Not that long ago, mole bitters seemed like an exotic and strange ingredient. But now they're all over cocktail menus and I have come to consider them a drink-mixing necessity. I've always liked the combination of chocolate and spice, but being able to use these flavors to liven up my cocktails has been a revelation.
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I like to think of root beer as the gateway beverage into the big, bad world of booze. Even though it's a big leap from A&W to Fernet Branca, there's definitely a connection between what makes a good root beer and what makes a good alcoholic beverage. This homemade root beer liqueur has more in common with an aperitif than it does with a soda, because the sugar is dialed back and the root-and-bark goodness can shine through.
A few dashes of grapefruit bitters can put a so-so sparkling wine cocktail into fabulous territory or turn a limp Paloma or Gin & Tonic into a bright and balanced thing of beauty. But even though grapefruit bitters have been called for in cocktail recipes since the 1860s, many liquor stores don't carry them. DIY to the rescue!
Most grape-flavored things don't taste like grape at all—they taste like purple. Commercial grape soda walks the line between the taste of real grapes and sugary artificial flavor. Grape soda should be the non-alcoholic, fizzy sister to wine, but instead it seems to be the least appreciated of the sodas. I've had a soft spot for this deep purple, bubbly beverage since childhood, so I was inspired to make a DIY version that has a more natural flavor.
Asking me to pick my favorite cocktail is sort of like asking parents which of their kids is the best. It's a hard question to answer, but deep in my heart, I know. Sorry, Sazerac and Martini, even though I love you so, the Manhattan is easily my favorite drink. So I was surprised that a simple change to this classic drink made me love it even more.
I was pleased to find out that no alarm bells went off when I poured honey and spices into my Scotch—and the resulting concoction was delicious. This DIY Drambuie isn't a carbon copy of the original—and that's the point.
Cherry cola is amazing. Cherry Coke, on the other hand, is a disgusting tease. For a split second there's some cherry flavor, but then it's replaced by a chemical finish that reminds you that no cherries were harmed while making that beverage. I've done some experimenting with adding cherry syrup to store-bought cola, which was good. But making my own cola and cherrying it up was even better.
When I was a kid, Dutch relatives would bring my family all the treats that were hard to find here in the states. My favorite was hagelslag, which are candy sprinkles that you put on buttered bread. (Boxes of hagelslag guaranteed that I would be allowed to eat candy for breakfast.) The grownups, however, got all excited about a ochre-colored liqueur called advocaat. It looked like an avocado-and-mustard milkshake to me, so when they'd pour themselves a big glass for Christmas, I was never tempted to sneak a sip. After all, these were the same adults who'd rave about salty black licorice, which I knew for a fact was the worst thing I'd ever tasted.
Forget about the big jugs of watery cranberry juice on the grocery store shelves—the best way to put these gorgeous red fruits into your drinks is with a homemade cranberry liqueur. Fresh cranberries are ubiquitous this time of year, and turning them into liqueur is a snap. So not only will you have a versatile ingredient for festive Thanksgiving cocktails, but a bottle of this beautiful crimson liqueur also makes a great gift come December.
My liquor cabinet is starting to resemble a liquid United Nations, with almost every region and culture accounted for. Until recently, however, Scandinavia was sorely missing from the General Assembly. Then a bartender in L.A. served me a spritzer that had a savory rye-bread kind of flavor to it that I couldn't quite place. I figured she had gotten creative with a syrup. But when I asked how she got that flavor, she whipped out a bottle of aquavit. I quickly got to work experimenting with making my own.
There's just something cozy about pumpkin and spice, and once autumn's arrived, I want to cram pumpkin into everything I eat and drink. Getting pumpkin into a cocktail can be a little messy and goopy, so I like to whip up a batch of pumpkin liqueur to ensure that I can conveniently drink pumpkin pie cocktails for months to come. This recipe doesn't take long, so you can even finish it in time for that Halloween party you're having.
Prohibition did more than inspire an HBO gangster drama about how Steve Buscemi is rich and sleeps with showgirls while people get shot. Making booze illegal changed the way America drank, banishing a lot of popular ingredients to obscurity. One of the cocktail casualties was Swedish Punsch, a liqueur made with citrus, spices, rum, and a southeastern Asian liquor made with sugar cane and red rice called Batavia Arrack.
Making your own honey liqueur is dead simple. You don't have to do anything but heat the honey with some water and then mix it with vodka. I like to let the liqueur sit overnight to ensure the flavors are totally integrated, but if you're truly impatient you can use it right away. As much as I love Bärenjäger, when I compared it side-by-side I liked the homemade stuff just as much and it was a hell of a lot cheaper.
One sure-fire way to start an argument with me is to say that absinthe makes people hallucinate. It doesn't. But if you think it does, you have something in common with French regulators in the early 1900s. Back then, everyone was panicking that absinthe would drive people insane because it contained wormwood. Before more people could succumb to absinthe madness and chop their ear off à la Vincent van Gogh, they outlawed the spirit. (The fact that absinthe was 140 proof and people were drinking it like wine had more than a little to do with the crazy behavior, but I digress.) With absinthe out of the picture, people needed another delicious anise-flavored alcoholic beverage. That's where pastis came in.
Habanero peppers are as brilliantly inky as an orange highlighter or a rogue sunbeam in October, and their heat as warm as the longing for summer in the dark heart of February. Of all the sweetly spicy peppers I foolishly sampled that day, their flavor was subtle but still scorching and fruity, perfectly suited for a bright citrus cocktail.
Bananas don't get much play in the cocktail world because they're mushy and fibrous, making them impossible to juice and gross to muddle. Even when the blender is out, poor old banana is frequently left out of the cocktail party. But the vibrant, tropical flavor of bananas tastes amazing in drinks, especially ones made with rum.
The first time I tried cherry liqueur, I thought it tasted like cough syrup. For years, I avoided anything made with the stuff because I don't want my cocktails to remind me of sick children. Then one day I ordered a Singapore Sling without really knowing what was in it. When I found out that cherry liqueur played a big part in making this drink so good, I realized that maybe I had stereotyped all cherry liqueurs because of one that was particularly bad (and probably cheap).
Once upon a time, simple syrup wasn't so simple. Instead of using a mixture of just sugar and water, old timey barkeeps would sweeten cocktails with a more viscous sweetener known as gomme or gum syrup.
A good melon liqueur can turn basic club soda into a sophisticated summer cooler or add another layer to a complex tiki drink.
Sometimes when I read about big city bars, I get a little jealous. Part of what inspired me to learn to mix a good drink is that most of the bars within walking distance of my house have deer heads mounted on the wall and bartenders who get a little confused if your cocktail isn't a Rum & Coke, Gin & Tonic, or other drink whose name is its ingredients. But then I make a batch of DIY blackberry liqueur with fresh berries, I mix myself a Bramble, and all envy dissipates.