Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Spirited Education - The Spirit of Gin: A Stirring Miscellany of the New Gin Revival

"The spirit we call gin has, within it, an intricate societal role that is still unraveling today. At the moment, we are riding the wave of a new gin revival thanks to a remarkable number of new producers--as well as established distillers--who have introduced a wide range of unusual botanicals to create stunning new flavor profiles. The journey is not over and the adventure has only begun."

Matt Teacher, author of the newly released The Spirit of Gin: A Stirring Miscellany of the New Gin Revival (Cider Mill Press), went on quite the adventure while gathering the material for this lovingly crafted reference, dedicated to my favorite spirit. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy of it last week.Teacher's energy and excitement for gin carried him on a global adventure, as he rode the wave of the new gin revival, touring reputed gin joints and distilleries and interviewing their lauded proprietors. I'm a little a lot jealous of all the pretty gin joints he got to visit and all the pretty gins he got to taste along the way.

Teacher's gin opus contains brief narratives of his encounters at various gin hot-spots around the world, written with such curiosity and love for the spirit that you wish you'd been sitting sipping right next to him. For the gin neophyte, The Spirit of Gin serves as an excellent reference and guide, chronicling the history of gin from its origins to modernity, reviewing the distilling process, outlining the various styles of gin, and defining the common botanicals used in gin production.

Along his journey, Teacher was challenged (and through him, now, so am I), to truly delve into the complexity of the spirit. At The London Gin Club (22 Great Chapel Street, Soho, London), Teacher met with Julia Forte, who serves each gin with a specific garnish or tonic, "to either pair... or contrast with the leading botanical," in order to highlight each gin's unique flavor profile. "A distinction," Teacher notes, "not made in the United States," where we tend to just throw a lime on the side.

While meeting with Alessandro Palazzi at Dukes Bar (Dukes Hotel, St. James's Place, London), Teacher noted that there wasn't a single ice cube in site. The glasses and the spirits came straight out of the freezer. Palazzi explained how gin "thickens" and "texturally develops when stored in the freezer." While I have noted how chilling a spirit will effect its flavor profile, I never considered how it might effect the texture or viscosity of the drink. I must explore this more in the near future.

The book is illustrated throughout with vintage gin ads, historical photographs, vintage and modern gin labels, and countless cocktail recipes Teacher encountered along the way. The final section of the book (nearly the last half) consists of a Catalog of Gin Distillers, which lists over 160 gin distillers in alphabetical order, along with some notes on each distiller. Needless to say, I now have a very long "shopping list" of gins to add to my collection that I was previously unaware of.

After one of his interviews, Teacher notes that, "Gin is an art, and those who create it and mix it are using their intellect to balance flavors and stimulate taste buds." I couldn't agree more.

Cheers and Happy Reading!


Monday, November 17, 2014

Mixology Monday XCI: The Shim - Beg, Borrow & Steal

This month's Mixology Monday challenge is hosted by Dinah Sanders of the blog, and author of The Art of the Shim: Low-Alcohol Drinks To Keep You Level.  Her challenge?

"Heavy-hitters are fun to drink, sure, but it’s way too easy to over-consume and under-enjoy when you’re playing hardball. Let’s stretch out our evenings and get to sample a bigger variety by lowering the proof without lowering our standards. Shims don’t require giving up on flavor, complexity, or—interestingly enough—even your favorite ingredients. Get a new understanding of your favorite high-proof spirit by using just a half or quarter ounce of it along with a milder leading player. Or take a low-proof character actor that usually supplements the main show and see if it can take the lead."

I love a good challenge. My go-to low-alcohol cocktails are an Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth and club soda) or a Godchild (amaretto and cream).  Usually this would provide me an excellent opportunity to explore some new amari or delve more into vermouths. But, I decided to take on this challenge while at the World Food Championship in Las Vegas, and although there are plenty of spirits around, they're all heavy-hitters, and obscure amari and liqueurs are not readily available.

The World Food Championship was held on Freemont Street this year, in old Downtown Las Vegas. I had to walk nearly a mile off of Freemont to find a liquor store with a decent selection.  Speakeasy Liquor (1006 E Charleston Blvd, Las Vegas) is still a small liquor store, but they have a broader selection than the shops, convenience stores and pharmacies near the hotels. They actually have a nice broad selection of Scotch, Bourbon and Tequila, an above-average selection of basic liqueurs (creme de menthe and creme de cassis being among them), and several aisles of wine. Their gin selection is lacking, but I didn't need gin for this project and the staff was very friendly and helpful, so I'll overlook that this time.

Shopping for this project was a bit of a crapshoot. I don't have any of my tools or mixers, and I don't have access to proper glassware or ice. I wasn't even sure what I'd find at the store. But considering I threw lovingly put this together from my hotel room, it's not half bad.

For this project I used TyKu Citrus Liqueur (17% ABV), a low-calorie citrus spirit, flavored with yuzu, mangosteen, goji berry, honeydew and green tea. I also came across a bottle of Mamamango (6.5%), a moscato bottled with mango puree. I managed to swipe a juicy orange from the fruit basket near the concierge desk. And my co-worker happened to have a bottle of Sauza Hornitos Plata. I shed blood, sweat and tears, and had to beg, borrow and steal to make this come together, but I made Mixology Monday happen this month, Vegas style!

Beg, Borrow & Steal

1.5 oz TyKu Citrus Liqueur
1.5 oz Mamamango Mango Moscato
.5 oz blanco tequila
1 oz orange juice

Stir together over ice in an old fashioned glass. Drink up.

I tried this drink at first without the splash of tequila, but it needed just a little bit more kick to balance it out. The TyKu is not overly sweet, and adds a subtle fruitiness. This drink is light and refreshing. A nice sipper for a hot day, or for an early afternoon drink if you know you have a whole night of drinking ahead of you.

I'll be heading back to my home in eastern Tennessee tomorrow. While Vegas has been interesting, I'm looking forward to being back with my bitters, my spirits, my tonics and my kitty. Many thanks to Fred Yarm for continuing to keep Mixology Monday going, to Dinah for hosting and for her fabulous new book!



Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Small Bar, Small Market: Starting from Scratch

Life in a small town is not always thrilling, but it comes with plenty of perks. Have I told y'all how much I love this little southern town?

Johnson City is part of the Tri-Cities region (the other two cities being Kingsport and Bristol) in the northeastern tip of Tennessee. The population in this region is roughly half a million people, but in Johnson City proper our population is around 65,000. Johnson City is home to Eastern Tennessee State University, ETSU's College of Medicine, and the Mountain Home VA Medical Center. It was founded as a rail depot by Henry Johnson in 1856, and the city grew up around the rail lines. Over the last decade Johnson City has put a lot of effort into revitalizing the downtown area and it is beginning to show in beautiful ways. Within the last year The Lady of the Fountain was restored to her rightful place in Fountain Square and the city tore down some old, crumbling warehouses to create the beautiful Founder's Park. There are now plans underway to build a permanent, multi-use, open-air pavilion to house our Farmer's Market.

The Main Street Pizza Company is located on the first floor of the King's Centre (formerly King's Department Store), a 5-floor brick building built in 1928 and located in the heart of old downtown. We opened January 2010 and quickly gained notoriety for our delicious gourmet pizza, racking up some great reviews and winning first place at Pie Wars, an annual charity event hosted by Young Professionals of the Tri-Cities. However, there wasn't much going on with our bar. We had pizza and craft beer, and bar staff who knew how to make an excellent gin & tonic or Long Island Iced Tea. But, we wanted to do something special.

I was hired in December of 2011 and asked to put together a bar program that would embrace the growth that was happening in downtown Johnson City and match our kitchen in quality and creativity. We launched our bar program in the Spring of 2012, the first (and until very recently, the only) craft cocktail program in town. We began by focusing on developing a reputation for creating excellent classic cocktails. I started off by putting an Old Fashioned, Boulevardier and a Cucumber Basil Gimlet (produced with house-made Lemongrass Lime Cordial) at the heart of our cocktail menu. I wanted to introduce the community to drinks they might have heard of but never tried, or reintroduce them to drinks they may have had in the past but not enjoyed. Well made classics are the backbone of what we do.

I immediately nixed sour mix and started desperately trying to get rid of the plethora of flavored vodkas that cluttered our back bar, like they were the mother-loving 11th Plague of Egypt. I shamelessly poured them into every "make-me-something-good" shot and watched them slowly fade away. I'd take fire and brimstone over a wall of candy-flavored vodka any day. But, I digress.

I take the same approach to drinking as I do to eating. I want quality over quantity. I'm not interested in food that comes out of a box and I don't like chemically processed, artificially sweetened mixer with my liquor. I love artfully created meals and well crafted drinks. Have you ever tried a whiskey sour made with fresh lemon juice, demerara syrup and egg whtie? It's amazing. We have made huge strides to eliminate artificial sweeteners and overprocessed ingredients at The Main Street Pizza Company. We even purchased our own farm this last year, River Creek Farm, in an effort to source better produce.

When I launched our bar program in 2012, we started off with the basics in mixers:
  • fresh lemon juice
  • fresh lime juice
  • house-made lime cordial
  • simple syrup
  • pomegranate grenadine
  • demerara syrup
  • Angostura bitters
  • Peychaud's bitters
  • Luxardo Maraschino Cherries
In the years since we have added many other fresh products and house made syrups into our mix. I currently have 11 different syrups on my bar top at all times (perhaps a bit of overkill at this point), 6 fresh juices, brewed teas, craft tonic, house ginger beer and as many types of bitters as we once had flavored vodkas. I may be a bit of a bitters addict, but I count that as a WIN in the fight against candy-flavored vodka.

Our spirits selection has changed over the years as well. In addition to eliminating a lot of poorly produced, artificially flavored products (which definitely have their place in the spirits world, but don't match the fresh approach we've taken with our bar), I started adding in a selection of traditional liqueurs, brandies and small-batch spirits which were otherwise unheard of in this area. We were the first bar in the Tri-Cities area to carry Creme Y'vette, Chartreuse, and Fernet Branca. I would ask my liquor reps about these products and they would look at me like I was speaking a foreign language. Now they just expect me to ask them for something crazy every time they see me. And they love me for it. It keeps them sharp.

I find myself constantly curating our liquor selection. As more small-batch spirits and obscure Amari are introduced to this area, I find myself having to weigh each bottle against what we already have in stock. If I add too much more to our product list I'll have to get rid of other items we already carry. I simply don't have enough room to carry ALL of the yummy spirits. We do, however, have the best gin selection in town. I know. You wouldn't expect any less from me.

Last month, when we launched our Winter bar menu, we introduced our first smoked cocktail. Our "Belles & Whistles" is produced with earl gray tea infused Laird's Applejack, burnt sugar syrup, Angostura bitters, an allspice dram rinse and hickory smoke. That first night several of our craft-cocktail-drinking converts brought a friend in for his 21st birthday. At the stroke of midnight, our "Belles & Whistles" was the first drink he ordered. As the gentleman oohed-and-ahhed as his smokey cocktail rolled over his ice sphere, I glanced out the window down Main Street toward Fountain Square and thought about how grateful I was for this moment and this place. I have this wonderful job that allows me to embrace my creativity, introduce the community to something new and in some small way, be a part of the greater revitalization of our town. And it's rare that anyone comes into my bar and orders a Liquid Marajuana.



Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Currently Sipping On: Breuckelen's Glorious Gin

Breuckelen Distillery's Glorious Gin may have been around since 2010, but it only made it to eastern Tennessee in 2013. Johnson City, Tennessee is a small market and it takes plenty of pestering and a lot of patience to get the distribution companies to carry the spirits I want crave need.

Breuckelen Distillery's Glorious Gin is a wheat-based gin, distilled with juniper, lemon, rosemary, ginger and grapefruit. It is one of the most unique gin's I've ever tasted, and falls within the New-American style of gins. The pallet is clean, with strong grapefruit and ginger notes, and juniper riding along as a subtle back-beat. The texture is velvety, and there is something in the pallet and nose of this gin that reminds me strongly of cream soda.  A 750ml bottle retails for about $35.


For sipping, I prefer it on the rocks with a lemon slice. Sometimes I squeeze the lemon into the glass and sometimes I like to let it ride along with the ice for a more subtle approach.

In a classic cocktail, I prefer it in a Bee's Knees, a cocktail that dates back to sometime during prohibition, pairing gin with lemon and honey. This cocktail is an easy sipper and phenomenal year round. This cocktail works well with Breuckelen's Glorious Gin because the grapefruit notes and creamy texture pair with the lemon and honey in this drink, while the ginger and rosemary in the gin balance it all out.

Bee's Knees
2 oz Breuckelen's Glorious Gin
1 oz fresh lemon juice
1 oz honey syrup

Shake & strain into chilled cocktail glass.
Garnish with a lemon twist.

In a modern cocktail, I believe the ginger notes of this particular gin stand out best in a Gershwin, a cocktail created by the talented team at Little Branch (New York, NY) back in 2007, which has been well received by the gin-loving community. This cocktail really allows the ginger notes in Breuckelen's Glorious Gin to pop!

2 oz Breuckelen's Glorious Gin
.75 oz fresh lemon juice
.25 oz ginger syrup**
.25 oz simple syrup

Shake & strain into chilled cocktail glass.
Spritz with rose water. Garnish with candied ginger.

**I recommend making ginger syrup using the recipe from Jeffrey Morgenthaler's The Bar Book, or following this Imbibe recipe. I've also substituted ginger liqueur effectively in this drink.

More exciting things coming to Sass & Gin soon...


Monday, September 22, 2014

Mixology Monday LXXXIX: The Unknown - Phö Queen Mary

This month's Mixology Monday is being hosted by the marvelously talented Chris from A Bar Above. The theme he chose is "The Unknown" and you can read his full announcement post here. Basically, he wanted to challenge us to use an unknown ingredient or to experiment with a technique we hadn't tried before.

Over the last few weeks I've fought long and hard to save myself from the embarrassing thing I'm about to do, but I just couldn't get it out of my brain. Although it may bring me much public shame, I have wholeheartedly committed to the concept. Please bear with me.

I love savory foods, but have often been quite frustrated with savory cocktails. A dirty martini is simply a waste of good gin, and a well-made Bloody Mary is hard to find (and often too acidic for my taste). As cooler weather is rapidly approaching I will soon find myself tucked into a booth at my favorite Thai restaurant, putting away bowls of curry and Vietnamese Phö. Oh, how I love Phö. It's what chicken noodle soup ought to be.

Late last winter, as I was slurping away at the broth in the bottom of my giant bowl, I thought to myself that this flavor combination would make an excellent Bloody Mary concept. The broth was seasoned and savory and the hoisin sauce was not too far off from Worcestershire sauce. Surely I could make that work. But then I laughed it off as a ludicrous idea. No one would ever take me seriously as a bartender if I put beef broth in their cocktail. Only Matthew Biancaniello could get away with something like that.

However, the idea has continued to haunt me, and with this month's Mixology Monday challenge I finally got up the courage to give it a shot. Introducing my "Phö Queen Mary"...

Phö Queen Mary

1.5 oz Absolut Cilantro (yep, I used flavored vodka)
1.5 oz organic beef broth
1 oz lime juice
1 Tbsp hoisin sauce
5 drops Sriracha
5 drops Bitter Queen's Bangkok Betty Thai Spice Bitters
.5 tsp chives (chopped, you may sub scallions)
.5 tsp lemongrass (sliced)
.5 tsp basil (chopped)

Muddle lime, hoisin, lemongrass, chive and basil. Add remaining ingredients. Chill. Shake. Double strain into Collins glass. Garnish with fresh chive, basil and lemongrass leaf.

[Side Note: I believe it would be quite interesting to substitute Soju as the base liquor, or even a rice-based vodka, like Kai Lemongrass...]

Yep. It's weird. But I finally got a cocktail that tastes like my favorite cold weather treat! It's savory and refreshing. It might even make a nice hair-of-the-dog. Plus, protien. I'm not sure that this is an entirely "unknown" concept, but it's definitely something I've been terrified to try out. Hopefully it won't bring me too much public shame. If so, I'll just have to console myself with some Phö.



Monday, September 1, 2014

Happy Labor Day!

While the rest of the country is relaxing on this beautiful three-day weekend, I am hard at work making tasty drinks for you! It's crunch-time for me at work as I'm trying to train a few new bartenders and get ready for our Fall menu launch the first week of October. And though I have warm, toasty Fall drinks on the brain, the temperature outside tells me that it's still Summer and I should sit down, relax and enjoy a refreshing drink.

One of my favorite drinks this summer is our "Porch Swing" from The Main Street Pizza Company. Each year as the temperatures rise and the days grow longer, I find myself drawn to the swing on my front porch. There is something magical about sitting there in the afternoon, passing time, while my neighbors' lives buzz around me with dogs barking, children playing, car doors slamming and grills sizzling. Life moves slower in the South. The air grows thick in the summer months and you can’t help but slow down and appreciate the beauty of the world around you. I created this cocktail to complement the lazy days of Summer.

Porch Swing

1.5 oz Half Moon Orchard Gin
1 oz lemongrass lime cordial
1 oz honey syrup
1 oz green tea
8 mint leaves

Combine ingredients. Shake thoroughly.
Serve with a lemon slice in a tall glass.

Our in-house recipe calls for a complicated house-made lemongrass-lime-cordial, so for simplicity's sake, I've turned it into a punch recipe for you!

Porch Swing Punch
3 cups water
1 lemon grass stalk (diced)
2 (bags) green tea
.5 cup lime juice
.75 cup honey
1 cup gin (light or floral)
20-30 mint leaves
1 cup club soda

In a small sauce pan, bring water and lemon grass to a hard boil. Turn down to simmer for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and steep green tea bags for 8 minutes. Strain out tea and lemon grass. Stir in lime and honey. Place in fridge to cool (approx. 20 minutes). Pinch the mint leaves into a large pitcher. Add gin and stir. Fill with ice. Add chilled tea mixture and top with club soda.

Pour your self a glass. Enjoy the sunshine or sit back and relax in the cool breeze.

Cheers, Y'all!


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mixology Monday LXXXVIII: Coconut - One More Night

I love coconut. I love it on my Snowballs, in my cream pies, and wit de lime to relieve my bellyaching. I'm such a silly woman. I grew up watching movies like Swiss Family Robinson and The Blue Lagoon. Coconuts were a fantasy fruit for me and to this day hold an almost magical or etherial quality that can transport me out of my reality to a different world (a world with fewer clothes and more hammocks).

This month's Mixology Monday challenge is hosted by R Rated Cocktails, and the theme is Coconut!
"It is my sincere belief the coconut does not get the love, nay the respect, it so richly deserves. Because this easy going tropical seed had it's heyday in the Tiki era, it's happily associated with the same fun loving drinks... Despite all the great Tiki drinks coconut appear in most people are down on the humble seed because of the Piña Colada. Friends, this need not be so. I say we take this delicious ingredient and show it can yield a tasty, well-balanced cocktail."

My most recent love affair with coconut developed several years ago when coconut water came into vogue. With its new place in the spotlight, coconut water claimed to be so much more than just natural, coconut juice. It's apparently full of electrolytes and rumor has it that it's great for hangovers. While age and wisdom has taught me to pace myself, due to my job I still drink "for a living," and occasionally have an event or occasion for which I know I will be called upon to overindulge. The idea of having a go-to hangover solution caught my attention.

According to Men's Fitness, coconut is "insanely hydrating, and one carton typically packs more potassium than a banana—which is the key nutrient for feeling better fast (when you have a hangover)." Over the last few years I've found coconut water to be a wonderful solution. If I know I'm going to be celebrating all night, I will have a coconut water (VitaCoco's Pineapple is my favorite) before I leave the house, and then open one when I get home before I go to bed. I'll usually drink part of it before crashing and then finish it off when I wake up in the morning. So far, this has been the best solution I've found to beat a hangover, despite how much I've consumed.

I followed this same strategy for Tales of the Cocktail this year. Before I left for the conference I bought a case of Vita Coco Pineapple and loaded my bags with it. Before I left my room each day I'd grab two fresh bottles of coconut water and drink them throughout my day. Then I'd have another when I got home at the end of the night. The drinking at Tales was intense. I was basically drinking from about 10am until I managed to hit my pillow at night (usually after midnight). But, despite the loaded schedule of hair-of-the-dog drinking, tasting rooms, seminar drinking, more tasting, seminar drinking, dinner, post-dinner drinks and nightcaps, I never once had a headache or felt sickly the whole week I was there. On the contrary, I felt energetic and refreshed when I woke up every morning. I give most of the credit for my happy Tales experience and sobriety to coconut water. It saved my butt.

Laura Cloer, 2014
That said, I typically have two more things I desire when I'm hungover. My go-to spirit for hair-of-the-dog is Fernet Branca. The eucalyptus always settles my tummy. I also crave coffee. When I saw this month's Mixology Monday challenge, a light when off and I thought immediately of coming up with a new hangover remedy. Something that would allow me to get out of bed and keep on going...

One More Night, Laura Cloer, 2014


One More Night
1.5 oz Fernet Branca
.5 oz toasted coconut syrup (recipe below)

Method: Shake & Strain
Glass: Stemless Champagne or Collins
Garnish: None

Yes, it's simple. But, it's the perfect blend of three of my favorite flavors. Plus, when I am hungover, I am lazy, and I knew this recipe had to be both tasty and simple for practicality sake. I have to be willing to make it when I feel my worst. The toasted coconut syrup is also a perfect addition to my home syrup collection and I am eager to use it in other recipes.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well these flavors worked together. This drink is sweet, but the toasted syrup retains it's earthiness and the Fernet balances out the sweetness. If you cannot find Coco Cafe in your local store, or you are against using a pre-made mixer, you can make your own version by brewing coffee with plain coconut water (instead of tap water), and adding vanilla syrup and a little non-fat milk to taste.

For the toasted coconut syrup: Crack open a whole coconut. Remove the meat in chunks. Roast on an oven pan at 450F for 15-20 minutes or until it begins to turn golden brown. For every one part coconut add two parts water. Puree in blender until smooth. Low boil over medium heat and for every one part toasted coconut puree add one part sugar. Stir. Stir. Stir. Strain through cheese cloth. Chill.

Toasted Coconut, Laura Cloer, 2014
This is the end of a very long day for me. I just got home from work and it is very late. Sadly, all the Vita Coco Vanilla Cafe is gone and I am nodding off as I attempt to get this drink ready for submission. My pillow is calling my name. Until next time, happy drinking!