It’s true: I drank a margarita, a Sazerac and a Brandy Crusta, all before 10 a.m. Either I was trying to drown my sorrows from a really horrible morning or it was just an average day at the Sommelier and Craft Spirits Conference.
Thankfully for me, it was the latter. And lest you think that this merry crew of wine and spirits professionals were doing some naughty over-serving, all of the drinks were in sample size.
The conference was the first ever, and it was sponsored by Texas-based Glazer’s Distributors in conjunction with The Society of Wine Educators. In addition to some incredibly tasty libations, attendees were provided with a wealth of knowledge, ideas, tips and tricks. The conference also turned out to be the perfect vehicle in which to learn how to create some wonderful holiday cocktails.
What better way to enliven the holiday spirit than to use spirits to liven up the holidays?
The conference was divided into two tracks, one for wine and one for spirits. Although I wanted to split myself in two and attend both tracks, I ultimately went with the spirits component and ended up being extremely pleased with my choice.
The first session of the spirits track was entitled “The Gulf Coast in 3 Glasses,” which is how I ended up sampling the margarita, Sazerac and Brandy Crusta (all of which were absolutely delicious). This session really highlighted the knowledge, and passion, of the instructors. When a person who makes your drink really enjoys what they do you can tell because you taste the love in the glass.
We were given a lot of historical information as well as interesting tidbits about the evolution of cocktails in the Gulf Coast region. Here are some tidbits that were particularly interesting:
• During Prohibition the term “bootleg” came into being because smugglers would literally strap the bottles to their legs by their boots and wear a long coat to conceal the stash.
• A Sazerac is actually a variation of an Old Fashioned.
• The word absinthe is a virtual anagram of Herbsaint, which was created as a absinthe substitute when absinthe was outlawed.
• The Brandy Crusta was the first cocktail to put straight alcohol and citrus together. If you haven’t tried one, you really should. I had one recently at Eleven XI that was pretty tasty.
• The margarita recipe of the 1940s consisted only of mescal, lime juice and Controy, which claims to be the original orange liqueur and precursor of Cointreau.
• The flavor of spirits can actually vary from year to year due to factors such as employing new techniques, changing stills, etc.
The second session of the track was “Fusing Flavors” which inundated attendees with a wealth of “cocktailery” tips. It's that time of the year to start thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the “Fusing Flavors” session was a great platform to discover ways to jazz up those holiday cocktails to accompany the celebratory meals and events of the season.
After all, what better way to enliven the holiday spirit than to use spirits to liven up the holidays?
When a person who makes your drink really enjoys what they do you can tell because you taste the love in the glass.
One of the ways to elevate your cocktails is to use custom syrups, infusions, bitters and tinctures, and to make them yourself. There are a plethora of recipes on how to create these cocktail enhancers, so I am going to just pass along some of the insider advice on taking the drinks to the next level.
1). When you're making an infusion (this goes for bitters and tinctures as well), consider your base spirit: What are its foundational flavors? Once you determine what the foundational flavors are, use that assessment to pick the ingredients to combine with it.
For example, some of the flavors in Hendricks Gin include juniper, rose petals and cucumber. Some potential, complementary flavors for a Hendricks infusion might include watermelon or green apple (which complement cucumber), or orange and cranberry. Orange-cran" infused gin, anyone?
2). Don't be afraid of experimenting and being adventurous. If your recipe calls for lime juice keep remember that there are a variety of lime types such Mexican limes, key limes, Persian limes and Kaffir limes. Each of those varietals has a taste that’s different from the other and each will subsequently add a distinctive flavor profile to your concoction.
Speaking of limes, if you want to add acidity to your cocktail without using citrus juice try using a Shrub instead, which is fruit preserved in vinegar.
3). When it comes to syrups and infusions, if you want to experiment even more you can play around with different types of sugars, too. Besides regular granulated sugar there's Turbinado, coconut and Demerara sugar, just to name a few.
4). Another school of thought is to make your syrups and infusions using ingredients that are indicative of the season. For instance, my favorite cocktail I sampled at the conference was made with black tea, star anise syrup and persimmon. Star anise and persimmon just shout fall to me, and my taste buds were in happy agreement.
5). Believe it or not, you can over infuse! This is especially true when you are using strong herbs or flavors, such as star anise, jalapeno or cinnamon. Ruining a batch of liquor filled infusions constitutes alcohol abuse in my book, so the instructors suggested that you taste your infusions preferably every 12 hours, but at least once 24 hours.
If you’re intrigued by going beyond the standard cocktail but don’t have the time or inclination to make your own house syrups, bitters or infusions, you can opt for one of the new or seasonal spirit options instead.
Here are some of the new and seasonal offerings, with some suggested ways to enjoy them:
• Effen Salted Caramel vodka was just released in the summer of 2013. I like the idea of adding a shot of this creamy, tasty vodka to hot chocolate or egg nog.
• Knob Creek Smoked Maple Bourbon is a new addition to the Knob Creek portfolio of bourbon/whiskeys. I tried it and must say that it drinks great as is. The sweetness of the maple enrobed in the smokiness of the bourbon is heavenly and would make a lovely switch up for whiskey and coke drinkers, too. I like to sip mine with a couple of cubes of ice and a squeeze of lemon. Just add a roaring fireplace for perfect holiday tippling.
• Pinnacle Vodka has built a reputation and following with its more than 30 flavor options. Just released, perfect-for-the-holidays, seasonal flavors include Caramel Apple, Peachberry Cobbler, Pecan Pie and a limited edition Peppermint Bark. Hey, why eat dessert when you can drink it?
If you’re looking for a little more guidance before you release your inner cocktail mad scientist, fear not. Check these events and resources out to help you get started:
• “Holiday Mixology 101” will be hosted at The Palm Restaurant Friday night. Described as an “interactive mixology class,” the restaurant will demonstrate three holiday drink recipes. Included with the drinks are The Palm’s delicious appetizers. Tickets are $75.
• Don’t feel like getting dressed? Cointreau has a “Virtual Holiday Soirée cocktail class" that you can view online in the leisure of your home.
• Lastly, as the self-proclaimed “Ambassadress of Champagne and Bubbly,” I had to share an effervescent event. Also tonight, Pappas Steakhouse will be hosting a Sparkling Wine tasting featuring 15 sparklers and seasonal hors d'oeuvres. Sparkling wines make a perfect base for bubbly cocktails that go well beyond the mimosa, Bellini and Kir Royale.
Now that you have the tools and resources needed to create a stellar repertoire of delicious, boozy, holiday beverages, let’s lift our glasses and make a toast: Here’s to creating holiday cocktails to be thankful for, that will give cause to make lots and lots of merry. Cheers!