What’s this all about?

Understanding Cocktails is for those of you who want to know a little bit more about what's going into that $15 drink you ordered last night. Perhaps you'd like to know what all the fussing behind the bar is about or maybe you'd like to be able to say something other than; "it's nice" when someone makes you a drink. Still not sure? Check the about section out for more details.

Satan’s Whiskers, Forgotten Cocktails, and Mixology Monday

The theme for this month’s Mixology Monday is Forgotten Cocktails and we thought this would be the perfect opportunity to introduce the cheekily named Satan’s Whiskers as part of our new found commitment to monthly drink sharing.

Is this really a ‘forgotten’ drink? Satan’s Whiskers can be found in Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology and in the modern Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century. But surprisingly enough this pre-prohibition drink doesn’t appear in David Embury’s guide The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. We were a little on the fence about its forgotten nature so we went down to our local, and most reputable of cocktail joints. When they confessed a lack of familiarity, we thought the time was right to bring it back.

But what kind of a drink is it, you ask? That’s a tricky one. The things we love about Satan’s Whiskers is that it connects the world of the sours (daiquiris, margaritas, aviations) and the aromatics (manhattans, martinis). Describing it as a hearty digestif is a polite way of saying – please have something to eat afterwards, it will make you hungry.

How to make a Satan’s Whiskers

Like many of the aromatics, it is a fiendish cocktail to get right. So here’s the recipe we used:

3/4 ounce gin
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
3/4 ounce dry vermouth
1/2 ounce of freshly squeeze orange juice
1/2 ounce Grand Marnier
dash of orange bitters

Shake with cracked ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

If all those 3/4 ounce pours weren’t bad enough bad enough, it comes in two types;  straight or curled – depending on if Grand Marnier or orange curaçao is being used.

For MxMo we opted for the straight variety and made ours with South Gin, Lillet (we know it’s not a vermouth but we were feeling reckless), Martini and Rossi dry vermouth, Grand Marnier, and Regan’s #6 orange bitters.

Historically, vermouth and orange juice have not always agreed with us, nor are we huge Grand Marnier fans, so we alway approach this drink with caution. Sadly, we’ve never been brave enough to order one in the wild so our experience has always been at our own hands. If our pour is well measured and steady and the vermouth reasonably fresh then this is a great drink – but we’ve had quite a few failures as well. Too much dry vermouth or too much Grand Marnier and is all goes horribly wrong, and when it goes south, it ain’t pretty.

Thankfully, tonight’s drink was a success. The slightly empty feeling left by the orange juice is quickly replaced by the sweetness of the Grand Marnier and then the aromatic nature of the vermouth. Rather than a uniform taste profile, this drink hits in waves. It has complexity to it and is certainly not something you’d want to serve a novice cocktail drinker.

Satan's Whiskers as seen in What Cocktail?

In fact, the debate over Satan’s Whiskers at the What Cocktail? iPhone app project was long and hard. First, it’s not common, second it’s not the most accessible drink, and thirdly it’s easy to mess up, and finally it’s only the kind of drink that makes sense in crisp autumn evenings or really early spring. Maybe it’s by grace of our sympathy for this devil of a drink that it made cut. We’d like to see it more often; if only someone else would make us one for a change. This is our small attempt to bring revive it.

Big thanks to Dennis at Rock & Rye for hosting this month’s Mixology Monday and giving us a chance to talk about Satan’s Whiskers.

Major Milestone – What Cocktail? sent to Apple

What Cocktail? iPhone AppOh this is so exciting! After months of fussing and worrying, What Cocktail? the iPhone app that makes drink recommendations for you has been sent to Apple for review. Another fine Flightless production – it looks outstanding, and it works just as I’d hoped it would. Hopefully if  all goes well and they will approve it quickly and good people the world over can start enjoying classic cocktails without having to become David Embury or some massive researcher.

Will keep you posted on the latest developments and when it’s up for sale.

In the meantime, feeling joyous this fine spring evening, What Cocktail? says a Lemon Drop would be a good idea. Agreed and decision made!

A Sign of the Cocktail Times

We’ve watched on in amazement as the cocktail cognoscenti has gotten ever more baroque. To be honest, we’ve felt something akin to awe. Things have become increasingly esoteric (ingredients so rare you have make them yourself) and techniques borrowed from the labratory. Oh there’s a mad scientist in all of us, but there was that slightly nagging feeling too.  That feeling of not being able to explain what it was all about and having difficulty explaining why anyone else would be impressed. Sort of like music for other musicians, cocktails for other cocktail nerds can sometimes become self indulgent – even if it is also a source of great innovation.

It is no secret that we are fans of classic cocktails. They are common language for talking about drinks and explaining to people new to cocktails what they can expect. That and they are really tasty.

In a sign that the pendulum might be moving back to simpler times, here’s what we’ve noticed:

The Intoxicologist first caught our attention with a back to basics post that highlighted what cocktail knowledge was required from the IBA. This lifted our spirits, particularly with our soon to be completed iphone app coming out .

Then there was a throw away line over at The Cocktail Chronicles seemed to strike a chord with not just us but also with the readers (A Jigger of Blog gave us the heads up):

Y’see, in case you haven’t noticed in this whole cocktail renaissance that’s been under way for some time, there’s been a great deal of emphasis placed on precision, nuance and the ideal of esoteric ingredients. God knows I’ve done my part to push this whole thing along, but recently — and I’m certainly not alone in this — it’s all begun to seem a bit much. While I can still bore a bystander to tears when chatting with another cocktail geek, I’ve been at the point for a while where I honestly don’t give a shit about all the dogma and detail anymore. For all the heated debate about historical ingredients and the true origins of certain old classics, ultimately these are just drinks we’re talking about

But we sneakily suspect that Paul was actually seeking permission to mess around with drinks. And that cool, he’s certainly earned that privilege, but when the ever dependable (and much admired) Gary Regan speaks about the bar-tweenies we knew something was a foot.

Not all drinks being served in today’s cocktail lounges, though, deserve space in a chilled glass. I hate to be the one who says this, but I’m betting you’ve seen it coming. The cocktailian craft has been grossly mishandled of late, and it’s time to rein in a few newcomers to the craft who seem to have missed the point.

So we are calling a trend and making a bold prediction: for the next couple of years, cocktails will return to the classics. Mixological artistes, will find themselves less gainfully employed whereas the knowledgeable, customer friendly, craft based bar tenders will continue to be in demand. For cocktail consumers, this will see a return to great drinks and good times rather than gastronomic events dripping with hipster attitude.

The former being something we’ll happily raise our Manhattans in toast to.

The Aviation Some Quick Comments

When it comes to the Aviation, we don’t sit on the fence. It’s one of our all time favorite drinks. Truth be told, we hope with all our hearts that when we get round to writing about (because it will feature here) we will do it justice.

Turns out the little mystery of the name and  of the violette has been unearthed and written about. Although it’s fair to say, around here, we wouldn’t dare mix it with that much violette. Maybe we are just old school and were thankful for any maraschino liqueur we could get our hands on, never mind the creme de violette. Now we’ve got both were fussy about how much of the later we use and, as much as it pains us to admit it, we choose the Italian maraschino liqueur over the Croatian stuff every time.

What Cocktail? Why an iPhone app

Perhaps a bit of an explanation is in order as to what the iPhone fuss is about.

You see, here at Understanding Cocktails we believe that the dizzying array of drinking choices out there hasn’t served the great many of any favors. It’s taken us years of hard drinking research (and a few scholarly book dives) to learn when is a good time serve a Manhattan or why ordering Lemon Drop, at our favorite bar, is a waste of money, and why the enjoyment of an old fashioned has as much to do with the type of mood your friends as the quality of the bourbon/rye.

Originally, this site was going be try and show how to experience cocktails. Sure we’d tell you how the drinks were made but we wanted to give some of the personality.  By limiting ourselves to just 10 drinks, we thought we could explain a taste continuum of classic drinks. It got all very wordy. And then along came the iPhone. And we had an idea.

What if we just gave recommendations based our our knowledge and minimal bit of info from people. Our research with real bar tenders told us that given a choice people quickly paint themselves into a corner. “Oh I only vodka, and nothing fruity, and I don’t like bitters…” Forget it. Let’s not fall into that trap. Like my old flatmate used to say: “Shut up. You’ll eat it and you’ll like it.” Strange thing – he was right. It’s much easier to enjoy something when you didn’t have a choice.

So blame the app. Blame us if you don’t like the suggestions. But at least you won’t be beating yourself up about making a lousy choice.

Expect to hear much more about progress. We’ve got the prototype working and we’re in the middle of taking pictures. Still hoping to launch by the end of the month.

And yes, we are having a great time making it.

What Cocktail? The iPhone App

Testing Times for a Cuba LibreUnderstanding Cocktails, in conjunction with Flightless, are delighted to announce that development is underway for the much talked about iPhone app. The expected launch date is mid to late October depending on how the photo shoot goes. For those playing along at home, here’s what’s been done so far:

  • Drinks chosen, weighted, and described
  • Sample photos taken
  • Selection mechanism sorted
  • iPhone code code mostly written (network and some image atlas handling still to do)
  • Art direction mostly there (along with logo/brand)

What’s left you ask?

  • Take pictures of all the drinks
  • Layout and visual production
  • Integration
  • Promote

campari and soda and workAh yes, I hear you say, that’s all well and good, but what is it and why all the secrecy? In a nutshell, it’s an app to help you decide what cocktail to order, but not in the usual fashion. It’s meant for all the non-cocktail nerds out there who just want a good drink and don’t want to know about proper ratio for a sour, or the correct amount of dilution in an old fashioned.

Expect more news soon. In the meantime, it’s been nothing but hard work around here.

lemon drop at work


The Caipirinha and Mixology Monday

Where our photoshop filters and imagination takes us

The Caipirinha as we imagine it.

When we heard the subject of this month’s cocktail geek-fest (appropriately known as Mixology Monday) was limes – we were intrigued! How could we say no, really? Keen readers will have noticed that before we’d really even got started we’d hit you up with lime goodness, not once, but twice.

While it’s never going to be one of our ‘featured’ drinks, let’s take a look at the most anglo-unpronounceable of cocktails: the Caipirinha. Don’t let the trash talk of; “if you can’t say it don’t order it” put you off. This is a great drink and wonderful way to show off the taste of lime. But let’s be perfectly clear, we’re playing with Brazilian fire water. Caution is advised.

Perhaps a brief explanation. The main spirit is cachaça which is Brazilian in origin. Made from sugar cane it’s very much like rum but with a musty/fruity hints. Honestly, sipped by itself it is rather awful. A South American cousin of Balkan rocketfuel wouldn’t be too far off. Raw. Manly. Not subtle in the least.

So why would we waste good limes on it (especially at $18/kg at the moment!)? Much like the magical transformation of  a margarita, something special happens when cachaça plays with lime and sugar. (Yes, yes grammatically tortured, and yes Magaritas are made with tequila and Cointreau – but you get the idea.)

Here’s what we did:

Caipirinha-sugarFirst, in honor of the theme, we sacrificed a whole lime – cut into thin wedges and tossed them into a chilled old fashioned glass. Then we added some sugar. Our preference is to use the big chunky coffee sugar crystals. Less refined and slow to dissolve, a teaspoon and a half is just the thing.

Caipirinha-muddleThe next step is to muddle. Using a minature baseball bat we grind the sugar and lime into a pulpy mess. In addition to releasing the juice from the limes and dissolving the sugar, the folk belief in the cocktail world is that the sugar causes abbrasions on the skin of the lime helping release wonderful and essential oils. Not something whose scientific accuracy we care to debate before our drink is made.

Caipirinha-stir2And speaking of being made, we’re almost done. Two ounces of cachaça because we are feeling brave but not Gary Reagan (The Joy of Mixology) three ounce brave. We are thirsty but we know dinner is a way off yet.

Maybe it was the Old Fashioneds that we’ve been drinking, but rather than the snow cone crushed ice carry on, we thought we’d be adult about things and stir the ice cubes to a respectable dilution. This is a sipping drink.

And after all the fussing, how did it taste? First there’s that unmistakable musty aroma (this ain’t Daiquiri land), then the tart lime kicks in, followed by the fiery cachaça, but just when we start doubting we made it right – a little hint of sweetness reminds us of our civility. Did that taste right? Back for another sip. Mmm. Yep. That’s right.

The end result

The end result

If we have any complaints the drink we made, it is that perhaps tonight we were a little overzealous on our stirring. A fault entirely of our own making. As for the Caipririnha, when we find ourselves slurping up the last of the now sugary goodness and wondering why it is that they don’t last long enough, we wonder why we don’t drink them more often. That last sip, when the fire of cachaça dies away, is often the best. It is at this time that we conclude – it must be the essential oils in the lime skin that make all the difference, and not the sugar that rubs it off.

Thanks to Doug at the Pegu Blog for hosting Mixology Monday LI.

Drinks in the Wild

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Occasionally, we tear ourselves away from the hard task of not keeping this

site up-to-date and sample a few drinks that our local bartenders pull off. Those of you familiar with the site know we have a thing about the classics. In our books, it doesn’t get much classier than a Manhattan served in a champagne saucer. Call us old school. We are always impressed when a bartender show due care on a Saturday night.

Whiskey SourOf course it would be a little mean spirited not to mention a certain, delicious Whiskey Sour. We’ll let you ponder it’s simplicity while we get on with some more serious business: Mixology Monday.

Top 5 New Year’s Eve Cocktails

It’s time to celebrate! If you are sending the noughties out in style, you could at least be a little naughty. How about a quick run down of the best drinks for a fantastic time, but hey, let’s be sophisticated about things. Any joker can order martini, like comedy, the trick is in the timing. Of course, there’s no point in taking things to seriously, we are after all talking about a globally sanctioned booze fest – not exactly an intimate encounter.

#5 – French 75: It’s tall, it’s clean, and it’s bubbly. The name sounds classy (even if artillery is involved) and what’s not to like about gin, lemon, sugar, and champagne. The Cocktail Hacker have a nice little write up about it.

#4 – Cosmopolitan: It’s pink, it’s a bit special, but it sure goes down smooth. When wearing light colours, it’s best ordered when seated and even that won’t save your silk dress… But hey, it’s a flirty fun drink and it shouldn’t be too hard to find a place that will make one for you.

#3 – Long Island Iced Tea: Okay, we admit, we are a little bit embarrassed to be suggesting this drink, but if you file it in the guilty pleasures category, you’ll notice that New Year’s Eve is already taking space in that metaphorical cabinet. The good thing is just about any bar can make one and it’s hard to mess up. Incredibly, it’s not that bad of drink and like a Margarita it’s a great place to start the fiesta. Just don’t order more than one – okay.

#2 – Daiquiri: We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again – this is a great drink that doesn’t get enough respect. The great thing about the Daiquiri is that without much fuss, your bartender can easily adjust it to suit your taste – a little more sour, a little more sweet. And trust us, as the night goes on, ditching the sweet taste is probably a good idea. Just don’t order them frozen, this ain’t spring break ya know.

#1 – The Martini: The king of class. Never has so much elegance concealed so much debauchery. Perfect for New Year’s Eve then. Think of it as 3 ounces of gin (or vodka if you must) in a ticking time bomb. No rush, but you want to finish this drink before it gets warm or even slightly less cold. If you are in a particularly nice bar, might we recommend you try the Vesper Martini – but make sure it’s stirred. Follow it all up with a glass of water and maybe a tall drink – perhaps a French 75.

So there we have it, and as you can see, we tried to balance overall drink elegance with party mood, general availability and likelihood of not annoying your bartender who will no doubt be overworked and underpaid (hint: tip generously). We’ve tried to taken into account the seasonality, particularly for the northern hemisphere, but our southern hemisphere, height of summer may have gotten the best of us at times. We like limes – a lot.

What are your thoughts? Let us know.

Another year of cocktails – thanks Google

Doug over at the Pegu Blog reminded us that we still had unfinished work when it comes to understanding cocktails on the internet. Consider this little gem from the Google Trends Dept. It shows that the searches for ‘cocktail’, and ‘martini’ are positively correlated around the end of the year. What does that mean? New Year’s Eve is our analysis. And of course, dear readers, you’ll be wanting to know what the best drinks are to have for this most festive time. Fear not. Understanding Cocktails will be here to provide you with insight and maybe a little bit of attitude – you’ll need it. Send us some comments or email us and we’ll get this ball rolling.