Tonight my lovely girlfriend and I did a little catching up after a long period of separation during her vet school finals, and so I missed the deadlines to write about my Mixology Monday experiences. Priorities and all. I'm going to submit this anyway, cos hey whats the worst that could happen.
This Saturday she will be receiving her undergraduate degree and so the two of us, along with all our parents, will be having a graduation/Christmas party to celebrate. Naturally, I was put in charge of the cocktails.
I use very small glasses whenever possible, which allows everyone to try several different drinks without getting too inebriated. My favorite glasses are crystal, of a bowl/coupe shape, and hold about 3 oz. I got them for about $3 at a resale shop and I love them. Anyway, I settled on Sidecars (always a fan favorite) and Mr. Chuck Taggart's Réveillon Cocktail, which is mainly what I'm concerned with here (the third drink to be featured is still to be decided on, suggestions welcome).
I first read about this drink early in 2006, and the concept of it sounded amazing. Apples, pears, and allspice, with just enough je nais se quois to keep it mysterious and intriguing. Only one problem: It calls for an allspice liqueur that hasn't been imported since the 80's, and can only be obtained from Jamaica. Well, a trip there is not in my immidiate future, but luckily a solution presented itself: The brilliant creator of this drink had also come up with a homebrew method for recreating this elusive liqueur (a favorite of Dr. Cocktail, no less). The recipe can be found here
*. After much help from the online cocktail dork community and a mail order for 151 proof Demerara (not available in Texas for some reason) I finally created my own pimento dram. Eventually I also obtained the Calvados and Poire William, and one fateful night I mixed one up and took a sip.
Interesting. Unfortunately, interesting is about as far as it went. It was still worth featuring at my party, but it fell far short of what I was expecting from such a magnificent list of ingredients. It just seemed as if there was so much unrealized potential hiding in there. But it soon became evident that the recipe was not necessarily at fault here.
First item: Calvados. Calvados is wonderful stuff, and some of the things I have made with it are on my short list of favorites, but for some reason it didn't quite work here. (I should add that the bottling I have now, Christian Drouin, is not as good, imo, as the Caron that I had first. This is as far as my experience with the stuff goes, however.) I noticed after some digging that the original recipe apparently called for Laird's Bonded (why was it changed?) and so I tried it. NOW we're on to something. The robust, assertive, whiskey-like character of the bonded applejack shines here unlike any drink I've ever had it in. It provides a solid foundation for the rest of the flavors while still being thoroughly and appropriately appley. It also eliminates the slightly destracting musty character from the Calvados I was using. Awesome.
Next item: I soon realised that the Marie Brizard Poire William that I had bought as an economy measure was not, in fact, an eau-de-vie as called for in the original recipe, but a sweetened liqueur. In the end I think that it mattered very little, aside from affecting the sweetness of the drink (probably not that bad considering the audience). I may soon get a chance to try it with a true eau-de-vie and will report back with my findings.
Pimento Dram: Here is where I think the change of one ingredient made the biggest difference. Now the homemade stuff is quite nice, and very fun to experiment with, but after much pain and at great expense, I was able to mail order a bottle of the commercial product from Jamaica (pm me for details if you want). I really just wanted to be able to compare, and initially I was extremely surprised at how close the homemade had come to the real thing. However, after subbing the Wray & Nephew in for my homebrew I was floored at how much more subtle and smooth it was. The allspice takes a nice supporting role, as it would in a cake or whatever, instead of trying to be the destracting center of attention as with the homemade. See the note at the bottom for more thoughts on this.
Vermouth: Cinzano sweet vemouth seems to be utterly unavailable in the college town where I live, and so until my next trip to Houston I can forget about anything better than M&R (which I quite like, so it's ok). However, the recipe recommends a high end vermouth like Carpano (I would imagine Vya being excellent as well), but since the vermouth is in such a small supporting role, I think I'm ok using M&R. Also, I have no choice.
Bitters: The original recipe calls for, in rough order of desireability, Abbotts, Fee's OF Bitters, or Angostura. The tiny bottle of Abbott's I have is strictly off-limits, so I stick to the others. When I use Fee's OF Bitters, I like to throw in a dash of Angostura as well to compensate for the lack of complexity and bitterness in Fee's. I love what Fee's can bring to a drink, but I tend to use it as an accent to Angostura instead of on it's own. (Typically 1 dash of Ango and 2 dashes Fee's).
In the end, the final ultimate personal recipe I came up with for this most festive of cocktails was thus:
La Réveillon Cocktail
2 oz Lairds Bonded Apple Brandy (100 proof)
1/2 oz Marie Brizard Poire William Liqueur (sub eau-de-vie if possible)
1/2 oz Wray & Nephew Allspice liqueur (or homemade*)
1/4 oz Sweet vermouth
1 dash Angostura Bitters
2 dashes Fee's Old Fashioned Bitters
Stir with ice and strain into chilled cocktail glass, garnish with a twist (makes 1.5-2 drinks in my tiny glasses).
*Thoughts on Pimento Dram: Allspice liqueur is wonderful stuff, and once my homebrew is gone I will def. be making more (barring it being imported again). A few caveats, however. Good though the homebrew is, it doesn't quite work here in such a large amount. The assertiveness is destracting from the balance. I personally attribute this to the distinctive flavor of the 151 proof Demerara rum it is based on. If/when I make this again I will definitely be basing it off of still-rich but much less distinctive Jamaican rums (Dr. Cocktail has postulated a mix of Wray & Nephew Overproof and Meyers's---probably a good starting point). If you haven't made any of this yet but want to for Christmas...well, too late, it takes over a month. But if you want to make some for next year I would definitely recommend perhaps making a half batch and trying different variations on the base. This works even better for me personally since I can only obtain high proof Demerara at a considerable expense. I would be more willing to use Appleton Extra (12 yr) than to make it with Demerara again. That said, if you have already made some to this recipe, I would probably scale down the amount, perhaps swap the amounts of allspice and vermouth. I'm still working on balancing that out using the homemade. I will say I'm glad I have the homemade and I'd recommend it to anyone, since it's better than none at all, but if you have the patience and/or resources to get the real deal, by all means do it. The drink truly shines with it.