The French 75 is one of the great classic cocktails. Spirit, citrus and sugar, the makings of a great sour, but topped with Champagne. Awesome.

There’s significant debate over the origins of this cocktail. The story I heard (and I know it’s romantic bullshit) is as follows:

Some English soldiers were holed up in a lemon orchard in the French countryside during World War I. It being France, there was plenty of cognac to be had, but alas, straight cognac was too strong for the soldiers. So they mixed it with lemon juice from the orchard and sweetened it with sugar from the pantry, then topped it with Champagne. It being France, of course, Champagne is obviously drunk like water. When the soldiers returned to England they made the same drink with their native spirit, gin.

There are some other stories out there, mostly justifying the use of gin. The truth is, I prefer the cocktail with cognac. The wood-age counteracts the high acidity of the other ingredients, and the Champagne makes a brilliant integrative turn. It both lightens the texture and rounds out the ascorbic acid of the lemon with malic and/or lactic acid, providing a greater range of acidity and hitting your mouth in more places. With gin, the drink is mostly high notes. When you substitute cognac, the charred wood the spirit is aged in adds caramel and sugar, lending a depth and rich earthiness you just don’t get with gin.

My friend and co-worker Kent shares my high esteem for the French 75. So much so, in fact, that he has embarked on a “75 French 75s” series. Spirit, sweetener, citrus and sparkling are all interchangeable in this quest. Kent is an outstanding bartender, using a restrained hand and acute sense of balance, and every iteration I have tried has been stellar. He even made one with my Orchard Syrup. (I should probably make some more of that…)

“75 French 75s” may eventually be a coffee table book. I think Kent should also start a blog (but I’m biased). But as neither of those things exists yet, in the interest of furthering awareness of delicious drinks and the folks who make them, I’m going to post his creations here. So stay tuned.

For an initial exploration, here is my basic French 75 recipe:

French 75
1 oz cognac
1 oz fresh lemon juice
3/4 oz 1-to-1 simple syrup
Champagne or other dry sparkling wine
Stir cognac, lemon and simple over ice in a bucket glass. Top with champers and stir again. Garnish with a lemon peel.

And here is one of Kent’s versions:

Italian 75
1 1/2 oz Jacobo Poli Pinot Noir grappa
1 oz fresh lemon juice
3/4 oz 1-to-1 simple syrup
Billecart Salmon Brut Rose Champagne
Shake grappa, lemon and simple in mixing tins. Double-strain into a flute. Top with Champagne.

Orchard Syrup

I came across orchard syrup as a cocktail ingredient for the first time while browsing the CocktailDB application on my co-worker’s iphone (it was a slow night). It was in a cocktail called a St. Croix Crusta and is listed in Harry Johnson’s Bartenders’ Manual, in the crusta as well as several other cocktails. Additional research revealed it also listed in Here’s How by Ross Bolton.

Usually when I find an ingredient I’m not familiar with I can find a recipe for it in How to Mix Drinks: A Bon Vivant’s Companion, The Royal English and Foreign Confectioner or online on a site such as Chest of Books. But I can’t find anything about orchard syrup. It’s making me a little crazy.

On DrinkBoy there is a thread speculating on the possibilities of what this ingredient is. One plausible theory is that as orchards in America in the early part of the century tended to be apple orchards, orchard syrup was probably derived from apples.

I like this theory. My only question is that there are plenty of recipes from that era for apple syrup, so how would orchard syrup be any different? Erik from Underhill Lounge sent me this recipe. It’s for a Dutch apple syrup made by greatly reducing apple syrup with some spices. And here I hope is the difference: while apple syrups tend to be sugar and water syrups cooked with apple pieces, this is only apple juice and sugar, resulting in (I imagine) a far more concentrated flavor.

It turned out delicious, really lovely and apple-y but not oxidized or caramelized, which are always risks when reducing fruit juices. And the spices are subtle enough that they add to the cocktail without overtaking it. I’ve been making St. Croix Crustas for any bar geeks who happen to come in. And I call it orchard syrup. But feel free to correct me (bring research)!

One note about recipes containing dashes as ingredient measurements: while a couple dashes of concentrated aromatic ingredients like bitters or absinthe is sufficient to add flavor to a cocktail, I simply cannot taste dashes of more delicate ingredients like citrus juice or syrups. I use a barspoon, or 1/2 tsp.

St. Croix Crusta
1 dash bitters (Ango works fine; it originally called for Boker’s)
1 barspoon lemon juice
1 barspoon maraschino liqueur
1/4 oz orchard syrup
1 1/2 oz white St. Croix rum (I used Barbancourt white, as it’s what I had available)

Using a vegetable peeler, peel a lemon in one long spiral. Run a cut lemon around a pony-style glass fairly far down the edge and dip in sugar. Place the entire lemon peel in the glass, maintaining its shape as best as possible. Shake all ingredients (or stir; I’m not arguing over this one) over ice and strain into the glass.

My friend Nadia, enjoying the crusta.

Buddha’s Hand limoncello

It seems that every customer I have that wants limoncello has spent time in Italy. They’ve usually done something exceedingly romantic, like a honeymoon or anniversary, and want to translate that experience to San Francisco. In November. Uh, yeah, not quite the same thing. But most restaurants in SF have a bottle stashed in a freezer somewhere, for the occasional dreamy dilettante who requests it.

I’m not a fan of limoncello in general. Traditionally made from Sorrento lemon zest, vodka and sugar, you get the oils from the zest but no acidity from juice. Every time I’ve tasted limoncello I find it too sweet, and think it would be better with some lemon juice. And maybe diluted a bit. But then it’s basically a lemon drop, which would be okay, except I’m not 23 years old and living in L.A. (anymore).

Our outstanding exec sous, Justine, saw a few Buddha’s Hands at the Ferry Building Farmers’ Market one morning. California spoils us for citrus; although imported Persian limes from Mexico killed domestic lime production, we still have many citrus farmers, a few of whom specialize in obscure varietals.

Buddha’s Hand is an Indian variety of citron used only for its zest. In fact, there is little or no flesh inside at all, just a knobbly ball of pith with many “fingers” protruding in one direction. Getting all the zest is tedious (a microplane works, although I prefer a serrated swivel-head peeler), but the aroma is fabulous. It’s sweeter and softer than regular lemon zest, with less spice and many more floral notes like bergamot and orange blossom. St. George Spirits makes Hangar One Buddha’s Hand vodka, their version of citrus vodka, and it is one of the lovelier flavored vodkas on the market (if you like that sort of thing).

I zested them all with only one incident involving my left index finger and a week’s worth of finger cots. Now what to make?

I set some aside to turn into a tincture, so I could add a pure essence of Buddha’s Hand to cocktails. We have a few of these around the bar (Sorrento lemon, Seville orange) and while I haven’t used them extensively, I like the idea. I fantasize about making hundreds of single tinctures of assorted zests, herbs and spices, and blending my own bitters with infinitely more control over the final outcome than by mixing them all and infusing them together. At the rate I’m going, I should have the best bitters ever in about 12 years. Watch out Bitter Truth; I’m gonna take you down!!

I still had a fair amount of zest, so, really, limoncello is the obvious choice. When I looked up some recipes, however, I found an apparently traditional creamy version made with reduced milk that is rarely seen outside Italy. Since I already know standard limoncello does not suit my palate, this sounded great. As previously stated, I love fat and protein in drinks. And since there is no actual juice used, the milk doesn’t curdle, so the preparation is relatively simple.

The result? Much more luscious and creamy than you might expect from low fat milk. (And I do recommend you use low fat; I used half nonfat and half whole, and it was on the rich side.) It is still quite strong, and thus benefits from being served ice-cold. Or stir over ice and strain, which reduces the richness a bit but is perhaps more suited for a balmy Northern California winter, if you don’t happen to be sitting on a piazza with the love of your life.

Buddha’s Hand Limoncello
2 Buddha’s Hands
2 cups decent vodka
1/2 gallon low fat milk
1 cup sugar

Separate the fingers of each Buddha’s Hand by cutting them apart. Zest each finger with a microplane or vegetable peeler, avoiding the pith. Place in jar with the vodka and macerate for a week or so, shaking several times. Strain and discard zest.

Put milk and sugar into a saucepan and simmer, stirring occasionally, until reduced to 4 cups. Strain and cool, then mix with vodka infusion. Store in refrigerator.

Tequila Hot Chocolate

I’ve been working on a tequila hot chocolate drink for the winter. The idea was prompted by my boss, who evidently likes to mention drink ideas to me and then stand back as I begin to obsess and experiment. I only latch on to the occasional recipe bait; unlike so many fabulously talented bartenders in San Francisco, inventing new cocktails is pretty hard for me. My skill is in cooking. If you want to get me excited, mention any of the following:

  • compound
  • syrup
  • suspension
  • solution
  • reduction
  • caramelization
  • crystallization
  • batter
  • temper
  • bain-marie
  • double-boiler
  • anything involving a mortar and pestle, chinois or tamis

So I wasn’t interested at all until he mentioned making a ganache. It may as well have been a taunt; I now had to make the best ganache. This being a tequila drink, I went with cinnamon and chile as seasonings. It’s a bit clichéd, but hot chocolate is nothing if not comfort food, and being a native Californian, Mexican spices are comfort food for me.

There are several kinds of cinnamon. I highly recommend Ceylon cinnamon for this, readily available at Latino markets. It is more floral and citrus-y than Cassia cinnamon, which is what is usually carried in American supermarkets and are the hard pencil-like sticks hot glued to craft store Christmas wreathes. Ceylon sticks consist of multiple papery layers easily crumbled by hand. If you can’t find Ceylon ground, you can grind the sticks in a clean coffee grinder or use a mortar and pestle and a bit of muscle. And to provide a greater depth of chocolate flavor, I used both dark chocolate and cocoa powder.

At the end of the process you’ll have a tub of grainy, chocolatey goodness that you’ll have to scoop with a spoon. At the restaurant I put a scoop of ganache into a mug along with 1½ ounces of tequila, then fill it with milk and steam with the wand of an espresso machine.

One final note: If you drink slowly, a skin can form on top of the hot chocolate. A marshmallow will prevent this, a solution I heartily endorse.

Tequila Hot Chocolate
4 oz dark chocolate
1 c cream
6 tbsp cocoa powder
¾ c sugar
¼ tsp cayenne
½ tsp ground cinnamon
reposado tequila
cinnamon stick, orange peel and/or marshmallow for garnish

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, I suppose you could heat the cream and whisk the cocoa powder into it, then melt the chocolate into that. I’ve never tried it, though. I’m a whore for fancy kitchen tools.) Add the sugar and spices and stir with a spatula until thoroughly mixed. The sugar won’t dissolve; it’s okay. Keep ganache refrigerated.

To serve, allow 2 tbsp of ganache per cup. Add 1½ oz reposado tequila and enough milk to fill your mug. Steam with the wand of an espresso machine and stir to dissolve chocolate. Alternatively, heat the milk and ganache in a small saucepan until dissolved. Add tequila and pour into mug. Garnish and serve.

Italian Lemonade

I came across this recipe for Italian Lemonade, from a book titled Recipes of American and Other Iced Drinks, one of the fascinating formerly-out-of-print cocktail books published by Mud Puddle Books. It’s basically lemonade with milk and sherry added to it. I love cocktails with sherry if they’re done well; too often the sherry is overpowering. But if used judiciously the nutty oxidation can lend a really interesting and elusive quality. I also love drinks with protein in them, again used judiciously. Egg white, nuts, milk? Yum!

I made a small batch at work recently to try it out and fell in love with it. Trouble is, there’s not enough booze in it to sell it as a cocktail, but the sherry prevents it from being a non-alcoholic drink. So when my friend Jen hosted a weekend at her farm in the Capay valley, I thought it might work for a lazy Sunday afternoon, after most of the party guests had left and the hardcore farm-goers were alternating between the hot tub, napping, and lazing on hay bales, watching the creek. (It’s a hard life, I know.)

As for me, I spent most of the afternoon harvesting bitter almonds (more on that later). But before I left I put a batch of Italian Lemonade in the fridge to chill. And in the afternoon, as I hulled almonds and watched the English girl kick everyone’s ass at Scrabble by playing words she insisted were part of her “mother tongue,” (teasel? sheesh…) we drank Italian Lemonade and ate leftover würst and kraut.

Did I mention it was an Oktoberfest party?

Italian Lemonade
(adapted from American and Other Iced Drinks)

24 lemons (I know, I know, just make them average- to large-sized lemons, preferably with a lot of juice)
1 to 1½ lbs sugar
1 quart dry sherry (Manzanilla or Amontillado)
1 quart water (or more)
1 quart milk

Using a vegetable peeler or a microplane, zest all the lemons, being careful to omit any white pith. Juice the lemons into a separate container, then strain the juice and mix with the lemon zest. Refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain out and discard the zest. Bring the milk to a boil and add it to the juice and let it cool, stirring occasionally, to curdle the milk. Strain through several layers of moistened cheesecloth. Add the remaining ingredients, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add ice and serve.