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A couple weeks ago The Boston Shaker hosted a tasting event with Barritt’s Ginger Beer and my obsession with the stuff has now been revived.  I love the contrast of spicy and sweet and because it combines well with such a variety of other flavors it’s a must for any summer bar.

Before the recipes, a bit about ginger beer.  First produced in England in the mid-18th century,  the early recipe included ginger, sugar, water, and lemon juice.  This mixture was then combined with a yeast and bacteria combo, known as a ginger beer plant, which caused fermentation.  Some of the early ginger beers could have had an alcohol content of up to 11%.  Modern ginger beer, like the Barritt’s we sipped at the Boston Shaker, are not fermented, but rather carbonated (no boozy ginger beer here).  Barritt’s was first produced in the 1870s by William John Barritt, a man looking to make a living to support his large family.  Barritt took advantage of a small bottling machine in a dry goods store in Hamilton, Bermuda, and a delicious ginger beer was born.

My friend Anne Marie and I sampled all four drinks that were being mixed by Paul Imbesi.  Two of the cocktails rose to the top.

The Bohemian Cooler

(created by Boston bartender Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli of Island Creek Oyster Bar)

1 ½ oz St. Germain

1 oz rye whiskey

¾ oz lemon juice

2 dashes Angostura bitters

Shake over ice. Strain into a Collins glass filled with ice and top with 2 oz ginger beer. Garnish with lemon wheel.

This is a great summer drink—the richness of the rye, the flowery-sweet St. Germain, and the tart lemon juice are brightened and heightened by the spicy ginger beer.  I just love this drink.

Amatitan Mule

(created by Ezra Pattek of Bar Lab, Miami)

2 oz silver tequila

2 thin slices of jalapenos

½ lime, quarted

1 bar spoon agave nectar

Muddle jalapenos, limes and agave. Add tequila and shake.  Strain into a Collins glass filled with ice and top with 2 oz ginger beer.  Garnish with lime and jalapeno wheels.

Now this cocktail is not for the faint of heart (or taste buds)—this is quite spicy with both the jalapenos and ginger beer.  This isn’t the kind of drink I would usually chose if I saw it on a menu, so I was a bit surprised by how much I enjoyed this.

My advice for this weekend (and my own personal plan)—grab a six pack of ginger beer and get shaking and mixing.  If you aren’t up for the recipes above, try something simple like a Dark and Stormy, a simple combo of a dark rum, ginger beer and lime juice.  Cheers!

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You may talk of brisk Claret, sing Praises of Sherry,

Speak well of old Hock, Mum, Cider and Perry;

But you must drink Punch if you mean to be Merry.*

I grew up in a punch drinking family. Granted the stuff my family ladles out each Christmas is of the non-alcoholic variety—rainbow sherbert, gingerale, maybe some fruit and lots of ice.  I had a glass yesterday, and even though many a boozy version have passed over these lips, this tame variety still says “party” to me.  It is bubbly, colorful, and pretty tasty.  And something about sharing a drink from a communal bowl seems especially appropriate for a holiday celebration, doesn’t it?

What is it about a giant bowl of fruited and sugared booze?  For me, there is something nostalgic, comfortable and epic about it.  Maybe it’s because as long as I can remember a punch bowl meant our special Christmas libation? Or because people have been enjoying this kind of communal drink since the 17th century? Or maybe it’s the seemingly endless variations of recipes—ranging from the very simple 2-3 ingredient variety to recipes with 10-15 ingredients?

Punch changed the way we drink.  Its origins probably lie with 17th century sailors who had run out of beer or wine and were left with only brandy or some other spirit that was too much to drink on its own. To their booze they added some sugar, maybe a little water and some citrus (which had the added bonus of protecting against scurvy) and punch was born.  The popularity of these mixtures catapulted distilled spirits out of the realm of medicine and into the public drinking consciousness, eventually opening the door for those other alcoholic mixtures we call cocktails. So, yes, punch changed the way we drink.

If you want to learn more about the history of punch read David Wondrich’s new book Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl. Since the book’s launch party at Drink about a month ago, I have joined the ranks of punch loving Bostonians.  Check out this book for a fascinating and entertaining history of punch; and my friends at Dudekicker share a great interview with Wondrich.

So with the punch craze is in full start-up mode, I, of course, made a punch for my own holiday party last weekend (which was a pretty fun party, if I do say so myself).  I know I am about the 1,00,000th person to give this sage party hosting advice, but one of the best things about serving punch is that you are then free to actually enjoy your party, instead of spending the evening  mixing something for each guest.  The most you have to do is lift the ladle or replenish ingredients.

I chose a recipe for Harvest Punch shared by The Boston Shaker.  It was a huge hit!  With easy, yet interesting, flavors like rye, St. Germain, apple cider and ginger beer it pleased the variety of palates at the party, cocktail enthusiast and neophyte alike.

 

photo courtesy of Christine Fernsebner Eslao

Harvest Punch

2 cups Rye Whiskey (I prefer Old Overholt; delicious and inexpensive)
1 ½ cups St. Germain
2 cups apple cider

½ cup lemon juice
2 12 oz. cans of ginger beer (I like Barretts)
Jerry Thomas bitters, to taste (the recipe calls for Angostura, but I thought the autumnal flavors of the JT bitters worked well here)

Mix in a large punch bowl over an ice ring or large block of ice (I made one using a tupperware container). Garnish with diced apples.

The ingredients may change, but the essence of punch remains—making merry with delicious spirits in the company of friends and loved ones.  Now that’s something to be grateful for this Christmas season. Cheers!

*18th century song Wondrich quotes in Punch

Last night I celebrated the upcoming nuptials of two good friends, Kate and Michelle.  Knowing my passion for cocktails, it seemed obvious that the best contribution I could make to their party was to mix up boozy libation.  After much consideration we decided on the Moscow Mule.  On the surface, a Moscow Mule doesn’t quite say love and romance.  One might expect to find a Champagne cocktail or something with a romantic name like The Honeymoon Cocktail for an engagement party.  But I was looking for something that would please the party crowd, was refreshing (it was a warm day), but had an interesting, even surprising flavor. This drink delivered all of that. The tart lime and the spicy ginger beer make for a pretty tasty party drink!

The Moscow Mule has an interesting history.  Vodka has not always enjoyed the popularity that it does today. In the late 1930s, most Americans had no clue what to do with this spirit that was mostly consumed by Eastern Europeans.  But then the stars aligned and the Moscow Mule was created and the vodka soon after made its way into mainstream consumption.  In 1939 John Martin purchased the struggling Pierre Smirnoff Vodka company which had been started 5 years earlier when the enterprising Ralph Kunett secured the rights to produce the family vodka recipe of Vladimir Smirnov.  As the story goes, a bit after this purchase John Martin was hanging out at the Cock and Bull Tavern in Los Angeles with friend and owner Jack Morgan and the two were trying to figure how to make use of Morgan’s newly produced ginger beer.  Add to that discussion, the fact that Martin just acquired a vodka company.  The two took the formula for a Mamie Taylor, and replaced the scotch with vodka and voila—the Moscow Mule was born and America’s preference for vodka would soon follow.

The drink is traditionally served in a signature copper mug; Jack Morgan’s girlfriend owned a business that made copper products.  The Moscow Mule was a win-win for all involved.  While the mug add to the experience (I even had one keen party-goer call me out not having the proper glassware), it’s perfectly acceptable to use another type of glass—the drink still tastes pretty damn good!

A pitcher of the Moscow Mule

Moscow Mule (from Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails)

2 oz vodka

Juice of half a lime

Ginger beer (the spicier the better)

Squeeze lime into glass and drop half into glass.  Add vodka and ice. Top with ginger beer.

To a deliciously refreshing vodka drink and to a lifetime of happiness for my friends Kate and Michelle–Cheers!

Last night, I celebrated International Women’s Day with Holly, Pilar, Maura and Melinda at Drink.  This is not a day generally acknowledged here in the US, but in Europe it’s a big deal—it’s a time to get together with your closest gal pals and be merry.  And merry we were.

I told bartender Joe Staropoli that I wanted to celebrate the day with cocktails named after women.  The first drink he made for me was the Mamie Taylor.  Following the criteria for a highball—a spirit with a sparkling mixer served in a tall glass with ice—the Mamie Taylor is a yum combination of blended scotch, lime juice, and ginger beer (home-made, of course).  I loved the wonderful spiciness of the ginger in this drink.  It was warm, refreshing and bright.

Image of Mamie Taylor from broadside, c. 1900

So, who was Mamie Taylor and how did she get a drink named after her?  She was popular opera singer and actress in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. One story says that a bartender in Rochester, New York created the drink for Mamie when she requested a refreshing drink on a hot day.  Whatever the exact origin of its creation, Mamie’s namesake cocktail quickly became the “it” drink after its debut in 1899.  “The latest bit on these hot days is a nice cool Mamie Taylor.” (Daily News, 1900)  Its popularity, however, waned just as fast; within a few years, no one was ordering a Mamie Taylor.  Luckily for us, the recipe was noted in Jack Townsend’s 1952 The Bartender’s Book, and Ted Haigh keeps it alive in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails.

For my second drink, I had a Barbara West.  Unlike my first drink, the origin of this cocktail’s name and whether or not its linked to an actual woman named Barbara West is unclear.  After the first sip, I was intrigued.  I liked it a lot, but I couldn’t instantly identify the spirit.  Instead of telling me, Joe gave us a clue, “Think of a Stevie Wonder song. And the main ingredient sounds like that.”  We all began humming and singing different songs (we discovered that I easily confuse Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie– “Hello. Is it me you’re looking for?”).  As Pilar began “My cheri amour, lovely as a summer’s day…” a smile came across Joe’s face—sherry!

The Barbara West is made with sherry, gin, lemon juice, and orange bitters.  I was surprised by how much I liked it, since I am still acquiring my taste for sherry.  But this drink is dry and crispy and really wonderful.  Whoever you are Barbara West, your cocktail is pretty great!

So, while International Women’s Day is a good day to celebrate with the wonderful women in your life, don’t wait until next March 8.  Any day is a good time—and Mamie Taylor and Barbara West make fine company for such an occasion.  Cheers!

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