Articles in Cocktails
The American craft spirits movement is putting the juniper berry in its place as new distilleries reimagine gin as a stand-alone sipper. Thirteen award-winning distillers reveal the secret ingredients that set their gins apart from the bevvy of new American gins.
Click through the following slideshow to discover the weird and the wonderful that have spirits professionals applauding these exciting new libations.
More from Zester Daily about cocktails:
Main photo: St. Augustine Distillery prides itself on using freshly ground local herbs and the peels from Florida oranges and lemons in a gin with a base alcohol made from Florida sugar cane for its New World Gin. Credit: Copyright St. Augustine Distillery
If you want to order a gin and tonic in Spain, first drop the “and” from the drink’s name (it’s known simply as a “gin tonic”) and then be prepared to answer two serious questions from the barkeep.
First, what gin? Any respectable bar will have 10 to 50 bottles, or more, in stock. Second, what tonic? You should also know a favorite based on your preference for its handcrafted blend of bitter and sweet.
More from Zester Daily:
In an instant, one luscious bittersweet sip helped me understand why the gin tonic had made a crazed ascent to become the unofficial national drink of Spain in less than a decade. But at the same time, it introduced a whole host of other questions. What makes a Spanish gin tonic different from the classic British stalwart? How many riffs on one cocktail can there be? Could I master the technique for the perfect gin tonic?
I sought out one of the reigning gin tonic masters in Spain to discover why this age-old cocktail is such a perfect foil for the Spanish philosophy that it’s good to play with your food. I also got some tips on making your personalized best GT.
Main photo: Gin tonic with Pepe José Orts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Caroline J. Beck
I’ve always felt that the best wine experiences can be divided into two categories: immersion and transportation.
The former is a sip of Pinot in a dank Burgundian cellar, the barrel sample pulled by a vigneron in must-spattered boots. The latter is any great Burgundy on your table that carries you back to that moment.
Food can do the same: biting into Dungeness crab within the sound of crashing surf on the Oregon Coast, or a perfectly crafted risotto that takes you back to an Italian piazza. These flavors are grounded in geography. They immerse you more deeply into where you are, or they transport you in an instant to a place where you’ve been or someday hope to go.
So for this reason, I’ve always cast a wary eye on cocktails. It might be due to the fact that I came of age in the dark days of Jell-O shots and butterscotch schnapps, long before the current cocktail renaissance. But I’ve also found it difficult to reconcile this notion of immersion and transportation with mixed drinks. Is there a sense of geography in a cocktail when it can be made almost anywhere by a skilled hand and the right ingredients?
I recently set out to explore this question, and was surprised by what I found.
Art Tierce might be the perfect person to ask about cocktails and terroir, that flexible French notion that loosely translates as sense of place. He’s an assistant winemaker at Ransom Wines & Spirits and grew up in wine country in Santa Rosa, California, where the vineyards started just beyond center field of his little league ballpark. But he strayed into the world of bartending with stints in Las Vegas and Portland before joining Ransom in Sheridan, Oregon, to make wine.
When Tierce isn’t manning the pumps or working harvest, he serves as resident mixologist, finding creative ways to showcase Ransom’s artisanal spirits in mixed drinks. When I arrived at the distillery, Tierce was waiting with an upended whiskey barrel arrayed with the gear needed to mix three cocktails evocative of the Northwest in late winter — all of them featuring Ransom’s sweet vermouth, produced with the region’s grapes.
“The trends tend to be darker, heavier, richer flavors in the winter,” said Tierce as he mixed a cocktail he calls “Empty Chamber,” a full-flavored, low-alcohol drink with sherry, vermouth and egg white. “The flavors represent cold winter months, but you’re not going to get this waft of alcohol.”
And indeed, the complexity of the flavors combined with the richness of the mouthfeel and texture evoked the roiling maritime clouds that slip over the Coast Range and hang over the valley for much of the season.
Next up was “New World Voyages,” a rum-based drink that places the spirits up front. “I’ve always found that in the winter, and especially living in Oregon with the dark, cloudy, overcast skies, that I love rum,” Tierce said, shaking a drink that may call winter skies to mind, but also offers a hint of brightness. “I think most people think of rum as their summer beverage.”
His last suggestion, “The Emerald, by Ransom,” is a twist on a classic Manhattan that uses their Irish whiskey, The Emerald 1865. It is a recreation of a recipe from the late 19th century discovered buried in archives. “It historically represents how dense and aromatic the Irish whiskies of the heyday were,” Tierce said of their flagship spirit, stirring a drink that served as a foundation, showcasing the whiskey’s malty notes, and creating something strong enough to stand up to the season.
With the three drinks lined up on a barrel in an Oregon Coast Range distillery, the ornate onion dome of the Ransom still looming overhead like something out of a Jules Verne novel, I certainly started to feel that sense of place as we tasted through Tierce’s creations.
The Human Factor
I carried this question of cocktail terroir to my local mixologist. Michael Monroe tends bar at a cozy college town speakeasy in Corvallis, Oregon. Not even visible from the street, you need to slip through the front door of a restaurant called Magenta and descend a flight of stairs to find SnugBar, where Monroe focuses on cultivating the next generation of cocktail connoisseurs.
At my elbow in the tight quarters, a college-age drinker ordered a whiskey sour. Monroe checked his ID and grew excited. “Hey man, have you always ordered good cocktails?” he asked.
The kid shrugged. After Monroe mixed the drink, he leaned over to me: “That kid turned 21 a few months ago and he just ordered a nine-dollar whiskey sour.” It’s not the price tag that earned Monroe’s enthusiasm. “If I wasn’t striving to make a really good whiskey sour that’s worth the money, they wouldn’t be doing that.”
For Monroe, his aim is to cultivate long-term customers. He’d much rather see them savor a pair of well-crafted drinks and keep coming back for years rather than load up and burn out early on the bar scene. Quality, sustainability and moderation go together.
When I shared my concept of transportation and immersion, Monroe mixed me a Kingston Club from their drink menu, one based on a recipe from Portland bartender and writer Jeffrey Morganthaler. Centered on Drambuie, with the spirit’s malt whiskey, spice and honey conjuring its Scottish roots (hailing from a region that also knows a thing or two about clouds), the drink offsets this heaviness with a hint of tropical fruit to let in a little sunshine. It’s a balancing act. More immersion and transportation at work.
I found that good cocktails do conjure a sense of place. The process is different from food, where it can take months to cultivate a kitchen garden to produce hyper-local produce, or wine, which requires an entire season to capture a year’s worth of weather to store in a barrel and then bottle.
With cocktails, you can even take a DIY approach. “Home mixology is at an all-time high. It’s amazing and it’s fun to be creative,” Tierce said. For those wanting to experiment, he suggests sticking to known recipes and then tweaking one ingredient at a time until you get a feel for what you want to accomplish. He also recommends Morganthaler’s “The Bar Book” as a starting point.
Tierce’s key advice? Use the best ingredients: “You can never fake fresh, ever.”
Emily Mistell, who mixes drinks at Portland, Oregon’s popular Rum Club, underscores the importance of freshness. “We change our menu at the club with the seasons, trying to utilize as many fresh local ingredients as we can,” she said.
As for Mistell’s recommendation for a drink that can send you somewhere else? “My all-time favorite cocktail year round might have to be a drink from Martinique (French Virgin Islands) called the Ti’ Punch.”
More from Zester Daily:
It’s been said that the three key ingredients of terroir are weather, soil and people. With cocktails, the human factor is critical — a person creates a great drink right before your eyes. Cocktails are ephemeral, effervescent. They begin to change as soon as the ice begins to melt and the zest of orange dissipates. But your bartender remains, ready to mix the next drink. It’s all about good ingredients combined with performance art. The terroir isn’t a gravelly hillside or the black loam of Granny’s river bottom garden — it’s the flesh, bone and creativity of your resident mixologist.
Yield: one drink
1.5 ounces Ransom Sweet Vermouth
3/4 ounce oloroso sherry
1/2 ounce Ransom Old Tom Gin
1/2 ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/4 ounce rich demerara syrup
White of one egg
Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters
Dry shake, then add ice. Shake, strain and garnish with Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters dripped on top with a design.
New World Voyages
Yield: one drink
1 ounce Ransom Old Tom Gin
1 ounce Ransom Sweet Vermouth
1 ounce Pampero Aniversario Rum
2 dashes orange bitters
Zest and peel of 1 orange and 1 lemon
Stir over ice, strain into an old-fashioned glass with a big cube of ice. Add zest and peel of an orange and a lemon.
The Emerald, by Ransom
Yield: one drink
2 1/4 ounces Ransom 1865
3/4 ounce Ransom Sweet Vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters
Zest and peel of 1 orange
Stir, strain into a coupe, add zest and peel of an orange.
The Kingston Club
Yield: one drink
1 1/2ounces Drambuie
1 1/2 ounces pineapple juice
3/4 ounce lime juice
1 teaspoon Fernet Branca
3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 ounce soda water
Shake ingredients with ice and finish with 1 ounce soda water. Strain mix over fresh ice into a chilled Collins glass and garnish with an orange twist.
Yield: one drink
2 ounces Rhum agricole (my favorite is Clement Canne Bleue or Neisson)
Fresh sugar cane syrup
Experiment with your own lime and sugar ratios: everyone likes something different. Using ice is optional, but Mistell suggests one large cube.
Recipes: Empty Chamber, New World Voyages and The Emerald, by Ransom courtesy Art Tierce, Ransom Wines & Spirits; Kingston Club courtesy Jeffrey Morganthaler; Ti’Punch courtesy Emily Mistell of the Rum Club
Main photo: Art Tierce, assistant winemaker at Ransom Wine & Spirits, is also a mixologist who specializes in cocktails with rich, evocative flavors. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker
It’s 1715 and gin is in! Genever, anglicized from the Dutch as “gin,” was introduced to the British in 1688 by William the III and quickly became known as “Mother’s Ruin” or “Dutch Courage.” The mass production of cheap gin in London had unleashed an epic 50-year street party of drunken debauchery and moral depravity.
Now it’s 2015, and gin is in once again. This time we can avoid the turpitude by taking guidance from Daniel Kent, dean of beverages at the Institute of Domestic Technology in Los Angeles. The institute teaches simple food- and beverage-production techniques, some long forgotten, for do-it-yourself enthusiasts.
A spirited introduction
The workshop is set up around a mammoth pool table in Greystone Mansion, a faux-château set in formal gardens above Beverly Hills. The vaulted billiard room is just off the bowling alley, which many might recognize from the 2007 movie “Let There Be Blood.”
More from Zester Daily:
Eschewing cocktails such as the Gin Fizz, the Fluffy Duck and the Hanky Panky, Kent plans to dismantle what the Brits would call a “bog-standard G and T” and rebuild it into a sublime, sophisticated multilayered beverage using craft American gin, homemade tonic syrup and perfectly clear ice.
Joseph Schuldiner, director of the institute, begins the afternoon by asking the 24 students to identify themselves by first name only and to relate a “drinking story.” (This is awkwardly reminiscent of an AA meeting, but judging by the hilarity that follows, no one in this room needs a drink to relax.)
Kent, a former actor, cannot resist a theatrical flourish and starts the class with a reveal: a secret bar hidden behind the oak-paneled walls. This elicits gasps from his audience, as does the statement that gin is just juniper-flavored vodka. He explains the complex process of flavoring neutral spirits with a vapor infusion of juniper berries during the distillation process to produce a subtle and aromatic spirit.
The tasting process
Our tasting starts with a sample of Junipero, made in San Francisco by the Anchor Distilling Company. This 98-proof gin is flavored with dried juniper berries and a secret mix of herbs and spices, described as “exotic” botanicals.
The second gin we try, the Botanist Islay Dry Gin, comes from Bruichladdich, a Scotch distillery that is also using its stills to produce a 92-proof gin flavored with 22 wild plants foraged on Islay Island in the Inner Hebrides. The result tastes less of juniper and more of myrtle, heather and the moss that grows on peat. (As Kent says, it tastes of things that grow close to the ground.)
The third gin sample is Terroir from St. George Spirits. This is a 90-proof aromatic gin “wildcrafted” from California plants including Douglas fir and bay laurel, which provide its distinctive flavor. Kent uses the word “woodsy” to describe it, echoing St. George’s own description: “a forest in your glass.”
Then we move on to making the tonic syrup. The medicinal qualities of the key ingredient, Peruvian cinchona bark, were observed by Jesuit priests in the 17th century. By the 1860s, it was known that quinine was the active ingredient that suppressed malarial fever, so the British and the Dutch planted cinchona trees in their growing colonies in the East. The officers of the Royal Navy began adding the unpalatable quinine tincture to their daily ration of gin, and the new British cocktail became instantly popular in malaria-free London drawing rooms.
Reminding us there is no quinine in commercial “tonic” water, Kent creates a quinine tincture, steeping powdered cinchona bark in spirits while the class juices and zests limes and grapefruits. (He credits “The Bar Book” by Jeffrey Morgenthaler for the basic recipe but says he has jazzed it up a bit.) We all help by adding the zest and fruit juices to heating water, along with carefully measured coriander, anise and allspice. The mixture is mulled for 20 minutes, then left to cool as the orange water, quinine tincture and sugar are stirred in.
The finishing touches
On to the ice. Daniel explains that good ice is just a matter of physics: Rip the lid off a six-pack Igloo and then fill the cooler with water, and it will freeze from the top down like a lake, pushing air bubbles and impurities to the bottom. Using a block of ice he has already prepped, Kent starts tapping his serrated bread knife gently with a hammer, scoring a line where the clear ice and the cloudy ice meet. Suddenly the block splits into two layers, and Kent triumphantly holds up the top layer, as clear as any self-respecting mixologist could ever want.
When we are ready to mix the new gin and tonic, Kent schools us on technique, putting the ice in last to create extra fizz. The results are interesting. Junipero, with its more traditional flavoring, was a class favorite during the tasting, but when mixed with the fragrant tonic, it seems too complex. The Terroir, with its more balanced blend of botanicals, marries well with the tonic, but scores low because it does not have the kick that we attendees crave. Meanwhile, the Botanist, only moderately popular at the tasting, becomes the crowd favorite in the mixed drink. This cocktail, with its damp, earthy tones, is as far from artificially flavored gin and chemically manufactured tonic water as you can get.
The class ends with an inkling of what’s next for Kent. He is obsessed with pruno. What is that? Let’s just say pruno, a.k.a. jailhouse hooch, is immortalized in a poem by Jarvis Masters that ends with the line “May God have mercy on your soul.” When one of the workshop participants, a judge by profession, reveals his experience with authentic prison-made pruno, Kent blurts out, “Can you get me in?” Really, Daniel? There must be an easier way.
Main photo: A proper gin and tonic. Credit: © Seth Joel
The beauty of New Year’s resolutions is twofold: We make them and, for a few days anyway, we believe them.
If your New Year’s resolution is to eat better, that’s always open to interpretation. At the very least, the resolutions can be kept by checking out just a few of the holiday offerings from Zester Daily. From throwing the right party to getting in the habit of eating something healthy right away, there’s a New Year’s story to help keep any resolution — if only for a few days.
Here’s a sampling of Zester Daily stories to get the year off to a good start. The notes are directly from the contributors. Click on the links for each story.
Arrive in Style With a Perfect Potluck Presentation by Martha Rose Shulman: Making dishes for holiday potlucks is usually more pleasurable than transporting them to the occasion. There’s always the fear that things will tip over or spill in the trunk.
Alexander Smalls Brings the World to Harlem by Sylvia Wong Lewis: Alexander Smalls’ New Year’s menu is a tip-off to the breadth of the cuisine that his patrons encounter each day at The Cecil, which recently won Esquire magazine’s coveted Restaurant of the Year for 2014.
Japanese Namasu Brings Good Luck in the New Year by Sonoko Sakai: New Year’s is the most important holiday in Japan, and the centerpiece of the annual celebration is what the Japanese consider to be lucky foods.
Ring in the New Year With Simplicity and Health by Francine Segan: This time of year, most of us make a New Year’s resolution to lose weight. To jump-start my own plans, and to help my friends who are all making the same resolution, I host a healthy New Year’s Eve party.
Make-Ahead Menu Lets You Party Like It’s 2015 by Carole Murko: New Year’s Eve can be a splendid holiday to celebrate. What with the optimism of resolutions or mapping out one’s desired feelings, it is indeed a time to embrace all that is new in 2015.
‘Cut Off’ The Old Year With Japanese Soba Noodles by Hiroko Shimbo: In Japan, New Year’s Eve is as important as Christmas Day in Western countries.
For Good Luck in the New Year, Think Green and Round by Brooke Jackson: Around the world, foods are eaten on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day that are auspicious and thought to bring prosperity for the coming year.
Zombie Pizzas With Real Innards for New Year’s by Clifford A. Wright: Since no one watches zombie movies alone, a New Year’s Eve party is perfect. For food in front of the TV, popcorn is easiest, but here’s a fun idea: zombie pizza.
Cheeses to Intrigue and Entice Holiday Guests by Nicole Gregory: If I must eat cheese — and clearly, I must — then I commit to consuming the best cheese in the world. And this means I need to know how to make mouthwatering cheese boards of my own to share with friends and family.
The Healthy Way to Good Fortune on New Year’s by Harriet Sugar Miller: In the 19th century, many African-Americans brought in the New Year with Hoppin’ John — a dish made with black-eyed peas and collard greens, among other ingredients, and thought to bring prosperity and luck.
9 Essential Questions About Champagne, Answered By Paul Lukacs: For many consumers, this is just about the only time that they buy and drink this particular type of wine. Not surprisingly, they often find themselves confused.
Toast the New Year With Healthy Kombucha by Tina Caputo: One way to avoid starting off the New Year with a blistering hangover is to steer clear of the offending drinks altogether. Another, some say, is to make healthier cocktails, using kombucha as a mixer.
A Spanish New Year’s Toast: Cava and a Dozen Grapes by Caroline J. Beck: Nochevieja, or “old night,” as New Year’s Eve is known in Spain, is a celebration that comes with a bit of insurance.
Skip the Bubbly and Ring in 2015 With Hard Apple Cider by Ramin Ganeshram: For some, Champagnes and sparkling wines are too dry. For others, they are headache inducing, and for yet others, they are too high in alcohol. What, then, to do when asked to raise a glass of cheer to ring in the new year?
Trader Joe’s Has Wine Covered at Every Price by Mira Honeycutt: As the holiday party season winds its way toward New Year’s Eve, sparkling wine or Champagne is on many shopping lists.
Main photo: Happy New Year. Credit: Ivan Mikhaylov / iStockphoto
Gin, a crystal-clear distilled grain spirit, dates to at least the 1600s and was initially touted as a medicinal cure for everything from stomachaches to gout. Its predominant flavor comes from juniper berries, a fragrant spice that I think is especially suited to winter tastes.
An ingredient in many classic cocktails, gin is one of those spirits that is much better in mixed drinks. In fact, gin is used in more cocktails than any other spirit. It’s a key ingredient in the martini, gin and tonic, Negroni, Gimlet and dozens more.
This holiday season, try a classic Italian Negroni or one of the signature cocktails curated by celebrity mixologist Kathy Casey and the gintologists at Martin Miller’s Gin.
More from Zester Daily:
Courtesy: Berkshire Mountain Distillers
Yield: 1 serving
1 ounce gin
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet vermouth
Orange or lemon twist
1. Pour gin, Campari and sweet vermouth into a mixing glass. Add ice.
2. Stir well with a bar spoon for 40 to 45 revolutions.
3. Strain into a chilled martini cocktail glass.
4. Garnish with orange or lemon twist.
Courtesy: Martin Miller’s Gin
Yield: 4 servings
4 ounces (1/2 cup) gin
1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) cranberry ginger syrup (recipe follows)
1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) pasteurized egg whites
1 cup of ice
Optional garnish: candied ginger and fresh cranberry
1. Combine the gin, lemon juice, syrup and egg whites in a blender with 1 cup of ice.
2. Blend on high until ice is totally blended and drink is frothy.
3. Pour into coupe glasses. Garnish with candied ginger and a cranberry on a toothpick, if you like.
Cranberry Ginger Syrup
Yield: Makes about 20 ounces or enough for 12 cocktails
1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries
4 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
4 teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger
2 cups sugar
1. Put the cranberries, orange zest, ginger, sugar and 2 cups of water into a small sauce pan.
2. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat for 1 minute then turn off heat.
3. Let steep for 30 minutes.
4. Strain through a fine mesh strainer. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Courtesy: Martin Miller’s Gin
Yield: 1 serving
1/4 clementine, tangerine or mandarin
3 ounces (1/3 cup) Citrus Gin Pre-Mix (recipe follows)
1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) brut Champagne or sparkling wine, chilled
Small rosemary sprig as garnish
1. Squeeze the clementine and put it into a cocktail shaker.
2. Add the Citrus Gin Pre-Mix, fill with ice, and shake vigorously.
3. Strain into a champagne flute.
4. Top with champagne and garnish with a small sprig of rosemary.
Citrus Gin Pre-Mix
Yield: Makes enough for about 10 to 12 cocktails
1/2 cup Cointreau
1/2 cup simple syrup
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1. Combine the Cointreau, simple syrup and lemon juice.
2. Pour into a sealable bottle or jar and store refrigerated for up to 7 days.
Gin Party Punch
Courtesy: Martin Miller’s Gin
This punch is perfect for a large crowd and can be made up to four days in advance. For a festive look, serve in a large crystal bowl over an ice mold studded with sliced mandarin oranges and pomegranate seeds.
Yield: About 16 to 20 servings
3 Orange Pekoe tea bags
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 bottle (750 ml) Martin Miller’s Gin
1 cup pomegranate juice
3/4 cups fresh orange juice
3/4 cups pineapple juice
1 cup fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons Angostura bitters
Optional garnishes: pomegranate seeds, sliced mandarin, oranges, lemons
1. Bring 3 cups water and tea bags to a boil.
2. Add the sugar, stirring to dissolve.
3. Remove from heat, let steep 10 minutes, then strain and cool.
4. Add the gin, pomegranate, orange, pineapple and lemon juices, and bitters.
5. Stir and chill until ready to serve.
6. Add sliced mandarins or oranges or lemons and pomegranate seeds before serving, if desired.
7. Serve in ice-filled glasses topped with grated, fresh nutmeg.
Main photo: The classic Italian Negroni is made with gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. Credit: Francine Segan
It’s that time of year when raising a glass of bubbly is de rigeur. What would holiday-time commercials be without happy people clinking flute glasses of delicately hued golden nectar, tiny bubbles making a purposeful beeline to the rim of the glass?
But what about revelers who don’t like Champagne or sparkling wine? While I can hardly believe such folks exist, the fact is they do, and they eschew these carbonated wines for a variety of reasons.
For some, Champagnes and sparkling wines are too dry. For others, they are headache inducing, and for yet others, they are too high in alcohol. What, then, to do when asked to raise a glass of cheer to ring in the new year?
Raise a flute of dry, hard apple cider instead.
A revolutionary drink
In the 18th century, hard cider was the preferred drink of the American everyman. Most often brewed at home, it was drunk at breakfast or in place of water — by men, women and children alike.
More from Zester Daily
“The cider of the 18th century is probably around the same strength as today — typically around 7% (alcohol by volume) — but would be much more sour them modern versions,” said chef Frank Clark, the director of Historic Foodways at Colonial Williamsburg. Clark and his staff have made historic ciders at Williamsburg and have found them to be much more tart than modern versions. “That was because of both the type of apples traditionally used and the lack of sterilization and sanitation used at the time.”
Hard cider went out of fashion in America as beer took over as the everyday alcoholic drink of choice. Up until recently, the little hard cider still made in this country tended to be overly sweet — more reminiscent of soda pop than the ciders of yore.
Clark said that was due to a process called back sweetening, adding sugar after the drink has fermented to give it a much sweeter taste.
Happily, however, a new crop of craft cider makers, following the footsteps of draft beer distillers, are producing drier and more sophisticated ciders that are neither sweet nor syrupy in finish or appearance.
Cider is a renaissance cocktail
Many of the new American hard ciders, particularly those from smaller distillers, come in a variety of packages, alcohol percentages and tartness. Unlike wines, or even beer, don’t judge a cider by its package — some of the best I’ve found have come in cans or wine bottles versus stout beer-type containers.
Like a good Champagne, the more sophisticated hard ciders come from a mix of varietals skillfully put together by a master cider maker.
“In England, for example, there is a rising trend of doing single varietals, but even there most of the cider makers I spoke with preferred to drink a skillfully blended cider,” said Tim Larsen, the owner and cider maker of Snowdrift Cider Co. in Wenatchee Valley, Wash. “Someone who is skillful at blending cider can create a delicious cider that is uniquely different than the ciders that went into it. By carefully marrying flavors and aromas you can multiply the effects of each and produce a cider distinct and better than its components. ”
The alcohol content in hard ciders ranges between 6% and 8.5%. When testing hard ciders to use in place of Champagne or sparkling wine, consider the level of acidity, particularly when pairing them with rich holiday foods or for drinking alone.
“Savory foods, like steaks and burgers, do well with cider,” said Eddie Johnson, co-owner and director of the bar Publik Draft House in Atlanta. “The acidity of the fruit cuts through the richness. Ciders are also great to cook with — a splash of cider in pies and tarts pushes some of the flavors forward. It is also a great aperitif, as it has similar characteristics [to] Champagne.”
Remember that newer hard ciders are generally less aggressively carbonated than some of the versions that have been on the market and often less so than a traditional champagne or prosecco. The carbonation level is most like that of cava. For those who don’t like carbonation at all but want a cleaner-finishing drink with which to toast, there are even some good still versions of hard cider as well.
Here is a primer on available hard ciders as an alternative to Champagne for ringing in the new year.
Devoto Orchards in Sonoma, Calif.: The orchard’s Cidre Noire, 1976 and Golden State Cider truly live up to the spirit of the craft. Dry without a hint of the vinegary aftertaste found in some dry ciders, the surprise star in this line is the Golden State Cider in a can. Effervescent and almost mineral-like, once poured it lives up to any bottled version and is my favorite for toasting. Cidre Noir is best served with fatty foods like cheese or charcuterie, while the 1976 works well with spicy fair.
Eve’s Cidery in Finger Lakes, N.Y.: I’ve long been a fan of Eve’s Cidery Northern Spy, which I first sampled at the New York City restaurant Northern Spy Food Co. It is extremely tart with hints of apple cider vinegar, so it’s not for everyone and is best had with food. The cidery’s Albee Hill Still and Dry is a delicate wine-like cider worth trying for a more subtle cider experience.
Snowdrift Cider in Wenatchee Valley, Wash.: Like winemakers in the region, Snowdrift produces a good and dependable product with little variation and democratically appealing flavor. The Cliffbreaks Blend is tannic enough to stand up to both fatty foods and stand in for sparkling wines for toasting.
Eden Sparkling Cider in Newport, Vt.: This half-sized bottle is one of the most Champagne-like of the hard ciders I sampled. Made with English apples and aged in French oak for a deep golden hue, this product works nicely as a substitute for cocktails that require Champagne as a base.
Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, N.H.: This is a drier line of ciders, and it includes a still version.The green-labeled Extra Dry was most to my liking, but the Red Labeled Semi-Dry is also hardly sweet — and Champagne aficionados will find that, despite the lower alcohol content, even the semi-dry is less sweet than champagnes of the same description.
Sonoma Cider in Healdsburg, Calif.: A fun brand of hard cider that harkens more to commercial varieties like those by Vermont Cider Company, but with a far drier finish. The Hatchet is an apple variety, while the Pitchfork represents pear, and the Anvil has added Bourbon flavor, making these ciders feel like a good, stiff drink. These are good options for beer or harder-liquor drinkers who would like to raise a bubbly glass with body.
Vermont Hard Cider Co. /Woodchuck in Middlebury, Vt.: Vermont Hard Cider Co. is probably best known for reintroducing hard cider to the American market as a bottled drink. Brewers such as Stella Artois have recently followed in the company’s footsteps with products such as Cidre. While the company is most noted for its Woodchuck hard cider, its product line now also extends into seasonal, reserves and fruit ciders such as pear and raspberry. Overall, these products are sweeter than the varieties listed above, but folks who eschew the dryness of traditional sparkling wines or who appreciate sparklers like the sweet Moscato will appreciate this company’s core offerings.
Main photo: Winter red cider. Credit: Courtesy of Snowdrift Cider
There’s something about drinking cocktails on New Year’s Eve that makes the occasion feel extra festive. But on New Year’s Day, there’s often something about those very same cocktails that feels like a big mistake. One way to avoid starting off the New Year with a blistering hangover is to steer clear of the offending drinks altogether. Another, some say, is to make healthier cocktails, using kombucha as a mixer.
Dating back more than 2,000 years, kombucha is a fermented beverage made by adding a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast to sweetened tea. The resulting drink has a slight effervescence, and a pleasant sweet-tart flavor, but that’s not the main reason people drink it. Because it’s rich in probiotics (“good” bacteria), unpasteurized kombucha is used as a digestive aid that can offer protection from harmful bacteria and boost the immune system.
It also makes a delicious cocktail.
“Kombucha is really complex and interesting, more flavorful than soda, and drier,” said Jasmine Dravis, co-owner of Native Kitchen & Kombucha Bar in Petaluma, California.
It also has less sugar than soda and juices, which, along with kombucha’s gut-health benefits, may help prevent morning-after suffering.
“That’s the thing when people drink traditional alcoholic cocktails,” Dravis said. “Most of the hangover is the result of a battle between the alcohol and the sugar. With sugary cocktails, you’re going to be very out of balance the next morning.”
When Dravis and her husband Joseph, a kombucha brewer, opened Native Kitchen in October, they created a list of sophisticated kombucha cocktails that are not only a pleasure to drink, but potentially healthful.
“We thought, if we came up with a low-sugar way to mix our cocktails with kombucha, which supports your gut health, we’d be bringing some balance to the table,” Dravis said.
“OK, you’re still drinking alcohol, but you’re not going to feel the harsh effects that you normally would,” she continued. “The perfect example is our Ginger Mule. We use fresh ginger and kombucha and some vodka, and I can tell you that when I drink it I feel much better than if I had just consumed a high-sugar cocktail with ginger beer and vodka.”
The bar also serves a kombucha mimosa, which replaces half of the orange juice with fermented tea.
“I can tell you from firsthand experience that when I drink regular mimosas I can get a headache, or I feel low after drinking them,” Dravis said. “There’s definitely going to be a more sustained, balanced feeling when you drink a kombucha mimosa because you don’t get the sugar crash.”
Dravis isn’t the only one who believes kombucha can help prevent hangovers. Eric Childs, founder of Kombucha Brooklyn, claims that drinking kombucha between alcoholic drinks results in “reverse toxmosis,” and that drinking it the morning after can cure a hangover thanks to kombucha’s detoxifying properties.
For those who are already suffering from a hangover, Native Kitchen offers kombucha on draft, along with kombucha elixirs such as the Pommy, a mixture of pomegranate juice, kombucha, local honey, lime juice and bee pollen.
The key to alleviating a hangover, Dravis said, is to reduce acidity in the body, and kombucha can help with that. “When you’re hung over your body is in a state of complete acidity from the excess sugar and the alcohol, so you’re going to want a quick boost of alkalinity,” she said.
Although there’s no solid scientific proof of these claims, they seem to make a fair amount of sense. And when kombucha cocktails are as delicious as Native Kitchen’s, lining up volunteers for further “research” shouldn’t be a problem.
The Ginger Mule
2 ounces vodka
1 ounce honey
Juice of 1/2 lime
3 ounces kombucha
1 ounce ginger juice*
*If you don’t have a juicer, you can use a ginger-flavored kombucha, or muddle a small piece of ginger in the shaker.
1. Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake until mixed.
2. Serve over ice in a copper mug or double old fashioned glass, garnished with a lime wheel.
3 ounces pomegranate juice
1 ounce lime juice
1 teaspoon local honey
6 ounces kombucha (any flavor)
Small pinch of bee pollen (available in health food stores)
1. Add all ingredients except the pollen to a shaker with ice and shake until mixed.
2. Strain into a flute glass and sprinkle bee pollen on top.
Main photo: Jasmine Dravis of Native Kitchen & Kombucha Bar shows off a kombucha cocktail. Credit: Tina Caputo