Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Skipped out by the Hop Skip, Old Raj Comes to the Rescue

With the 2011 RAMMY Awards already at a close, I had intended on trying all of the finalists for the Mixology/Beverage Program. However, I ran into a little snag with the "Hop Skip" cocktail at Estadio. Eager to get my drink on, I stopped by a little over a week ago at the Spanish-themed restaurant and met with head bartender Adam Bernbach. He informed me that the RAMMY organizers made a mistake in listing the nominations and that the Hop Skip was actually at his other bar Proof. To add to my disappointment he also said that he had run out of its key ingredient, namely salt-cured limes, which he uses for the vodka-based cocktail. Alas, the Hop Skip did not join my reviews of Is He Sharpe?, Alewife, Perennial Tea and Citros Gengibre (the winning cocktail) before the June 26 awards. Bernbach did say that the salt-cured limes are on their way and the cocktail should be available at Proof in July.

However, Bernbach made up for the misunderstanding by personally preparing for me his Old Raj & House-made Orange Thyme Tonic, which is part of Estadio's menu. Old Raj is a 110 proof gin from Scotland infused with saffron giving it a pale yellow color and a spicy structure joined by strong juniper and citrus flavors. To that Bernbach adds his own tonic which he prepares by boiling water and steeping orange, thyme and dried bay leaf for one hour. He then adds a less processed red quinine (ground bark from the Cinchona tree) giving the tonic an amber hue. (Pictured: Ground red quinine)

On the nose the The Old Raj G&T smells of juniper with the tonic's orange aroma boosting the gin's citrus tones. It has a healthy dose of the gin (exactly how I prefer my G&Ts). The gin's botanicals and spice are matched well by the equally forward flavors of the herbal-orange-flavored tonic which also adds a nice bitter bite followed by a sweet, glossy flow and tart finish. (Pictured: The Old Raj Gin & Tonic)

Friday, June 24, 2011

DC's "No. 1" Cocktail: The Pimm's Cup Around Town

With summer officially beginning this week, it won't be long until the dog-days will be breathing down our neck. As DC's official Rickey month soon approaches (July) I'm exploring refreshing elixirs that will cool your body, mind and soul. With Wimbledon also having begun this week the classic Pimm's Cup couldn't be a more appropriate cocktail to feature. An old export from our British friends, the Pimm's Cup is slowly making a comeback on cocktail menus nationwide and in DC. The Washington Post's Jason Wilson recently wrote about his favorite version (notably preferring his being made with 7-Up) while Fritz Hahn raved about PS7's twist on the Cup.

The Pimm's Cup is a cocktail that can take on a number of forms but its basic version consists of Pimm's No. 1, lemonade/lemon-lime soda (lemon-lime soda is called "lemonade" by the Brits) or ginger ale. It can be embellished with lemon and orange slices and a sprig of mint, but a cucumber garnish is mandatory. In a 2006 piece on NPR, Michelle Norris interviewed Martin Joyce, director of catering for Wimbledon, who described how the All England Club prepares the "No. 1 Cup." Served in a highball glass half filled with ice, one measure of Pimm's is topped off with lemonade (or lemon-lime soda such as 7-Up), and garnished with half a strawberry, a sprig of mint and some cucumber skin.

Pimm's was first developed in England by James Pimm in the 1820s as a digestive, originally served as a tonic in a tankard, hence the name "cup." The ingredients have been kept a guarded secret to this day. It is gin-based with a touch of quinine along with a medley of herbs, botanicals and fruit. Straight up, it has a developed herbal flavor, almost like a refined Jaeger Meister, with a sweet and delicate bitter finish. The version sold in stores today has a lower alcohol content than the original (down from 40% to just 25% proof). Pimm's No. 1 is considered not a spirit but rather a bottled cocktail. It is therefore recommended not to use more than 2-3 parts lemonade to one part Pimm's, so as not to overly dilute the flavor.

The typical Pimm's Cup has an ice tea-esque quality with earthy/herbal tones brightened with sweet lemonade or lemon-lime soda. It's a light drink (both in structure and alcohol content) which is why it's perfect as a summer quencher - a straight forward and simple alternative to the many sugary, summery drinks we have come to know.

In America you can find the Pimm's Cup traditionally being served at polo matches. What, you don't have season passes to the Capitol Polo Club? Hard to believe, but there are plenty of locations that serve up the "No. 1 Cup" in DC. In exploring what our city has to offer, I visited a few local watering holes.

Bar Pilar served a Pimm's Cup with mint, orange slice, cucumber, house-made ginger syrup and soda water. It had a well-rounded flavor with the ginger coming through both on the nose and palate. The orange accentuated the Pimm's herbal base. The Pimm's-to-ginger soda ratio may have been a bit off, leaving the Pimm's a tad diluted, but it had a smooth and fresh texture. It started off sweet but mellowed as the ice melted. It had a clean, light finish.

The Passenger serves up quite a unique Pimm's Cup that goes beyond the traditional recipe. Though a true Brit would never add a second spirit, they add Seagram's gin, along with lemon juice, house ginger ale as well as Blenheim (red cap) ginger ale, garnished with cucumber. It has a great depth of flavor and definitely gets an alcohol boost from the gin which also heightens the botanical bouquet. The Bleheim red cap ginger ale (their spiciest) adds a noticeable peppery, ginger bite. Blenheim describes their red cap ginger ale as going "down as smoothly as a firecracker exploding in your throat" so the regular house ginger ale supplied a good counter-balance. The Pimm's No. 1 herbal flavor came through well laced with fresh cucumber, which makes me believe they also muddled cucumber into the mix. Overall the Passenger's Cup was slightly sweeter than most Pimm's Cups I have had, but its spicy edge left me wanting more of this dynamic variation. (Pictured: The Pimm's Cup at The Passenger)

At the Tabard Inn they mix Pimm's No.1, fresh citrus, cucumber, ginger and soda. Somewhat similar to Bar Pilar's version, the ginger shines with a noticeable spicy bite and worked splendid as an agent to accentuate the other ingredients. It strikes a smooth balance between sweetness and the herbaceous character of the Pimm's. This is a real body cooler. (Left: The Pimm's Cup at Tabard Inn)

While meeting a friend for lunch at the Peacock Cafe in Georgetown I had to try their version which they call the "Pimps Cup." It consists of Pimm's No. 1, fresh-squeezed lemonade and diced cucumber. As I lifted it to my mouth the aromatics of the broken-down cucumber burst forward. The lemonade gave the Cup an Arnold-Palmer-esque appeal and had a sweet linger. As the diced cucumber got swept into my mouth, it acted as a natural sweetener and helped raise the profile of the Pimm's.

I had what was arguably the worst Pimm's Cup in DC at Old Ebbitt Grill. When the bartender placed the Cup in front of me I thought its presentation was well executed with a paper-thin slice of cucumber jetting straight up from the rim. When I raised it to my nose it smelled of almost nothing but the aromatic garnish. Upon first sip I realized a key ingredient was missing, namely any type of lemon, lime or ginger component. What was served to me was Pimm's No. 1 with soda...period. When I asked the bartender if this was their standard way of preparing the cocktail she said "this is how I learned it" and then informed me that some people request it with lemon-lime soda or ginger ale, as if having it that way required a special order. As I pondered what to replace my botched drink with, not knowing if I needed to spell out in writing what it should contain, the Old Ebbitt "Pimm's spritzer" did give me some added insight into how important a role a sweet and tangy counterpart plays in completing the Pimm's Cup, like how salt brings out so much flavor in cooking. I was sorry to see one of DC's most revered historical establishments validate Tom Sietsema's recent demotion to a half-star rating in the Washington Post. (Pictured: Old Ebbitt's "Pimm's Spritzer?")

On a much more positive note, I had the pleasure of attending a private function tended by Jon Harris of The Gibson. One of the featured cocktails was the Pimm's Cup. Along with the Pimm's No. 1 he used Fentiman's Victorian Lemonade, garnished with cucumber, orange, lemon and mint. It was like a garden in my mouth. The ingredients, though simple, were tightly built. The drink had a balance of sweet and bitter with a touch of sour. The lemony Fentiman's brought a not-too-sweet brightness and its fermented structure added some tang. As I sipped it my nose was filled with the aroma of mint and cucumber, providing a sensory experience of sweetness without actually sweetening the drink. This Cup had a solid structure. (Pictured: The Jon Harris Pimm's Cup)

The Pimm's Cup is an excellent drink to have around if you are entertaining at home during the summer. It's incredibly simple to make and inexpensive (locally, Pimm's No. 1 runs just over $20 a bottle). Though 7-Up or other ready-made lemon-lime sodas will produce a great Cup, I was most impressed with those that incorporated ginger and fresh lemon juice, giving it some extra zing - all working in harmony with the Pimm's.

Here is a straight-forward version I like to make which uses homemade ginger syrup.

2 oz. Pimm's No. 1
1/2 oz. Ginger Syrup*
Juice of half a lemon
Slice of Cucumber
Sprig of Mint

Fill a glass with ice (preferably large-cubed), add the Pimm's, ginger syrup, squeeze in the lemon through a fine sieve and stir to incorporate. Top off with soda (I like to make my own with a water carbonator) and lightly stir once more. Garnish with cucumber and mint.

*The ginger syrup couldn't be easier to make. Take two thumb-sized pieces of ginger, peel and finely grate (a microplane works best) into a one-quart sauce pan. Add one cup of sugar (I like to use evaporated cane sugar which adds a slight caramel flavor and color) and one cup of water. Stir and bring mixture to a boil. As soon as it boils turn the heat off, cover and allow it to steep for 15-20 minutes. Using a fine sieve to filter out the pulp, pour syrup into a container, allow it to come to room temperature and then refrigerate.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Citros Gengibre at Founding Farmers

The 2011 RAMMY Awards nominations for cocktails are out so I thought I would check out the finalists for the Mixology/Beverage Program. In no particular order I have set out to give them all a try. My first stop was at Bourbon Steak where I reviewed "Is He Sharpe?". The DC cocktail tide then swept me to ChurchKey to put "Alewife" to the test. I then stopped over at Tabard Inn to try their "Perennial Tea." This week I stopped at Founding Farmers to try Citros Gengibre.

This was my first visit to Founding Farmers which is on Pennsylvania Ave., connected to the IMF headquarters and a block away from the World Bank. Its location in downtown DC/Foggy Bottom brings in a mixture of guests which was clearly defined by the first question the bartender asked me when I sat down at the bar: "Where you from?" I did a 360 and got the impression that this was more of an out-of-towner locale. Tourists, World Bank and IMF people and parents of GW students seemed to make up the majority of patrons. This didn't really detract from my experience but it had been a while since I felt like a foreigner in a local restaurant (except that one time I got a beer at the tourist-packed Hard Rock Cafe while waiting for a film to open at E Street Cinema - talk about going through a wormhole!).

With floor-to-high-ceiling windows, Founding Farmers is a brightly lit establishment that has a modern-rustic appeal with a design consisting of a mixture of reclaimed wood, cement, clean lines and modern furniture. Its menu is a mixture of sophisticated takes on American classics along with their own twists on rustic, Old World dishes highlighting the restaurant's use of local and sustainable ingredients.

The Citros Gengibre consists of Tres Generaciones Tequila, house-made ginger beer, simple syrup, grapefruit bitters, fresh grapefruit and lemon juices, Aperol and a splash of cherry brandy, garnished with mint. It has a bright orange-pink hue, giving it a summery appeal. On the nose it smells of citrus, blossom and herb garden. The juices, the Aperol (which one could compare to Campari in taste) and the grapefruit bitters give it a bitter-sour flavor structure balanced with the simple syrup. It has a distinct grapefruit undertone which mingles with the Aperol's notes of bitter orange. The tequila helps level the drink and gives it a clean texture, but is difficult to pick up. Tres Generaciones is about as good as you can get when it comes to tequila but I found its light and delicate flavors to be rubbed out by the other stronger ingredients. To me it's more of a sipping tequila. I didn't pick up any notes from the cherry brandy. The ginger beer acted as a mild sweetener but there were no solid ginger notes, which was a disappointment given that Gengibre means ginger in Portuguese.

I have to say I wasn't overwhelmed by this cocktail. There was no star of the show, no spirit or element that really defined the drink. The Aperol was probably the most distinct among the flavors but the other, more interesting elements fell flat. Cocktails should be well balanced but the other components should still reach out to greet your taste buds. This might sound odd, but it may have been too balanced with the ingredients almost canceling each other out, morphing into a homogenous flavor. It did have a bright, smooth taste with a clean finish, but the Citros Gengibre did not have any great depth to it - nothing that really awakened my palate. It was refreshing, one-note drink.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Perennial Tea at Tabard Inn

The 2011 RAMMY Awards nominations for cocktails are out so I thought I would check out the finalists. In no particular order I have set out to give them all a try. My first stop was at Bourbon Steak where I reviewed "Is He Sharpe?". The DC cocktail tide then swept me to ChurchKey to put "Alewife" to the test. Next on the list was the "Perennial Tea" at Tabard Inn.

For those who are new to the District (or have been living under a rock), the Tabard Inn is quintessential DC. Since 1922 it has been serving guests and today it is both a 40-room boutique hotel and popular restaurant that offers one of the best DC experiences in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. As you walk in you revisit a forgotten time surrounded by dark wood, Victorian furniture and the nostalgia of classic Washington. Its secluded outdoor patio is a wonderful escape from the city buzz. During the winter it's a warm refuge from the cold with its crackling fireplaces and cozy corners.

Shortly after the Tabard Inn opened it became popular for tea parties by various women’s organizations, so the Perennial Tea is a cocktail that comes full circle. It consists of dandelion tea, Plymouth gin, French and Italian vermouths, Gran Classico Bitter, orange peel, a lemon wheel, and a sprig of rosemary. Amber-colored and served in a teacup it had a dainty appeal, definitely not the sexiest of cocktails but I liked the creativity.

The first thing I noticed was its intense aroma of forest with the piney rosemary and woody Gran Classico accompanied by the citrus, bringing me to memories of European Christmas markets. At first sip the intense Grand Classico Bitter asserted itself as the dominant flavor, tempered only slightly by the milder vermouths and lemon. Initially, I found the Perennial Tea to be a swath of complex flavors that had trouble fitting together. It was reminiscent of a Negroni with the addition of floral and citrus notes, but was off as the bitter Gran Classico accompanied by bitter dandelion tea finished with dry vermouth brought the flavors to a screeching halt on the palate.

As the ice melted and the cocktail "aged" the more nuanced flavors began to emerge. The sweet gin finally bobbed up from a bitter deep-sea dive accompanied by certain subtle, earthy notes of caramel. When the condensed flavors broke down it had a very warming appeal but still lacked a brightness to balance out the bitterness. Overall, it sought to challenge one's palate but may have gone too far in that the bitter components greatly overshadowed the other more delicate ingredients.

This cocktail seemed more appropriate as a seasonal drink rather than a “perennial” menu item - something to put on hold for when the Tabard Inn has its fireplaces aflame and St. Nick is making his list.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

"Alewife" at ChurchKey

The 2011 RAMMY Awards nominations for cocktails are out so I thought I would check out the finalists for the Mixology/Beverage Program. In no particular order I have set out to give them all a try. My first stop was at Bourbon Steak where I reviewed "Is He Sharpe?". The DC cocktail tide has now swept me to ChurchKey to put "Alewife" to the test.

I arrived mid-afternoon on a Saturday hoping the bar wouldn't be too crowded so I could chat with a bartender a bit. When I stepped in the entire room was thick with a bustling crowd and then it dawned on me that I had shown up during the weekend of SAVOR, DC's annual craft beer festival. ChurchKey is also well known for its vast collection of brews from across the nation and from afar. It's an impressive offering. For a bright Saturday, ChurchKey is dark, very dark. Its floor space is narrow and quite long and the only natural light comes in through a couple of floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over 14th Street. It's therefore not best suited for daytime ambiance but if you are looking for some good drinking, sports-watching and chatting, the time of day doesn't matter. The decor has an industrial feel with a simplicity that focuses on the bar and its offerings.

Though the bar was really crowded with eager beer drinkers, ChurchKey is one of the few bars in town I have been to that had enough staff to handle the heavy load. Rather than playing the cat-and-mouse game of getting the bartender's attention, as soon as I stepped up to the bar that was a few customers deep, my order was taken and while I waited a few more staff came by to see if I had been helped.

When the Alewife arrived the first thing I noticed was its lemon-yellow color topped with a frothy white head, a result of their use of egg whites, giving it the visual appeal of a beer befitting an establishment with an immense beer collection. According to Daniel Swartz of REVAMP the Alewife consists of a "blend of Gin, Becherovka Liqueur, lemon juice, rich honey syrup, and egg white, topped with sparkling wine and a tincture of coriander, black pepper, and citrus peel." The anise-heavy character of the Becherovka Liqueur, an herbal bitters from the Czech Republic, hit me first both in aroma and flavor. Its licorice/menthol bite had a dominating herbal tone, which was parted by a fresh undercurrent of lemon juice and sparkling wine allowing for a bright finish. The egg white gave it a luxurious texture. The anise flavor really overwhelmed the drink, but gave it a nice, bitter angle. The gin itself was entirely lost (others I asked for a second opinion agreed) and in my view wasn't even necessary. Alewife was like a Pastis on steroids wearing some bling. The honey played a necessary role in subduing the Becherovka and tied it to the other ingredients but may have added a bit too much sweetness, leaving a sticky residue in my mouth. Overall Alewife was a bold cocktail that thought outside of the box. Its ingredients danced in great sync with the leading role of the Becherovka, for which I have to give ChurchKey some major props. It's not your typical crowd-pleasing spirit. It's definitely for people open to exploring new avenues of cocktail medleys. Alewife did what a lot of cocktails don't - left a great memory.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Bourbon Steak's "Is He Sharpe"

The 2011 RAMMY Awards nominations for cocktails are out so I thought I would check out the finalists for the Mixology/Beverage Program. In no particular order I have set out to give them all a try. My first stop was Bourbon Steak to try "Is He Sharpe?".

Immediately when I arrived I was greeted by bartender JP Caceres who was excited to make me their signature cocktail. I have to say it was one of the most interesting and unique preparations I had ever seen. I get really excited when savory ingredients are incorporated into cocktails so my eyes widened when he took about a dozen pink peppercorns, threw them in a glass, pulled out a torch (like the kind used on Crème brûlée) and began toasting the peppercorns. He said this is done to enhance their aroma, flavor and release essential oils. He then took a muddler and lightly crushed the peppercorns, added black tea, lime juice and house-made vanilla syrup. Then came the Cruzan 9 Rum. Head bartender Duane Sylvestre was nice enough to come by the bar and explained that he chose this particular rum as the nine spices used in its production (vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, mace, allspice, pepper, and juniper) play well with the other ingredients. JP slid over a straight tasting of the rum and it was extraordinarily smooth with the vanilla and ginger flow filling my taste buds combined with a playful, peppery zing. JP combined the ingredients with ice, gave it a good shake and strained it into a rocks glass with fresh ice and garnished it with a twist of lime.

"Is He Sharpe?" had an incredibly light and refreshing texture with a clean finish - a perfect summer drink. Its color was similar to an amber ice tea. I didn't pick up any of the freshly-toasted peppercorn in the aroma but definitely got a burst of vanilla and spice from the syrup and rum when I lifted it to my nose. As I took my first sip the peppercorns came through acting like a mild element of cinnamon - not as robust as I had expected, but it enhanced the vanilla and ginger flavors of the rum. The tea leveled the drink giving it a lightness, adding an earthy dynamic but may have watered it down a tad. The lime was a perfect use of citrus bringing a tropical touch and some acidic balance. Overall "Is he Sharpe?" was a well-rounded cocktail with soothing flavors that would brighten any mood. Beyond its preparation, it really didn't press the envelope with challenging flavors but still left you wanting more. It went down quick - maybe a bit too quick. In no time it was empty.