May 26, 2012

Caipirinhas are the national cocktail of Brazil, and I understand they’ve been quite popular in the US and elsewhere recently (anyone know if this is true?).

Basically Caipirinhas use Brazil’s national spirit, Cachaça, to make a drink in the same way that you’d make a Daiquiri with white rum or a ‘Ti Punch with Rhum Agricole – spirit, sugar and lime.

Cachaça (pronounced ka-CHAR-sa) is an interesting spirit. They drink a staggering amount of it in Brazil, apparently, but it is (at least until recently) virtually unknown in other countries.

Some call Cachaça ‘Brazilian Rum’, but the taste is quite different. Much like Rhum Agricole (which I discussed in an earlier post), Cachaça is made from cane sugar juice rather than from the molasses used to make rum.

This gives it a taste which I find very close to that of  Rhum Agricole – a boisterous, rough, pungent, grassy, vegetable taste with a definite whiff of ‘Hogo’.

But add just a little lime and sugar to these spirits and the undrinkable becomes something delicious and very much full of character. That’s what a Caipirinha is all about.

The basic authentic Brazilian Caipirinha is Cachaça, lime and sugar, but some variations have gone the way of the Daiquiri, with all kinds of fruit being added. I have heard a Caipirinha described as any drink with Cachaça and muddled fruit, but according to my secret source, that could perhaps be better termed a Caipifruta.

The Caipirinha

2 oz Cachaça

2 tsp sugar

1/2 a lime

Cut the lime in half, end to end. Taking the half you want to use, remove the large piece of white pith from the middle. Cut this half into six equal pieces.

In the bottom of an old-fashioned glass, lightly dissolve 2 tsp of castor (superfine) sugar in a little Cachaça. Don’t completely dissolve it; just so it’s like a paste. Add your lime pieces and muddle them. Don’t over-muddle or it will be too bitter. The undissolved sugar will act as an abrasive on the lime and help release the juices and oils.

Half fill the glass with ice and add Cachaça. Pour this into a cobbler shaker, or add the tin of a Boston shaker. Shake lightly until cold. It should be enough to dissolve the sugar, but not to pulverise the ice or limes. Then pour the whole lot back in the glass.

Top up with more ice and serve as-is.

I’ve seen recipes recommend raw cane sugar, but I think the fine stuff is right. It needs to be undissolved to help muddle the limes, but fine enough to then dissolve into the drink with a little shaking. Apparently in Brazil they often don’t shake though, but I think you’d have to at least stir a little to mix the ingredients and dissolve the sugar.

I liked this drink a lot. It is obviously a lot like a Daiquiri in balance of ingredients, but closer to a ‘Ti Punch (yet better) in taste. The Cachaça gives it a very strong, vibrant, natural taste, but it’s in a very rich, earthy way – don’t expect a crisp, fresh drink.


Make this just the same way that you’d make a Caipirinha, but muddle in some fruit of your choice with the limes. I thought I’d give one a try, as my wife’s a big fan of fresh pineapple, and it’s in season and always in our fridge at the moment.

This pineapple Caipifruta was OK. I had roughly as much pineapple as lime, and about half as much sugar. It was definitely not as good as the straight Caipirinha, but I’m sure you could make some nice drinks with different kinds of fruit if you experimented with the right proportions – a good activity for a group of friends, a bottle of Cachaça and a sunny afternoon.

The Cachaça I used is called Uirapuru, and I’ve been able to find absolutely no information about it, which is exactly as much as I could find for the only other brand available in Taipei (to my knowledge), Samba & Cana. Both are available at Breeze Supermarket and at the Hengjui Liquor Store in Jingmei (or a couple of other bottle shops here and there). Both sell for about 550NT, but this one was discounted to 350NT (at Hengjiu), so I went for it! It tasted pretty good to me (well, once I put it in a Caipirinha, at least), but having no previous experience with the spirit, I have no idea where it sits on the spectrum of rubbish to premium spirits.

Here’s the great New Orleans bartender and cocktail archaeologist Chris Macmillian (whose recipe I mostly used) showing how it’s done:


Grenadine is a fairly common ingredient in a bunch of cocktails both old or new. It adds a red colour, acts as a sweetener, and, if you’re lucky, adds flavour.

The big problem with grenadine though, is that it generally comes out of a Roses bottle, and that is NOT real grenadine.

Grenadine comes from the French word ‘grenade’ which just means ‘pomegranate’, so real grenadine is just pomegranate syrup.

The situation is complicated though, by the fact that in the days of classic cocktails, other syrups, especially raspberry syrup were often substituted. I’m not sure if this was because pomegranate was hard to get or because raspberry was a syrup that seems to predate pomegranate, and bartenders just weren’t so fussy.

Anyway, the point is that grenadine came to mean any sweet red cocktail syrup. This leads to the situation where Roses (the most popular) and many other brands, have absolutely no pomegranate at all in them. In fact Roses Grenadine is just high-fructose corn syrup (evil stuff) and artificial colourings (red dye #40 in fact; the same as that used in Robitussin’s cough syrup).

The good news is that grenadine is incredibly easy to make, and when you do, it tastes 100 times better than that Roses rubbish.

There are a bunch of recipes around, most of which involve seeding pomegranates (if using real fruit) and cooking into a simple syrup.

But you can use an even simpler method to make it in just a couple of minutes and it still tastes fabulous. Here it is:

1 cup + 1 Tb superfine (castor) sugar

1 cup pure pomegranate juice

1 Tb high proof spirit (optional)

some red food dye (optional)

Pour the cup of sugar and the juice into a bottle or jar. Shake it a couple of minutes until it’s dissolved. Add a tablespoon of overproof vodka or rum or something if you like to help the syrup keep longer. Shake again. Store in the fridge for a couple of weeks or in the freezer for a couple of months (it has so much sugar that it won’t actually freeze). That’s it! Bloody piece of cake.

If you like (I do) you can throw in a bit of red food dye. Purists might not like this, as it goes against the purpose of making a good natural version of a product that has been corrupted by artificial ingredients. On the other hand, Tequila Sunrise or Tequila Mudrise? Jack Rose or Jack Crap? It’s up to you.

You can use store-bought juice (Jason’s, Breeze or City Super if you’re in Taipei) or, if they’re in season, use real pomegranates (I got some from Carrefour in winter). Here’s another way my method is easier than other recipes you’ll see. Most tell you to separate the seeds and do this and that – it’s all very complicated. Here’s my way. Cut it in half. Stick it in a juicer like this one. Squeeze. Collect juice. This method works great. Store-bought juice makes for an excellent product, but, unsurprisingly, the self-squeezed stuff is even better.

Here’s a couple of cocktails made with my homemade grenadine:

The Monkey Gland

1 1/2 oz gin

1 1/2 oz orange juice

1 tsp grenadine

1 tsp absinthe

Shake vigorously with ice and strain into a martini or coupe glass.

I got this prohibition-era recipe from ‘Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails’, and Ted Haigh is so careful to relentlessly remind his readers to use genuine grenadine, that in his recipes he always calls it ‘real pomegranate grenadine’. He suggests varying it to 2 oz gin to 1 oz OJ, and I might try that, as this was nice but didn’t quite do it for me. I’d also want to tone down the absinthe just a little too. My wife, on the other hand, loved it. At first sip, she thought it was alright (fairly high praise for her – she has quite a narrow taste in cocktails), but later reported back that she really appreciated it by the end of the glass and that it made her feel great. She asked for another one today.

Oh, and my photography really needs work. It was more pink, and less orange, than that photo suggests.

Tequila Sunrise

1 1/2 oz tequila

2-3 oz orange juice

1 tsp grenadine

Fill a highball or collins glass with a scoop of crushed ice. Add the grenadine and tequila. Stir a little. Fill the rest of the glass with more crushed ice. Add OJ to top up. Give a little stir with a bar spoon or straw.

OK, I might have just lost any cred I may have had as a cocktail geek by introducing a cocktail that’s not only well-known, but from that dark era of cocktails, the 70s and 80s (and I had to even go and put an umbrella in it). But firstly, this is, of course, a great drink to showcase the visual effects of the grenadine, and secondly this is also a great drink to show how using craft cocktail methodology, a dull old drink can be nicely rehabilitated.

I’ve improved almost every aspect of this drink – the tequila, the orange juice, the grenadine and the ice.

The tequila: I know I’m not the only one who was put off tequila for a long long time due to bad experiences with cheap crap. Most of the cheaper tequila is known as ‘mixto’ – Mexican regulations allow tequila to be made with as little as 50% real tequila spirit. The rest can be rubbish grain alcohol (and generally is). Make sure you get tequila labelled as ‘100% agave’. Personally I prefer the smoother ‘reposado’ (slightly aged, dark) tequila. In Taipei, I find the ‘Lunazel’ brand available at Drinks a good middle-ground between the cheap ‘n’ nasty and the expensive premium stuff.

The orange juice: Squeeze it yourself. You’ll notice the difference. Fresh juices rock.

The grenadine: With a generous teaspoon of the real stuff, this is nothing like the version with that Rose’s cough syrup-flavoured muck.

The ice: I love crushed ice. It’s easy to make. Just stick your ice in a laundry bag or even a dish towel and beat the crap out of it with a rolling pin. Crushed ice serves two purposes. First, it obviously makes for a nice cold drink. Second, it transforms a drink that might have been, say, 1 part spirit to 5 parts mixer, into a more classically portioned 1 to 2 or even 1 to 1, but still allows you to enjoy it as a long drink. I use this method in loads of drinks. The Mojito is another example, where you use so much crushed ice that there’s bugger all room left for soda. That’s how it should be.

Anyway, grenadine is a piece of cake. Go and make some now.

Navy Highballs

May 19, 2012

Pirates drink rum. That’s something I’d forgotten, sipping on Daiquiris and Mojitos made from fine Cuban white rum recently.

When in New Zealand recently, I had a great drink, called the Navy Highball, at an excellent little Wellington bar called Monterey. They do only a few cocktails, but do them well. The ones I tried were great, but it was this one that I scribbled down the ingredients for. I remember my mate Ben saying “Rhubarb Bitters – you’ll never find those in Taiwan”. I could only agree, until suddenly, a couple of months ago, I discovered that the Breeze Supermarket had imported the whole range of Fees Brothers Bitters.

But that still left the Pusser’s Navy Rum. There’s nothing like that for me to buy in Taiwan. But it just happened that making a rush purchase when I couldn’t find what I wanted at the airport, I ended up buying the Australian Overproof Bundaberg Rum. I had read in ‘Imbibe’ that there was a really good old-style pot-still rum made in Australia, which David Wondrich recommended for old Jamaican-style rum. But I couldn’t remember its name. Turns out, it wasn’t Bundaberg; it was Inner Circle. ‘Bundy’ has more of a reputation as a binge-drink of choice for Aussie yobbos.

So I was a bit disappointed that I’d wasted one of the eight bottles of booze I’d smuggled back from Kiwiland. This was only confirmed on my first sip of the Bundy OP. Vile rocket fuel. Then, much later, trying it with a little lime and tonic, I found I quite enjoyed it. In fact, it just needed a little taming. Then I really appreciated its strong flavour and high proof. After that, I even appreciated the taste after straight sipping – an acquired taste very similar to my experience with Neisson’s Rhum Agricole which I had actually thought spoiled on first whiff from the bottle. (I have since learnt a term for this – ‘Hogo’ – from the French haut goût or ‘high taste’).

The next thing that led me to re-evaluate the Bundaberg was browsing Imbibe again, I found that Wondrich actually recommended it for a couple of drinks like the Black Strap and the Stone Fence that called for “real pirate juice”. Pirate Juice! I liked the sound of that. And I suddenly remembered the Navy Highball. Time to buy that Rhubarb Bitters.

The Navy Highball is so called because it is made with Pusser’s Navy Rum. So what exactly is Navy Rum? My first thought is that it meant rum bottled at ‘Navy Strength’. I wasn’t quite right about that.

‘Navy Strength’ is a term applied to rum and gin (for British Navy seamen and officers respectively) bottled at 57% alcohol by volume or more (which is the old British 100-proof). This is because this is the concentration at which spirit spilt on gunpowder will still allow the powder to be lit. Presumably this gave the Brits a great advantage over Frenchies who were spilling their cognac on the cannon powder in the heat of combat. It’s also where the term ‘proof’ came from. To ‘prove’ the alcohol was strong enough you’d test it with gunpowder. If it lit, it was ‘overproof’.

But British ‘Navy Rum’ doesn’t just mean it’s overproof (and in fact later Navy-style rums were made at underproof strengths). It stands for the British style of rums from Islands like Jamaica in the West Indies. It seems that they were generally blended and then aged in large wooden barrels.

This at least was the method used for Pusser’s Navy Rum, the official suppliers of the Navy until the ‘tot’ was ended in 1970. A sad day, indeed. The Navy had had a tradition of drinking rum going back to 1655 when they acquired Jamaica and it replaced Cognac as the navy’s rationed drink. It also had the advantage that unlike Cognac it improved on long hot voyages (where the Cognac deteriorated). At one point seamen were later issued with a pint of rum a day! Later lime juice was added to prevent scurvy and the rum was watered down into the famous ‘grog’. Most sources say that this was to prevent too much drunkenness, but I have also read that it was to stop hoarding and trading of the ration (as it would spoil after water was added).

Pusser’s (the name is a corruption of ‘Purser’s’, as all rations came from the ship’s purser) was originally only supplied to the Navy, and with the end of the ‘tot’ production ceased until seven years later the brand was purchased and reproduced (according to the makers) according to the original recipe.

Well, no Pusser’s in Taiwan. No Lamb’s. Not even any Goslings. I don’t know if Bundaberg OP can really be called ‘Navy Rum’, but it’s definitely ‘Navy Strength’ (57.7%) and Wondrich calls it “real pirate juice”. That’s good enough for me.

The other change I made to Monterrey’s Navy Highball was that I used ginger beer instead of ginger ale. I finally found some (at Jason’s Supermarket in Banqiao FE21 Mall). Bickford’s, like the Bundy, is from Australia and it’s an old-style spicy ginger beer, from which modern ginger ale is a stunted descendant. It seemed like a good match.

Navy Highball

2 oz Navy Rum

1/2 oz orange curacao

1 oz lime juice

2 dashes of rhubarb bitters

ginger beer

Build in a highball glass full of ice, stir and garnish with lime.

As I said, this is an adaptation of Monterey’s recipe, I made up the proportions myself, and made substitutions (they seemed to work well though). The original called for Pusser’s, but the Bundaberg OP was fine. If you’re using ginger beer instead of ginger ale, you need a strong full rum to stand up to that spice. Make those dashes of bitters good ones too. Three dashes won’t hurt. I used Grand Marnier for Orange Curacao, and to tell the truth, it was a bit buried in this drink – substituting Cointreau or other Triple Sec would work just as well. You could even leave it out without hurting the drink (though add a teaspoon of sugar, as the Curacao acts as sweetener).

I was right to think that the Bundy would make for good pirate juice in this cocktail, and that ginger beer would work better than ginger ale – that stuff really puts the ‘yo ho ho’ in the bottle of rum! This drink made a highball that for me could be a refresher, but also evoked drinking outside a bar perched atop a cliff looking out over a stormy sea. No, really, it did. In fact it made me think ‘Ahh! Dark ‘n’ Stormy!’.

The Dark ‘n’ Stormy is drink whose recipe is trademarked. It can only be made with Goslings Black Seal Rum, and Barrit’s Ginger Beer (or Gosling’s own brand). This trademark can’t be enforced very stringently though, as a pre-bottled ‘Dark and Stormy’ is is made by none other than Bundaberg.

The Goslings were bound for American in the early 19th Century, but ended up in Bermuda where they ended up blending and aging rums. Their ‘Black Seal’ moniker comes not from the sea mammal on their current bottles, but from the wax seal that was used to stopper the old product.

I thought I’d give this a go with the Bundaberg and Bickford’s. Of course it can’t really be called a Dark ‘n’ Stormy.

The Somewhat Dark and Rather Stormy

2 oz Bundaberg OP rum (or other pirate juice)

4 oz Bickford’s (or other ginger beer)

Build in a highball glass full of ice, stir and garnish with lime and a slice of fresh ginger root.

The lime is a little controversial in this drink. Some say it shouldn’t go anywhere near a ‘Dark ‘n’ Stormy’. Others squeeze a wedge and drop it in. I compromised and just used it as garnish.

This was an excellent drink, but the Navy Highball was still better.

I still had a little of the bottle of Bickford’s to finish off , so I went for one more rum and ginger beer highball, which I found in ‘Boozehound’, but comes from bartending great Dale DeGroff.

Anejo Highball

1 1/2 oz aged rum

1/2 oz Cointreau

1/4 oz lime juice

2 dashes Angostura Bitters

ginger beer

Build in a highball glass full of ice, stir and garnish with a lime wheel and an orange wheel.

This bears obvious similarities to the Navy Highball, but this time I made it with Anejo Rum – in my case Havana Club (but Jason Wilson recommends Flor de Cana Gran Reserva, Chairman’s Reserve or Appleton V/X if you live in an embargoed nation). I think my ginger beer was a bit strong. I tried again with Bundaberg and it was actually better. The Havana Club couldn’t stand up to the ginger beer. But this would definitely be worth trying again with less or weaker ginger beer for a more subtle drink than my pirate fix.

Imbibe! (Book Review)

May 6, 2012

While my last reviewed book, ‘Boozehound’, was a breezy travelogue through the land of spirits and mixed drinks, ‘Imbibe!‘ by David Wondrich, is a history and an archeology that land.

‘Imbibe!’ tries to do so many things that I admit to being slightly confused about Wondrich’s purpose at first.

Here’s what the book is:

1. A brief history of celebratory bartender Jerry Thomas, who wrote the first published bartender’s guide, or book of cocktail recipes, and his times.

2. A reprinting and interpretation of the recipes in Thomas’ book and others that came soon after.

3. A passionate history of the cocktail and its forerunners up to and through prohibition.

Jerry Thomas was an incredibly successful bartender at a time when (Wondrich suggests) bartenders were giants amongst men in hard-drinking America. In 1862 he published what was the first ever collection of drinks recipes (cocktails were a new drink at the time, so it’s not strictly speaking a cocktail book), ‘How to Mix Drinks: or, The Bon-Vivant’s Companion’, which you can download for free here.

Wondrich paints a colourful picture of the ‘sporting fraternity’ – fans of horse racing, boxing matches and the like – and their natural milieu – the bar. The tone is scholarly but far from dry. This book is the fruit of serious research, but it’s an extremely fun subject, full of great stories and anecdotes. Wondrich also tries to get to the bottom of where certain drinks and names (such as ‘cocktail’ and ‘martini’) came from.

The next section of the book, and the largest, consists of a history of the development of the mixed drink from punches to cocktails. This includes history, stories and the recipes themselves, all taken from either Thomas’ book or those of other authors who came soon after him.

But what really makes this book indispensible to a serious cocktail hobbyist is the way Wondrich provides a ‘key’ to decoding these recipes and making them into decent drinks.

After a brief survey about how bartenders would have made the drinks back in the day, he explains how we can make them now, and how we can do so in a way that makes the drink fairly authentically in the style that it would have been made in the 19th century. He explains what is meant by unclear references to various spirits and what brands or substitutes we can use now. He translates odd measures like the pony and the wineglass. He explains how to buy or make other ingredients such as bitters or syrups. He covers mixing equipment, glassware, sugar and ice.

Let me give you an example. Here’s a recipe for a Clover Club Cocktail as it appeared in an old bar book:

Juice 1/2 lemon

1/2 spoon sugar

1/2 pony raspberry

1/4 pony white of egg

1 jigger gin

Shake well. Strain.

‘Imbibe’ explains that the 1/2 spoon of sugar should be 1/8 oz (modern teaspoons are 1/6 oz; they used to be 1/4), that the 1/2 pony raspberry is 2 TSP raspberry syrup (and teaches you how to make it), that the 1/4 pony of egg white should be 1/4 oz, and that the jigger of gin is 2 oz of what is late enough to be Plymouth or London Dry (and that earlier recipes should be made with Old Tom when gin is called for, and even earlier ones with Genever).

Finally after reading through the recipes (and hopefully trying a few) you get a good idea about how mixed drinks evolved into cocktails and then started moving in directions that would take them well beyond the original definition of the word. Before the ‘cocktail’ there were (and occasionally still are) plenty of other drinks with their specific names. But even bartenders of the time disagreed somewhat about what exactly constituted what drink. Wondrich kind of synthesises and simplifies it a bit, but I found it very useful.

Here’s my little summary:

Punch: spirits, sugar, water, citrus (and other fruits), spices

Collins: spirits, sugar, soda, ice, lemon

Fix: spirits, sugar, water, lemon, fancy fruit garnish

Sour: spirits, sugar, water, ice, lemon

Daisy: spirits, sugar, soda, ice, lemon, orange cordial

Fizz: spirits, sugar, soda, lemon

Rickey: spirits, soda, lime

Cobbler: sherry, orange, sugar, ice

Egg nog: spirits, sugar, milk, egg

Toddy: spirits, sugar, hot water

Sling: spirits, sugar, cold water, ice

Julep: spirits, sugar, water, ice, mint, fruit garnish

Smash: spirits, sugar, water, ice, mint

Cocktail: spirits, sugar, water, ice, bitters

Improved and fancy cocktails: spirits, sugar, water, ice, bitters, liqueurs

Crustas: spirits, sugar, water, ice, bitters, liqueurs, citrus

(And then the fruit comes back even more and along comes Vermouth and soon anything goes!)


I don’t doubt that if a vote were held, ‘Imbibe!’ would easily win as the most informative book about cocktails and mixed drinks around. David Wondrich is a huge presence in the modern cocktail scene, and every serious cocktail hobbyist or bartender who hasn’t read this yet has it on their list. It’s a must read.

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