We have just returned safely from a journey through Germany, Catalonia, and France. Needless to say, while such a trip acquaints you with the charms of foreign lands, it also highlights the merits of the place left behind, for which you find yourself feeling homesick. Although this blog is primarily about cocktails, I want to report on the state of a more basic staple of the human diet — beer — across these nations.

When the Tom Brokaw of thirty years hence sits down to mythologize the baby boomers as “the greatest generation” (a thesis sure to prove popular with members of that generation, at least), the improvements to American beer in the 90s and 00s will be some of the best evidence he’ll have to work with. I don’t know how my forebears made do with the limited domestic beer options of the old days, but I’m glad I don’t have to. Rather than facing a narrow choice between Budweiser, Miller, and Coors at most establishments, we 21st-century Americans can vary our choice between such excellent and widely available brews as Racer 5 and Red Tail, or any of the great Lagunitas ales, or many, many others.

In Germany*, there is no shortage of beers to choose from. On the contrary, the country seems to be based on the idea that you should be able to get and drink a beer any time and place you choose. I appreciate that. However, in our experience, the variety among different brands is surprisingly small. Most of the beers are light, refreshing lagers and pilsners. Never are they particularly hoppy. They are good, pleasant to drink after an afternoon of lugging a backpack around Fredrick the Great’s old digs, and I wouldn’t want readers to think that I’m implying otherwise. But there exists a much narrower range of flavor profiles to choose from than we are accustomed to. My comment at the time was that the many different beers “do not run the gamut, but rather run together.”

Our friend Spencer (who has spent considerable time living in Germany) has explained that whereas Americans like novelty, and so each brewer tries to produce something unique and different, Germans prefer pursuit of the ideal, perfect beer, and so all brewers aim to best realize this ideal. Thus they all produce similar brews. Whereas we can imagine the trajectory of American brewing as bouncing along on a graph and deviating more and more from average over time, the trajectory of German brewing would be doing the opposite: winnowing in every closer to sameness, approaching closer and closer to distribution along a straight line. We liked the Kristallweisses that we tried, and also the Schwartzbiers and Alts, but it wasn’t long before we were yearning for an Indian Pale Ale.

This mentality — the devotion to the One True Beer, and to rendering it incarnate unto the world — was in fact embodied in law in Germany for many centuries, in the Reinheitsgebot, or purity law. This was of a piece with the traditional Germanic passion for protectionism, and it died only because of European integration. Now it’s legal to import beer from anywhere into Germany, made from whatever ingredients you like, and the Germans take advantage of this freedom by importing beers that taste pretty much identical to what they were already producing.

The situation in Catalonia** was much worse. The Spanish beer that we tried was, to put it mildly, not impressive. The region seems to have no beer culture to speak of. As for imports, Heineken was the best thing available, by far. Oh well! They say the wine there is very good.

France*** has two domestic beers that are OK — 1664 and Pelforth — though they are not exciting. There are microbrews in France, but they have not reached a level of popularity such as would make them widely accessible. Luckily, you can also get Belgian beers, some of which are very good. Alarmingly, some French bars offer the option of getting fruity syrup in your beer for one euro more.

In short, this Fourth of July, we’re happy to celebrate the spirit of innovation and independence that characterize the local beer culture. Here’s to America the Brewful. Salut!

*The Germans incorrectly believe the country they live in to be called Deutschland.

**The Catalonians incorrectly think the place is called Catalunya.

***The French somehow get their country’s name right, though they soon go on to get other things wrong.

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The Hemingway

by Jen on June 16, 2011

Will and I are happily on vacation in Berlin with our friends Spencer and Ann Marie.

This evening we explored a cocktail bar with a very extensive cocktail menu. We were surprised that some of the drinks included Angustura bitters — one of our favorite ingredients that we have yet to find at any German supermarkets or stores.

I ordered the Hemingway, a drink the menu claimed to be composed of gin, grenadine and lemon juice. It was so very red, I was surprised it was named after such a manly author. However, Will claims that Hemingway’s favorite drink was the daiquiri in which case he would have really liked the sweetness of this drink.

Germans don’t seem to appreciate gin the way we do, but do love their beer. We were happy to find traditional cocktails at this trendy bar, and have appreciated the different tastes of German beers.

Cheers!

Guten tag!

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Vodka-Infused Gummy Bears

by Jen on June 13, 2011

Following in the line of jello shots, our friend Sharone pointed me to this tutorial on how to create vodka-infused gummy bears.

It’s pretty straight forward: soak gummy bears in vodka for five days stirring occasionally, add a bit of concentrated juice and water to cut the vodka taste, let sit and enjoy.

But what is it? A cocktail or a candy?

Do you think it’d be worth trying these with our favorite spirit gin? Then perhaps we might not need the fruit juice to cut the taste. Gin, after all, is what happens if you distill a plain spirit, like vodka, with yummy herbs. Mmmmm….

Oh what will they think of next in their quest to make alcohol palatable to those who don’t like it?

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One of the frustrations inherent in trying old cocktail recipes is that many ingredients mentioned have gone out of favor and are no longer available. The situation has improved since I first went looking for the obscure spirits of old: Maraschino liqueur and creme de violette are now stocked at BevMo, for instance. One ingredient that remains elusive is Amer Picon, a French bitter that seems to have been rather popular at one time, but which today is not distributed anywhere in the United States. But in fact the situation is even worse than that: even the Amer Picon that is sold in France is not the same product as the Amer Picon that was available before the 70s. So if you used it in a cocktail recipe from the 20s, you would not be making the same drink that the author was.

I am told that of products currently on the market, the one that comes closest to the Amer Picon of old is Torani Amer. This is produced by the same company that makes the ubiquitous Italian syrups. And yet, it too is quite difficult to find.

But I obtained a bottle of it. Jen and I got home from a long, thirsty day at the Oakland Zoo, and, finding ourselves short on Campari, decided to try the recipe that Torani Amer recommends on the label. As follows:

A little cracked ice
1/2 teaspoon grenadine
2 oz. Torani Amer
Top off with soda water, garnish with lemon peel

The resulting drink was cheerfully refreshing, more reminiscent of Aperol than of Campari. I regretted only that we were not outside drinking it at a sidewalk cafe in a sunny city.

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A Basil Gimlet Adventure

by Jen on May 27, 2011

Awhile back I had the most delicious cocktail I have ever had.  It was at Fonda, a tapas restaurant in Albany. Composed of muddled basil, simple syrup, lime juice and gin, it was sweet, so very spicy and all around delicious.  My mouth waters just thinking about it.

When my mother joined us for dinner last Friday, I got it in my head that I was going to try making Basil Gimlets for us.  A Google search yielded a collection of recipes.  Many required that I create a basil-infused simple syrup a day or so ahead of time.  As it was just hours before dinner that I decided on this venture, those recipes were out of the question.

For my first try, I muddled five leaves of basil in the juice of one lime and a teaspoon of white sugar in a Collins glass.  This is where I made my first mistake.  I put whole basil leaves in the glass and expected the muddler to make mincemeat out of them.  It wasn’t happening, and I realized this was the first muddled drink I had made.  I asked Will why it wasn’t working, and he said he was surprised I hadn’t chopped the basil first.  Some things are so obvious to some people!

I grabbed my kitchen scissors and used them to coarsely chop the basil in the glasses.   I added 1 1/2 ounces of gin (Beefeater’s…it’s what we had on hand), some ice and stirred.

It looked yummy enough and we couldn’t wait to try it.  But once we had, we were almost sorry.  It wasn’t nearly sweet enough.  I added a dash of simple syrup to each and it was better.  But it still didn’t have the incredibly sweet spicy taste of the one Fonda had made.

We drank it anyway, and it was, actually, pretty good.  But as we drank it, it dawned on me…this was one dangerous drink.  The large bits of basil were always getting stuck on our teeth!

Not a good drink for date night.

Determined to get the drink right, I tried again.  This time I chopped the basil in our mini Cuisinart until it couldn’t be chopped any longer.

No basil was getting stuck in our teeth this time!

I muddled 1 heaping teaspoon of chopped basil with the juice of one lime, and 1 1/2 teaspoon white sugar in a cocktail shaker.  I added 1 1/2 ounces of gin and stirred over ice.

This time, though, I poured the cocktail through a strainer into a stemless martini glass.

This one was better, and delicious, but still nowhere near as good as the Basil Gimlet in my memory.

Basil Gimlet Try #2, you were delicious, but my quest is far from over!

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I received a bottle of this gin as a birthday present from our friend Sue (thanks, Sue!). I had never heard anything of the brand, positive or negative, so I was completely unsure what to expect.

This gin has  a fragrant, foresty nose, full of juniper. It reminded me on first sniff of the familiar smell of Tanqueray. It’s aromatic quality would seem to make this gin a natural choice for dry martinis.

However, it was a hot evening here in Oakland, and we were in the market for more a refreshing, thirst-quenching drink. It’s hard to go wrong with a gin and tonic, and it’s usually a bad sign when a gin doesn’t work in that most venerable of gin cocktails (though not always! See Hendricks).

Given the scent of the gin, and the “London Dry” appellation, I was expecting a conventional flavor, a la Beefeater. However, Jen and I both found Miller’s to be uniquely tasty. It has a strong suggestion of cucumber that combines quite pleasantly with the tonic, and which adds to the drink’s coolness.

I give this gin four stars. Cheers!

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The Polish Kiss

by Jen on May 20, 2011

One of my oldest friends Jessica came over and introduced me to this cocktail that stars Żubrówka, or Bison Grass Vodka.  Żubrówka, a traditional Polish spirit, is made from rye and flavored with – you guessed it – the grass that the bison munch on.

The traditional drink is made with apple juice, but on Jessica’s suggestion, we used sparkling apple cider for a less sweet variation.  Thank goodness we did!  Even without the apple juice, this is a drink to satisfy your sweet tooth.

I enjoyed how light and refreshing it was.  Tasted separately, the Żubrówka has a unique flavor that is almost nutty.   The word Żubrówka comes from the Polish word for grass and bison.  You can always find the Żubrówka among the other vodkas because the bottle contains a long strand of bison grass.

Jessica, the Żubrówka expert, assured me that this is not the best Żubrówka. I thought it was pretty good though!

The Polish Kiss

Stir 1 1/2 ounces Żubrówka with 1 1/2 ounces of apple juice or sparkling apple cider.  Jessica served it cold and up, but it would be good on ice on a hot day.

Jessica refused to take a photo with me, but I assure you, she was there.

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The Practical Magic

by Jen on May 6, 2011

The warm California weather arrived this week and with it came a desire for a Campari and Soda, one of my favorite hot weather drinks.

When Sarah arrived last night for our monthly girls’ night, I suggested a Campari and Soda. I had gone as far as pouring the Campari over ice when I realized we were out of soda water!!

We wandered through our brains for mixers that might work, and settled on some Italian Blood Orange Soda hiding in the fridge. Garnished with a slice of orange, it was the perfect combination of sweet and a bit of bitter. Delicious!

We named it the Practical Magic for the movie we were about to watch, and our luck in finding the perfect combination of flavors. Make sure that you enjoy the orange when you’re finished with the drink. It’s heaven.

The Practical Magic

Pour 1 1/2 ounces of Campari and 1 1/2 ounces of Blood Orange Soda over ice. Stir and garnish with a wedge of orange.

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The Margarita

by Jen on April 26, 2011

We were honored to celebrate an Easter birthday with our friends Sue, Phoebe and Mike.  Sue made her favorite drink in honor of her birthday: the margarita.  Not normally tequila drinkers, we make an exception for Sue’s fantastic margaritas.

Her magic recipe is roughly:

  • 2 parts tequila
  • one part triple sec
  • one part rose’s lime juice
  • 1 part fresh squeezed lime juice.

Serve on ice with a salted rim and celebrate!

Phoebe’s version was orange juice with a salted rim.  Mmmm.

Happy Birthday Sue!  We are honored to count you, Phoebe and Mike among our very best friends. To many more!

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This drink is a variation on the Bronx cocktail, which is itself a variation of the perfect martini, which in turn is a variation on earlier martini recipes. But none of those cocktails is such an obvious shoo-in to serve as a refreshment on the ides of April.

1 1/2 oz. gin

1/2 oz. dry vermouth

1/2 oz. sweet vermouth

3/4 oz. fresh-squeezed orange juice

1 or 2 dashes Angostura bitters

Shake or stir on ice, serve straight up with a cherry garnish.

Sadly, the origin story of this drink, and how it came to have this timely appellation, has apparently been lost in the bustle of history. I’d like to imagine that it came from New York the very year that the 16th Amendment was ratified (1913). But who knows?

Cheers!

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