Figuring Out Cocktail Menus, Part One

I’ll admit that I like titles with “Part One” in them, if for no other reason than these clearly suggest that the subject will be revisited, added on, and bring something new to the subject.

The second of the recently revived and re-imagined TalkTails sessions was called “Introducing the Number Ten Cocktail of the Month Program… and the First Three Cocktails!”

We’ve been talking about a new Number Ten cocktail menu since the current one hasn’t been updated since sometime in late summer last year, and that update used sales numbers of the previous cocktail menu’s drinks to guide which drinks should stay and which should go to make room to try some new drinks, but the scope and nature of the cocktail menu remained very much like the other. Negotiations remain ongoing about the new form—with me pushing for an eight-page cocktail menu (well, three of those pages would be a list of our 137-count American Whiskeys), and the boss trying hard not to dope slap me—but that doesn’t stop me from trying new cocktails and test these out on people, and really, from my perspective, that is what this TalkTails was all about.

Fortunately, I can report that from the participants’ perspective, this TalkTails was all about getting to taste and talk about the three featured cocktails, which were:

  1. Martinez
  2. Coronation Cocktail No. 1
  3. Bordeaux

I selected these cocktails for various reasons, including—spoiler alert!—my enthusiastic enjoyment of the Martinez.

Another factor behind the selection is a sneakier one, which is that I’m interested in promoting good vermouth and thus cocktails that use vermouth in good measure, and that therefor have a lower ABV (alcohol by volume, or the percentage of alcohol in a liquor or other sort of alcoholic beverage, which, when multiply by two is called “proof”).

Sherry—more or less similar to vermouth as regards ABV—has been something of a cocktail fad ingredient of late, although most recently this fad seems to have faded, becoming a more settled and sensible topic with Liquor.com and big names of the Cocktail Craze no longer touting sherry cocktails quite so vigorously. I’d held on to my prejudices against cocktails using sherry for far too long, with my rejecting such both because of the fad-like nature and my need to be a non-conformist, like everyone else in my high school, and because I tried one or two or three sherry cocktails and didn’t particularly like them.

Well, the fad has now passed, and, too, after decades of therapy, I’m now less driven by my self-perceptions from high school.

Lower-proof cocktails have their place and that place, among others, is at the start of an evening of dining. I see many people order a boozy cocktail before they order their food, and while I’m fine with great boozy cocktails, the amount of alcohol is high and for those planning to enjoy a glass or three of wine paired to their dining, well, they might be pushing into bad BAC territory.

By the way, if you ever want to experience confusion, there may be no better stating point than reading up on BAC and attempting to figure out the right formulae of alcohol serving size/proof plus body weight plus timed intervals among servings plus food consumption/no food consumption, and even here I’m sure I’ve left a factor or two out. One stiff drink per hour is safe for everybody, except maybe Edith Piaf, who clocked in a 4 foot 11 inches and maybe 89 pounds and her height and weight led to her adopted last name Piaf, from “la mộme piaf,” which translates into English as “little sparrow.” Most of us can enjoy a couple of drinks in an hour, although after that slowing down is a good idea.  If you have three cocktails, it better be over a two-hour period, Edith Pial excepted.

Three glasses of wine over a two-hour dinner? Most of us sporting capon-fed bellies (a bit of Shakespeare for you) will be fine but add a big martini to this at the start of your sit-down, and you could be running a DUI risk. Just saying.

There are plenty of people who simply get another cocktail to have during dinner, and that is fine, of course, but if I’m going to have a nicer meal, I’d like the right wine with the course. What can I say? My parents spoke French.

But the cocktail choice raises a related point about the sizes of some cocktails in far too many places, and that size is way too big.  Starting in the 1970s as fern bars came into existence, martini glasses began to grow, peaking sometime in the 1990s into the form and volume I like to call “The Birdbath.” And when you have a birdbath-sized cocktail glass, you still expect it to be filled, but at five -to-seven ounces of actual drink, you’ll either drink it at a reasonable pace and have half of it become a warm awful mess or you’ll be sitting beside your barstool and not on it. Fortunately for you who like me to stay on point, this topic of best glassware practices will be the topic of another TalkTails, so let’s get back to the subject at hand, The Martinez, Coronation Cocktail No. 1, and Bordeaux.

Martinez

Martinez first appearing in print in 1884 and is often described as an older cousin to the Martini. The Martinez certainly reflects the early Martini’s use sweet vermouth and orange

The Martinez cocktail—Old Tom Gin and Carpano Antica sweet vermouth in equal measure, plus some Maraschino liqueur and orange bitters, looks as good as it tastes. [Image from The Spruce Eats]
bitters. We are using Hayman’s Old Tom gin (a softer, earlier style of gin), plus delicious Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, plus Number Ten orange bitters, plus a splash of Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, and we serve this up, cold, and with an orange twist.

The history of this cocktail—like the Martini, which the Martinez is often thought to be a precursor—comes down to one of two origin versions (according to Wikipedia):

Two early stories attribute the making of a cocktail named the Martinez to bartender Jerry Thomas at the Occidental Hotel or by a bartender by the name of Richelieue who worked at a saloon in Martinez, California. Both stories are difficult to verify because records of drinks at the time are missing or incomplete, but the 1887 edition of Thomas’ The Bar-Tender’s Guide includes a recipe for the Martinez. It calls for a pony of Old Tom gin, a glass of vermouth, two dashes of Maraschino, and a dash of Boker’s Bitters with ice, garnished with a slice of lemon.

Or the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York or appearing first in O.H. Byron’s 1884 Modern Bartender’s Guide with a recipe calling for Curaçao and Angostura bitters instead of today’s more common mix of maraschino liqueur and orange bitters.

Ah, the muddled history of cocktails!

I like the Martinez, California-based origin story, as it includes the detail of serving the drink to would-be prospectors on their way to the 1849 Gold Rush. I love the Martinez cocktail because it is very flavorful, yet extremely well balanced and soft on the palate.

Martinez

    • 1 ½ oz. Hayman’s Old Tom Gin
    • 1 ½ oz. Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth
    • Barspoon of Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
    • 2 dash Number Ten Oranges Bitters

Combine ingredients in shaker, add plenty of ice and stir until very cold, and strain into chilled cocktail glass, garnish with thin and large orange peel.

Like the other two cocktails explored in this session, the Martinez was served in a mini-martini glass designed for tastings (as well as other uses such as dessert dishes), and total volume tops out at three ounces volume, not that the portion served was that big, since no one likes spilling a drink when lifting it up to one’s lips, and besides the amount of ABV had to be watched, since there were two more drinks coming within the hour session. The arithmetic required to calculate the translated measure ratios of the ingredients going into the cocktail and divided by the number of participants is not my strong suit, but I figured it out, and figured this out prior to the session; a good thing, too, since the participants might well be sitting there still waiting for me to struggle through the math.

Getting the right proportions for the group pour was one challenge and garnishing and presenting the cocktail correctly—by which I mean, mostly, very cold—was another challenge, but we succeeded.

I was happy to see that the Martinez succeeded too. The drink may sound like it would be a sticky sweet bomb, but au contraire. The balance of the Martinez is delightful, with a very nice mouthfeel from the premium Carpano Antica and modest amount of Maraschino liqueur, and the choice of Hayman’ Old Tom Gin makes the drink seem soft, with generous orange bitters and orange peel twist contributing too, making this cocktail rich in flavor.

In short, the Martinez will be on the next iteration of the Number Ten cocktail Menu, at least as soon as the page count gets decided.

Coronation Cocktail No. 1

An image from Liquor.com of the Coronation Cocktail No. !, which uses fino sherry (and other things) in lieu of vermouth.

Coronation Cocktail No. 1 first appeared in Harry Craddock’s classic 1930 book, The Savoy Cocktail Book, but also shows up in A.S. Crockett’s 1935 The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book. Despite the print record, it remains only a guess that the drink emanated from England’s King Edward VII 1902 coronation. The base spirits are dry vermouth (we use Quady’s Vya Extra Dry) and fino sherry (we’re going with the deservedly popular Savory & James Fino Deluxe Jerez-Xérès-Sherry), making this dry and crisp cocktail lower in ABV. Add in a couple of dashes of maraschino liqueur and Number Ten Oranges Bitters, and there is plenty of herbal and floral flavor, including nutty notes of almond and citrus.

Cocktails using fortified wines such as fino sherry have seen something of a bump in interest, and The Bamboo and the Adonis are close relatives to Coronation Cocktail No. 1, but there are many others taking their cues from the Negroni or showcasing tequila and pear liquor, and even one cocktail by the name of Tootsie Roll.

Is there a Coronation No. 2?  There are several such, in fact. One recipe calls for 1 part cognac, a dash of crème de menthe (white), half-part orange curacao, and a dash of peach bitters.  Jeepers!

Coronation Cocktail No. 1

  • 2 oz Quady Vya Extra Dry vermouth
  • 1 oz Tito Pepe fino sherry
  • 2 dashes (barspoon) maraschino liqueur
  • 3 dashes orange bitters

Combine ingredients with ice and stir until cold, strain into coupe glass, garnish with lemon twist.

This cocktail proved popular, although there were some participants who though less of it than others, even while for a couple this was their favorite cocktail of the evening. The orange bitters were noted as too much orange nose and I would cut back on a dash or two. The fino added a compelling complexity and I’m no longer so prejudiced against cocktails that have sherry in them.

I’m pretty sure that this cocktail will show up on our cocktail menu, and there is the added benefit of having fino around for those who like a glass, and a bottle likely to be moved through faster, which is a good thing, indeed.

Bordeaux

While the name of this cocktail is admittedly confusing as it has no Bordeaux wine, the Bordeaux is a great introduction to Lillet Blanc. Lillet Blanc, a wonderful French aperitif like a semi-dry white vermouth, crisp and light, with subtle floral, herbal and citrus notes.

Lillet Blanc is a semi-dry, fruit-tinged aperitif that is similar to vermouth, including with it’s sub-20% ABV. Try drinking this over ice, with a lemon twist. You’ll like it, honest.

I first came across this cocktail in one of my favorite cocktail websites, Drinkboy.com, which happens to one of the earliest Web sites for cocktails and, despite little activity over many years now, remains a treasure. The cited source was Seattle-based Mona’s Bistro and Lounge, and no doubt a much-visited place by Drinkboy.com’s author, Robert Hess, who worked for Microsoft. The original version is vodka-based, and specifically Absolut Citron vodka used in a 3-to-1 ratio to Lillet Blanc and served up with a lemon twist. For the gin version, we’re using Berkshire Mountain Distillery’s Greylock London Dry style, which should make a great Bordeaux with a 3-to-1 ratio. An alternative formulation goes with a 1-to-1 mix using Plymouth Gin, a different gin type than London Dry or Old Tom, which I thought would work very well with an equal measure of Lillet Blanc.

There are other versions of Bordeaux, including one from Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf, in Chicago, which used Lillet Rose in a 2-to-1 vodka (Hanger One) for a “light” sour by way of a half-part lemon juice, with a bit of flair found in the half-part elderflower liqueur and half-part simple syrup. The simple syrup seems like sweet overkill, and the half-part of lemon juice should be well-balanced both by the elderflower liqueur and the 2 parts of Lillet Rouge.

Another variant, Alexis’ Bordeaux Sour, is by way of New York’s Lafayette restaurant and the traditional whiskey sour. An article in Saveur provides the following information:

  • 1 oz. lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp. maple syrup
  • 2 maraschino cherries, plus more for garnish
  • 2 oz. whiskey
  • 1 oz. Lillet Rouge
  • 1 egg white
  • 5 dashes orange bitters
  • 1 oz. seltzer

The instructions for Alexis’ Bordeaux Sour call for muddling the lemon juice, maple syrup, and cherries in a cocktail shaker, then adding the whiskey, Lillet Rouge, egg white, bitters, and ice, and then shaking vigorously and then straining into an Old Fashion glass filled with ice, topping with seltzer and garnishing with a cherry. Several questions stand out, including the kind of whiskey, although my guess is that an uncomplicated whiskey like a mid-shelf Irish whiskey such as Jameson or bourbon like Four Roses Yellow Label would work well, or even a blended Scotch like Dewers. As to the five dashes of orange bitters, while I’m a big fan of orange bitters, I’d hold up at two dashes and taste test. As for the seltzer, well, I have my doubts.

Bordeaux

    • 2 oz. BMD Greylock Gin or Absolut Citron vodka
    • ¾ oz. Lillet Blanc
    • 1 dash Number Ten Oranges Bitters

-or-

    • 1½ oz. Plymouth Gin
    • 1½ oz. Lillet Blanc
    • 1 dash Number Ten Oranges Bitters

Combine ingredients in shaker, add plenty of ice and stir until very cold, and strain into chilled coupe glass, garnish with thin and long lemon twist.

Reactions to Bordeaux were mixed, but then again, the versions were mixed, with one participant going for the 1-to-1 Plymouth/Lillet version, and declaring it Martini-like, although, of course, either version was going to be Martini-like because this cocktail is mainly a swap-out with Lillet Blanc for dry vermouth.

I opted for the 1-to-1 mix and found myself a bit disappointed; I think that Plymouth doesn’t present strongly enough, so that the drink came across to me as gin-tinged Lillet Blanc, which is not a bad thing, but not nearly a show-stopper. I still want to try the more common Martini-like ratio (not the half and half), but I’m guessing that this cocktail in either form won’t get in the list of house cocktails.

How to Stay Safely with BAC

Blood Alcohol Content.

Yes, imagine flashing lights, a life turned upside down.

One of the downsides—and the most serious downside, arguably—is driving under the influence of alcohol, which means, at least in the state I live, registering 0.08 or above on a breathalyzer and/or blood test. Despite the acceptable BAC levels having fallen this low, 0.08 is still pretty damn drunk, and I sure as don’t want you in charge of a 3,000 pound automobile in motion, and if not for your own sake, then for mine or for my friends, family, and acquaintances.

Substituting an aperitif at the start of a meal to replace a stiff drink, may make the difference between one glass of wine with the meal and two. Enjoying a lower ABV cocktail may let you enjoy another one or two across an evening, when big drinks of the same number might place you in a dangerous spot.

What About Figuring Out Cocktail Menus?

There are a couple of objectives that this session of TalkTails achieved, as follows:

  1. Try out new recipes (and variants) being considered for the draft Number Ten Cocktail Menu;
  2. Explore guest reactions to lower ABV cocktails.

As far as the draft of the Number Ten Cocktail Menu goes, this session was, admittedly, a modest contribution, but selecting the cocktails for this session does help me explore lower ABV drinks that I’d like to see more of in the menu, especially since Number Ten is a restaurant first and foremost, and I want the bar to contribute to the dining experience, which lower ABV drinks can do. For readers of these TalkTails posts, you know my interest in and love of great aperitifs is something I’d like to share with guests, and the cocktails presented in this session represent a tiny step in my campaign to encourage guests toward this category of drinks.

I hope to have a section of the new Number Ten Cocktail Menu focused on aperitifs, but this is a slim hope. I tried, B.C. (Before Covid), by including a mention of our aperitifs by offering “Aperitifs for Two” in a summer cocktail menu, and there was scant interest, so I know the road to aperitif consumption in America is long and hard, but fun.

Why I care about lower ABV drinks and aperitifs is a reasonable thing to wonder. Drunk driving has—thankfully, given the stakes—been effectively and widely rejected by restaurants and bars and their guests alike. The bar scene isn’t like it was decades ago when drinking too much was perhaps considered questionable behavior, but the questions weren’t particularly pointed and more laughed at than prosecuted, and the more liberal drinking and smoking and eating in restaurants and bars meant good business, gross sale-wise. These days grosses are often lower—adjusting for inflation or whatever—because guest behavior has changed, and for the better, really. But if people have lower ABV options that still support great dining, that is a selling—and sales—point.

Plus, as all French-speaking people (or the children of such) know, aperitifs are tres bon.

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