Articles in Cocktails
Vodka has become, in many circles, the distilled spirit world’s answer to Chardonnay. It’s pooh-poohed and treated with a measurable level of disrespect, but when you look at consumption figures, it’s clear: Everybody’s drinking it.
Longtime barman Tony Abou-Ganim, now a beverage consultant and national ambassador for the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild, has come to the spirit’s defense in a new book, “Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist On Vodka and Vodka Cocktails.”
“The fact that vodka suffers from a misplaced lack of respect was highly motivating for me,” he says. “It is at times unjustly given a bad rap within the bartending community.”
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To him, vodka’s nuances are subtle, influenced by geography, climate and nutrient conditions, like wine. To make the point further, Abou-Ganim highlights 58 vodkas from around the world, divided by what they’re made from (rye, wheat, potato, corn, etc.), and breaking down each one’s individual characteristics and awarding character scores.
Ketel One, for example, a wheat-distilled vodka from the Netherlands, is given a character score of 6 (from a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the top), described as “rich with toasty grains, highlighted by touches of vanilla, marzipan, baked apple pie and cream soda,” the accompanying expert notes imploring, “Drink neat from the freezer paired with gravlax,” as well as, “Good for mixology cocktails as well as a great foundation for classic vodka drinks.”
But aside from a satisfying look at the history and culture that built vodka into the powerhouse it now is, the heart of Abou-Ganim’s book is about the cocktails, from the all-time vodka classic martini to the kamikaze, gimlet, Harvey Wallbanger, Moscow Mule, variations on Bloody Mary and more.
Though the master mixologist is happy to offer variations, he shuns the flavored vodkas that have flooded the world with their sappy, sugary falseness (marshmallow vodka shouldn’t be celebrated by anyone) and points to their overabundance as among the reasons spirits aficionados are turning their backs on vodka.
That may change — Abou-Ganim is seeing a return to simple, handcrafted cocktails that showcase a drink’s base spirit.
“I fell back in love with sipping ice-cold vodka, straight from the freezer in a frozen crystal shot glass,” he says.
His biggest surprise in writing the book and delving deep into vodka has been its ability to pair so beautifully with certain foods, from caviar to smoked fish and cured meats.
The following recipe is for a drink created at the Russian Tea Room and first mentioned in a 1938 publication on Russian dishes, considered a vintage drink. For it, Abou-Ganim recommends a bold, assertive vodka, ideally made from mixed grains somewhere in the Old World, preferably Russia, with baking-spice features, like Stolichnaya.
Reprinted with permission from “Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails” by Tony Abou-Ganim with Mary Elizabeth Faulkner
2 ounces vodka
1 ounce D.O.M. Bénédictine (an herbal liqueur)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Thin slice of lemon peel
1. In an ice-filled mixing glass, combine vodka, Bénédictine and Angostura bitters.
2. Stir until very cold.
3. Strain into a chilled old-fashioned glass.
4. Garnish with the lemon peel.
Photo: Gypsy Queen cocktail. Reprinted with permission from “Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails,” by Tony Abou-Ganim with Mary Elizabeth Faulkner, Agate Surrey, February 2013
Forget the sweetness of rum and the vanilla-honey nuances of bourbon. Sometimes we just want to soak our winter woes in a bitter spirit: Campari.
Created in Italy 153 years ago by Gaspare Campari and brought to America at the beginning of the 20th century, the bright-red liqueur is now sold in almost 200 countries. Italy and the U.S. are still the major consumers, with Germany and Brazil not far behind.
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Some say Campari contains 20 different ingredients. Others say 80, but only those intimately involved in the production process really know. Although the recipe remains a closely guarded secret, we know that it combines herbs, aromatic plants and fruit in alcohol and water. Campari is enjoyed as an apéritif, stirred with soda and a slice of orange, and is the basis of two influential cocktails, the Americano and the Negroni.
The traditional Americano is sweet vermouth, Campari and water, with a flamed orange peel for garnish, once sold as a bottled cocktail by Martini & Rossi; the Negroni is typically Campari, sweet vermouth and gin (though vodka can be substituted), again with a flamed orange peel for garnish. Both drinks are served cold.
The colorful, fashionable and avant-garde artwork that historically has been used to promote the spirit around the world has become famous in its own right. The first Campari ad ran in January 1889 in Milan’s biggest newspaper, followed the following year by the first Campari advertising posters. In 1900, the company created its first calendar, with contributions from Italian painters, illustrators and poster artists.
Many of those calendar prints became famous posters, including the 1920-era “Red Passion” poster of two people kissing in a red room and the “Bitter Campari” ad of the company-created character Spiritello emerging from an orange peel.
Halted during World War II, Campari’s visually arresting advertising resumed in 1940 and as consumption grew and spread internationally, the spirits maker became involved in sponsoring international sporting events.
By the 1970s, the likes of David Niven and Humphrey Bogart were doing Campari ads, and even the great Italian director Federico Fellini directed a short film commercial for the spirit. This collaboration with famous actors and directors continues. Salma Hayek has shot Campari commercials and starred in the calendar photographed by Mario Testino. The 2013 calendar features Penelope Cruz.
Art and beauty aside, bartenders love playing with Campari and creating variations on the Negroni as well as designing their own modern-day drinks. H. Joseph Erhmann in San Francisco, the owner of Elixir in the Mission District (one of Food and Wine magazine’s top 100 bars in America) and a founding member of San Francisco Cocktail Week provides this week’s Campari-inspired drink.
Created by H. Joseph Ehrmann in San Francisco
2 inches fresh rosemary
1½ ounce Meyer lemon juice
1 ounce egg white
1 ounce Campari
1½ ounce clover honey syrup (made by blending honey with water in a 1:1 ratio, and heating to dissolve)
1. In a mixing glass, strip the leaves from the rosemary sprig and muddle lightly.
2. Add the Meyer lemon juice and egg white and dry shake for 5 seconds.
3. Add the Campari and honey syrup and fill with ice.
4. Shake well for 10 seconds and strain up.
Top photo: Winter sour cocktail. Credit: Courtesy of Campari America
There are plenty of reasons to make cocktails at home: You can impress your friends and neighbors, save money on upscale bars and custom-blend the flavors you like.
Anyone can experiment with mixers and add-ons, but distilling alcohol is a tricky and dangerous undertaking. Luckily, one wet-bar mainstay can be created by an amateur.
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A variety of other spices and botanicals round out the flavor, sometimes including cardamom, bergamot (a type of orange whose essence is used to flavor Earl Grey tea) and/or cinnamon.
So the budding mixologist can easily make gin at home. One easy way to try it is with the HomeMade Gin Kit, which has everything you’d need to custom-craft your own gin.
“To me, it’s about caring what you’re drinking,” says Joe Maiellano, who came up with the business idea last year with friend Jack Hubbard, both 20-something Washington, D.C.-based entrepreneurs.
“When you use our kit, you’re not only involved in making what you’re about to drink, you’re also gaining a better understanding of what the finished product is, what to look for in commercial gins and what you can do better next time.”
Gin can be done 36 hours later
Released just before the holidays, the kit comes with a proprietary blend of spices, botanicals and flowers; a tin of juniper berries; two Italian glass bottles (one 500 ml, the other 250 ml); a fine double-mesh strainer; a funnel; and instructions. The first round of 300 kits, $40 each, sold out in two days.
Just add a bottle of vodka (not included) and 36 hours later homemade gin is ready to pour. It can be sipped with tonic water and lime or mixed into such classic cocktails as the Negroni, Martini, Aviation or Gimlet.
“I see the kit as a bridge between folks who already have discerning tastes when it comes to commercial gins and folks who are real cocktail snobs and are already making their own bitters and tonics at home, myself included,” adds Maiellano. “We’re sort of that steppingstone that teaches our customers about the process and gives them the tools to start exploring more on their own.”
Courtesy of Distillery No. 209
3 ounces gin, such as No. 209
⅛ ounce dry vermouth, preferably Vya
1. Shake ingredients over ice for 10 seconds.
2. Pour into a martini glass and garnish with a lemon peel.
Top photo: Straining a batch of homemade gin. Credit: Zach Stamey of Focus Media
We tend to overindulge during the holidays. “The more the merrier” is the prevailing theme, after all. So wouldn’t it be great if a cocktail could cure what ails the holiday partygoer?
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Alex Ott thinks so. An organic chemist and master mixologist who has created cocktail menus for restaurants and bars around the world, Ott’s new book, “Dr. Cocktail: 50 Spirited Infusions to Stimulate the Mind & Body,” offers entire sections devoted to hangover cures, healing juices, anti-stress cocktails and health elixirs.
He learned a lot about natural flavors and scents native to India, Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe and the South Pacific as a child, traveling the world with his parents (she a nutritionist, he a musician), soaking up obscure ingredients.
After earning a degree in organic chemistry, he launched the cocktail menu at Buddha Bar in Paris and has since served as the brand ambassador for Svedka Vodka, New Amsterdam Gin and Moët Hennessy. He later made a name for himself in New York City, his current home, at Sushi Samba (even appearing in the TV show “Sex and the City”).
His goal in the book is to focus less on the alcohol and more on the natural spices, herbs and flavor compounds used in the cocktails. He considers his chapter on anti-stress drinks to be the most important one of all.
After surviving a plane crash in Thailand in 1998, he says, “I was left with extreme post-traumatic stress. For the next three years, I tried everything physicians told me to take to relieve my anxiety of flying, heights and the recurring nightmares I began having.”
He spent the next 10 years experimenting with alternatives to strong medication. The result is a dozen anti-anxiety elixirs included in his book, including Tranquili-Tea, a drink that blends chamomile and Armagnac, a brandy from the region of the same name in southwest France.
“Chamomile relaxes the muscles in the body, particularly muscle spasms caused by stress,” Ott explains. “A main compound in chamomile is apigenin. In the central nervous system, apigenin reacts the same way a pharmaceutical tranquilizer such as Valium would, thus relaxing the mind and body without the side effects or risk of addiction. It also works as an excellent sleep aid.”
Chamomile flowers also contain an important compound called azulene, a blue crystalline substance used since early Roman times as a calming aid. Ott adds that chamomile also stimulates digestion.
“My grandmother suffered from severe migraines and stress — raising a ton of children, dealing with the war, and generally looking after everybody,” Ott explains. “My mother took after my grandmother and also suffered from migraines and stress from running her own business. Whenever they needed to calm down, they drank chamomile tea. I can still smell the scent and it calms me down today just thinking about it. This drink is dedicated to the strong women of my family.”
Courtesy of Alex Ott
8 ounces water
1 bag chamomile tea
3 teaspoons sugar
2 ounces Armagnac or Cognac
2 ounces apple cider (or apple juice)
Splash of fresh lemon juice
Slice of apple
- Boil the water in a small saucepan.
- Once the water boils, add the chamomile tea bag and sugar.
- Reduce heat and stir. Simmer for 10 minutes.
- Remove from heat and let cool.
- Combine 3½ ounces of the cooled tea and remaining ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
- Shake vigorously and strain into an ice-filled rocks glass.
- Garnish with an apple slice.
Note: This cocktail can also be served hot. Instead of shaking, combine all ingredients in a small saucepan with a lid and heat slowly. Serve in a tea glass.
Photo: Tranquili-tea. Credit: Reprinted with permission from Dr. Cocktail ©2012 by Alex Ott, Running Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group.
Maybe it’s the proximity to Mexico, maybe it’s the love of complex flavors, but San Francisco is a town that loves its tequila. It’s often thought of as a drink for summer, but tequila brings something special to winter drinks, too. We spent some time with barkeep Gabriel Cothes of the restaurant Salt House in the SOMA district to get his take on enjoying tequila in the winter.
What’s new in tequila cocktails?
Tequila is becoming a lot more versatile. Bartenders and fans of the spirit are moving away from that sour-based cocktail, and people are looking to pair tequila with other things besides lime and triple sec. Tequila can have so much going on in its flavor profile, so many layers. When it comes to cocktails, people are discovering the versatility in this spirit. Ingredients that contain a spice factor or a savory note have been used quite often of late.
What’s your favorite tequila-based cocktail to make?
I have a new favorite that was just perfected for the winter season. We have taken the idea of the hot toddy and turned it on its ear. In place of brandy, I have selected a gorgeous tequila as the main ingredient, Clase Azul Plata. The buttery profile and subtle sweetness play very well for this type of drink. The tequila has been heated, just a bit, and Firelit Blue Bottle Coffee liqueur is added along with orange peel and dried clove. Very little of the supporting ingredients are needed, just a little here and a little there to accent all the qualities already possessed by the base spirit. The result is a rich, warm, and somewhat decadent cocktail. I will be turning to the Toddy Azul quite a bit this winter, for guests — and myself, I might add!
What do drinkers in San Francisco like versus other places?
People who eat and drink in San Francisco tend to obsess over what they love. If someone’s love is tequila, they tend to do the research and learn about the spirit, then they jump out into the city and experience everything available in terms of that spirit. San Francisco drinkers tend to have an educated palate and because of this they are very receptive to new offerings. People in this town want to leave their comfort zone and see what the bartender has to offer. In other places, drinkers tend to stick with their “old standby” cocktail; they approach their drink like an old friend and not a point of departure. Like anything, however, there are a million exceptions to this rule.
How can people best work with tequila in their home bars? What’s a good, simple default drink to make?
Keep it simple. With a good-quality tequila, you do not want to mask the flavor but accent the flavors already present. It is best not to confuse the cocktail with a ton of input. Gather high-quality ingredients that a bar wouldn’t normally use and then get to creating — you can go anywhere. A great go-to cocktail, for me, involves honey syrup. I combine honey and water in equal parts, add peppercorns, heat up everything to taste. I then combine tequila, spiced honey, orange flower water and a touch of fresh grapefruit juice to make an exquisite cocktail. There are a few steps to this cocktail, but the small amount of work pays off 100 to 1!
Courtesy of Gabriel Cothes, Salt House, San Francisco
3-4 inch long strip of orange rind
1½ ounces good-quality tequila, preferably Clase Azul Plata
¼ ounce coffee liqueur, preferably Firelit Coffee Liqueur
2 coffee beans
1. Begin by heating a snifter.
2. Pierce the orange rind with the cloves.
3. Pour the tequila and coffee liqueur into the heated glass.
4. Pinch the orange rind, relieving some of the oil, over the glass and drop in.
5. Finish off with a duo of coffee beans.
Photo: Toddy Azul. Credit: Courtesy of Salt House
When apple cider is pressed from an orchard full of heirloom varieties, the result has all the complexities of the best vintage red wine, but the finish is as crisp and clean as water from a spring-fed stream. Cider this good can be served ice-cold in a glass and downed in one long draw, making it the simplest of holiday drinks.
But as good as it is, there’s still room for embellishment. Cider — hard or sweet — is enjoying a revival as the new “it” libation among the growing gluten-free crowd. And five minutes of prep time now will yield the perfect cocktail for a holiday party weeks away.
“Banjo Bill’s Anticipation” is a simple cider-based libation that comes straight out of old-time Arizona. Although the cocktail’s history stretches back to the late 1800s, you only need three to four weeks to steep the spiced rum that marries with fresh cider to create a rich, warm apéritif.
With a color that mimics the intensity of the surrounding red-rock landscape, this cocktail is the house signature drink at Garland’s Oak Creek Lodge in Sedona. Gary and Mary Garland have been serving cider-inspired cocktails at their historic rustic lodge for decades. But the inspiration for this one came from two other characters in the lodge’s history.
The first was a settler named William “Banjo Bill” Dwyer, who came to the Oak Creek Valley in the mid-1800s and was known to share spirited refreshments from his own whiskey still at the end of a hard day. He was born long before some of the dozen or so heirloom apple varieties were even planted in Garland’s orchard, but well in time to be one of the original lodge kitchen’s customers in 1908. The second source for the recipe was Forest “Captain Vacation” Hunter, a modern-day customer turned dining-room manager at Garland’s who dreamed up the home brew for the spiced rum.
Organic apple cider’s revival
I first tasted this drink after an hour-long tour of Garland’s organic apple orchards and gardens. Rob Lautze, master orchardist, explained that the biggest, boldest cider flavor comes from blending a balance of sweet and tart varieties. In making Garland’s cider, he was lucky enough to have more than one dozen heirloom types to pick from, including Grime’s Golden, Star King Double Red, Spitzenberg and even one that Lautze named Thomas, a hybrid apple grafted from a neighboring orchard of Winesap and Arkansas Black.
The fresh cider served to me had been pressed the previous day, and it was proof that the best ingredients can elevate even the simplest of drinks to a deeply rich and nuanced flavor. The magic behind the recipe is its reliance on truly fresh cider, not processed apple juice, and homemade spiced rum created from fresh ingredients not found in common bottled brands.
Banjo Bill’s Anticipation
From Garland’s Oak Creek Lodge
If you want to serve this piping-hot spiked cider for the winter holidays, you should get started now — even if it only means assembling a few ingredients and hiding them away to steep until it’s time to bring out this rich, warm holiday grog.
1¼ ounce spiced rum (see below)
6 ounces fresh apple cider
1. Mix ingredients.
2. Serve hot, in a mug with a cinnamon stick garnish, or over ice with a garnish of lime or a sprig of mint in warmer weather.
Captain Vacation’s Spiced Rum
2 750-ml bottles of light rum
2 fingers of fresh ginger, peeled and julienned (about 2 ounces)
4-5 sticks cinnamon
2 tablespoons whole cloves
1 tablespoon whole cardamom pods
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1. Wash and dry lemon and orange, removing any residue from the surface.
2. Peel the fruit, avoiding the white pith under the peel. Place the peels into a large, clean glass container.
3. Add the remaining spices and the rum, making sure that it completely covers the peels, ginger and spices. Stir the mixture and cover the container tightly. Place the container away from heat or sunlight and let the mixture steep for up to 3 to 4 weeks.
4. After steeping, place a colander lined with cheesecloth inside of a large bowl. Pour the rum mixture into the colander and drain, using a wooden spoon to press out any excess liquid from the peels. Discard the peels.
Photo: Banjo Bill’s Anticipation. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
Looking to throw the perfect cocktail party this holiday season? The Hearty Boys, otherwise known as Steve McDonagh and Dan Smith, have a new book with tips to show you how.
“The New Old Bar: Classic Cocktails and Salty Snacks From The Hearty Boys,” is all about making home cocktails easier and more fun, with a nod to many favorite drinks of the past as well as bar snacks and appetizers to balance out those strong flavors.
“The cocktail scene over the last five to seven years has been so hot on both coasts,” notes McDonagh, who is based in Chicago, where he runs the restaurant Hearty. “But the average person still doesn’t understand what’s going on. This book is written for the regular person who feels intimidated by today’s cocktail list.”
He says it’s also about empowerment, about showing people who don’t know their Peychaud’s from their Angostura (they’re two types of bitters) how to make cocktails on their own and throw a cocktail party.
To that end, the Boys are especially fans of four- or five-ingredient cocktails based around a primary liquor matched with a liqueur, a sweetener, citrus and bitter served in a small glass; they believe our drinks these days are simply too large.
“I just love the mixing, the ritual of it, the ritual of the muddling, the shaking,” McDonagh adds. “And it’s important to add in a toast.”
He and Smith got the idea for the book from their experience on the Food Network, where they won the first season of “The Next Food Network Star” and then hosted their own series called “Party Line With the Hearty Boys.”
“We’d say to ourselves, ‘Dan’s mom can’t get that [ingredient],’ ” McDonagh says. “It was the big lesson we took away. We’re talking to everyone.”
Of course, they didn’t want to dumb it down or simplify things too far. Neither did they want to focus their recipes on specific brands, unless a drink absolutely called for one.
What they love is the chance to highlight lost and long-out-of-production spirits that, thanks to the cocktail craze, are trickling back into production again. Things like crème de violette, an important ingredient in the classic Aviation cocktail; or green and yellow Chartreuse (made in the Swiss Alps for more than 400 years) and maraschino liqueur, two ingredients McDonagh swears by.
Ingredients for a cocktail party
As for the home bar, he also recommends keeping the following on hand: Benedictine, a cognac-and-herb-based liqueur; elderflower liqueur (“it works so well with pre-Prohibition recipes”); Galliano, a sweet herbal liqueur made from vanilla, star anise and herbs; three types of whiskey (rye, bourbon and Scotch — “you do need all three, they’re so different”); tequila as well as mescal; a good vermouth (he likes Dolin and Vya); and Lillet, a French wine-based aperitif that comes in white and red versions.
“You don’t need much vodka at all,” he notes. “I’m very big into bitter and herbal flavors, they go with food.” The original purpose of the cocktail hour was to “get our palates going,” he says. But these days, people drink more vodka cocktails, often loaded with sugar to make them palatable.
Hard sought-after vintage recipes figure prominently, many from wood-bound books the duo found along the way.
For Thanksgiving, McDonagh likes to give his guests something made with Campari when they first arrive, such as his recipe for the light Mistaken Negroni (see below). He also highly recommends the vintage Widow’s Kiss, a blend of Calvados, Chartreuse and Benedictine, the recipe for which is also below:
From “The New Old Bar”
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce fresh orange juice
Sparkling wine or Prosecco
Orange peel for garnish
1. Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
2. Shake well.
3. Strain into a Champagne flute and top with sparkling wine (or pour over ice).
4. Serve garnished with a flamed orange peel (see note).
Note: “To flame an orange peel, hold a 1-inch round of peel (skin side facing the drink) between thumb and forefinger, being careful not to squeeze and dispel the oils,” McDonagh says. “In the other hand, hold a lit match or, my preference, a long matchstick lighter, between the peel and the cocktail. As you squeeze the peel over the surface of the cocktail, the oils will spark through the flame and leave a lovely, caramelized, aromatic finish to the drink. You can then toss in the garnish as you normally would.”
From “The New Old Bar”
1½ ounces Calvados
¾ ounce yellow Chartreuse
¾ ounce Benedictine
2 dashes Angostura Aromatic Bitters
Maraschino cherry for garnish
1. Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
2. Shake well.
3. Strain into a chilled coupe and serve garnished with a maraschino cherry.
Photo: Widow’s Kiss cocktail by the Hearty Boys. Credit: Steve McDonagh
A little more than 10 years ago, Elisa and Michel Gabrel arrived on Koh Samui from France searching, like most retirement-age foreign arrivals to this island in the Gulf of Thailand, for a piece of paradise. They found it on Koh Samui’s quiet south side, in a wedge of coconut palm-covered property where they built a modest home and settled in to savor island life. But it didn’t take long for the appeal of idleness to fade.
IN KOH SAMUI
Magic Alambic is open daily for tastings from noon to 6 p.m.
» Shots are 50 baht (about $1.62 U.S.) -- 75 baht (about $2.44 U.S.) for 6-year aged rhum.
» Bottles are available for purchase at 650 baht (about $21.17) -- 1,200 baht (about $39.08) for 6-year aged rhum.
Take a taxi or bring a designated driver.
44/5 Moo 3, Ban Thale, Koh Samui. 66-77/419-023. www.rhumdistillerie.com
“We’d visited Samui many times, and loved it. But if you live here you have to do something,” says Elisa, a tanned 61-year-old whose large, expressive eyes are capped by carefully penciled brows and framed by a mane of reddish flyaway hair. “Especially during three months of monsoon. If you only watch TV, believe me — it’s gonna be a hard life.”
Some retirees to Samui (most residents drop the “Koh,” which means “island”) fight boredom with frequent travel around Asia, or by taking up a sport or a hobby. Others open a bar or a café. But Elisa and Michel saw their salvation in liquor; they decided to make rhum agricole, or West Indies-style rum, distilled from pure sugarcane juice. (Ninety-nine percent of the world’s rum is rhum industriel, which is made from molasses, a by-product of sugar production.)
The Gabrel’s choice to make rhum agricole wasn’t entirely without foundation. They had enjoyed it in France, says Elisa, adding, “Rum is in my blood.” Her mother was Vietnamese and her father hailed from Martinique, where most of the world’s rhum agricole is made. Elise, who was born in Vietnam, moved to France with her parents when she was 4 years old.
Engaging the fruit of the land
The couple knew that Thailand, the world’s No. 1 exporter of sugarcane, could be counted on for a steady supply of raw material. And Samui, which is known to Thais as “Coconut Island,” provided further inspiration: The Gabrels decided to not only make natural rhum agricole but also flavor the liquor with coconut, the island’s biggest export, as well as other easily available island fruit. They named their venture Magic Alambic, (an alambic, or alembic, is a still) and became the first foreigners to distill liquor in Thailand.
Michel, who was a stonemason in Paris, had become interested in distilling during the years that the couple owned an orchard in Argent, France, where they decamped after a back injury forced him to quit his trade. Every year after harvest, Michel and Elisa would take plum, cherry and apricot juices to the local distiller, who would turn them into spirits. So, for their enterprise on Samui, they imported a still from Armagnac.
It took two months of experimentation to get the rhum process right. “We had the information from the factory, but it wasn’t enough. You have to distill with your heart, your feelings and your brain,” Elise told me one steamy afternoon, in thickly French-accented English, as we sat in Magic Alambic’s “tasting room,” a thatch-roofed open-air sala steps from her house. During those two months “Michel distilled, and I tasted.” Though she doesn’t drink often, she says, “I know rum.”
Michel passed away earlier this year at 70 years old, but not before witnessing the success of the unlikely enterprise he began with his wife. In the nine years since Michel and Elisa achieved their first drinkable batch of rhum agricole, Magic Alambic has attracted the attention of big names in the spirits world: Jamieson, Johnnie Walker, Pernod-Ricaux and Bacardi. The companies’ distillers come to Samui to taste Magic Alambic’s rhums and talk technique. Elisa’s happy to share. “There’s no secret,” she says. “We have exactly the same process as single malt whiskey.”
Simple hands-on operation for Thai rum
The Magic Alambic facility consists of little more than a cane presser, the single French still, and a small aging room. From January through June Elisa distills twice a day, starting at 4 a.m. She goes through 10 tons of sugarcane in a single season, capturing just 25 to 28 liters of rum from every 300 liters of cane juice. The juice is distilled after fermentation, and at this stage Magic Alambic’s flavored rums — coconut, orange, pineapple and lime — are infused with fruit. “Only fruit,” Elisa says. “No essence!” This ensures a natural taste.
The liquor is then aged in stainless steel (the company cannot obtain a license from Thailand to age liquor in wood) for at least one year at which point most of it is diluted to 40 proof to conform to Thai regulations. But some rhum is held back for further aging of up to six years. In the end, Magic Alambic produces less than 10,000 bottles annually, and it is sold by mail order or at the Samui facility.
Demand would support increased production, but “we don’t want to work more,” says Elisa, who relies on a team of four for help. “And when you distill, if you think about money first you won’t get the good quality.”
In the tasting room she opens bottle after bottle and waves each under the noses of visitors. The rhum smells exactly like its ingredients, the natural sweetness of sugar cane, the voluptuous milkiness of coconut, orange like the juice you’d drink for breakfast, and an oily essence of lime reminiscent of the scent that lingers in the air after a peel is twisted. (Elisa had already sold out of pineapple rhum when I visited). Swirling her rhum agricole in a glass, she shows its long legs and plump tears, similar to those of a fine wine. Then she pours shots. The liquor is slightly sweet and smooth, and goes down without a trace of burn. Elisa attributes its fine flavor to the cane. “We can take credit for the quality of the rum, but not for the taste,” she says. “That’s from the Thai soil.”
The rhums are especially delicious, and dangerously easy-drinking, mixed with Elisa’s homemade take on T’i punch sirop, which swaps brown cane sugar for the usual white and adds cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and lime juice. I ask for a recipe.
“No,” says Elise. “I don’t keep the rhum process a secret. The T’i punch, I do.”
Photo: T’i punch made with Magic Alambic rhum. Credit: David Hagerman