Island Flair

If you’ve ever experienced a tiki drink, you probably know that tiki culture involves fun, flair, and plenty of flavor. I’m no tiki expert, but I’ve had blast seeking out tiki bars in my travels and often gravitate to tiki drinks for their delicious blend of fruit and nut ingredients. The trend started in mid-century America and has, in my opinion, seen a recent resurgence in popularity. It’s hard not to get behind a cocktail style that’s so theatrical and easy to enjoy.

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My biggest qualm with a lot of tiki drinks is that they tend to be deceptively debilitating. The drink tastes great as you’re enjoying it, but the aftermath can hit quite unpleasantly. Tiki drinks often contain a fair amount of booze but, more likely, it’s the sugar content that causes your hangover. Typical tiki syrups and liqueurs are high in sugar content on their own and are often used in combination with a slew of sweet fruit juices.  

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I wanted to create a cocktail that was true to tiki flavors and garnish while being easier on my body. After some brainstorming, I landed on a combination of an aged and spiced rum, fresh apricot puree, orgeat, and lime. I paired Grander, a high-proof Panamanian rum aged for 8 years in bourbon barrels, with Spytail, a ginger-spiced French rum with a delightful vanilla smoothness. Joining the rums with a 1-1 ratio gave me the spirit strength I wanted and allowed the spice flavors to elevate the drink rather than steal the show from the other ingredients. 

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I chose to include fresh, ripe apricots rather than apricot liqueur to control the sugar content and was rewarded with a burst of authentic flavor. To give the puree an easier consistency to work with, I added lime, water, and a bit of demerara sugar to the apricots before blending them. The leftover puree held up well in my fridge for about a week, allowing me to experiment adding it to other drinks without worrying about the whole fruit going bad.

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The real highlight of this drink is the homemade orgeat. Orgeat, pronounced "or-zhat," is a rich almond syrup with a hint of floral flavor. Store-bought varieties tend to be pricey, artificial or overly sweet, so I experimented with making my own. In a nutshell (pun intended), you grind up toasted almonds and then soak them in a simple syrup overnight for the nut oils to be released. Orange flower water is added for the floral flavor and a bit of vodka acts as a preservative. You can also use the discarded ground almonds as a topper for oatmeal or yogurt - just toast them in the oven after straining them out of the syrup. 

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Going in the tiki direction gave me an excuse to get really wild with my garnish. I've been mesmerized by flaming lime garnishes plenty of times at cocktail bars and found after some research that they're not too hard to recreate. The flame will burn longer if you use a stronger spirit so I recommend finding a cheap bottle of overproof liquor for this purpose. I wouldn't directly mix with the spirit I used for this garnish but it's great for making bitters. Because I care about your safety, please be sure to use a metal (not paper straw) or to add the straw after the flame dies out to avoid any unintended chaos.  

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Island Flair

  • 1 oz Grander Rum (aged rum)
  • 1 oz Spytail Rum (spiced rum)
  • 1.5 oz apricot puree*
  • 0.75 oz orgeat**
  • Shell of 1/2 lime
  • Sugar cube
  • Overproof spirit (I used 190 proof Polish pure spirit)

Stir first four ingredients with ice until chilled, then strain into a tiki mug or a colorful party glass over crushed ice. Add crushed ice as needed to fill your glass to the top, insert a metal straw, and nestle a hollow lime half into the ice, open side up. Place a sugar cube into the lime, pour a bit of overproof spirit over the sugar cube and then light the sugar cube to ignite the flame. Enjoy while wearing your most ridiculous Hawaiian shirt and dreaming of your next tropical getaway.

*To make the apricot puree, blend 8 ripe apricots (seeds removed), 0.5 oz lime juice, 1 tbsp demerara sugar and 1 oz water. Strain out any leftover solids if you prefer a smoother consistency and store the excess in the fridge for up to 1 week.

**To make the orgeat, broil 3 cups of almonds until toasted, then grind them up in a blender. Add 1 cup demerara sugar and 2 cups waster to a medium saucepan and heat until sugar is dissolved. Add the almonds to the syrup and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove the syrup from heat, cover and allow to infuse for at least 12 hours. Strain out the solids, then pour into a glass jar or bottle and add 0.25 tsp orange flower water and 0.5 oz vodka. Store excess in the fridge for up to 1 month.

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the beautiful vintage glasses.

Valcohol Nog

I have to be honest with you - I didn't try egg nog for the first time until this winter. What changed? I made it at home with careful attention to bacteria safety as well as fat and sugar content. The result was incredibly worth the hours of research and I'm incredibly excited to share the recipe with you all.

Let's talk eggs (bonus points if you say that word with a Wisconsin accent). When it comes to incorporating them in cocktails, people either love them, are still unsure of their flavor or avoid them like the plague. I have to admit that I was once part of the last group. It took a large amount of curiosity for me to finally give egg whites a try and I will never go back. They add such a wonderful texture and contribute a smooth, creamy flavor without adding excess fat or dairy. Plus, egg whites are a great source of protein, beneficial to jump-starting your metabolism before eating a meal.

Though the risk of salmonella is low, I've preferred to play it safe by using pasteurized egg whites. I typically buy them in cartons, making sure it's not an egg substitute and there are no suspicious additives. As an extra safety measure, I only use them raw for about a week after opening, and then incorporate the remainder into baked goods. 

Unfortunately, egg yolks do not come in cartons (that I'm aware of) and pasteurized whole eggs can be very hard to find (I may or may not have checked 5 different grocery stores). Adapting to this constraint, I chose to cook the egg nog, age it for a few days with KOVAL Oat Whiskey and then shake the aged mix with a pasteurized egg white before serving. You could also use bourbon but the oat whiskey is really ideal for this application - it's rich, creamy and incredibly smooth.

I kept my recipe dairy-free with a mixture of Califia Farms almond/coconut creamer and almond milk that I simmered with orange peel, cinnamon, cloves and dark maple syrup. I also added vanilla extract and fresh grated nutmeg during the aging process. The result is blissfully decadent in taste yet not in content and simply perfect for the holiday season. I also highly recommend it as an excellent DIY gift!

Valcohol Nog

Step 1:

  • 1 cup almond milk
  • 1 cup almond/coconut creamer
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 tsp cloves
  • 2 strips orange peel
  • 0.5 cup dark maple syrup
  • 3 fresh egg yolks

Heat all ingredients other than egg yolks on low/medium heat in a small saucepan. Stir occasionally and warm for about 15 minutes or until milk mixture just reaches a boil, then set aside. In a large bowl, beat egg yolks with an electric mixer. Add warm spiced milk mixture to egg yolks very slowly, while continuing to beat with the electric mixer. Once the egg yolks and spiced milk are combined, transfer the liquid back to the small saucepan and heat for about 3 more minutes or until the mixture reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure to stir continuously during this process. Remove from heat, strain out the spices and orange peel and allow to cool.

Step 2:

  • 1 cup oat whiskey
  • 0.5 tsp vanilla
  • 0.5 tsp fresh grated nutmeg

Once egg yolk and spiced milk mixture has cooled, transfer to a large glass jar or bottle and add vanilla, whiskey and nutmeg. Give the jar/bottle a good shake and put it in the fridge for 1-2 days for the flavors to mix and intensify (I would recommend consuming within 7 days).

Step 3:

  • 1 egg white
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 orange twist

When you're ready to serve, add 4 ounces of the aged egg nog mixture and 1 egg white to a shaker. Dry shake for about 10 seconds to form a nice foam, popping the shaker occasionally if pressure builds up. Add ice and shake until chilled. Strain into a stemmed glass and garnish with a cinnamon stick and orange twist. Enjoy while opening a pile of presents around the nondenominational holiday tree.

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the lovely glasses and tray.

 

 

Winter Spice Sangria

No matter your comfort level with mixology, cocktails aren't made in a vacuum. Rather, cocktails are the embodiment of our performance as a host to our friends and loved ones. It's crucial to be a good listener and to adapt to the preferences of your audience because their satisfaction is your ultimate reward. The key is creating an experience rather than simply a beverage. You know how sandwiches always taste better when someone else makes them for you? Cocktails follow the same principle.

One of my biggest goals has been to develop recipes that align with the tastes and preferences of my family. They're open to new things if I make them, but I know that they love red wine and tend to stay away from harder spirits. Therefore, I've looked for ways to ease the alcohol content of some of my favorite recipes and created new recipes built upon lower ABV ingredients.

This sangria recipe is family tested and both mother and father approved!

To me, a well-made sangria is dressed with fruit flavors that complement rather than mask the underlying wine. In other words, it should taste like a wine cocktail rather than fruit soda. For this time of the year, I chose to add fresh squeezed Meyer lemon and orange juice as well as bottled apple cider and tart cranberry juice. I recommend using fresh squeezed juices whenever possible or checking the sugar content on the bottles you purchase so you're not surprised by the sweetness of the final product.

In order to give this sangria a holiday feel, I added flavors reminiscent of mulling spices. The quickest way to do this is grabbing a bottle of Chicago-based Jo Snow's Christmas in a Cup syrup (think brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves, molasses and orange). A little bit of this delicious, small batch and all-natural syrup goes a long way and it's equally wonderful in cup of coffee. If you prefer to make you own, I'd recommend using brown sugar or dark maple syrup along with cinnamon sticks, cloves and several strips of orange peel. 

Winter Spice Sangria

  • 1 bottle red wine (I recommend a Cab)
  • Juice of 1 orange
  • Juice of 1 Meyer lemon
  • 6 oz Jo Snow Christmas in a Cup
  • 0.5 cup VSOP brandy
  • 0.5 cup tart cranberry juice
  • 0.5 cup apple cider
  • Club soda, to top
  • Citrus slices, for garnish

Mix all ingredients other than soda and citrus slices in a large pitcher, bottle or jar (at least 1.5 liters). For both flavor and ease, I strongly recommend making the sangria in advance and storing in the fridge for 1-2 days. When you're ready to serve, simply pour into a punch bowl, top with desired amount of club soda and garnish with fresh slices of orange and lemon. Enjoy with family.

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the lovely punch bowl and cups.

An Esteemed Guest

All of us cocktail adventurers tend to have spirits we favor and those that make us slightly uncomfortable. Even as I broaden my horizons, I find that I have to consciously challenge myself to stray outside my comfort zone. Is the extra effort worth it if you can already make good drinks with ingredients you know?

YES

As with all other aspects of life, challenge leads to growth and feelings of accomplishment. Of course, the strongest feeling of accomplishment comes when you can create a recipe you enjoy, but this is easier than you may think. The next time you’re at a nice cocktail bar, order a drink with a new, intimidating liquor and pay attention to the complementary ingredients and balance of flavor. This is typically how I start mapping out the possibilities with a new spirit or mixer for home mixology.

The last cocktail of my Thanksgiving series features two new ingredients to my arsenal – Drambuie (a liqueur dating back to early 20th century Scotland, consisting of Scotch whiskey, heather honey, herbs and spices) and a Single Malt Scotch Whiskey. I’m not a big Scotch drinker and I tend to stray from smoky flavors. However, I found Drambuie to be an excellent cold weather liqueur with its sweet, spiced profile, and this $17 Trader Joe’s find was a noncommittal opportunity to try a smooth, young Scotch option for mixing. 

I wanted this cocktail to channel everything I love about pumpkin pie – sweet pumpkin puree, creamy texture and fall spice galore. I found that it’s quite easy to use canned or homemade pumpkin puree in cocktails if you shake all the ingredients together vigorously for an even mix. If you want to avoid the pumpkin sediment, you can always use a finer mesh strainer when pouring the cocktail. 

Egg white and lemon helped me achieve the creamy texture and perfect froth. A lemon twist also made for lovely garnish for the final presentation. If you’re like me and can’t get enough of fall spice, you can top the drink with some cinnamon sugar, pumpkin spice blend or freshly grated nutmeg. The result melts in your mouth with delightful sweetness and makes a wonderful substitute or pairing for the dessert course.

An Esteemed Guest

  • 1.5 oz Single Malt Scotch Whiskey
  • 0.5 oz Drambuie
  • 1 oz pumpkin puree
  • 1 egg white
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon

Dry shake all ingredients (without ice) for 10-15 seconds, popping the cap occasionally to release the pressure from the egg white. Add ice and shake until chilled. Strain into a stemmed crystal glass and garnish with a touch of fall spice and a lemon twist. Enjoy while toasting to a Thanksgiving gathering to remember!

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the lovely crystal stemware and other table adornments.

Black Barrel

Fun personal fact (which you may have also gathered from the general health-minded nature of this blog) – I’m not a typical dessert eater. People can be chowing down chocolate, doughnuts or ice cream sundaes right next to me while I feel no temptation. It’s a trait I’m hugely thankful for. One of my favorite treats to follow up dinner is actually a few walnuts. The rich buttery texture and nutty flavor is more than enough to leave me satisfied.
 
You may not share my dessert sentiments, but perhaps you’ll be hooked on this autumnal alcoholic ode to walnuts. 

If you haven't yet tried any Fee Brothers Bitters, I highly recommend picking up a few. I've enjoyed all the flavors I've tried thus far but the black walnut is hands down my favorite. In case you're new to bitters, be sure to use them sparingly. Bitters tend to be extremely concentrated so more than a few drops can offset your cocktail's flavor profile. On the other hand, I love how bitters can add focused complexity without watering a drink down (as well as their cost effectiveness). 

I chose to pair the black walnut bitters with spiced apple cider as the combination expresses everything I love about fall - apple picking in Southeastern Wisconsin, enjoying a fire in the fireplace and getting cozy with spiced treats. I initially thought of rye to further play up the spice element but then wondered if barrel finished gin could accomplish a similar effect. If you tend to stay away from gin and favor whiskey instead, I suggest you give barrel finished gin a chance. The varieties I've sampled tend to have less of the sharpness of vodka and more of the smooth oak profile of whiskey, but with added herbal complexity. Finn's Gin by Chicago Distilling Company is one of my favorites (plus, it's local).

To round out the cocktail and give it some decadence, I added a touch of lemon and egg white foam. The result is smooth, nutty, lightly sweet and thoughtfully complex.

The Black Barrel

  • 1.5 oz barrel finished gin
  • 1.5 oz spiced apple cider
  • 1/4 large lemon
  • 1 egg white
  • 3 drops black walnut bitters

Dry shake all ingredients (without ice) for 10-15 seconds, popping the cap occasionally to release the pressure from the egg white. Add ice and shake until chilled. Strain into a coupe glass and garnish with a touch of fall spice (star anise, cinnamon or fresh nutmeg). Enjoy while skipping through a sea of multicolored leaves in your favorite fall sweater.

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the lovely tray and gold-rimmed coupes.