Always a bad idea!!!
Bad, in a good way... especially if Stephanie Rocard from MaoMaoChong is making them. Stef's taking part in a mixology contest in a couple of days, so she invited a few friends round to the bar on Sunday to practice on. Since I'd already had a mildly boozy lunch with a former colleague, and then a less mildly boozy afternoon watching the Shanghai Grand Prix with a glamorous lady companion, I was probably already close to exceeding the threshold for 'safe' daylight consumption, but... this seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. My stumbling performance in the Titanic Quiz a little later can be partly attributed to this inappropriate warm-up!
Stef has devised another new recipe of her own, which will doubtless put her in with a very good chance of victory (details must remain under wraps until after the competition; she might still be tweaking it a bit, anyway!). However, the contestants are also to be challenged to produce cocktails from a list of 12 'classics' - most of which hail from an earlier cocktail heyday, and are not always so familiar these days.
I'd heard of El Presidente, for example, but never before seen or tried one, as far as I can recall. It seems to be a sort of Manhattan made with rum, the original recipe - allegedly devised in Havana during the years of Prohibition in America - calling for a light rum to be combined with half-measures of dry vermouth and curaçao, and then a generous splash of grenadine as well. Matt Robold of the Rumdood blog aptly points out that these proportions make it excessively sweet, and he recommends dramatically dialling down the curaçao and grenadine while using an aged dark rum. BarSideKick has a version with a similar approach, but using white rum, and adding a dash of lemon juice to further cut the sweetness. However, the prevailing approach these days seems to be to use fresh pineapple juice instead of curaçao, balanced out with lime juice rather than vermouth. Unfortunately, all recipes seem to retain the grenadine, which seems utterly superfluous to me: most rums are plenty sweet enough already for my taste; and - in a dark rum - it isn't adding much to the colour either. I'd be tempted to ditch the grenadine altogether, and restore the dry vermouth of the 'original' and/or add one or two drops of bitters to counteract the sweetness (even unsweetened pineapple is pretty damned sweet). The organisers of the contest seem to be insisting that contestants use Zacapa rum - which again seems a bit daft: Guatemala's finest is much too smooth for a cocktail like this; I think it would work better with something a bit punchier, like Gosling's.
My favourite on this list, though, was the McKinley's Delight (actually listed by the organisers, I think, as McKinley's Favourite; named for the ill-fated 25th US President), which is reminiscent of that old New Orleans favourite, the Sazerac. The contest recipe specifies a bourbon base with cherry brandy for added sweetness and a dash of absinthe or pastis for some extra exoticism in the flavour (ideally just a very small dash, and used to rinse the ice chilling the lowball glass, then thrown away; it has such a strong and distinctive flavour that even a few drops of it can overpower everything else; yet many recipes and many bartenders add it to the drink - horrors!). Older recipes seem to prefer a mix of sweet vermouth and cherry brandy (with emphasis on the vermouth: 2 or 3 to 1) and a little dash of bitters. Both Rye Patriotism and the New Orleans blog Looka! make a convincing case that this drink works much better with a good rye whiskey. I may have to give that a try some time. The unusual combination of peppermintiness and cherry brandy somehow reminded me irresistibly of Christmas cake. I think I'd prefer to reduce those two powerful flavours to a mere hint, and let the whiskey do more of the work - but it did make for a nice hit of nostalgia.
While perusing the dangerously addictive pages of Looka! yesterday, I happened upon another cocktail previously unknown to me - the Purgatory. Neither the name nor the recipe are immediately attractive (Rittenhouse overproof rye with three-quarters of an ounce each of Bénédictine and Green Chartreuse, garnished with a lemon twist), but... I find I'm starting to trust the taste of blog author Chuck Taggart. And it is a very nice picture.
Anyway, that was another very pleasantly wasted couple of afternoons - tasting on Sunday, and researching those recipes yesterday.
Best of luck in the competition, Stephanie!
Postscript (very nearly an epitaph!): Jeff Ji from Mai is taking part in this competition as well. He was 'practising' on me on Tuesday night. We confirmed that Gosling's works pretty well for a dark rum version of the El Presidente... and found that the lingering 'too sweet!' problem is instantly cured by the addition of one or two drops of orange bitters. Good luck to Jeff, too!
By the by, the thing that really finished me off on Sunday was a cocktail called The Iceberg - gimmick of the night at 12 Square Metres to accompany Steven Schwankert's Titanic Quiz. It's just a martini glass of ice-cold vodka 'enlivened' with a splash of Pernod, but... well, after nearly 8 hours of steady drinking, that was the one that put me over the edge. I won one as a spot prize early on in the quiz, and the last vestiges of my mental acuity soon deserted me.
PPS: Congratulations to Stephanie!! She placed third in the Beijing heats of this global competition (run by Diageo, I gather) on Thursday afternoon, and now goes on to the China Final in Shanghai next week.