75 an ounce is a bit more than I’d like to pay.

Now unlike many of my previous MYO’s this is one that I can’t 100% recommend.  The primary reason for that is that one of the principal ingredients is only marginally useful outside of this one instance and can be a bit expensive.

Grenadine:
1 – 16oz bottle Pom Wonderful (pomegranate Juice) [$4]
1 cup baker’s sugar [$0.75]
1-2 dashes Orange Flower Water [$0.32]

The last ingredient here, despite being one of the smallest is the tricky one.  Orange flower water is an alcohol based tincture of orange blossoms.  I looked into this carefully because it would normally be a simple matter to make some of my own an avoid a trip to the store.  But it appears that the type of blossoms used in most orange flower water products are Seville oranges or some other verity, and there do not appear to be any places where one can buy orange blossoms, either fresh or dried.

 

Further it appears that the extract is actually removed from the blossoms via distillation process.  Which requires a still and the wherewithal to use it.

 

Lacking ingredients and equipment we are left with the option to buy.  The brand that I was able to find quickly was Nielsen-Massey Orange Blossom Water which runs $8 for 2 oz.  A dash is about a 1/6 tsp or 1/48th of an ounce so we’re using about $0.32 worth for this run.

Orange flower water comes in a lot of different types.  Again Fee brothers offers 4oz for $10, many other brands are out there but I’m not familiar enough with the companies to speak with any authority.  I’ve seen brands that run about a dollar an ounce but who knows what kind of quality you’re going to see.  I’ve heard tell of expensive small batch versions but wasn’t able to find any links or prices.

Much like simple syrup you’ll want to start by adding the liquid to a saucepan.  I recommend something a bit deeper as you’re using a lot more liquid.  Start a medium heat and slowly add the sugar, stirring to allow it to dissolve.

Heat the juice up to a boil, then cover and simmer for about 20 minutes.  You can use a spoon dipped into the syrup to see how thick it’s getting, just look how well the back of the spoon is coated.  As the water boils off it will become thicker, but keep in mind that while hot it will be thinner than it is once cool so leave it a bit looser than you want it to finish.

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Once you’ve got the consistency you want, remove it from the heat and allow it to cool.  Pour the syrup into a carafe, jug, flask, or squeeze bottle.  Add the orange flower water, seal tightly and shake well.  Then chill.

You’re going to wind up with slightly less than 16 oz of total syrup for a bit more than $5.  Fee brothers would cost you over $40 for a similar amount.

Like all the syrups we have made so far this one has a shorter shelf life than what you’ll get in the store.  You can keep this for a couple of weeks in the fridge, longer if you add a few tablespoons of vodka to the bottle.

Properly thick this stuff is great on ice cream, Italian soda, yogurt, tea, oatmeal and numerous cocktails.  The orange flower water is right up front and at first you’ll think it’s going to be bitter.  The sweetness is actually more from the pomegranate juice which is both rich and not cloying.

Fancy drinks to follow.

Make Your Own: Cosmo Mix

 

Cosmo

Welcome back for another wondrous takedown of the commercial drink mixers industry.  As I proceed along this search, I am ever more convinced that the entire idea of bottled mixers is an attempt to sell people something they don’t need by encouraging the idea that cocktails are hard.

This is chemistry at the most basic level, as simple as adding cream to coffee or lemon to tea.

If you look back at my MYO of Margarita mix you’ll find that even the most basic drinks seem to get clouded over with a one-bottle solution and then endlessly adulterated with cheap ingredients as the race to the bottom of the price table continues.

I’m sure that in the days of Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic when complicated Tiki drinks using multiple exotic and difficult to find ingredients were popular it was perfectly normal to buy a mix for a Mai Tai or a pina Colada.  Where I begin to break down is when classic cocktails seem to need this imaginary leg up, everything from the Mojito, Old Fashioned, Cosmopolitan, and even the Whiskey Sour seems to get shoved into a bottle for the no-brainer cocktail.  If the flavors involved were real instead of being just corn syrup and additives I would buy them in a heartbeat but fresh juices don’t keep well and many of these mixers are non-alcoholic so they are replicating the flavors of triple sec without the alcohol which means your cocktail is now leaning heavily on your main spirit.

Consider the Cosmo, that most beloved of Sex and the City girls everywhere:

1.5 oz Vodka
0.5 oz Cointreau (Triple Sec)
1/8th oz Lime Juice
1.5 oz Cranberry Juice
Twist of Lime Zest

Drop the Cranberry and swap the vodka for tequila and we’re right back in margarita territory.

I can’t imagine it’s hard to find good cranberry juice.  There are literally dozens of brands both excellent and mediocre on the market.  The issue could be that we are  running up against our old enemy the cheapskate.  When people get sticker shock on a 350ml bottle of Cointreau they might opt for a cheap bottled alternative, but even some of the low end triple sec’s are fine in small amounts like we’re using here.

Unlike the margarita, I can’t recommend mixing up a bunch of this in advance.  There’s simply not enough to this that isn’t going to require some form of more precise measurement.  If you wanted to do up an entire pitcher all at once the following would get you about 16 servings.

1 – 750ml bottle of vodka
25 oz cranberry juice
8 oz Triple Sec
1 medium sized Lime

Mixing becomes something of a problem but if you add enough ice and stir vigorously for about 2 minutes you’ll get the right temp and dilution.

 

Make Your Own: Margarita Mix

In continuing with my desire to see any mix that comes in a bottle relegated to the dustbin I proceed to destroy the myth of Margarita mix.

The Margarita as a drink is a classic cocktail containing only three ingredients.  Tequila, Orange Liqueur and lime juice.  The proportions of these ingredients can vary depending on your preference and I will get into how to adjust those once I can finally get my hands on a bottle of Sparkle Donkey Reposado.

In traditional form a margarita is about:

1.5 oz Tequila
3/4 oz Cointreau
.5 oz Lime Juice

Where anyone would find the need for a mix in such a simple cocktail is beyond me but I can see a couple of holes here that might trip the unwary.  This type of drink is one served in a pitcher among friends so having to extrapolate the ratios upwards can be a bit of a pain.  Additionally there are really only two types of Triple-sec on the market, the expensive and the unknown.  Buying a bottle of cointreau just so your buddy can drown it in cheap tequila isn’t really on my to-do list so we get that out of the way.

Additionally there is some prep work here.  Juicing limes, mixing various things in proportion etc.  Some would find it easier to simply pour a bottle of tequila and a bottle of mix into the blender with ice and press the button to make it happen.

It may also have something to do with the largest selling brand of tequila on the market.  Jose Cuervo does not always make a good product but it’s cheap and plentiful which is more than enough to get the glassware out at some parties.  If you’re putting junk into the blender or shaker then you might need something in your drink to mask the flavor of the cheap rotgut that Oro Tequilas get cut with.  Bottle mixes are going to fill that gap with corn syrup and a bunch of artificial lime flavors.

If you’re going to make a batch of these (blended or not) fresh lime juice and simple syrup is really the thing to use.  If you’re feeling adventurous Agave nectar is another sweetener that already has a brother in the tequila bottle you’ll be using.  Consider the tequila first before you break out the sugar.  A good Reposado is going to have sweet notes in it already from the cask aging process.  Sparkle Donkey I can confirm tastes something like cotton candy in the reposado.  If your alcohol is of a good quality then adding more sugar is only going to play merry havoc with the balance of flavors you’re getting from agave, orange, lime and salt.

Mixing up a lot of this far in advance isn’t really desirable simply because lime juice loses its kick after a while and there isn’t anything else to add but alcohol.   If you’re making blended versions you can pre-mix your entire drink and add it to the crushed ice right before serving since the mix won’t have a chance to dilute and will be mixed by the blender.

Given the amounts I normally get from limes you’re looking at the following:

16 Servings

1 – 750ml bottle of tequila
1 – 350ml bottle of  Cointreau (Triple Sec)
4 medium sized limes

At 1.5 oz per serving you can squeeze a little over 16 servings out of a regular bottle, given that ratio a smaller sized bottle of triple sec will fit perfectly.  Limes normally give you about 2 oz per lime so we can get all 16 servings in 4 fruit.

I recommend a large carafe or jug with a good sealing lid.  Hopefully your blender can handle this kind of volume.

Amaretto Sour

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There are numerous examples of things which have been classified as “chick-drinks”.  The moniker has probably been around as long as drinking itself when it was felt that women couldn’t handle the kind of hard drinking that men preferred.  This is nonsense of course, but that didn’t stop the Victorians on down from relegating women to things like wine-spritzers instead of the really hard stuff.

I do have friends who prefer drinks where the flavors of alcohol are muted or absent.  Picking drinks where there is little to no hard alcohol, or replacing it with liqueurs is one sure way to ensure that they’re not put off by a concoction.

Perhaps the king of those type of drinks is the Amaretto Sour.  Where many casual drinkers run for the soda fountain to mask their libations, I personally started out with these.   At 24% ABV amaretto isn’t exactly topping the charts and cut in half with sour mix you’re topping a heavy wine or a hefty microbrew for punch.

Amaretto Sour:

1.5 oz Amaretto
2 oz Sour Mix
Add ice, Stir, Garnish with Maraschino Cherry.

 

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Now a couple of things to note here.  If something calls for sour mix in the future I will be making my own.  I’ll try to make that clear, as I have seen other bloggers and YouTube people who don’t mention that they make their own and it occasionally puts people off of a drink.

Next, I’m not using the maraschino cherries I made awhile back.  They’re not done yet, so they stay in the jar and I get to use up the last of the processed ones that were hanging around the fridge.

The quality of amaretto is everything there.  The stuff I’m using, as you can see above, is a local product.  That doesn’t make it good.  It’s cheap, and sweet, and that’s about all one can say in favor of it.  I often find with this brand that I have to water my drinks just to get something that isn’t cloying.  Be picky about your amaretto.  While to most people it tastes like cherry, most amaretto is made from almond extracts.

What a lot of people don’t know is that apricot pits carry some of the same flavors, as do a number of other stone fruits.  Disaronno in particular is entirely made from apricot pits.  Some of the cheaper brands may even go so far as to use Benzaldehyde the chemical in natural flavoring that gives things like Cherry Coke their flavor.

So when you are looking at amaretto don’t assume that since you’re likely going to mix it, that flavor doesn’t matter.

As a mixer it has a lot of flexibility and is a frequent substitute for Orgeat syrups in tiki drinks.

Make Your Own: Sweet and Sour Mix

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Part two in my lovely series of how to replace the horrible mixers that you buy at the store.  This one is a big one, sour mix is probably one of the The go to party mixes of anything out there.  It’s a component in the amaretto sour, the whiskey sour, dozens of tiki drinks and even cheaper end margarita mixes.  Holding some of the most baseline flavors in the cocktail world this is something that you should have on hand for any party and making even a big batch is pretty easy.

A lot of the difficulty in this recipe comes from the fact that there are few ingredients.  This may seem counter-intuitive but if you think about it, the fewer things you put into it, the greater weight each has in the outcome.

Much like my adventures in making limeade taste is everything.

Sour Mix:
2 oz Lime Juice
2 oz Lemon Juice
2.5 oz Simple Syrup
Mix all ingredients in a squeeze bottle, shake well, refrigerate.
Like the simple syrup itself this will keep for about 2-3 weeks unless you add vodka to it.

This is my version, and I will stress from the get go that it is not the perfect ratio to please every taste.  This happens to be a very simple outgrowth of the ingredients at their basest.

 

 

 

 

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Using fresh limes and lemons is essential.  If you let them sit too long the pith starts to make the juice bitter and all kinds of things can happen to the outcome.  Your average sized store lime/lemon will press for ~2 ounces of juice.  Larger or smaller than normal you can kinda guess but if you’re shooting on drinking for two people, the juice of one of each will suffice for this project.

The 2.5 ounces of simple syrup come from my previous MYO posting where I used 1/3 of a cup of sugar to get the syrup.  This turns out to be perfectly balanced based on the amount of juice you get from one each of the fruit.

The result is a somewhat neutrally acid, sweet mixture that works well in most cocktails.

To get the right kind of taste for your palate, I would recommend the above amounts of base ingredients. Instead of mixing them all together in a squeeze bottle as I’ve done, put varying amounts into a shot glass to taste.  Half ounce increments in either direction will let you give the mixture a bit of play until you find the spot that tickles your tongue.  I would start by scaling back on the simple syrup and see how you like it at an even 2 parts each then raise or lower the lime and lemon until it’s right.

Limeade

One of the things I’ve been doing most recently is playing around with lime juice.  Personally I consider it a lot more flexible than say lemon or grapefruit juice.  In the citrus family I think only the orange has a better claim to fame.

Sadly there are some things that full on lime juice will not really support and that sweet and sour mix doesn’t need.  I’m a big proponent of making things yourself where you can.  If there is a question of volume, need, frequency or speed I can always see buying what you want but if you have the time to prep, the freshest and best ingredients are the ones you make yourself.

So in that vein I went looking for a good way to make limeade or sour mix in very small quantities, say 1 glass at a time.

My own proportion finally worked out as 1 part each of lime juice, simple syrup and water.  It gives you a nice lime flavor without being too sweet or too sour.  Add another equal part lemon juice and you have sour mix ready to go.  For a single glass an ounce of each is right on the mark.

When i’m mixing for a party I keep a pour bottle of lime juice and a squeeze bottle of limeade ready to hand.  The limeade cuts out the more offensive portions of the base lime juice for when you need something to blend out the alcohol flavors but you don’t exactly want a fully sour drink.