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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Friday, October 15

Gapers Block

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I have a confession. Even though I have a fairly well-stocked bar at home, and even though I adore an occasional well-mixed cocktail, I almost never make them. And I don't think I'm alone in this. (A gin and tonic doesn't count; it's a mixed drink, not a cocktail.) But I haven't made cocktails because of two mildly embarrassing reasons.

The first one is that the recipes involve measuring things in ounces. And if an extra quarter of an ounce gets in, I know the balance is off and the drink can taste bad. So just measuring with a jigger or a measuring cup with ounces marked on it is all that is needed. But since I don't like to measure things, I haven't made cocktails.

The second reason is that I don't like to waste things. With food I can get over this fear because if I don't like it I can figure out a way to make it palatable or I can admit that it's just awful, not fit for consumption, dump it in the trash and move on. But with alcohol, at $20-$30 a bottle, throwing away a few ounces seems like such a horrific waste that I've not really gotten the courage up to try.

But the wonderful folks at William Morrow decided to send a book to Gapers Block that has not only made me get over my annoyance with measuring and fear of waste, but it has made me spend a couple of delightful (and internally warm and fuzzy) evenings at home.

Unlike any generic bartender's guide, In the Land of Cocktails contains personal stories and breaks down the reasons why one brand of rye whiskey is better than another, or what the difference is between brands of bitters. I read it while commuting and I felt like I was enjoyably learning the facts behind a good cocktail. And learning those facts encouraged me to make a drink, or three.

The fact that this is a book written by two female members of the Brennan family who happen to be proprietors of Commander's Palace (and several other places) in New Orleans certainly helped to pique my interest as well. They're not only royalty in the city, but they're lively cocktail royalty. And anyone who has read this column for a while knows all about my love of that old, stubborn, and debonair city that doesn't know when to quit. And this love is not confined to food, but also to its drinks. Every time I go, I try another few cocktails that make me happy, but when I return to Chicago I'm back to drinking beer, wine or the occasional bloody mary or dirty martini (at bars and rarely at home).

Ti Adelaide Martin and Lally Brennan won me over one paragraph into their introduction: "Make yourself a promise. And while you're at it, make us one, too. The next time you are about to order or make your usual cocktail, order or make a new one. You don't order the same dish every time you go out to eat, do you?"

And I don't. I love new experiences. But Chicago just has never seemed like much of a cocktail city, whereas New Orleans has. Perhaps this is my tendency to frequent bars where the bartenders throw things when someone orders something that requires a shaker. Or perhaps it really is that Chicago is a simpler, less fussy city that doesn't ride the fancy horse very often.

But the opening and popularity of The Violet Hour, as well as the popularity of signature cocktails at many of Chicago's newer restaurants, lead me to hope that Chicago may be developing some finesse and more complex cocktail tastebuds. As the author's ask, "You probably didn't like your first taste of beer, why would you like your first sip of a cocktail?" I don't expect the presence of $2 cans of beer to disappear from Chicago pubs, but I would like to see more bartenders be able to suggest things like a Pegu Club Cocktail or a Brandy Crusta when customers say, "What do you suggest?"

And while I've never done a book review here in One Good Meal, this one struck such a chord with me and its arrival seemed very timely (what with all the drinking that is going to be happening during the next couple of weeks), I thought I would share a few recipes from the book with y'all. (When writing about the South...)

One of my favorite drinks is a Sidecar. And I rarely order it because it breaks my heart to see a bartender pull out a book to look it up. But I have to give a mighty thanks to the bartenders at The Matchbox who have successfully made this drink with fresh lemon juice for me in the past. And even though it is my favorite drink, I've never actually made it at home, nor did I have the necessary ingredients to do so. Recently I found myself getting on the train across from the new Sam's Wine & Spirits at 50 E. Roosevelt and decided to wander in, take a peek around, and buy what I needed to make this cocktail so I could warm up when I got home. And I have to say that my trip on several trains and a bus while carrying several full-sized bottles of liquor was rewarded once I got home and set up the measuring instruments and glasses, and made superfine sugar in the food processor (pour in 1/4 cup of sugar and pulse for about a 30 seconds).

Sidecar Number 1
2 tablespoons superfine sugar
1 lemon wedge
2 ounces of domestic brandy
1 ounce of Cointreau (or another triple sec)
1/2 ounce of fresh lemon juice (approximately the juice in half of a lemon)
1 lemon twist

Place the sugar on a saucer. Wet half of the rim on a glass with the lemon wedge and dip the glass rim into the sugar. This leaves half of the glass non-sugared so you can balance the sweetness as you drink. Fill the glass with ice and set it aside.

In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine the brandy, triple sec and lemon juice and shake vigorously. Use a vegetable peeler or paring knife to remove a long piece of lemon peel (cut off the white pith if necessary). If desired, dump out the ice. Hold the lemon strip over the glass and twist firmly. You'll actually see the lemon oil hit the sides of the glass and the ice cubes. Strain the cocktail into the glass and serve immediately.

After numerous disappointing and unfinished Sidecars at restaurants and bars, I was nervous when I took my first sip. But that fear was all for naught. With no previous cocktailing experience, I'd created a perfect and delicious cocktail that I enjoyed immensely. And now that I have all the ingredients I need at home, I see many more of these in my future this winter.

But since I decided to fully follow Lally and Ti's advice, I set about deciding which cocktails I would make for Andrew and I a few nights later. He's not fond of sweet drinks, and I admittedly am not into bitter or powerfully strong drinks. (He likes scotch, I prefer liqueur.) So I was delighted to come across a few drinks that seemed to fit the bill perfectly for our complimentary tastes. I chose the Saloon in the Sky to match my taste buds. This drink is named after the perfect afterlife for Ella, a relative of the authors who wanted the great here-after to be a saloon with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing while all her friends carried on with her.

Saloon in the Sky
1 ounce of Maker's Mark (bourbon)
1/2 ounce of applejack or apple brandy
1/2 ounce of Grand Marnier or a triple sec

Combine all of the ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously. Strain the cocktail into a rocks glass, and fill it with ice. Serve immediately.

Then for Andrew I took a turn toward an older drink. The Old Fashioned has been made a thousand different ways by 10,000 different bartenders. But this one is supposedly Dr. Cocktail's favorite take on the beverage. It takes a little more work, but I think that making one or two for yourself as practice and then making them for your friends one evening would be a great way to welcome your friends and impress them.

Doc's Favorite Old-Fashioned
1 sugar cube (about 1 teaspoon)
1 large orange peel (about 2x2 inches with the white pith scraped off)
6-8 drops of Angostura bitters
3 ounces of Sazerac rye whiskey

Measure or place the sugar into the bottom of a rocks glass. Place the peel on top of it and add the bitters. Use a muddler to mash the bitters, sugar and peel together. The sugar will turn dark and then orange. Now add the whiskey and stir so the sugar is dissolved. Add enough ice to fill the glass half to three-quarters full and serve immediately.

These are just three of the many cocktails in this book and I don't know that I'll try making them all at home, but I will be asking for a few that require special ingredients the next time I'm visiting a well-stocked bar smart enough to hire an educated tender. And I'm thinking that New Year's Day brunch might be the perfect time to try out some Brandy Milk Punch. And I can't wait for summer so I can whip up a pitcher of Redheaded Stepchilds for our barbecue guests.

I think what this book reminds me most of all, and what New Orleans fills me with, is a desire to make every moment and every detail enjoyable. With the worst of winter still on the way, I vow, and challenge others, to fight the doldrums, the boring patterns, the ennui that can settle in. My interest in food is a barometer of my interest in life. When I talk endlessly of food, you know I'm enjoying life. For me, food is inspiration. And thanks to these lovely members of the Brennan family, so are cocktails.

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Sue / December 17, 2007 12:31 PM

I, too, count the sidecar as my favorite. However, I make it with

2 parts cognac
1 part Cointreau
1 part lemon juice

for the perfect mix of sweet/sour

C-Note / December 18, 2007 6:33 PM

While we're on the topic of cocktails that was got out of a book, I just want to say that the White Angel (Capote: Breakfast at Tiffany's) is one of my personal favorites, although I have never heard of anyone else liking it; holler if you hear me, though.

1 part vodka
1 part gin

I take it chilled or on the rocks, in a rocks glass. Mm, mm. Gotta love drinks that are easy to make without measuring, with no mixers or garnishes. Matter of fact...


About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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