This past weekend I had a nice dinner of small plates and a couple of delicious cocktails at JP Winebar in the Crossroads. I was happy to get a Manhattan that was not shaken vigorously with ice, but rather gently stirred with a bar spoon. Certainly the shaker is the quintessential sight and sound of the cocktail revolution, but it should only be used when entirely appropriate.
Photo by RLHyde on Flickr.
Simpler drinks, particularly true cocktails with only two or three ingredients, should almost always be stirred. I have heard conflicting reports about what shaking actually does to a drink. Certainly shaking makes a drink colder and also gives it a cloudy appearance. Drinks that involve an egg white, fruit juice or any kind of syrup typically benefit from being shaken.
I have also heard that a shaken drink is more alcoholic because the ice fuses with the water content of the alcohol and is strained out prior to serving. My experience is generally that shaking drinks makes them weaker, or at least removes the “bite” from distilled spirits. I can always tell when a Manhattan has been shaken. Also the consensus is that martinis should be stirred but I think the superior coldness outweighs all the other factors for most drinkers. Plus, people expect to see you get out the shaker when they order a martini.
That being said, if you have a preference, by all means express it to your server or bartender. I’ll bet that most bartenders would think it’s cool if you asked for your martini stirred. These people like to make good drinks after all.
In continuing the food safety theme I seem to have chosen for the end of the week, I offer a note of caution with regard to cocktails.
As mixological wizardry increases and bartenders delve into flavors of olde, the raw egg white has come back into fashion. Shaking a drink with an egg white imparts a delightful frothiness and foamy mouthfeel reminiscent of an Orange Julius.
photo by StuartWebster on Flickr.
Earlier this year a New York bar received a health citation for serving a drink that contained raw whites. No it’s not illegal to serve them, but it is illegal to serve them without telling the customer. Some drink-enthusiasts got pretty upset over the infraction but I personally think that customers have a right to know if they are consuming something potentially dangerous.
What is more interesting is the potential for cross-contamination behind the bar. Anything that touches raw egg (like the counter or the edge of a cocktail shaker when you crack it) needs to be cleaned and sanitized to prevent salmonella from infecting someone else’s beverage.
During a recent conversation with a friend, he revealed to me that he always orders seven and sevens when he goes bowling. This is just a behavior he developed over the years in order to compensate for a rather limited set of choices when indulging at the local lanes.
Photo by Steven Depolo on Flickr. I've been to this bowling alley and it rules.
Most bowling alleys have bars and even lounges when one can order any number of items. But there is no guarantee that the person knows much about making drinks. Sometimes, the same person who operates the fry-o-lator and the nacho cheese dispenser has the mixological responsibilities as well.
Also the choice of liquors may be extremely limited, particularly if you want anything top-shelf. Don’t get me started on the beer selection. One is usually limited to Budweiser, Miller and the other usual suspects.
Of course, this situation is not limited to the bowling alley. Airplanes, catered events and many dive bars put drinkers in the position of needing to order something that is good, hard to mess up and made from commonly available ingredients. Anyone else have an old standby beverage for situations like these?
Infused liquors have been popular for quite a while now, evident by the dizzying array of Stoli flavors behind the bar at any given watering hole. I have been enjoying some cucumber vodka recently and find it extremely simple to make. The flavors are remarkable well-suited to hot weather as well, which God knows we have enough of around here.
Photo by Christy Cullen on Flickr.
I use cheap vodka as the base, but I can only imagine this recipe could be improved with higher quality hooch. As for the cucumbers, it is best to use organic cucumbers since the skin doesn’t have traces of pesticides or the thick waxy coating that mass-market cucumbers do. This is pretty much a rule of thumb for any infusing agent.
Take one or two cucumbers and wash them well. Cut into one -inch chunks and dump them into a large glass mason jar (or other similar receptacle. Fill the jar with a 750ml bottle of vodka and seal with an airtight lid. Save the bottle for the final product. Let it sit anywhere from 24 hours to 3 weeks, depending on the strength of the cucumber flavor you want. I have found that I prefer a much less pronounced cucumber flavor so I tend to soak for a couple of days.
After the requisite infusion time, pour through a strainer back into the original bottle. That’s it, but what do you do with cucumber vodka?
I have found that a martini variation is quite nice but for some reason the cucumber flavor really needs a little sweetness. Try a martini with cucumber vodka, a squeeze of lime, a teaspoon of simple syrup and some fresh mint leaves. Shake vigorously and strain into a cocktail glass.
Another favorite involves the cucumber vodka mixed with honey syrup (essentially simple syrup make from honey) and soda water.
Poke around on the Internet for ideas, there are plenty of people making and experimenting with cucumber vodka.
Kansas City is home to an exciting and unique showcase of local bartending talent. On Sunday, August 29, 2010 the Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition will take over the Uptown Theater where twelve finalists will battle for $1000 in prize money for a first place finish.
Photo by preater on flickr.
If you sling drinks at a local (or even non-local) establishment, right now is the time to enter yourself as a potential competitor. To enter, you need to submit a recipe for an original, signature cocktail. Last year Arturo Vera of R Bar took home the top prize with Beau Williams of Manifesto and Chris Conatser of Justus Drugstore taking 2nd and 3rd place. See Mr. Vera get his check here:
You may also recall that back in March I visited Conatser at his place of work so I can attest to his passion and creativity behind the bar. Who knows what personalities this year will bring?
On stage, the finalists are typically asked to create both a version of their signature drink and a secret classic cocktail which are then judged by a panel of wisecracking judges. It’s kind of like American Idol, but the judges are only slightly more intoxicated.
New to the event this year is the Tasting Room, an area apart from the main stage where attendees can order the finalists’ specialty drinks. Ryan Maybee, one of the founders of the Competition, told me via email, “It will be the first time guests will have the opportunity to try the finalists’ cocktails. There will also be various free sample booths featuring local businesses in the beverage industry like SodaVie.” Now we can all match taste buds with the judges and even vote for our favorites via text message from the audience.
The $15 ticket price gets you admission to the competition, a drink ticket for the Tasting Room, free food from local restaurants, live entertainment in the bar, and access to all the samples you get get.
The best way to keep tabs on the GKCBC is to follow them on Twitter and Facebook. We should see several tastings and special meals at local restaurants in the coming weeks which will provide an opportunity to obtain discounted tickets.
For rules, entry forms and a link to purchase tickets, visit their website at www.gkcbc.com. Tickets will also be available at the door.
Cocktail nerds, take note: Smithville’s Justus Drugstore is not to be overlooked. The last several years have seen a serious up-tick in freshly-prepared, finely crafted classic cocktails in the spirit of pre-Prohibition era mixology. Many upscale taverns and fine dining restaurants around the country offer infused liquors or perhaps cherries that are brandied in-house. Like a few other joints in town, the folks at Justus certainly subscribe to this worldview, but they seem to take it about three steps further.
From a quaint but sleekly decorated storefront location in a small community about 20 minutes north of downtown Kansas City, Justus Drugstore proudly features a drink menu that can stand up to the biggest, fanciest, snobbiest drinkeries on the coasts. Lest that scare away any solid, populist Midwesterners within earshot, just know that this is not creativity for creativity’s sake. These drinks taste good. Some have the potential to blow your mind.
Booze is a much more interesting conversation topic when Chris Conatser is doing the talking. This guy is a fountain of knowledge about herbs, roots, flowers and plants. He also happens to be Justus’ bartender. Conatser stumbled into bartending after leaving a gardening job at Powell Gardens due to allergy problems. Over time, his knowledge of botany has led him to an interest in using growing things to flavor beverages. He lets nature inspire him; if he sees something interesting in the wild it might wind up in Justus’ Elixir du Jour the next day. “It’s much easier to think about things when you are walking in the woods and you smell it,” said Conatser. This kind of artistry led him to victory at the 2008 Kansas City Bartending Competition for his “Go Figure Cocktail,” and a third-place win at last year’s competition.
Like the food at Justus Drugstore, the bar fare subscribes to an assertion that fresh, local and seasonal ingredients trump mass-produced, prepackaged ones. “We are locked into the philosophy of the food,” said bar manager Jay Beavers. The abundances and shortages of the growing season affect what they are able to serve in the bar. March is a fairly thin time of year since items prepared with winter crops have started running out, and new growth has yet to start in earnest. Despite that fact you can sample some fascinating infusions such as chamomile bourbon, vanilla vodka and persimmon gin. “The persimmons have lasted because they handled the alcohol really well,” said Beavers.
If you enjoy even an occasional cocktail, you more than likely have a bottle of Martini & Rossi sweet or dry vermouth in your liquor cabinet. While several varieties are available in local stores, Justus’ house-made vermouth is a revelatory experience for the taste buds. Made with remainder wines, herbs, citrus and dozens of other ingredients, making vermouth was one of Beavers’ first ideas when he started at Justus Drugstore.
Since so few places make the stuff, he had a difficult time finding recipes, even on the Internet. “I looked quite a while for anyone willing to talk about it and basically all I got was history.” Beavers and Conatser tasted a variety of quality manufactured varieties and developed their own recipe. Each batch — which takes three weeks to mature — has been a learning exercise as they tweak and alter flavors. “Our last batch was our best definitely,” said Beavers, “and I think that’s been the progression since we started.”
Slightly sweet and complex with a notable cherry flavor, their sweet vermouth comes closer to the aperitif Jonathan Justus enjoyed while living in Europe than anything he has encountered stateside. While most Americans do not commonly take vermouth straight, this variety is easily enjoyed over ice or straight in a cordial glass.
Looking at the multitude of bitters sitting behind the bar, one immediately gets a sense of the extent of creative genius at play. During a recent visit, Beavers set some out in front of me, tiny glass bottles with hand-written labels: masala chai, orange, cardamom tincture, cherry, hop, orris, celery, grapefruit. These highly concentrated concoctions are used mere drops at a time to add aromatic and flavor dimensions to any number of drinks. They also use a small copper still to extract flavor essences from flowers and herbs. Distilling allows for incredibly potent flavors for use in oils, bitters and waters.
Beavers used elderflower in developing the Silver Elder, a drink that was recently voted “Kansas City’s Signature Cocktail” by KC Magazine. A combination of house-infused vanilla vodka, gin, elderflower and citrus juice vigorously shaken into a froth with an egg white, the Silver Elder is definitely a crowd pleaser with its soft, tangy and slightly sweet flavors.
Beavers has been working in restaurants since he was a teenager, but also has a scientific background with a degree in Chemistry. Some years ago he took a break from bartending and worked as an emissions tester at power plants. “I got bored with sitting in smokestacks for 20 hours at a time,” said Beavers, so he quit and has been happily behind a bar ever since.
While infusing is probably the latest and greatest bar trend, the bartenders at Justus couple this single technique with a number of other methods, not to mention a local philosophy and an inquisitive spirit. Both Conatser and Beavers implied that having freedom to experiment has been extremely important to their present successes. When the infusing fad has come and gone, Justus Drugstore and its team of bartenders will still be mixing up some of the best and most interesting drinks in town.