Summer is a time for cold, lighter, refreshing drinks. Classically embodied by the gin & tonic. I love gin. I think it is an ideal liquor. I really don’t understand people who don’t like it, even though some of these people are close relations of mine – such individuals may be defective.
However, these days my heart softens for the wayward. Maybe it’s the impending birth of my progeny, but I suspect it has more to do with the malaise that is humid summer heat. I also deplore oppression in all forms (except for babies, which I understand need to be swaddled and deprived of all liberties), which is why I felt great sorrow when I received the following request:
I don’t like gin but think I should drink it during the summer. What can I drink that will help me into gin?
Gin is just an infused neutral spirit. It happens to be a very good infusion. I forget where I read or heard this, but it is entirely true. If you don’t like juniper, you won’t like gin. The answer is not despair. The answer is to infuse something else.
As it happens, I’ve not been drinking too much gin this summer. I’ve been drinking herb-infused vodka – dill, basil, lavender. I’m big on the dill, which I feel provides the cutting, sharp qualities of gin while transporting hot afternoon sun into your beverage (just think how deep the green of dill is – chlorophyl!). Basil has a slightly oily quality, not bad, but it’s a bit thicker on the tongue. Lavender is soft and tends to be best with a sweeter mixer. The others go more with a bitter or just a bit floral…
My favorite herb patch to walk by in my neighborhood.
How to make herbal infusions? Get some fresh herbs, get some vodka (your choice, don’t spend much, it makes no difference for this purpose – I use Russian Standard because it has happy memories), put the herbs in the vodka (one bunch is plenty for a whole handle). Take the herbs out after about a day. Pouring through a tea strainer is good to get any little bits out, DONE!
Put your concoction on the rocks with tonic (use lemon over lime with these flavors), shake a martini using Dolin Blanc vermouth (Dolin Blanc brings in a nice floral bit), just pour over ice and top with sparkling water to make a nice long drink – trust me, it’s strong enough still. If you want to go all out and really make the ladies swoon:
1 lavender vodka
1/2 St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
1/5 (not even that much maybe) Dolin Blanc
on ice in a tall glass and top with sparkling water
When it’s all over – drink what makes you happy. Be free.
I have raised the Mint Julep to a new level of perfection. Sacrilege though this statement is, it is true. Luckily for all of you, I have done this in time for the Memorial Day and July 4th celebrations.
I think the new drink is most accurately a variant, its own drink, but it is ultimately the same concept as a Mint Julep, like a Gibson to a Martini. Additionally, I believe this drink will tempt away adherents to Manhattans and Old Fashioneds while remaining accessible to newcomers. I shall call it the Perfect Whiskey Cocktail.
The Perfect Whiskey Cocktail is the key item of this post, but first, let’s review some things (and provide some pretty pictures). As all of our readers would know, the Kentucky Derby occurred earlier this month, and we took the opportunity to break the newly finished house in a bit. This was the second time we hosted a Derby party and it’s probably worth writing down some tips now, while I remember them and well before people start planning their own Derbies.
It wouldn’t be a Derby without a lovely lady in a hat!
The central theme of the Kentucky Derby is the consumption of Mint Juleps with a sideshow lottery. True, there is a horse race, and it’s very exciting, but it’s also very short. Also true is that there is wagering with odds and all, but I have yet to meet anyone who actually has any clue about the horses. Anyway, the juleps are clearly most important.
Traditionally, a Mint Julep is simple syrup and bourbon in a 1:4 ratio with a ton of muddled fresh mint and tons of crushed ice. This was the original alcoholic slushy; conceived in a time when frozen drink machines did not exist but the ability to smash ice to bits required only manual labor. I’m sure there are better and more enlightening histories out there – fine. Two components of this simple recipe are actually challenging for a large party:
1) muddling mint in each drink – i don’t have any proper silver julep cups, and I doubt many people have enough of them for a large party. This means we end up using plastic, which does not stand up to muddling. True, one could mass muddle mint in a serving pitcher, but that is still a ginormous pain.
2) crushing enough ice – the julep is properly served by first filling the cup with ice and then adding the liquid. With the 1:4 syrup to booze ratio the ice melts and the drink needs the water to cut it, so each drink is a lot of ice – plan on 10 pounds of ice per 20-25 drinks (allows for loss to melting and all). Manually smashing this would not be fun or make for a particularly relaxed and happy seeming party.
I have found a couple solution sets to these problems.
Solution A: Small Minty Ice Cubes.
This was my original solution a couple of years ago when I had these ice cube trays that made 1 cm square cubes. I boiled mint to make a strong mint tea and then froze it. I started freezing ice daily weeks ahead of the party. I did muddle some fresh mint into the batches I made in pitchers, but the minty-ness was really held up by the ice melting away into the drink. My cubes were strong enough that I used about half mint cubes and half normal in the drinks.
Advantages: solve both problems with one action.
Drawbacks: lots of making ice and the mint cubes look like frozen Mississippi River water.
Solution B: Mint Syrup
You have to make simple syrup no matter what, so why not make it really minty? Simply boil the water with mint, let it steep a bit, skim out the mint, and proceed with the syrup making process.
Advantage: no extra steps, easily controlled minty-ness.
Drawbacks: none. The syrup isn’t clear, but you’re making a bourbon drink, so it doesn’t matter to the end product.
Solution C: Ice Crusher
I was going to write this post as an ode to an ice crusher, but then I made Perfected Julep… Anyway, as this seemingly fabulous person noted on their own previous post about crushing ice, the Waring Pro ice crusher is awesome and really pretty cheap. It is one of my most favorite toys now.
Advantage: it’s an ice CRUSHER! (if you need more of an explanation then you need to loosen up)
Drawback: potentially a bit noisy in a small party space.
So, this time around I went with the solution B/C combo and came out with absolutely delightful mint juleps. We also provided a dill vodka martini (I’ll do a separate post on that topic later) and the Lovely that was introduced back on Valentine’s of 2010. I converted the laundry room with its counters and sink just off the kitchen into the bar staging area so that the kitchen could be a big serve yourself cocktail filling station.
The event bar. The glorious ice crusher is pictured at right.
The Mint Julep station at the end. Non-alcoholic beverages at left.
Martinis were served from the usual bar.
For all the glory of the Mint Julep, why don’t we drink them more? A minor drawback is the need for fresh mint, which isn’t always easy to find. Of course, growing your own, or making the syrup will solve this. Indeed, mint syrup is great to have around for all kinds of drink making fun. I believe the major drawback is the sweetness of the drink. One or two of them on a warm afternoon works out pretty well, but most of us aren’t doing that much drinking before evening. My personal opinion is that among that set of the population willing to drink whiskey, and bourbon in particular, such sweetness is not desirable come evening. If we could all only spend our summer afternoons on the veranda.
However, even in summer there is a need for evening drinks with a darker, heavier flavor than a gin or vodka. I found myself with such a desire when I had barbecue this week. True, one could always have beer, but the bar is fully stocked and calling to me. I had everything I needed for a mint julep leftover from the Derby, but alas, that sounded too sweet. Through a twist of Derby fate a new path opened, like a jockey giving up the inside coming out of the last turn.
I overbought a few ingredients in my Derby preparation zeal. I took store credit to avoid the restocking fee on these bottle and set out for items I needed to keep the bar in balance. As described in my last post, I have been blazing through Fernet Branca and needed more. In my haste, though, I grabbed Fernet Menta, which is still really bitter, but also minty. I was not thrilled about this initially but it is the key to the Perfect Whiskey Cocktail.
Perfect Whiskey Cocktail
1 Bourbon (I tend to use Bulleit for this application – they also make my favorite rye)
1/5 simple syrup and/or mint syrup
1/5 Fernet Menta
The proportions may vary for each drinker, depending on your Fernet tolerance. Stir together with a bit of ice then put it on ice just like a normal julep. The result is a drink that is more balanced than anything I have yet done with bourbon. It is even more drinkable than a Manhattan or Old Fashioned. By varying the balance of ingredients slightly depending on mood, weather and meal, I do believe this is the most versatile whiskey drink I’ve encountered. It is truly the Perfect Whiskey Cocktail.
And a final, random pic – derby pie and other goodness.
I discovered the best dessert that takes no time or effort:
A while back my friend Luis got me onto affogatos – espresso over ice cream. Simple, delicious. But coffee isn’t for every flavor of ice cream, and sometimes I don’t want caffeine. True, I could have made decaf, but that’s not the way I think…
I turned to my bar.
I like Fernet Branca, straight even, but it’s a beast to mix because it is so strong and bitter. I thought, hey, if espresso works with ice cream because of the strong bitterness…
The challenge here is not in making the dessert – scoop some ice cream, pour on some Fernet, consume (definitely drink the end liquid, like peppermint crack) – but in finding the ice cream. If you live in Houston, go to Rice Epicurean. They have all kinds of out-of-season flavors.
This afternoon I’m doing some prep for the weekend, and R sent me the following email. The subject line is my favorite part. Can you guess Tessin’s plans?
Limes. 30 A garnish? Sprigs of lavender or something?
Tomatoes. Campari are best. Roma or something next. Get lots like two boxes. Tomato juice if there’s a good one. A couple jalapeños
We’re also doing some gardening, our newest hobby/chore. Right now our driveway looks like this:
My path to the coffee maker is blocked this morning. Yes, that’s an egg without its white…
An extended family dinner ended with siblings, cousins, and associated significant others finishing the night with us. It was a lot of fun, the bar performed well, and we found my cousin a new drink:
Bulleit rye (my fave rye)
Kumquat Ginger Liqueur (have to make it yourself)
Ps, trying out an iPhone app to write this sorry if formatting is ugly.
On the one hand, I don’t love to cook. On the other, I do like good food. And I also like organization, logic, and having the right setting and tools for my work. Good kitchens make sense, and to me cooking in a good kitchen feels like taking a test to which I know the answers. It’s not exactly FUN, but it’s possible to enjoy the orderliness of the process, and the satisfaction of doing something well.
One of the things both R and I most looked forward to about eventually moving from a small, rented apartment to our own house was having a good kitchen. Sadly, the house we liked best had a particularly crumby one. The biggest problem wasn’t just that it was dated, or even that it was ugly. The problem was that it was lazy… off balance, messy. Poorly designed and poorly constructed. The more we tried to think about ways to correct it, the more it became clear that the whole thing had to go.
Here’s what we started with:
The real estate photo (the room has great light!)
Maybe it doesn’t look that bad to you? I sort of agree, but let me point out some issues (clockwise from bottom left):
- That countertop with the stools doesn’t actually overhang the stools and create a nice eating area… even when they’re shoved against the cabinet (as they are here), they overhang the doorway to the laundry room and block the whole flow of traffic in and out of the busiest spot in the house
- That cabinet area under the counter isn’t actually an accessible cabinet. It’s cheap plywood that’s blocked from all sides. 100% wasted space (this is more clear in the next photo)
- That space over the microwave also isn’t a cabinet. More random, covered space
- To make room for the sink/dishwasher under the window, 2 bad things happened: the sink is shoved off center, which may not bother many people, but makes me crazy, and the dishwasher is shoved so close to the doorway (leading to the stairs, and dining room — another busy passage) that they made that weird angled corner, in an awkward attempt to create more walkway. The result was that there still wasn’t enough walkway, and there was also a weird angled corner.
- Note the wiring coming down from the upper cabinet to the light switch above the dishwasher? That was the only switch that turned on the only overhead light in the kitchen – that lone fixture above the sink. Despite the beautiful light on a sunny day, Houston does get dark at night. There was limited electrical leading anywhere, and fixing this alone required a pretty major overhaul.
- See the random, unfinished six inches of empty space above the pantry, where the current owners had shoved bowls, etc? Umm.
Here’s a photo of the other angle:
- What you can’t see well here is that the stove doesn’t actually touch the back wall. There’s about 2 inches of empty space back there, which I guess they were trying to cover with the cutting board? We kept the same stove… just had the new counters fitted to actually cover the back area.
- What you also can’t see well is that to the left of the stove, near the ground, is the second vent for the room, which was just totally covered by the floorboard, but then I guess discolored and warped by the air blowing against it all the time. So the room got pretty hot in the 9+ months of the year that it’s over 80 degrees outside.
- Then there’s the random cabinet to one side of the doorway to the end, and the random chair occupying more wasted space on the other side.
So we ripped the kitchen out! This made refinishing the floors and much-needed ventilation and electrical work much more efficient. And THEN we thought about what we wanted next (and researched it, graphed it, and hired a contractor to make it happen). Kind of an awkward timeline.
But here’s what we have now!
We’re still playing with accessories, including bars to hang pots and pans on the wall next to the stove, and maybe some art for the walls next to the window (though I’m loathe to drill into the tile), but we’re thrilled with the result. I’m particularly happy with the clean flow from the kitchen to the laundry room, all our recessed lighting on dimmers, and the vent hood that sucks heat and cooking smell straight outside. And of course R loves his bar.
And here’s a bonus, in-the-middle pic, AFTER they did major clean-up because we had house guests coming for the weekend.
Walkin’ in my backdoor…
It’s time. I’m back.
There have been some challenges. For a while I had no kitchen, much less a bar. What booze there was lived in the fridge just to stay safe. Now I have my corner of the kitchen, and it is a beautiful thing.
Now I have space, but a different mandate: mocktails. EE gave herself over to bearing my child and became unable to imbibe just as the new space came into being…
I’m going to strip the blog down a bit. No more links page. No more tags. No silly garnish.
I’m still stocking up, not quite ready to roll up that shutter to evaluating eyes, but we’re on our way.
I have a policy of not apologizing for not posting, but just so you’re all clear, yes we’re still drinking. The bar is simply still in utter basics mode as we’re still working on a kitchen where I can house my bar.
This may well not be new, I have no idea, but I love it: Drinkify.
You type in a band you’re listening to and the site gives you a drink. I think it has a good sense of humor, and it respects the fact that not every drinking experience needs to be complicated.
Many thanks to Jedder and whatever blog this is on which he found Drinkify for us.
Hello Tessin fans,
Many appreciaters of TR cocktails have been asking for updates from the homefront…. We are doing our very best to make our Houston home as cool as we possibly can. And rest assured, in the meantime we are absolutely welcoming visitors and serving cocktails of many sorts.
Some of the moving process is kind of glamorous and exciting, at least for those of us who enjoy domestic adventures: choosing wallpaper, hanging artwork, planting herbs.
Some of it is not glamorous or exciting at all: fixing broken toilets, replacing 1930s electricity, installing insulation, & painting, painting, painting. Luckily we are not doing all of this ourselves, but we’ve done our fair share. The guy who loads large purchases at Home Depot recognizes me, R, both our cars, and says the next time he sees me he’s “giving me an apron.”
When we first toured the house, I saw everything I liked about it (still like). The symmetry, the clean proportions, the beautiful light. The location. I loved the things that are really hard to change, which is why we bought it. The second time I toured the house, I saw all the issues, and there were many of them. It seemed everything was filthy; everything was broken; 87,000 things needed to be fixed/replaced/improved. Between buying the house and now, I’d say we fixed about 70,000 of those 87,000 issues.
In the first installment of Before and Mostly-Afters, I present: the laundry room.
The laundry room (I guess you could also call it a mudroom?) of our house was a major selling point, despite its relatively decrepit state under the house’s former neglectful owners. I think lots of people can appreciate the convenience of a big utility sink and full-sized washer/dryer right off the kitchen, but for us, moving from Manhattan….. this felt like a HUGE luxury.
Here’s what we toured when we first visited the house. I wonder what it looked like before all the cleaning and staging to put the house on the market? Eek.
And here’s what it looks like now:
(pardon photos from iphone b/c we can’t find our camera charger, weekend t0-do list on the chalkboard)
The key improvements:
- Refinished the hardwood floors (we did the whole house, but the laundry room was in especially bad shape)
- Found the original cabinet doors that had been ripped off to make room for the wine fridge and reinstalled them
- Built a counter over the washer/dryer
- Put in marble countertops. You can’t see in the photos, but the bizarre Formica, faux-butcher block counter that was around the sink was split and rotten, because the faucet was also broken/leaking all under and through those cabinets.
- Painted everything
- Installed new hardware/faucet/chandelier, put down new rug, etc.
I am thrilled with it. After years of shared laundry machines in freaky Manhattan basements with maybe the occasional dead roach in the corner, taking laundry out of my own dryer and folding it on a clean, marble counter in a sunny room feels like a miracle.
Right now the utility sink is doing double (triple? quadruple?) duty since we ripped out our kitchen and we wash our dishes there. But it is also perfect for the main activities I originally envisioned: arranging flowers, washing Dahlia’s paws, and rinsing out paint brushes. And I’ve been doing a lot of painting.
Other rooms soon…
We made it to Houston! We promptly had a cocktail!
The picture is a bit misleading at this point. First, we worked on an empty house for a week (cocktails and lodging on the parents, thank you parents) and then our stuff arrived on schedule. Nope, just kidding! Actually, we went back to work and then our stuff arrived late and we stayed at the house two weeks after we got to town (thank you again Mama for meeting the moving van).
The picture was taken that first night and we have since improved a great deal. I’m not willing to post all kinds of house pics without EE approval, though, and she’s off being a consultant.
I will leave you with a thought on cocktails. Specifically, the margarita. The pervasiveness of the Margarita in Texas is amazing and wonderful. It just opens everyone up to the fact that someone might drink something other than beer or wine. My more important insight is that Mandarine Napoleon is a poor substitute for Cointreau. I read some article that made me think it would be more like my homemade orange liqueur, but it’s just not right.