Mixology Month

Rev up your summer cocktails with the freshest mixers.

These past six months of examining the National Day Calendar have made me realize that, for certain causes, certain  awarenesses, the calendar is a brilliant way to get the word out and expand their reach.  For instance, July 1 is National Postal Worker Day, and I think we can all agree that it’s nice to honor these dedicated workers.  However, the calendar is also clearly a place for loonies. Do the nudists of America really expect us all to strip on July 14 for National Nude Day? (Probably not coincidentally, it is the same day as National Tape Measure Day… I do not make this stuff up.) Some of these days have clearly been created by certain groups just to show off how smart they are. I had to look up the meaning of National Yellow Pig Day (July 17), which has something to do with calculus and the number 17. (Even after I looked it up I’m still not sure what that’s about.) And I’m betting not many of you know who Edmund Clerihew Bentley is, yet July 10 is National Clerihew Day, during which you are urged to write a Clerihew –- a very specifically formatted biographical poem. It has four rhyming couplets (aa/bb), must use a person’s name in the first line, must say something about that person and must be humorous. Let try it, shall we?

Leslie Bilderback writes
And sometimes picks fights
Occasionally about food
Or whatever her mood
Okay, well, that was fun, and now I can see why they made it a National Day.    

Although July is the season for grilling and patriotism, there are relatively few such days in this month’s National Day Calendar. There is, however, a lot of booze. So much booze, in fact, that it’s doubtful anything will get done this month. Stay hydrated, everyone, because we have Anisette Day (July 2), Piña Colada Day (July 10), Mojito Day (July 11), Grand Marnier Day (July 14), Daiquiri Day (July 19), Wine and Cheese Day ( July 25) and Scotch Day (July 27). All these boozy days are certainly a clever way for companies to boost sales, though I am a bit worried that national productivity may find itself in a slump as a result. Nevertheless, I have pledged to celebrate the National Calendar this year so, in response, I am offering some homemade cocktail elements for your summer soirées.

Cocktail mixing has taken on a new life in recent years. In fact, bartenders have taken to calling themselves mixologists to emphasize new creative aspects of this vocation that have evolved. No longer is it simply the martini and gin and tonic. In finer restaurants, cocktails — and the unfortunately named “mocktails,” without alcohol — are being paired, as wine has traditionally been, with each course. Unique mixers, fancifully decorated rims, clever garnishes and artfully molded ice cubes are all a part of the cocktail arsenal now. So, to ensure you don’t look like a rookie this summer, I offer not drink recipes, but homemade cocktail ingredients that will boost your cocktail game.

The easiest cocktail mixer to make is simple syrup, which is nothing but equal parts sugar and water. (Combine them and bring the liquid to a boil until the sugar dissolves. That’s it.)  Simple syrup is the reason why drinks taste better at the bar than in your kitchen. It has long been a component of cocktails, making its way into such classics as the old-fashioned, the whiskey sour, the daiquiri, the julep — and many more. But today, the best mixologists are infusing simple syrup with flavors, opening up infinite cocktail possibilities. I love flavored syrups because, not only do they make interesting cocktails possible, they make great homemade sodas. Just combine with soda water and ice for a refreshing offering your guests will really appreciate.  (FYI — designated drivers are really sick of Diet Coke.) I’m giving you below not only my favorite summer soda syrup — strawberry rhubarb — but also lots of variations for you to try. 

The second cocktailing recipe is for homemade bitters. Bitters are another classic bar ingredient, comprised of alcohol flavored with botanical aromatics and herbs. It is designed to bring balance to your cocktail. The bitterness, which varies by brand, enhances the other flavors of the drink and helps align the ingredients, much the way salt and acid work in cooking. There are many bitters on the market, and most keep their ingredient list secret. But homemade bitters are easy to make and, like simple syrup, can be concocted to suit your personal bitter preferences. 

Both of these recipes are just examples. There are hundreds of variations to be made of and I encourage you to experiment. With these in your pantry, your summer barbecue will be the talk of the town.

Syrup and bitters from scratch
Whip yourself up a big batch
With these in your bar
I declare you a star ||||


Strawberry—Rhubarb Syrup
If you have trouble laying your hands on rhubarb, replace it with a full 2 pounds of strawberries, or substitute another tart ingredient, such as raspberry or cranberry. In addition, you can use this same basic recipe with any number of fruit, fruit-and spice or fruit-and-herb combinations. Use your imagination, and get creative. You’ll find some variation ideas after the recipe.


Ingredients

1 pound strawberries, washed, hulled and quartered
1 pound rhubarb, washed and cut into half-inch pieces
1 cup white sugar
½ cup brown sugar
2 cups water
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon sea salt


Method
1. Combine all ingredients in a large, heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring, then reduce to a low simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fruit has softened to the point of mush. It should take about 20 to 30 minutes.   

2. Place a fine mesh strainer over a large bowl, and line it with cheesecloth. Pour the fruit purée into the strainer and let it sit and drain slowly. For clear syrup, it is best not to force or press the purée free of liquid;  let gravity do it for you. After an hour, if it appears there is still liquid suspended within the pulp, squeeze it gently. Transfer the clear syrup into sterilized jars or bottles, and store in the refrigerator. Syrups should last you through the summer. For longer storage, pack in plastic containers and freeze for up to a year. (Defrost slowly in the refrigerator for best results.)

Here are some of my favorite fruit syrup variations. You may need to adjust the amount of sugar, depending on the ripeness of the fruit: plum–sage, peach–basil, cherry–vanilla, mango–lime, papaya–lemongrass, pineapple–black pepper. Once you start syrup–making, it won’t be long before you come up with your own signature syrup.


Homemade Bitters
This is a basic bitter, close in form to Angostura. But Angostura uses ingredients such as cinchona bark and gentian root — not something you can pick up at Ralphs.  Here I use accessible ingredients, but the end result is equally effective.   If you catch the bitters bug after this, the more exotic elements can be ordered online.


Ingredients
Dried peel of 1 orange (remove with a potato peeler, and set in the sun for a day, or place in a dehydrator or very low-temp oven for an hour or so, until stiff and shriveled)
2 to 3 pieces dried apple or apple skin
6 to 8 pieces dried cherry
1 cinnamon stick, crushed
2 whole cloves
3 to 4 allspice berries, crushed
3 to 4 juniper berries, crushed
3 to 4 coffee beans
2 to 3 cardamom pods, crushed
1 teaspoon cacao nibs, crushed
½ teaspoon coriander seed, crushed
¼ vanilla bean, scraped
1 quart neutral alcohol, grain alcohol or vodka (Rye or bourbon can also be used, but will impart their flavors to the finished product.)
2 to 4 tablespoons simple syrup


Method
1. Combine all ingredients except alcohol and simple syrup in a large, sterilized canning jar. Cover the ingredients with the alcohol, then cover with the top and place in a cool, dark space for 2 weeks. Shake the jar once a day to help distribute the infusion. 

2. After 2 weeks, strain out the contents of the jar, and combine the infused liquid with simple syrup to taste. (The sugar is not to sweeten as much as it is to neutralize the bitterness.)

3. Return to a sterilized jar, and set aside again for another week. At this point the bitters can be used, bottled and shared.