With fall approaching and colder months on the horizon, it’s time to switch from ice cold bottles of beer, glasses of crisp chardonnay, salt-rimmed margaritas and minty mojitos. On a recent trip to the Finger Lakes Region in upstate New York, James Ouderkirk, general manager at Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge introduced me to a cocktail he thought perfect to celebrate the change of seasons: a gin cocktail flavored with apricot preserves and burnt orange peel.
Like many cities in the Northeast that prospered during the early part of the 20th century, Syracuse suffered when heavy industries declined in the 1970s. Now enjoying a resurgence, a revitalized downtown centered on Armory Square is home to new restaurants, bars and shops. One of those is Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge.
A trip back in time
The bar’s storefront has served many masters. Once a beauty school and then a cigar store, as Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge the space was transformed into the kind of bar my grandfather would have visited in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The walls are painted bordello red or built out of weathered bricks. Besides the front area, there are several rooms, one filled with overstuffed upholstered sofas and chairs. Another has a pool table. Yet another is filled with arcade style video machines.
With a large plate glass window facing South Clinton Street and a two-story-high ceiling, the main room is focused on a 35-foot wooden bar behind which the floor-to-ceiling shelves are filled with an encyclopedic collection of spirits curated locally and from around the world.
A custom cocktail to suit your mood
Unlike many bars serving craft cocktails, Al’s does not have a cocktail menu. According to Ouderkirk, the philosophy of the bar is that patrons should describe how they are feeling and which spirits they enjoy, then the bartender will make a drink that will make them feel better.
On the night we met, I was tired. I very much needed a cocktail that would improve my mood. I wasn’t certain what I wanted to drink. I had one specific request: I wanted him to use a local product.
Discovering hard cider in the Finger Lakes
For the past several days I had been traveling through the Finger Lakes region, visiting orchards that distilled their apples, pears, peaches and plums into spirits.
On the trip, I tasted hard apple ciders with an effervescence as light as champagne at Embark Craft Ciderworks in Williamson and at the Finger Lakes Cider House in Interlaken. At Apple Country Spirits, I sampled brandies made from apples, pears, peaches and plums as good as any eau-de-vie I enjoyed in France and Switzerland. The biggest news for me on the trip was the fact that in the region apples were being used to create premium vodkas and gins.
Local sourcing for gin and other spirits
Tree Vodka is produced from apples grown in the Apple Country Spirits orchards in Wayne County close to Lake Ontario. 1911 Vodka and 1911 Gin are produced from apples grown at Beak & Skiff Apple Orchards in LaFayette. Different from vodka and gin flavored with apples, these distillations are mellow with a clean flavor.
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Ouderkirk suggested he make a cocktail using 1911 Gin. With a portion of St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur, a splash of soda water and a hint of freshly squeezed lime juice, he quickly mixed the drink. After he placed a piece of burnt orange peel on top, I gave it a taste. The cocktail had a light summer freshness. The aromatic gin anchored the flavors while the apricot preserves and burnt orange peel hinted at the fall.
To accompany the cocktail, Ouderkirk platted a selection of local cheeses and charcuterie. Sitting in the darkened room, sipping my cocktail, half listening to conversations at the bar and sampling Camembert, goat cheeses, cheddar and salami, I forgot entirely how tired I had been after my very long road trip.
1911 Gin, Apricot, Lime and Burnt Orange Peel Cocktail
As with all cocktails, the best and freshest ingredients will yield better results. Use a quality gin, apricot preserve and farmers market citrus.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Yield: 1 cocktail
1 3/4 ounce 1911 Gin (or a gin of your choice)
3/4 ounce St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur
Dash of freshly squeezed lime juice
1 teaspoon apricot preserve
Splash unflavored soda water
2-inch-by-1-inch orange peel, unblemished, washed
1. Mix together all the ingredients except the orange peel. Shake well with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass.
2. Hold the orange peel against the flame of a lighter or a gas stove burner until the peel lightly burns but does not blacken.
3. Place the burnt orange peel atop the cocktail and serve icy cold.
Main photo: Gin Cocktail with fresh lime and burnt orange peel at Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge, Syracuse, N.Y. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt