June 22, 2018

The Well-Stocked Home Bar

Lately there have been more cocktails sampled when out and about – now that I’ve successfully branched out from the classic gin martini – and more cocktail parties thrown at home. Maybe it started with recent hours spent watching Mad Men and having the characters’ excessive cocktail consumption wash over me. Or maybe it was the search for the right bar to buy, finding the appropriate size to hold an ever-expanding collection of liquor and liqueurs. The other day I opened up what serves as my liquor cabinet and started rooting around looking for something or other, and realized that I had an excess of bottles. Too many bottles acquired for a single drink (Frangelico) or recipe (Starbucks liqueur chocolate cake), making for liquor actually stored in three different places at home. So many bottles, too infrequently used, taking up way too much space. And as my cocktail interests broaden, not enough room for the green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, and Lillet that I use on a far more frequent basis than you might think.

Thus began a more careful examination of what I was actually using, and the question of what makes a well-stocked bar. Assuming that you want to have on hand the spirits to make a select number of cocktails, what bottles should inhabit your bar? I’m sure that the recent popularity of Mad Men has contributed to the parallel resurgence of the classic cocktail, and I’m all for it. The Manhattan, Sidecar, Gin Gimlet, and perhaps lesser known Corpse Reviver or The Last Word, are all drinks I heartily endorse. I’ve no doubt that this could be the subject of much debate, but after careful consideration and in consultation with a few select cocktail-savvy friends, here is my version of the well-stocked home bar. Notes about brands only where I feel especially wed to one or two:

  • Two gins (I’d recommend Miller’s and Hendrick’s)
  • OK, three gins because I’m such a fan of the Old Tom style right now (Ransom is smooth and lovely)
  • Vodka (mostly because I love Vespers)
  • Whiskey
  • Rye or bourbon
  • Dry vermouth
  • Sweet vermouth
  • Rum
  • Tequila
  • Campari
  • Maraschino liqueur
  • Chartreuse
  • Fernet-Branca
  • Cynar
  • Elderflower liqueur (has to be St-Germaine, given my recent taste-off)

Another important question: Do you need a bar book? Of course you can always look up a recipe online, but if you’re going to have the well-stocked bar, how about a book to go with it? One of my go-to cocktail-y friends recommended The Savoy Cocktail Book, and since then I’ve spied it sitting on the shelves of several of the bars around town. Though if the Savoy isn’t your speed and you’d like to explore other options, start with this post by bartender- blogger-tweeter Andrew Bohrer. Then hang around and read more because he’s wickedly funny, but only if you can handle the irreverent. As long as we’re on the topic of books, one more suggestion before I close with a recipe. If you’d be happy finding yourself at the intersection of cocktails, cooking, and history, keep an eye out for Bitters, the soon-to-be released book from Amazon-editor-turned-book-author Brad Thomas Parsons. Apparently chock full of recipes – both of the food and cocktail variety – with history woven throughout. Sounds like just my kind of read!

Last but not least, what would a classic bar be without the cocktail of the house? Given my current love affair with Old Tom Gin (and Ransom in particular), I’ll share the Dover Calais with thanks to the nice people at Frank’s Oyster House & Champagne Parlor for graciously providing proportions. And although I’m a fan of mixing this one at home, I must say that it tastes especially good when consumed at Frank’s alongside several goat cheese deviled eggs and an iced flat of oysters…

Dover Calais
2 1/4 oz. Old Tom Gin
3/4 oz. St-Germaine
1/4 oz. Chartreuse

Cheers, and happy cocktailing!

The New Normal

I was talking with friends the other day about how much each of us eats out, and it was accepted as common knowledge that the average is four times a week. Now that’s ANY meal, mind you, and not just dinner. After that conversation I started poking around on online message boards and such, and saw lots of posts that claimed to be in the range of that four times a week, somewhere in the 4-8 vicinity. Sometimes they didn’t count meals other than dinner, as though any eating that occurs before late afternoon is too free form, so shouldn’t be a part of their ultimate eating-out total. Or sometimes they wouldn’t count take-out, but given that the word “out” appears right there in the phrase I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

How many times a week do you eat out? And are you single, coupled, with kids, without, suburban, or urban? This is an entirely unscientific and unmoderated survey, I know, but I’m interested in the results.

What has influenced our choice to eat in or eat out, cook at home or have a meal prepared for us? Clearly, the economy of the last couple of years has made us think more about how we spend our money, and as a result likely we eat out less frequently. (Though as the economy starts to perk up, perhaps we’ll begin eating out more but less extravagantly. I loved the Best Seattle Restaurants 2011 feature in Seattle Magazine’s April issue, and the various budget dining tips. How to continue to enjoy all of the good stuff the Seattle restaurant scene has to offer without breaking the bank.)

As well as the economy, another factor that seems to point toward more in and less out is the increasing prevalence of an assortment of dietary restrictions. Those who might be gluten- or dairy-intolerant, for example, might choose to avoid the hassle of sifting through options in a restaurant and just cooking at home. Though at the same time, with the rise of dietary issues there has also been a corresponding response from restaurants, making it easier to find good options on the menu. Witness places like Volterra with wheat-free pasta upon request, and Tango with its entirely gluten-less menu. Or for the vegan among us, the vegan doughnuts at Mighty-O and what I understand to be the granddaddy of vegan restaurant in Seattle, Hillside Quickie’s.

One last piece of the puzzle to consider is the ever-increasing pace of our lives, which seems to push us in the other direction. I talk to friends who have to work more hours just to keep afloat in their staff-slimmed offices. Or others who have busy families, and spend a considerable amount of time shuttling kids to multiple activities so don’t have a chance to hang out around the dinner table. Or what often describes me, the person busy trying to fit in quality time with friends, time that more often includes a quick happy hour drop-by at a bar rather than a leisurely dinner party at home.

I haven’t seen your responses yet, but all of this thinking about eating out and I’ve come to the conclusion that I likely won’t do it a whole lot less, but I’ll work on doing it with more intention. Good food – or something crazy and different so you have no guarantee that it’ll be good – chosen with care and not just the default because I was too busy to pack a lunch. And more leisurely dinners with family and friends, please. That’s one of my very favorite activities – enjoying the company of interesting people over good food and drink. Even better if both are the product of my kitchen!

The Elderflower Face-Off: Round II

Guess what? It turns out that there are several different elderflower liqueurs in the marketplace, some of which are showing up on bar shelves and challenging the dominance of local favorite St-Germain. You might remember that back in December I did a taste test of St-Germain against one of the competitors – Thatcher’s – and the upstart came out the winner in that particular competition. Shortly after, I heard from the U.S. distributor that in fact St-Germain, as an artisanal liqueur, has a determinate shelf life and thus loses some of its luster when sitting on a bar shelf for some amount of time. After comparing the look of a new bottle with the old I saw that he was quite right, and that they are two very distinct colors. Given the fact that I now had two different bottles of St-Germain, had done one test with the Thatcher’s, and also been given another bottle in the elderflower family, Pür Likör, it seemed only fitting to convene another taste test.

The details: four bottles, two rounds, eight ready and willing testers. The first round consisted of a blind tasting of each of the four liqueurs, all on their own: old St-Germain, new St-Germain, Thatcher’s, and Pür Likör. For the second round we took the top two vote-getters from round one, then tasted those head-to-head.

And who could taste all of this liqueur without a little sustenance to go with? Kalamata olive and goat cheese on fingerling potato rounds, and Chicken Marbella for all, with homemade Kit Kat Bars to finish.

So who the heck won, right?? Turns out that the St-Germain was a bit sweeter than the Pur Likor, though the two were fairly similar. Neither tasted at all like the Thatcher’s, which some thought had a bit of a soapy taste and all agreed had a unique smell (rose water?) before you even got to the taste. The two winners from round 1 were the old and new St-Germain, and the overall winner after round 2 was the new St-Germain, so it would seem that this group was on board with the most popular of the elderflower liqueurs around town.

But given that Thatcher’s had won in December’s tasting, it seemed only fair to whip up the same cocktail used in Face-Off #1 to see if indeed St-Germain was the winner in cocktail form and not just sipped on its own. So back we went to the Gypsy, complete with gin, green chartreuse, and lime juice. And guess what? St-Germain did it again, winning 7 of 8 votes.

Though if you’re a real fanatic – and I only count myself as one on certain occasions – you might say that the Thatcher’s paired well with the Miller’s gin used in Face-Off #1 and the St-Germain paired well in the Cascade Mountain Gin used in Face-Off #2, because in each case the tastes were quite complementary. But if you’re not a fanatic and just want to have a single good bottle of good elderflower liqueur in your bar, St-Germain is the way to go. But make sure to drink it with some expediency… 

[Photos courtesy of David Franzen]

A diversity of restaurant recs, all from the must-not-be missed list

Dear Alix,

A friend of mine and I have both taken new jobs that (sadly) will result in both of us needing to leave our beloved Seattle. We’ve got a couple of months before we each depart, so are hoping to pick a couple of great places to eat. Can you recommend a few of your favorites?

Thanks!

 – Prematurely Nostalgic for Seattle

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Dear Nostalgic,

Just a couple of places to go before you depart our fair city? Sheesh – I hope that you aren’t leaving any time soon because it’s a bit of a list. And this is the short version; I reserve the right to update the post should more inspiration strike. It’s tough in a town with food this great!

Now, before we go diving into the food, we really should start with a cocktail, no? If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know that I find all sorts of excellent drinks all over the city, but before leaving you really should visit Murray Stenson at Zig Zag for one last cocktail concoction. After all, the guy is a Seattle institution, and Zig Zag was named by GQ as America’s Best Cocktail Bar.

A quick jaunt up from the Harbor Steps could take you right to Matt’s in the Market, which has my favorite lamb burger in town, direct from Don & Joe’s Meats in the market. Or you might continue up to Belltown and gastropub Spur, besides having some of the most gorgeous food photography on their website, has the incredible salmon crostini. When you can get it, of course – that’s the only trouble with the rotating seasonal menu is that you fall in love with a dish and then it’s replaced by something else, hopefully equally as delicious.

Speaking of seasonal menus, if the escolar crudo is on the menu the day you go into How to Cook a Wolf, order it immediately. Once there, you’ll see why I love the place – one of the warmest interiors in town. Another Queen Anne favorite is Emmer & Rye, and while I’d go there just for the farro fries (and do, in fact), stay for a while and sample some of the other fantastic items on the menu.

Some of my other favorite things? The macarons at Honore Bakery in Ballard, quiche at Bakery Nouveau in West Seattle, and ramen (medium firm, of course) at the Samurai Noodle in the International District. Now that I’m thinking Asian… I wouldn’t miss the Korean-French fusion happening at Joule, or the Korean-Hawaiian goodness of the Marination Mobile truck. Two ends of the dining spectrum, I suppose, but both delicious. And last but not least, if you haven’t already sampled the pasta at Capitol Hill’s Spinasse get ready, because it will knock your socks off. FOOD & WINE says so.

Go forth and eat, Prematurely Nostalgic, and let me know what good food finds you come upon in your new locale! 

The Elderflower Face-Off

It’s holiday time and everywhere you look there are parties. (More this year than last — I’ll take this as a good sign!) Often what sets apart the stellar bash from the ho hum function, the thing that people talk about long after the fact, is fantastic food and drink. If you’re the host of one of these parties and searching for the hip cocktail of the hour, look no further than the recent popularity of St-Germain, a liqueur made from the elderflower. Whether it’s the Dover Calais at Frank’s Oyster House & Champagne Parlor, the Parisian Sake at Joule, or the Empress at Spur, I’ve been seeing this particular liqueur in fantastic cocktails all around town.

There’s a bit of drama going on at the moment, though, which may only increase its popularity: My bottle at home was running low so I tried first one liquor store and then another and then another, and was eventually told of an apparent scarcity in the marketplace, not even a dusty bottle way in the back of a liquor store shelf to be found. Even the warehouse was completely out. Mon Dieu! I started asking around and it seemed to be true. One theory was that a strike in France had delayed shipment, and another was that the producer hadn’t properly anticipated demand. At one point I heard through the grapevine (or the elderberry shrub?) that the folks at Ocho even tried making their own version. Maybe we’ll see that on the menu soon!

My inability to purchase St-Germain led me to consider other options, and on a recent foray to yet another liquor store I was finally presented with one that looked quite viable, Thatcher’s Elderflower, from a distillery in Temperance, Michigan. Though the Thatcher’s bottle couldn’t hold a candle to the over-the-top ornateness of the St-Germain bottle, the former looked to be a good contender for my new favorite elderflower liqueur. So, what’s a person to do except conduct a (very non-scientific) taste test?

The cocktail of choice for the big face-off was the Gypsy, courtesy of the St-Germain website:

1 1/2 parts gin

3/4 part St-Germain

1/2 part Green Chartreuse

1/2 part freshly squeezed lime juice

The long and the short of it is that this is our new favorite cocktail — and currently the drink of the house — but despite this being a St-Germain-provided cocktail their elderflower liqueur wasn’t our pick. The four taste testers all agreed: The Thatcher’s version was much more subtle, and let the flavor of the gin (Plymouth, in this case) shine through. I’m pleased to report that the bottle of Thatcher’s, along with my stamp of approval, has gone to the friend who was kind enough to lend us his bottle of St-Germain for the experiment. Thank you to Andrew and his well-stocked bar!

The good news for all of you party-throwers out there is that you should have no problem meeting your elderflower liqueur needs, even if you want to stick with the ever-popular St-Germain. Sunday night the bartender at The Blue Glass assured us that the shortage is over, and once again liquor store shelves will be groaning under the weight of that beautiful bottle. Happy cocktailing, and cheers to one and all!