Measure for measure

Measures

Consistency is key in making good cocktails; after all, once you find the perfect way to make your Martini, you will want to be able to recreate that perfection each time, won’t you?  And one of the most important ways to ensure this is accurate and consistent measurement of your ingredients. That’s not to say it’s impossible to do this by eye, or by counting your pour time, but that is very difficult to do without years of practice (one of the very best Manhattans I ever had was mixed for me at Tokyo’s Bar Oak by their stellar barman, Hisashi Sugimoto, who did everything by eye; no measuring at all. The drink was sublime) and unlikely to be achieved by amateurs like me.

But one of the key issues in cocktails is that there is no universal standard of measure: you will come across recipes that use ounces, jiggers, ponies, measures, millilitres and sometimes even spoons. And just like home baking, if you start with one set of measurements, you need to keep using the same scale throughout the recipe, as an ounce-to-millilitre conversion may not be accurate.

So, we need measures, and we need good ones, and most helpfully, two sizes: larger and smaller, where the latter is typically half the quantity of the former. Cocktail recipes work on the principles of proportion (e.g. a Negroni is equal measures of gin, Campari and vermouth, whereas a Manhattan requires two measures of whiskey to one of vermouth), so that actual quantity of your measures is often not so important as the ratio between the large and the small being accurate.  And you’ll also soon spot that these proportions (1:1:1 for the Negroni, 2:1/5:2 for the Manhattan) give you the standard 3oz cocktail, so suggesting a typical size for the standard measure – 1 ounce (or around 30ml in our European measures). But where does that leave jiggers and ponies? Confusingly, you’ll see a typical Japanese double-ended measure (the nice conical type that look elegant when poured held between the first and second fingers) are called ‘jiggers’. But the ‘jigger’ measure in American terms is an exact 1 1/2 ounces, and the equivalent ‘pony’ is 1 ounce. But ask for a ‘shot’, and you will get anything from a 1oz pony or 1 1/4 oz or even a 1 1/2 oz generous shot glass. In the UK, we switched to exact millilitre measures in 1985, defining a ‘single’ measure as 25ml or 35ml, and a double measure to be 50ml  or 70ml, at the owner’s preference – the confusing difference being that in Scotland and Northern Ireland, bar measures tend to be on the more generous size, so the larger measure can be used (at one time, asking for a whisky in Scotland would get you a single by default, but adding the prefix ‘a glass of…’ in front of the brand would automatically get you a double).

My collection of home measures, shown above, ranges from government-stamped standard measure of 50ml and 25ml, which I use for most of my home mixing. to the conical Japanese-style jiggers. All of these vary slightly: the brushed-finish ‘typical’ Japanese one in the centre of the image measures the larger size at 40ml (just under the correct 1 1/2 oz), the black version (from a Spanish cocktail set) measures its jigger at 50ml, and the oddly marked middle one, which came with an unbranded shaker set, measure its jigger at around 42ml – or exactly 1 1/2oz. Their smaller ends are then equally confusing: the stamped one has a smaller measure of about 3/4oz – half the jigger end, but not a pony; my regular Japanese measure has a smaller capacity of exactly the same amount (3/4oz), but this is more than half the larger measure & the black measure again has a smaller end that is over half the larger capacity: three measures, with no real consistency of proportion or absolute measure between them.

And then finally I have the odd multi-tool device that Liz gave me one Christmas as a  sort of barman’s Swiss Army knife: the measures there are 35 & 20ml respectively; a Manhattan made with those proportions would be pretty small & pretty sweet indeed.

So why does this matter? Because proportions in cocktails matter a good deal -Manhattans and Martinis made with too much vermouth can be pretty duff (unless you wanted a gin-and-French, of course), so you need your measures to be accurate & consistent. My advice is not to rely on the typical ‘gift set’ measures too much – either buy some decent measures from a catering or bar supply company (my marked measures came from Nisbets in London, and were a couple of pounds each) – or use a kitchen fluid measure cup (I have one from Oxo that measures ozs, ml, tablespoons and teaspoons in one small jug), which is really good for the ultra-precise recipes (usually the ones that include strong flavourings like absinthe) or use a chemistry measuring flask, marked in ml, which if nothing else, will impress your friends by your mixological exactitude.

 

Palmetto

IMG_6161 2The Manhattan formula, so simple but so adaptable, gives rise to endless variation. Some of these are deliberate attempt to rearrange the basic mixture; others seem to have arisen from the simple fact that a combination of a spirit, vermouth & bitters is a mighty fine one and a solid foundation for a very good drink.

One of these variations is the Palmetto, recorded in the Savoy Cocktail book. This puts the drink in the period between the publication of the book and the repeal of Prohibition, making it one of the cocktail ‘classics’. Harry Craddock’s recipe combines rum, vermouth and bitters & is faithfully recreated in Robert Simonson’s excellent book, 3 Ingredient Cocktails; I used his recipe here. One of the key things to note is that bitters here are very important – both rum and the Italian vermouth are quite sweet, so the citrus kick of the bitters is necessary to tie them together, but add too much & they will overpower the drink.

I’m not enamoured with this drink; the equal mix of vermouth and rum just doesn’t seem to work together for me, even with a good shake of bitters; somehow it’s just all too sweet. But it is a complex drink and worth trying, even just once.

Ingredients:

1 1/2 oz good, aged rum

1 1/2 oz sweet vermouth

Dashes of orange bitters

Method:

Stir over ice, then strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish really seems to be optional for this drink, but a good slice of orange zest wouldn’t go amiss; if you use a cocktail cherry, you would be adding to the sweetness even further.

Vecchio Stile

IMG_6562After the Manhattan (see dozens of posts, passim), my very next favourite drink is the Old Fashioned: this classic mix of whiskey, bitters & sugar is so simple, yet can having a seeming infinite variety through the choice of the whiskey and bitters: use a rye, and the cocktail becomes drier and spicier, use a bourbon, and it becomes sweeter and softer.

This time, I added a small quantity of my favourite amaro, Montenegro, to balance the sweetness of a bourbon-based whiskey a little further than the bitters alone; even just a quarter of an ounce of this amaro adds another edge to the drink. It’s quite a different take on an Old Fashioned, so absolutely deserves to have its own name; it becomes the Vecchio Stile.

The bitters are very important: here I have used Dr Elmegirab’s Orinoco bitters. Their solid bitter hit & spice base are pretty much a perfect foil for the Montenegro.

Method:

2 ozs of bourbon (Bulleit is highly recommended)

1/4 oz Amaro Montenegro

1/2 tsp sugar

Dashes of Orinoco bitters

Muddle the sugar and bitters together, with a dash of water, in an old-fashioned glass. Add a large ice block to the glass and let chill a while.

Stir the Montenegro and bourbon together over ice, then strain into the chilled glass, with a last stir to combine the alcohols, bitters & sugar. Garnish with orange peel.

 

 

 

Belmont

IMG_2692The Belmont is a truly odd little recipe – three ingredients: gin, grenadine & cream. I can’t think of many recipes that combine gin and cream, but the Belmont just goes straight for it, via the grenadine. The result, as described by my friend & fellow cocktail explorer, Craig Riley, is a ‘grown-up Baileys’. He’s right – the gin and cream should clash horribly, but the grenadine just seems to act like a silky buffer between the two, making them harmonious rather than jarring, and letting the drink become a smooth mouthful. The secret is a good grenadine – I used the Jack Rudy small-batch syrup, which has a good balance of sweet and sharp, along with a deep ruby colour. This gives the resulting drink has an attractive pale pink colour as well, another unusual trait. Not a cocktail you would want many of, but as something, smooth, refreshing & very unusual, worth a glass at least.

Method

2 measures gin

1 measure grenadine

1 tsp. cream

Shake everything with plenty of ice, then strain into a cold coupe.

No garnish or bitters for this one, so it breaks a lot of the cocktail rules. But then it uses cream, so it’s already way off track, anyway.

Japanese cocktail

IMG_5628This simple mixture of cognac, almonds and lime sounded like an interesting recipe from Harry MacElhone, but it involved making the orgeat syrup first, as my attempts to find a ready-made product suggested they were all a bit disappointing. That may seem like overkill, but I at least have an ingredient now to use in various Tiki-style recipes, as the recipe produces around 250ml of the sweet, almond-flavoured syrup which will last a month or so in the refrigerator.

The story goes that MacElhone invented this drink in honour of a Japanese delegation visiting Paris in the 1920s while he was running his eponymous bar there. The ingredients themselves don’t suggest Japan to me, as my visits to the country have not indicated that there is overwhelming demand for almond or lime flavours; the cognac might have been a nod to the French location of the drink’s birthplace.

I am not quite sure what to make of the finished drink: the combination of cognac and almond syrup is silky enough, but the lime juice is slightly too strong to my taste. Thinking on other lime-based drinks (such as the Margarita), I cannot see why it should jar here, but it does – perhaps its is the cognac-and-lime mix that seems a little harsh. Either way, the drink was not as smooth as I was expecting, and despite the sweetness of the orgeat syrup, the lime has a really attack on the back of the throat. The next time I make one of these, I plan to use a properly Japanese substitute : yuzu juice. This has the required citrus tones, but slightly less attack. I think this will balance the drink better.

Ingredients:

2 ozs cognac

1/2 oz orgeat syrup

1/2 oz lime juice

Dashes of Angostura bitters

Shake the ingredients well with plenty of ice (probably a good time to practice your Japanese shaking technique), then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lime zest.

 

Orgeat syrup

Orgeat1

This almond-flavoured syrup, pronounced orr-zha (as in Zsa Zsa Gabor), crops up in quite few cocktail recipes, especially in the Tiki style (Mai Tai, for example). But I wanted to try a Japanese cocktail, invented by Harry MacElhone back when he ran Harry’s American Bar in the 1920s (the recipe has no particularly Japanese ingredients, but was supposedly developed to honour a Japanese delegation, visiting Paris at the time). But my online research suggested that most modern commercial versions are just sugar syrup with almond flavouring, and as a result, a bit disappointing.

In the spirit of MacElhone’s original I wanted to make my own, so I found recipes to make syrup from almonds and sugar, with the addition of some vodka and orange blossom water. The recipe I used came from the Serious Eats website, so it is only fair I direct you to them for the ingredients & method. The process will only take an hour or so, plus some overnight cooling & steeping of the almond and sugar mixture, but be warned, it is a sticky business. I used blanched almonds to get a paler syrup, but you can use skin-on almonds for a darker result (and possibly more flavour). I used the orange blossom water option (you can use rosewater, but I don’t like its perfume-y overtones).

I found the final results missed the hit of bitter almonds I was expecting, so if I made it again, I would add a quantity of good quality natural almond essence, and the ratio of sugar-to-water produces a very sweet liquid, so I would reduce the sugar as well.

As most recipes that use the syrup call for a single measure or less, the small bottle produced by the recipe will certainly last the month suggested for storage, unless you are planning a Tiki party.

Harry’s Bar, visited April 2017

IMG_3913I didn’t think there was any need to qualify this bar as being the one in Venice; there’s only one real Harry’s Bar, and it is the one in Venice. There are others: Mark Birley’s smart Italianate club in S. Audley Street, London, two others in the same city, a steakhouse in New York, and most confusingly of all, Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, to name only a tiny number. But the bar that they all owe something to is the one in Calle Vallaresso in Venice, opened in 1931 by Giuseppe Cipriani. The history is worth reading, so do visit the Cipriani website to hear the origins of this tiny and beautiful bar in one of the most atmospheric cities in the world.

I’m an unashamed fan of this bar*. I come for the drinks, the location and the history. But to read Tripadvisor, there are a heck of a lot of grumpy people in the world, who find the place not up to their remarkably high opinion of their own critical faculties. Frankly, if you’ve come all the way to Venice, to complain about the price of a Bellini, you are in the wrong bar; go somewhere where they serve giant frozen Margaritas in a novelty hurricane glass for $6. Secondly, don’t complain about the size of the place: we’re in Venice: places are tiny & you may be expecting something with the size (and atmosphere) of a hotel lobby, but you aren’t going to find it here. And finally, don’t complain about the bar being unfriendly – you brought that attitude in with you and the staff are simply reflecting it back at you.

For the rest of us, the routine is simple:

IMG_4589 2Enter the bar with a smile on your face, order nicely, watch the staff make your drink with care & serve it to you with style.

Enjoy it, order another, and enjoy that, too. Talk to your companions & look at the beautiful  woodwork.

Watch Marco mix drinks with a joy that the man who is only the ninth head barman since the place opened 88 years ago can do. Talk to him nicely, and suddenly he’ll produce some of the bottles hidden in those tiny cupboards behind the bar that have been there since 1931 & tell you their stories. Within the space of a few minutes, you have gone from being a tourist to an insider. Harry’s is now your bar, too, and you can come back any time.

You’ll walk away with a wonderful sense of place, time & the joy a well-mixed drink can produce.

And don’t care a jot about the bill. You’re in Venice & you’ve been in Harry’s Bar.

* We were married in Venice & our wedding party had a riotous night here in our wedding day.