The Margarita, aka the Tequila Daisy

There’s been a bit of a hot debate going on for a while about constructing the perfect margarita. Tommy’s in San Francisco promotes their 100% agave margarita heavily, which uses agave syrup instead of orange liqueur to sweeten it. It makes sense; eliminating the orange aspect makes the tequila flavor shine through. But there’s a problem with this.

As you dive into the world of classic cocktails, you begin to recognize cocktail families. Some are familiar, some, less so:

Sour: spirit, citrus, sweetener, often egg white
Fizz: sour with a carbonated aspect (soda, sparkling wine, etc.)
Cocktail: spirit, sugar, bitters, water (dilution from ice suffices)
Improved/Fancy Cocktail: spirit, flavored sweetener, bittering component, perhaps an aperitif wine…

You start to recognize the patterns everywhere. You read the menu description of a bar’s “Apple Orchard” (Calvados, Grand Marnier, lemon juice, orange bitters) and you understand that it is just a modified sidecar. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It’s great to know these formulae. Understanding what makes a sour delicious means it’s easy to begin to substitute the base spirit for another, swap flavored sweeteners or acid, etc…

It also means it’s a lot harder to be surprised. So when the Tommy’s-style margarita started making the rounds in San Francisco, I was a little confused. Because despite David Wondrich’s article about the history of the tequila daisy, people still don’t seem to talk about the fact that “margarita” is the Spanish word for “daisy.” And a daisy is an entire class of cocktail, comprised of spirit, citrus and flavored sweetener.

The most common sweeteners for daisies, historically, are yellow Chartreuse, grenadine, raspberry syrup and… curaçao. Curaçao, the orange liqueur in said margarita.

I like a Tommy’s margarita. I do. Quality tequila, fresh lime and clean sweetener? Delicious. It’s just that I don’t think it’s actually a margarita. The curaçao (or whatever version of orange liqueur you use) is what makes it a margarita, aka a tequila daisy, and not just a tequila daiquiri.

For the record, here’s how I make a margarita. (Note that I offset the citrus with simple syrup. You can invert the proportions of lime and curaçao and eliminate the simple syrup, but this makes the drink a bit boozy for my taste.)

1 1/2 oz 100% agave tequila
1 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz Cointreau or good curaçao
1/4 oz 1-to-1 simple syrup

‘Shake all ingredients over ice and strain into a double old-fashioned glass filled with fresh ice and rimmed with salt if desired, or strain into a chilled cocktail glass or coupe.

Green Chartreuse Marshmallows

Every winter we put a hot drink on the menu at the Slanted Door. The last couple of years it’s been a hot buttered rhum cider. It’s insanely good: a trademark Erik Adkins concoction, rich but perfectly balanced. I love it, but I also crave new things, and the recipe development that goes along with them.

And every winter, I think about a Tequila Hot Chocolate. I’ve written about it once already, but I really wanted to step the drink up and make it work for our cocktail list. While it is delicious on its own, I thought an indulgent yet geeky touch would be to top it with a marshmallow flavored with green Chartreuse. Chocolate and green Chartreuse have a strong affinity for one another. So much so that there has been a flurry of articles written on the subject recently, including two by a couple of my favorite booze writers, Camper English and Paul Clarke. They may argue about who thought of the combo first, but I assure you, I’ve been trying to do a tequila hot chocolate with a green Chartreuse marshmallow for years! (Ask Erik; he will totally attest to my laziness and procrastination.)

I already had the ganache worked out. The version I posted before, however, was a rich and creamy cuddle-in-front-of-the-fire style, a large mug to warm you to your bones. A cocktail list version needed some tweaking: the tequila should be more prominent, and it should be rich but not too large. It should be a satisfying end to a meal, not a replacement for one.

I’ve been a fan of the signature hot chocolate at Bittersweet for years; they use water instead of milk, yet it is incredibly rich and potent. Dairy can cloud some of the higher notes in dark chocolate; using water intensifies the nuances. As long as you use enough chocolate, that is.

So that’s what we did: up the proportion of chocolate, use water, and put it all in a smaller mug. It’s perfect: flavorful tequila wrapped in an intense hit of chocolate, with an adult marshmallow on top.

Tequila Hot Chocolate
2 tbsp Mexican Chocolate Ganache
2 oz water
1-1/4 oz reposado tequila
1/4 oz Cointreau

Heat ganache and water together, stirring until dissolved. Add to a small mug along with tequila and Cointreau. Top with green Chartreuse marshmallow.

Mexican Chocolate Ganache
4 oz dark chocolate
1 c cream
6 tbsp cocoa powder
¾ c sugar
¼ tsp cayenne
½ tsp ground cinnamon

Melt the chocolate into the cream in the top of a double-boiler. Add the cocoa powder and mix thoroughly with an immersion blender. (If you don’t have an immersion blender, heat the cream and whisk the cocoa powder into it, then melt the chocolate into that.) Add the sugar and spices and stir with a spatula until thoroughly mixed. The sugar may not dissolve; it’s okay. Keep extra ganache refrigerated.

The marshmallows are my bar geek conceit. Green Chartreuse is a bartender favorite due to its herbal intensity and cult-like recipe secrecy. Incorporating it into a marshmallow recipe proved tricky but not impossible. After several tries and some help from my friend Melissa, here is the final recipe:

Green Chartreuse Marshmallows
adapted from Gourmet, December 1998

about 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
3 1/2 envelopes (2 tablespoons plus 2 1/2 teaspoons) unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup cold water
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup agave syrup
1/2 cup plus 3 tbsp green Chartreuse
1/4 tsp salt
2 large egg whites
1/2 tsp vanilla

Oil bottom and sides of a 13- by 9- by 2-inch baking pan and dust bottom and sides with confectioners’ sugar.

Beat egg whites to stiff peaks; set aside.

In bowl of a standing electric mixer or in a large bowl sprinkle gelatin over cold water and let stand to soften.

In a heavy saucepan cook sugar, agave, 1/2 cup Chartreuse and salt over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until sugar is dissolved. Increase heat to moderate and boil mixture, without stirring, until a candy or digital thermometer registers 240°F., about 12 minutes. Remove pan from heat and pour sugar mixture over gelatin mixture, stirring until gelatin is dissolved.

With a standing or a hand-held electric mixer beat mixture on high speed until white, thick, and nearly tripled in volume, about 6 minutes if using standing mixer or about 10 minutes if using hand-held mixer. Beat egg whites, vanilla and remaining 3 tbsp Chartreuse into sugar mixture until just combined. Pour mixture into baking pan and sift 1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar evenly over top. Let sit, uncovered, until firm, at least 3 hours, and up to 1 day.

Run a thin knife around edges of pan and invert pan onto a large cutting board. Lifting up 1 corner of inverted pan, with fingers loosen marshmallow and let drop onto cutting board. With a large knife trim edges of marshmallow and cut marshmallow into 1-1/2 inch squares. Sift remaining confectioners’ sugar into a large bowl and add marshmallows in batches, tossing to evenly coat.

Marshmallows keep in an airtight container at cool room temperature 1 week.

Canning, aka Stress Relief: part 2

There I am, stressed out about work and fresh from a visit to my friends’ farm in the Capay Valley (my number one stress reliever). As always, I was sent back with a dozen eggs from their hens and bags full of what they had growing. Which this time was kadota figs, several varieties of eggplant, and peppers. Red peppers, yellow peppers, green, fat, skinny, bulbous peppers. Peppers the size of my pinky nail in nail polish colors. Purple-streaked green peppers. Orange peppers the color of the sunrise.

So I went nuts. Two kinds of fig jam: Fig with Vanilla and Fig with Honey and Bay (both Christine Ferber, natch). Caponata with the eggplants. A savory hot sauce with the red chiles. Spicy, spicy green chile-and-vinegar sauce. And just because I was on a roll, I picked up a case each of tomatillos and pasilla chiles from Berkeley Bowl for tomatillo sauce.

Here is the recipe I used, adapted from Well-Preserved: Recipes and Techniques for Putting Up Small Batches of Seasonal Food by Eugenia Bone:

(I scaled up x16 to get through my 40lb case of tomatillos)

Tomatillo Sauce
2.5 lbs tomatillos, husked and rinsed
2 poblano chiles
1 jalapeno chile
2 cups chopped onion
3 chopped garlic cloves
5 cup lemon juice
2 teaspoons salt

Bring a pot of water to a boil and blanch the tomatillos just until they begin to soften, about 30 seconds. Puree them in a blender or food processor.

Roast the chiles either under a broiler or over a gas flame, turning to char them evenly. Let cool, then peel off the skins. Don’t rinse as you will lose some of the roasted flavor. Remove and discard the seeds and pith, and chop flesh finely.

Combine everything in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes.

Ladle into pint jars and seal with new lids. Rims can be reused. Process in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and let jars sit in the hot water for 5 more minutes before removing. (This prevents breakage.) Let cool.

Now for the technical details:

This recipe has a lot of lemon juice in it. Too much for my taste, really. This is because, for a product to be safe for canning it must have a ph of 4.5 or lower. (Ph is a measure of acidity. Remember high school science class? I didn’t either, until I started bottling syrups for a living.) Botulinum toxin thrives in a low-acid, oxygen-free environment. Canning cookbook authors are extremely worried that someone will make their recipe and end up poisoning their loved ones because the recipes wasn’t followed to the letter. So they tend to vastly overcompensate with the acid level in their recipes: if your vegetables are larger than normal, the product will still be safe. When these authors test recipes for safety, they typically send samples to a lab. The lab purees the samples and tests the ph. So, because I have a ph meter, I did the same and realized I didn’t need nearly as much lemon juice as the recipe called for.

Now, I’m not suggesting you go around reducing acid from canning recipes willy-nilly. Not at all. I’m just saying that there is a reason the recipes are structured the way they are, and that reason has nothing to do with taste. If you really like canning, and you want to expand beyond jam (fruit is naturally acidic and rarely needs additional acidifiers), I suggest picking up a ph meter. Make sure it’s food-safe, and a temperature compensation feature saves a lot of time.

The other detail, and you will never see this in any canning cookbook, is that whole boiling water bath process? Unnecessary. Seriously. What is necessary is that the entire finished container, the contents plus jar or bottle, must be at a sufficient temperature when it is sealed. You can heat the jars in the oven, or boiling water if you like (although this is not always necessary), and keep your mixture at a simmer. Fill, wipe down the threads of the jar, apply a new lid, and screw on the bands. Do this reasonably quickly. If you have a European grandmother perhaps she does this then turns each jar upside down until it cools. (I don’t; I’ve just heard stories. Sigh.) I am not sure of the science behind this, but I do like the idea that there is moisture contacting the entire soft gasket on the inside of the lid, so if the seal doesn’t form you can see some of the sauce squeezing out. The high temperature forces the oxygen out, and as each jar cools it makes that satisfying ping! noise as the lid gets suctioned down.

The reasons for the boiling-water bath are safety and liability. If your mixture is not hot enough, it won’t create the necessary seal. You can fill at any temperature as long as you hot-water-bath process your jars. As for me, I water-process anything chunky and do a simple hot fill with sauces. Mind you, I enjoy canning to relax, not to add to my stress.

No one wants people to get sick from their recipes. Also, no one wants to get sued. So precautions abound, and often the recipes suffer as a result. Just like other cookbooks, not all canning recipes make for yummy food. If you ensure that you are doing it safely, make the changes you like. And enjoy the bounty!

Sherry Wine Punch

I have a predilection for sherry-based cocktails for drinking on hot Sundays while relaxing with friends.

You may recognize the setting for this photo as the same as the one for my Italian Lemonade post. Last year I made a sherry and milk lemonade for exactly the same purpose: kickin’ it on the river the Sunday after a big party at my friend Jen’s farm in the Capay Valley. I figured, why break with tradition?

This time it was our friend Beth’s birthday. We ate under the stars and played in the river. I napped and read about pickles. We took eggs warm from the hens. Jen made pita from scratch. There was a pinata for the kids, and another one that was supposed to be for adults, but I never saw it get cracked. (What is in a pinata for adults? Weed and porn?) We slept under the stars. These parties are always fabulous.

So I needed a low-alcohol drink for the day after such revelry. Sherry-based drinks are ideal, and a brief search turned up a Sherry Wine Punch listed in Harry Johnson’s “New & Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual” published in 1888. It includes Orchard Syrup, an ingredient I have been working on for a while. This time I made it with extra lemon juice and more warm spices like cloves and allspice. It came out a bit too apple-pie-like, but the cocktail was still tasty. Next time I think I’m going to try Chinese 5-spice powder.

I made it all in a large jug for sharing, but here it is scaled down for one:

Sherry Wine Punch
3 oz amontillado sherry
1 oz orchard syrup
1/4 oz lemon juice
3/4 oz red wine

Stir sherry, orchard syrup and lemon juice together in a frappe glass, then pack crushed ice in to fill and stir briefly. Float red wine on top.



As a pretty geeky bartender, I like to scan old bar books looking for drink recipes that call for obscure ingredients (see Capillaire and Orchard Syrup).

I first came across Sirop-de-Groseille in the Savoy Cocktail Book, although it’s also listed in Harry McElhone’s “Barflies and Cocktails.” It’s a red currant syrup, sometimes used as a substitute for grenadine or raspberry syrup. It’s often described as having a similar flavor to those, although I find it quite different, tannic and with an odd seedlike flavor, like biting into an apple seed. I think it is this quality that makes it a good match with kirsch, as kirsch is made by fermenting whole sour cherries including their pits.

Stone fruit seeds and apple seeds contain benzaldehyde, a poison related to cyanide (see The Trouble With Cyanide). The flavor is barely noticeable in fresh red currants, but when I cooked it into a syrup, the seedlike pungency is much more pronounced.

The first recipe I saw with this syrup was the Artist’s Special from the Savoy. I always like drinks that combine sherry with another liquor, and the nutty oxidation of the sherry tones down the tannins and seedy flavor of the groseille. Erik Ellestad of Underhill-Lounge describes his experience with this cocktail here.

Artist’s Special Cocktail
1 oz whisky
1 oz sherry
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz groseille syrup

Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

CocktailDB lists the Nineteen-Twenty, a cocktail with both groseille and kirsch. I love this combination, and I love this drink, although I prefer a variation made with genever instead of gin. My co-worker Jon suggested this as I was working out the drink, and I think it is just fabulous.

Dutch 20
1 1/2 oz dry vermouth
3/4 oz genever
1/4 oz kirsch
1/4 oz sirop-de-groseille

Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

There is a French cocktail called The Rose, published in “Petits et Grands Verres” from 1927 that is essentially this drink without the gin. The name refers to the color the syrup lends the drink.

CocktailDB also lists a recipe for making the syrup:

Express the juice of small red currants, reds. Per quart of juice obtained, add 2 quarts of water and 3-1/2 lbs. of sugar. Dissolve sugar in water before adding the juice. Leave standing for several days. Filter or clarify and bottle.

I suppose you could put the currants through a juicer, but I find it easier to simmer them in water for about 10 minutes until the water is bright pink and the fruit looks anemic and sad. Press the whole mass through a chinois. You don’t need to de-stem the currants, either, just throw everything into the pot. And I don’t know why you would let it stand for several days, except to eliminate solids. I am far too impatient, so I let the whole mass drip slowly through a jelly bag. It still had a tiny amount of sediment, but not enough to be noticeable in a drink.

In any case, red currants are only available fresh for a short period of time every year. But the syrup will last for a while, so give it a try! Or come into Heaven’s Dog, for as long as my bottle lasts, of course.

The Egg White Situation

As I mentioned before, I really like fat and protein in my drinks. They add extra dimensions not often found in modern cocktails. With the resurgence in pre-prohibition cocktails and cocktail culture, a greater amount of attention has been paid lately to texture.

Egg whites are a perfect example of a texture additive: once used to disguise the inferior quality and overall nastiness of bootlegged and homemade booze during prohibition, as well as the vile flavored stuff known as “bathtub gin,” modern bartenders now use egg whites to round out and integrate often aggressive, singular flavors into a cohesive whole.

I do think sometimes we’ve gotten a little too egg-happy. We have plenty of great-quality booze available, so we shouldn’t be trying to mask undesirable characteristics. The integration ability, however, can be used to great effect, often unifying strong elements like acidity from citrus, or sharpness and spice from high-proof rye.

In the case of the Ramos Gin Fizz, the protein unifies the herbal gin, the fat from cream and the floral orange flower water. The egg white also prevents the cream from curdling as it mixes with the lime juice. Try making one without the egg white; it tastes good, but every ingredient is readily identifiable, whereas with the egg it turns into a lovely, cohesive someone-spiked-my-orange-julius delight.

Two of my colleagues and friends make a similar drink, a gin-cucumber-mint spritzer sort of thing. Erik makes his with egg white and Cate makes hers without. The ingredients are almost identical, but the addition of the egg white changes the drink completely. They are both delicious: Cate’s Gin Snaggler is like having an amazing brunch with your epicurean friends and feeling a little naughty because it’s barely noon and you’ve got a buzz on. Erik’s Cricket Club Fizz is like being at brunch with the same buzz, but at a polo match at the same time.

So make them both!

Gin Snaggler
Cate Whalen, Pizzaiolo, Oakland, CA

1/4 cup chopped cucumber
1 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz 1-to-1 simple syrup
several mint leaves
11/2 oz gin

Muddle cucumber in mixing tin. Add ice and remaining ingredients and shake vigorously. Double-strain into a flute. Top with Prosecco. Garnish with a sprig of mint.

Cricket Club Fizz
Erik Adkins, Heaven’s Dog, San Francisco, CA

several slices fresh cucumber (peeled if waxed)
several mint leaves
1 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz St. Germain elderflower liqueur
3/4 oz 1-to-1 simple syrup
2 oz gin
1/2 oz egg white

Muddle cucumber in a shaking tin until juicy. Add remaining ingredients and shake without ice for several seconds. Add ice and shake vigorously. Double-strain into a fizz glass. Top with seltzer. Garnish with a slice of cucumber threaded with a sprig of mint.

Pisco Punch

Recently I had the pleasure of providing punch for a party hosted by the folks at Nirvino. It was a user appreciation party held at Le Colonial in San Francisco. I demonstrated making a punch in front of everyone, Martha Stewart-style, complete with swapouts and pre-measured ingredients. I also had two punches served at the onset for socializing. One of these was Pisco Punch.

Pisco Punch was a drink concocted toward the end of the 19th century by a barman named Duncan Nicol at the Bank Exchange in downtown San Francisco (where the Transamerica building now stands). Pisco, a clear grape brandy either unaged or aged in glass or stainless steel (which prevents color being added) is debated as being originally from Peru or Chile. Both countries have a history of making this spirit, although the methods of production differ slightly. Several types of grape are used, most often Muscat varietals. Pisco became popular in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, was widely imported, and was known for being quite alcoholic without tasting strong. Pisco punch was often compared to lemonade, but with “a kick like a mule.” Unfortunately the Bank Exchange closed its doors at the start of Prohibition, and cagey Mr. Nicol took his recipe to his grave.

What we do know are the ingredients of this drink: Pisco, lemon juice and pineapple gum syrup. Gum syrup (also known by its French spelling, gomme) was widely used back when bartending was a learned trade like any other, and bartenders passed on their knowledge in apprenticeships. They regularly made syrups, bitters, infusions and other ingredients for cocktails. Unfortunately, when Prohibition occurred, the men either had to find other work or leave the country, and a lot of culinary knowledge pertaining to drink-making was lost. So gum syrup largely stopped being used in favor of the far easier to make simple syrup. Gum arabic, resin from the gum acacia tree, is expensive and difficult to incorporate into a sugar syrup, and mixing water and sugar is, well, simple. But gum arabic lends a silky, viscous texture to cocktails that simple syrup does not.

Many modern bars, if they make a Pisco Punch at all, use a pineapple syrup made without gum arabic. And this, I think, is the problem with most incarnations. For a drink with only three components, one of which is the light and delicate Pisco, each one plays a very specific role. Without gum arabic, the drink is thin and rather flat. But with the added viscosity, it is round and flavorful, not rich per se, but full-bodied and satisfying.

Pisco Punch is not a true punch. (More on that later.) But it is well suited for being served as a punch, that is, in a large bowl for a crowd. Keep in mind, however, that dilution is a key component in this and any other drink, so you may want to add some water if the punch will be consumed rapidly. Otherwise let sit over large pieces of ice for a little while before serving, so the drink comes to an adequate balance.

Of course, it certainly can be served as a single cocktail, as pictured above. The proportions are absurdly easy, so scaling to any volume is simple. An added bonus is that when shaken vigorously with big chunks of ice, the gum arabic froths up to a nice foamy head and gives the drink a lovely white cap.

Pisco Punch
1 oz fresh lemon juice
1 oz Pineapple Gum Syrup (this recipe is for Small Hand Foods syrup; if you make your own, add to taste)
2 oz Pisco (I use Marian Farms California-style Pisco. Neither Peruvian nor Chilean, this biodynamic farm in the San Joaquin Valley distills fantastic brandy in a copper pot still from Muscat and Thompson grapes.)

Shake vigorously with large chunks of ice and double-strain into a coupe. Garnish with a strip of lemon zest if desired.


I’ve been enamored of the curdled/strained milk addition in cocktails ever since I made Italian Lemonade. It’s often called for in milk punches, although bartenders tend to make milk cocktails to order. Shaken and consumed immediately, one often avoids curdling the milk, at least in the glass. But mixing the milk and citrus ahead of time, allowing it to curdle, then straining out the solids leaves the protein of the whey without the richness of the rest of the milk.

One of the features of the Italian Lemonade is its incredibly low alcohol content. I wondered if I could harness the flavors but punch up the booze to make it a proper cocktail. Also, while making it, I had to strain it several times. But the mixture remained cloudy. Although the drink did not appear mottled and curdled, there was still a lushness that betrayed the dairy content. I wondered if I could remove all of the solids, and what the remainder would taste like.

Rather than mix everything at once, I isolated the two components that cause the curdling: citrus and milk. I substituted lime for lemon, mixed them together, and waited until it was quite chunky.

Straining required time and patience. A coarse sieve removed the bulk of the solids, then a tea strainer, then finally I wet a kitchen cloth, set it in a funnel and let the liquid slowly make its way through. Ultimately I was left with a greenish-clear substance that smelled kind of like a lime popsicle.

I’ve been enamored of Marian Farms California Style Pisco since it became available last summer. The farm is located in the San Joaquin Valley and distills spirit from biodynamic Muscat and Thomson grapes in a copper pot still. The result is an unctuous, flavorful spirit with a lower phenol content than other Piscos I have tried, giving it a cleaner, more mixable quality. It lends a backbone to cocktails, yet is mild enough to let other delicate flavors come through. I think this is what some bartenders default to vodka for; they don’t want the spirit to ruin the flavors they have put together. I try instead to match qualities of spirits to the qualities of the added ingredients. As much as I love agricole rhum, it would kill the nuances of this drink. And yet vodka would add nothing. This Pisco makes me happy.

This cocktail does something I delight in: the ingredients mesh so that it is hard to identify any one thing. Various bartenders I have made this for asked if it had gin, or egg white, or rum. The foam created looks like egg white, but it’s not as slippery. And the whey adds a familiar protein quality but having the rest of the milk removed makes identifying it elusive. I love this!

I submitted this cocktail to the guys at Left Coast Libations for their upcoming book. It’s promising to be a very interesting collection of recipes from the specifically west coast style of bartending. I’ll write about it more when it comes out.

1 oz lime/whey mixture*
1/2 oz manzanilla sherry
1/2 oz Cointreau
1/2 oz 1-to-1 simple syrup
1 1/2 oz Pisco

Shake all ingredients together vigorously in mixing tins. Double-strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with an orange peel.

*Mix 8 oz nonfat milk with 3 oz freshly squeezed lime juice. Let stand a few minutes to curdle. Strain through successively finer strainers, then pour through a wet kitchen cloth, letting stand until the clear liquid has filtered through.

The Trouble With Cyanide

How to Mix Drinks by Jerry Thomas is usually the first reference for anyone looking into pre-prohibition cocktails. But as a confectioner as well as a bartender, I am equally intrigued by the appendix added to this book, almost as long, titled A Manual For The Manufacture Of Cordials, Liquors, Fancy Syrups, Etc. Since I know that modern commercial orgeat is not made from actual almonds, I decided to see how historical recipes were made.

424. Orgeat (or Almond) Syrup.
2 lbs. of sweet almonds.
3i ounces of bitter almonds.
3 pints of fresh water.
6 or 6 1/2 lbs. of sugar.

Take your almonds (sweet and bitter) and drop them into boiling water. This blanches them, and they are easily skinned. Having peeled them, drop them into cold water, in which wash them; when ready put them into a clean mortar (one of marble is better than bronze), and mash them; next, squeeze in the juice of two lemons, or add a little acid, and, as you pound the almonds, pour part of a pint of clean water into the mortar; mash thoroughly, until the mixture looks like thick milk, and no pieces of almonds are left; then add another pint of the spring water. Now squeeze the white mash through a hair-cloth, or other good strainer: a common plan is to have a large strainer held by two persons; as they twist the milk may be caught in a clean basin; whatever of the almonds is left in the cloth put it back into the mortar, and mash it over again, adding a little of the spring water; then strain it, and mix with the former almond milk; this done mix it with your sugar (about 6 lbs.) which must first, however, be clarified and boiled to a ” crack” (see No. 17); whilst adding the almond milk let the pan of hot sugar be off the fire; when mixed give another boil up; then remove the pan from the fire, and stir the syrup until cold;* pour in a small portion of the tincture of orange flowers, or the least drop of the essence of neroly, and pass the mixture again through a cloth; give the bottles an occasional shake for a few days afterward; it will keep the syrup from parting.
*This is done to keep it from separating and splitting up after being bottled.

This is the first recipe I came across that calls for bitter almonds to augment the sweet ones. Now, I am a methodical cook; I will happily adjust recipes to suit my tastes, but I have to make the original to the letter the first time. How would you know how to adjust it without a specific frame of reference?

So apparently I needed some bitter almonds. Turns out, they are pretty much M.I.A., at least in the U.S. Even scouring food boutiques that specialize in European foods (I’m looking at you, Boulette’s), I was only able to find some specialty varieties of sweet almonds. Delicious out of hand, absolutely. But not what I was looking for.

So I started researching it.

The bitter almond is rather broader and shorter than the sweet almond, and contains about 50% of the fixed oil which also occurs in sweet almonds. It also contains the enzyme emulsin which, in the presence of water, acts on a soluble glucoside, amygdalin, yielding glucose, cyanide and the essential oil of bitter almonds, which is nearly pure benzaldehyde. Bitter almonds may yield from 4-9mg of hydrogen cyanide per almond. Extract of bitter almond was once used medicinally, but even in small doses effects are severe and in larger doses can be deadly; the cyanide must be removed before consumption.

So this explains why bitter almonds are so hard to find in the U.S. And it explains why modern recipes never call for them. Many websites detail that the cyanide is neutralized with cooking. Which is why, I suppose, we have been able to take delight in the lovely flavor that is the bitter almond, as it flavors marzipan, Italian and Chinese almond cookies, and anything else with almond extract in it, as the heat-processing of the extract makes the result safe for consumption.

It also explains why old recipes call for whole bitter almonds, but always within the context of a highly cooked product. The cooking was necessary to neutralize the poison.

Now, in my attempt to make the original recipe, I was stymied by the lack of available bitter almonds. However, other stone fruits also contain benzaldehyde in their kernels, including peaches, cherries and apricots, as well as apple seeds. I know that apricot kernels are available in some herbal pharmacies, as they are sometimes used as a natural cancer treatment. A controversial medicine called Laetrile, first sold in the United States in the 1960s, was touted first as a cancer cure, then relegated to treatment status, and ultimately claimed to be only a preventative measure. The USDA stopped its import and sale in 2000, although there are ways to get around this ban. Laetrile is made from amygdalin, a substance found in, you guessed it, apricot kernels.

So I headed to my local herbal-specialized grocer and indeed, found a big jar of apricot kernels. They were unblanched, so I had to go through the hassle of blanching them myself, but ultimately I had enough to make the recipe. I even went so far as to clarify my own sugar using egg whites, a procedure I do not recommend unless you are happy having to forever afterwards light your stove burners with a lighter because you have completely killed the pilot lights.

I made the modern concession of using a food processor instead of a mortar and pestle. But when I boiled the whole thing with the quantity of sugar specified, it was so thick that by the time it cooled it had to be spooned from a jar. It reminded me of pomade, or the solidified part of a can of cream of coconut. And after a couple of days, the entire thing crystallized and had to be chipped out of the jar.

Flavor-wise, however, it was delicious. The apricot kernels had imparted a profound bitter almond flavor, much like almond extract. And the richness that came from using actual almonds was apparent. The fat and protein in the mouth make for a depth of flavor and texture that simply is not possible when just using sugar syrup and almond extract.

Obviously there were problems. I can’t see having to spoon a mixture into a cocktail shaker a practicality at a bar. But this, combined with what I learned from the Art of Drink recipe, gave me a great foundation for attempting to make an orgeat I feel will work in a modern bar but be made in an old-world sensibility, with real, whole ingredients.

Ward 8

This week I had the good fortune of being at work when two bartenders from Death and Company, Brian Miller and Joaquin Simo, came into town. Joined by Camper English, a favorite local spirits writer and a blogger-inspiration of mine, they warmed the bar for most of the night. Camper wrote about this Drink Jinx of an evening here.

Of course, we promptly started geeking out on all things bar- and cocktail-related:

“Who makes your shaking tins? No, not those ones, the other ones?” “Listen to the sound they make when you shake.”
“You still have some old Noilly Prat left? Lucky you.”
“Those are some sexy ice spears. Where do you get your molds?”
And there was one reference to a cocktail so delicious one might want to put a part of his anatomy into it.

I was referred to, at least once, as the “Queen of Syrup,” a moniker that brings me immense delight.

Once people learn that I make cocktail ingredients, they are usually interested in having a drink made with some. So Joaquin ordered a Ward 8, purportedly one of his favorite whiskey cocktails.

The Ward 8 or variably Ward Eight, is a cocktail originating in 1898 in Boston, Massachusetts at the bar of the Gilded Age restaurant Locke-Ober. In 1898 Democratic political czar Martin M. Lomasney hoped to capture a seat in the state’s legislature, the General Court of Massachusetts. Lomasney was nicknamed the “Boston Mahatma” and had held considerable power in the city for nearly 50 years. The story goes that the drink was created to honor his election, and the city’s Ward 8 which historically delivered him a winning margin. Competing, but unfounded myths abound in print and on the Internet. One story purports that it originated in New York in an area known for political corruption, another that the cocktail is a traditional drink of the Scottish Guards.

I’ve never been a huge fan of this drink; perhaps this is because I, like many, tend to drink my whiskey straight or in aromatic cocktails like manhattans and old-fashioneds. I often taste a “dirty” quality when mixing citrus into whiskey. I’m not sure where this comes from. I have noticed it is more prevalent with rye than bourbon. But made with a sweeter, richer, less spicy bourbon, the Ward 8 can be a lovely, integrated cocktail that nonetheless showcases the spirit quite well.

One note: These proportions are based on Small Hand Foods grenadine. If you make your own, or use commercial stuff, you may have to adjust the recipe to taste. I highly recommend making your own, as I have yet to find widely available grenadine that is made primarily of pomegranate juice. A good discussion on homemade product can be found via the lovely folks at egullet here.

Ward 8
2 oz whiskey
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz fresh orange juice
1/2 oz grenadine

Shake vigorously in mixing tins, then double-strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist or orange twist, if desired.