Friday, October 10, 2014

The Hard Stuff: Les Brers

Les Brers
One of the early goals in my shrub making venture was to push the flavor boundaries of what people had been doing with them for years, which is either making a shrub with one type of fruit or in some instances pairing them with an herb or spice.
It feels like my primary approach is to think more as a modern cook might, and that meant thinking of dishes people really enjoy, and then attempting to translate something evocative of those flavors in the shrubs that I was making.
In the case of the original incarnation of Jessica, I went for a sort of peach cobbler or tart flavor by incorporating allspice berries, vanilla, and brown sugar with ripe yellow peaches. On the one hand, this worked pretty well, and if one were going to only mix it with soda or eat it with ice cream, the complexity was quite welcome, as it gave those applications some additional mystery and depth.
Recently, as I re-examined this profile, it seemed a little bit limiting. While all of these flavors were certainly tasty, it was not the sort of package you could use in a wide variety of cocktails without basically hitting a wall in terms of versatility. Hence, the decision to change the shrub to a more simple peach and brown sugar model.

Despite the fact that the new formula of Jessica does a much better job of highlighting the fruit, there was something about that flavor profile I just couldn't shake. It occurred to me that there was no earthly reason why this peach shrub couldn't still bring those delightful elements together, I would simply have to change the medium.I immediately thought of one of my favorite cocktails that shares some similar flavors with the old version of the shrub, The Lion's Tail.

The Lion's Tail is a bourbon based cocktail that dates back to the Cafe Royal Cocktail Book which came out in England sometime in the late 30's. A fine combination of the aforementioned bourbon with lime juice, allspice liqueur, Angostura bitters, and a tiny bit of simple syrup for balance, The Lion's Tail is one of those cocktails that turns out to be kind of the autumn sweater of cocktails: warm, smooth, and just enough spice to evoke memories of cuddling under blankets and fireplaces and what have you.

These ingredients of the original cocktail are just begging for the addition of some peach in the mix, and there is no question that peaches and bourbon are an excellent match, but that seemed a little too rote. I wanted more vanilla and richness to meld right into the peach and the allspice, and I knew that Zaya 12 year was going to be the base of this cocktail.

Zaya 12 year, is a very vanilla forward rum; an extremely smooth operator that is usually best employed over a large ice cube for an evening sipper, it had those very prominent notes I wanted to get a peach cobbler vibe across, but with a bit of flash and muscle rather than delving into the sickly sweet dessert-in-a-glass route.

The rest of the ingredient list was the same, with the keen addition of a healthy slug of new formula Jessica, a lessening of the lime and allspice liqueur and the complete omission of the simple syrup which had basically been replaced by the concentrated shrub syrup.

As it turned out after a half a bottle worth of attempts, my first attempt was actually the best one, and it's the one I am going to share with you.

So without further ado, please enjoy the Les Brers.

Les Brers

2 oz Zaya 12 rum(or another vanilla forward rum)
.75 oz Jessica
.25 oz lime juice
.25 oz St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram
1 dash Angostura bitters

Combine ingredients in shaker with ice. Shake vigourously until chilled and strain up into a cocktail glass. No garnish.


In regard to the name, Les Brers is a truncated version of the Allman Brothers Band song "Les Brers in A Minor" which follows the shrub being named Jessica, after another Allman Brothers tune of some note.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Book Review: Shrubs: An Old Fashioned Drink For Modern Times by Michael Dietsch


The world seems to be in the midst of an urban craft renaissance of sorts; you're as likely to see a young twenty-something knitting on the bus as you would the 60 year old next to them. Chicken coops are springing up in cities great and small far from the pastoral environs in which they are normally seen, and preservation, be it canning, pickling, or fermented foods are all the rage.

And it's that last part where the modern re-emergence of shrubs have been threatening to make a comeback for the past several years, just bubbling under the surface as the focus of multiple trend pieces and popping up on some of the more forward(or temporally backward) thinking bar menus you may have seen.

Well, if shrubs have been gliding by just under the radar up until now, with the recent release of Michael Dietsch's debut book, Shrubs: An Old Fashioned Drink For Modern Times, these tart wonders should prepare for their close-up, as they are poised to finally bask in the heady adoration of food and beverage enthusiasts everywhere.

Mr. Dietsch has done an excellent job of breaking the book into distinct sections, beginning with a well researched and very entertaining run through the origins of this mysterious drink, charting its humble beginnings as a flavored soft drink tablet to colonial standby and beyond. To say any more about the historical section would spoil the fun of discovering the serendipitous route of shrubs to our modern table for potential readers, so I'll move on to the more hands-on areas of the book.

A section of shrub recipes follows, both of the historical variety and more modern flavors which in my view do an excellent job of illustrating the overall arc of the world's taste in shrubs, beginning with colonial liquor based offerings that would have been enjoyed by no less than Benjamin Franklin, all the way to some ambitious savory offerings that certainly push at the boundaries of the more general straight up fruit based shrubs that have generally been more common up until this new modern revival of the drink.

Dietsch's excellent, easy to follow instructions are perfect for novices and experts alike, striking an almost conversational tone of an old friend walking you through the process and having a fun afternoon of it. An approachable tone and expert guidance are a must when teaching people about subjects in food and beverage when presenting a concept that is likely to be foreign to most people, and this book nails it.

Additional recipes for other drinks including cocktails and sodas utilizing the shrubs are also well-written and accompanied by really gorgeous photography all of which makes the reader thirst for more.

Speaking as someone who has been really dedicated to this craft for some time, and cares deeply about seeing this modern revival take hold, the publication of this book is both timely and vital. As one will see from reading the book, shrubs have had a long and storied history being the supporting actor in many a bar manual and cookbook over the past few centuries, but in all those years of flavoring bad booze, or seeing farmers and their families through long, parched summers of field work, shrub has quietly been around not drawing as much attention as flashier fare such as soda or alcohol.

As a cocktail enthusiast, I am thrilled with this modern era to be spoiled for choice with hundreds of books about libations to choose from, and all of those had to begin with the first book written specifically about the craft of bartending.

With the debut of Michael Dietsch's Shrubs, our craft has finally gotten the book its pedigree has rightfully earned, and I can only hope that we won't be waiting for another few centuries for more books of this quality on the subject to be made.

You can buy Mr. Dietsch's book Shrubs: An Old Fashioned Drink For Modern Times here.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Hard Stuff: The Bitter Ibex

The ingredients for a fine Sunday morning

Red Beer. Bloody Beer. Red Eye. Michelada.

It may go by a handful of aliases, but when I was first spied someone in a bar dumping a glass of tomato juice in what appeared to be a perfectly good beer, I was horrified.

First of all, as affable as the gritty character drinking it was("Oh, that's really kind of you, but I have an appointment after this, so I'm going to have to decline your polite invitation to 'burn down a J' in the bar parking lot. Thank you, though!", drinking tomato based alcohol drinks in the evening always seemed kind of out of place in the cold, dim lighting of a divier establishment.

Secondly, why would one pollute what appears to be at least a reasonably refreshing beer with a can of Campbell's tomato juice? And furthermore, why would one drink five of these concoctions in a row?

Interestingly, the guy was a fellow Midwestern transplant, so naturally I wondered if this was a regional drink that had escaped me before I moved to Seattle. In the interest of alcoholic anthropology, I sought an expert in the world of Midwestern bar going, my younger sister, then an student at the University of Iowa.

According to her, this was indeed a thing, and it ran from at least Wisconsin to Ohio, but it was definitely viewed as a sort of tailgating restorative, a Budweiser corpse reviver with all of the salt and ethanol that a growing undergrad could need to get back onto their feet to cheer their beloved Hawkeyes(or other Big Ten school) on to victory.

What I did not realize until later, is that our neighbors to the South had been enjoying a similar if not more flavorful with the refreshing additions of lime juice, hot sauce, and some other savory MSG laden wondersauce, be it Maggi, soy, or good old fashioned Worcestershire. This make sense, given that the general blandness of many Mexican lagers make for an excellent blank canvas for a savory, effervescent beer that doesn't feel quite as wrong being drunk before noon.

Which brings me back to the shrub.

There aren't all that many drinks that pop into my mind that use tomato as a main flavor component, and I tackled a new spin on one of them, which led me to wonder if I could bring some of that rich, complex East African spice profile to the beloved red beer.

By heck, I think I may have done just that!

By substituting the very concentrated Elizabeth shrub for your less viscous, run of the mill tomato juice, we bolster the otherwise thin, but extremely clean taste of one's favorite lager with a salvo of savory. The umami punch and inherent heat of this shrub in this drink is so strong, it basically renders the need for additional Worcestershire and hot sauce almost irrelevant.

Which is not to say that you can't put those things in there, because this is your beer, friend! What goes on between a man or a woman and their beer in their kitchen is none of my damn business.

As for the lime: the kid stays in the picture. Lime brings a necessary dose of bright acidity to give this thing some lift. 

One area I did think could use an upgrade, however, was the salted rim. I am actually a huge proponent of people using salt in some drinks as it can really highlight or downplay other flavors. In this case, I felt like coupling the salt with one of the myriad of spices that are actually in berbere, would echo those flavors in a much more vibrant and immediate way.

I chose to make a Coriander salt, which approximates a nice balance of citric pucker with the salinity that gives the entire affair a sense of balance. Other good options if you're not a purist might be smoked paprika salt, or cayenne salt. If you're using African cayenne, please be careful; after putting that against your mouth a few times, the Flaming Lips won't just be a band name any more, but a very unpleasant temporary reality.

Ultimately, I've grown to love Micheladas(except the ones with Clamato, thanks) and their simple, but refreshing permutations and customizable nature. Since we're already playing with flavors, what's a continent or two between friends?

The Bitter Ibex

1-4 oz Elizabeth(to desired strength)
12 oz lager(I have used HUB and Fort George 1811 Lager)
Juice of 1/2 lime
Worcestershire, soy sauce, or Maggi sauce(optional)
Vinegar Based Hot Sauce(optional)
Coriander Salt(for rim)

Place tall glass in freezer until ice cold.

Pour flavored salt onto a plate in an even layer. Wet rim of glass with cut lime, gently roll glass rim in flavored salt.

Pour in desired amount of Elizabeth, followed by the juice of half a lime. If adding hot sauce and or other savory sauce, add it now. Swirl glass gently.

Pour lager into glass from a reasonable height so that the beer begins to mix and slightly agitate the shrub, lime juice, and any other optional ingredients you may have added.

Swirl gently again, and enjoy before beer gets warm.

Coriander Salt

2 parts salt
1 part ground coriander(I like Indian coriander for this, as it's more lemony)

Combine salt and ground coriander and mix together thoroughly.