Nov 5, 2013

Cocktail Taste Test: Taking a Ride on the 20th Century

Being election day, and therefore illegal to sell alcohol while polling stations are open, I felt a little cheeky, and decided to share that which you may not currently procure.  Over the past few years I've developed a taste for well crafted classic cocktails, in part thanks to bartenders at Drink, Island Creek Oyster Bar, Eastern Standard, and Citizen's Public House.

I've discovered a few things in my quest for tasty cocktails.
  1. Vodka, being completely flavorless when it's at it's best, adds nothing but alcohol to a drink.
  2. If you ask a skilled bartender what their favorite cocktail is, there is a very good chance that they will say a sazarac (in my experience, it's probably close to 80%).
  3. Always, always, always be nice to bartenders. And get to know them if you find someone who is really good. This goes beyond the normal "be nice to staff, especially those who handle your food, to avoid having foreign fluids in it".  A good bartender, (if they like you), will get to know your palate after a while, can recommend things that you've never heard of, make up drinks on the spot that you'll love, will sometimes save you a seat at the bar on a busy night (if they find you entertaining), and will sometimes provide you with an extra drink of something nice after you've paid the bill.
  4. If you get a list of classic cocktails that you tend to drink, you may find yourself being "that guy" if you go to a different bar.  Recently, after ordering 2 cocktails for which I had to give the waitress the recipe for the bartender, the friend I was with "dared me to order something off the menu". In my defense, both cocktails I ordered were classics, both dating to before 1940!
The picture at the top was from a gin tasting I did at my house.  For the longest time I didn't like gin.  I found it sharp, and reeking of pine trees (yes, I know it's juniper, but I've smelled an awful lot more pine than juniper in my life).  Which is why I was surprised the first time I had a 20th Century, so named for the Twentieth Century Limited train line, that ran between New York and Chicago. It is light, floral, with a touch of lemon. Not a drink that I would expect to find gin in.  And yet, there it was.  This was when I found out how much gins can vary.  

So this is how the tasting worked.  There were five different gins, from three different brands.  We tasted each of the gins straight (about a quarter shot), and then mixed a 20th Century (don't worry, you'll get the recipe at the end), to compare how well they worked for that cocktail. By the end, each person only had the alcohol for about 2.5 drinks total, so we were all able to coherently discuss the results.  So before getting into the specifics of the gins, here is the cocktail that we used, as it is one of my favorites.

20th Century Cocktail

2 ounces Gin
1 ounce Lillet Blanc
1 ounce Light Creme de Cacao
1 ounce Lemon Juice

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice.  Shake, and serve in a cocktail glass with a lemon twist.
The Results of the Tasting

Citadelle Gin

This is what I consider the standard for cocktail gins.  It's pretty subtle, not overly dry, and plays well with others.  It doesn't have much in the way of strong flavors, which would make it not the best choice for a martini; but is versatile enough to work in any gin cocktail.  Hendrick's is another in the same category, although Hendrick's has a bit more juniper to it.

Barr Hill

Barr Hill comes from Caledonia spirits, in northern Vermont.  They started as beekeepers, and moved into making mead, and then distilling spirits, all with their honey. The honey doesn't make the gin sweet, but it does seem to add a lot of floral notes.  It's complex, and has a really nice flavor to it.  The only way that I would even consider drinking a martini is with this gin.

The downside is that it doesn't really play well with others. Being so well constructed on its own, if you have a cocktail that has more than three ingredients, the flavors just start competing, as opposed to working together.  So the 20th Century just tasted muddled.

St. George Dry Rye Gin

If you have never tasted rye whiskey, it will be hard to describe the flavor exactly.  This is a gin that is made with a lot of juniper, but is also cooked down with rye, to help balance it out.  Just with a rye bread, there are flavors of pepper and caraway.  On it's own we felt it was a little overpowering, so unless you really like drinking rye straight, this isn't a beverage to drink straight or as a martini.

The surprise in it, however, was that it seemed to relax back into the mixed drink, and wasn't overpowering, going against all of our guesses.

St. George Botanivore Gin

A light, floral, complex gin, it really hit the middle between Citadelle and Barr Hill.  Based on the descriptor from the company said that it "earned its name because it's loaded with botanical ingredients. We distilled 19 different botanicals to compose this spirit (no small feat!) and the resulting gin is beautifully balanced and vibrant".  That had me a little scared to begin with, because that sentance screams "overworked" to me.  But it really isn't.  If you want something that is a little more complex than Citadelle, but is easier to find than Barr Hill, this is a good option for a multi-purpose gin.

St. George Terroire Gin

If you like your gin to taste like you've just eaten your Christmas tree, this one has the proper juniper levels for you. I would never be able to drink this one straight, but it is still a big step up from something like Tangueray or Bombay Saphire (my opinion). I was expecting this to be bad across the board, but was actually pleasantly surprised when it came to the cocktail.  It created a bit of a sharp bite, but the juniper in it actually played nicely with the spices in the Lillet.

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