Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Tale of Tales: Part I

“So…are you as bummed as I am?” Genevieve said to me over the phone on Monday afternoon. “Yes. I’ve been depressed all day. It’s just not fair.” It was true. Ever since we arrived home in Mobile on Sunday evening, we were in a funk. But let’s rewind a bit, shall we?
As a child, I mixed “potions” in a wee-sized scarred copper pot. At ten, my childhood partner in crime and I concocted a scheme to make a million. We juiced. We squeezed every fruit we could get our hands on. It was going to be a hit. An upscale lemonade stand, if you will. Sadly, our products didn’t exactly take off, but we were pumped full of Vitamin C for at least four years. When I grew up, I found that alcohol could be mixed, muddled, and manipulated the same way. There’s nothing wrong with a Tanquerey and tonic, but what about a cucumber garnish instead of a lime? Or go a little further and tie in the crisp, herbal notes with a few drops of rosemary simple syrup? When my family and friends convene at our beach house on the Gulf of Mexico, they joke about their “resident mixologist,” yours truly. I love to concoct. Which brings us back to Friday, July 22nd.

We (Genevieve, Sarah, and I) left for New Orleans, our bags heavy and our hearts light. As we passed through Alabama and Mississippi, the excitement mounted. We were heading to Tales of the Cocktail, New Orleans’ festival celebrating mixology and the people who make it an art.

As we checked into our hotel, the quaint and affordable Historic French Market Inn, I could hardly contain my excitement. I felt like screaming, “I’m at Tales!” to everyone on Decatur Street. It was Tales’ 9th year and my first. My absence was not purposeful; for some reason, the timing was never right.

We quickly gathered our bearings and headed to the historic Hotel Monteleone, Tales of the Cocktail’s headquarters. We were greeted within seconds by two affable bartenders handing out shots of Saint Germaine, dulcet elderflower nectar redolent of pear, peach and lavender. We clinked glasses and cried, “To Tales!”

At Registration we procured our tickets for the night’s event, the Bar Room Brawl, and our tasting room wristbands, which were included in the price of our ticket. The tasting room wristband, or our unbarred access to everything lovely in life, was the perk of perks. I kept pinching myself to see if it was true. Was this really all for us? Could we really, (if we had arrived on Wednesday, when it began) taste top-notch cocktails in fifty four tasting rooms over five days for only $50? The answer, my friends, was yes; however, before you start calling all of your college buddies or your sorority sisters, be warned. This is not Beerfest. It is isn’t about grabbing “Big Ass Beers” and Hand Grenades on Bourbon Street and hurling your $1.56 Krystal dinner all over the stoop of Larry Flynt’s Hustler. Tales of the Cocktail, or “Tales” as we called it, is about the art of mixing great cocktails. The buzz is just a bonus.

We headed for the Royal Sonesta, where the Remy Cointreau USA Profile Tasting Room was being held in their Acadia Room. Brugal, Cointreau, Highland Park 18, Mount Gay Rum, Remy Martin 1738 Accord Cognac, and Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka were all a-shaking and a-stirring. We stood around, stunned, for a moment. Suddenly a drink was in our hand (delicious—a Cointreau Cup—recipe below). It tasted fresh, zingy, and appropriate for our first cocktail of the weekend. Our next stop was Zu (Zubrowka) Vodka, a bison-grass spirit with hints of vanilla and almond. A tiny shot magically appeared before us and we tasted the clean, floral, and slightly grassy flavor. Delicious.
One of the most wonderful things about Tales is the atmosphere. It is elegant and refined without being stuffy or pretentious. Everyone is friendly and flushed with drink. No one stumbles or yells to the person standing next to them, oblivious to their volume. The only exhibition of "unsavory behavior" that we witnessed was the strange man (wearing a wristband, by the way) who was taking everyone's leftovers and pouring them into one cup. We, horrified, inwardly begged him not to take a sip...but alas, our pleas went unheeded. Talk about a cocktail of cocktails.

After having our fill (temporarily) of tasty libations, we went to John Besh's Domenica. I was on a fungi kick: I had wild mushroom soup and wild mushroom pizza with fontina, bacon and yard egg. They were both out of this world and provided a perfect base for the rest of the night.

We took a cab to Generations Hall, a large warehouse-style venue Uptown. It was built in the 1820's as a sugar refinery. Here we waited in line for the first and last time all weekend. We presented our tickets, got a green wristband, and entered the Bar Room Brawl. Grand Marnier, Hennessy, Belvedere Vodka and 10 Cane Rum sponsored this particular event, and the mixologists from bars all over the country battled it out. We cheered on Boston's own Eastern Standard, who took home the title. My favorite cocktail was theirs: a gorgeous vibrant watermelon concotion. Please excuse the blur. I just can't understand why my hands so so unsteady.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Minty Side of the Pillow

Why is a pot of the most bountiful mint ever riding shotgun in my mother's Honda Civic?

Good question. I left our beach house with this beautiful monster in tow. I was tempted to strap it in with the seatbelt, but I decided to live dangerously. I'm really not sure why it's this big, or why my mother's thumb is is green, but I inherited it, and I'm going to make the most of it.

This will be a mixology blog only. I'm not sure how to use mint in cooking except for in a sauce or garnish. The master recipe is mint simple syrup, and at the risk of using silly puns, it couldn't be "simpler."

Mint Simple Syrup

1 cup sugar
1 cup water
2 handfuls of mint leaves

Combine sugar and water in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Bring it to a very light simmer and stir until sugar dissolves. Take off the heat when it is clear and slightly reduced. Bruise the mint leaves with the handle of a wooden spoon, but do not tear them. Add the mint to the syrup and let steep for at least 30 minutes. Remove the mint leaves and refrigerate the syrup in an airtight container. Keeps for about 2 weeks.
Once you've made your mint syrup, there are no limits to its uses. Here are a few of my favorites:

Southern Mint Julep
Makes 1 drink

A mint julep is a simple drink but can actually be quite complicated to make well. It requires the best bourbon, the freshest mint, the finest-crushed ice, and the coldest vessel money can buy. I use Maker's Mark Bourbon. I know it isn't the most expensive of bourbons, but the highest end bourbons shouldn't be mixed. Why mess with perfection? I also use Salisbury Pewter julep cups. They keep the drink so cold that it hurts to hold them. They're pricey at $30 a pop, but again, why mess with perfection? Surprisingly, there are many varieties of mint. I use 'Kentucky Colonel' Mint, which is of the Spearmint variety. I crush the ice by hand with a hammer. I know you think I'm kidding, but I'm not, and my forearms aren't either.

1 1/2 ounces Maker's Mark
3/4 ounce mint syrup
finely crushed ice
3 or 4 spearmint leaves
a mint sprig

Bruise mint leaves with the mint syrup in the bottom of a pewter cup. Fill full of crushed ice.
Add bourbon slowly and stir ever so slightly so as to not melt the ice. Garnish with a mint sprig.

Classic Mojito
Makes 1 drink

Although I am much more of a julep person, sometimes you need something a little lighter and less potent. This is where a mojito comes in. Although I would never adulterate a julep (although I did have a delicious ginger-mint one in New Orleans) a mojito begs to be tinkered. Try muddling your favorite fruit with the mint.

3 lime wedges
2 teaspoons lime juice
1 ounce mint syrup
1 1/2 ounces silver/white rum
a handful of mint leaves
club soda

In the bottom of a highball glass, crush 2 lime wedges with the simple syrup and all but a few of the mint leaves. I use a muddler, but you can use a wooden spoon if you don't have one. Add rum and top with club soda. Garnish with the mint and one lime wedge. Enjoy!