In my last post I was so excited about the spring-like weather that I promised I wouldn’t be posting any more winter meals this season. Well, as it turns out, the joke is on me because it’s snowing here once again. I’m sticking to my promise, however, so instead of yet another winter dish I’m giving you a winter cocktail! But first, a story. Let me tell you about the worst cocktail I’ve ever had:
It begins at a trendy, upscale restaurant in Sacramento that shall remain nameless. This was one of those restaurants with the type of impeccable service where it seems that if you so much as think about something you need a server magically appears table-side, where the entire staff is wonderfully nice and accommodating, yet there is a certain air of condescension that infiltrates every interaction. I suppose some people enjoy this sort of atmosphere; perhaps it gives them the feeling of elite dining, where not just anyone will be tolerated. I, however, have no patience for this. And while I’ll put up with it once in a while for a really phenomenal meal, this particular restaurant wasn’t serving anything close to phenomenal. The food was very good, but entirely predictable. The bartenders, most unfortunately, were absolutely abysmal. I had already had a few awkward interactions trying to get a fairly simple cocktail made while having drinks in their cocktail lounge on previous occasions. These interactions usually consisted of an overly manicured, generically attractive, twenty-something man smiling at me with blindingly white teeth while he tried to talk me into completely unrelated alternatives to what I had actually asked for. So, rather than the beautifully crafted cocktail that I had been hoping to enjoy, I would usually walk away with an overpriced orange-flavored vodka and club soda. It seems that the fine people of Sacramento also caught on to the fact that the posh atmosphere and really, really ridiculously good-looking staff were ultimately just window-dressing for a rather average restaurant and a frustratingly terrible bar, as the restaurant closed its doors after only a few years in business.
Looking back on these experiences, I should have known better than to order an old-fashioned with my dinner here. Or at the very least, I should have known better than to expect said old-fashioned to made correctly. It’s just that it really isn’t that difficult to make a decent old-fashioned: a little sugar, a dash of bitters, bourbon, perhaps an orange slice if you’re getting fancy….a lovely combination of flavors that’s just perfect for sipping before (or after) a meal. It’s one of the classic cocktails that every bartender should know, particularly one who works in an upscale steakhouse. Even I knew how to make the more popular classic cocktails at this point, being merely a cocktail (and bartender) enthusiast without a bit of professional bartending experience. Well, the drink arrived and at first glance it looked lovely: not too much ice, a single perfect cherry floating in the amber-colored liquid, a small slice of….lime? Really? You ran out of orange slices so you gave me a lime? Even if you’re not a professional mixologist, I think most anyone who has ever cooked a meal or, I don’t know, drank juice could tell you that a lime usually isn’t a great substitute for an orange.Yes, they’re both citrus fruits and can be cut into wedges, but that’s about where the comparison ends. But I suppose, when you don’t take the time to really think about how the flavors work together in something you’re creating, be it a cocktail or an entire meal, it can be easy to just make it look right and assume it will taste right as well. Unfortunately this assumption rarely seems to hold true, and it most certainly wasn’t the case for this sad attempt at an old-fashioned. The bartender thankfully had not muddled the fruit, so I was able to remove the lime slice without much flavor transfer, but upon tasting my drink I found it to be lacking bitters as well. So I sipped on my sweetened glass of bourbon for a while and then switched to wine for the rest of my meal.
Now while I certainly like my drinks to be properly made, I’m not at all a purist. I love playing around with different liquors, juices, fruit, and even spices for a unique twist on cocktails that I already enjoy. The secret to doing this well, as I already alluded to, is much the same as successfully tweaking a recipe for food: simply pay attention to how the flavors work together. Just as I’ll sometimes stumble upon a new ingredient or technique in my cooking that inspires me to make a delicious change to an old standby recipe, the same ah-ha moments happen with mixing a drink. For instance, last month I came across this recipe for candied kumquats and I immediately thought of how perfect they would be in an old-fashioned. Subbing the kumquat for the orange slice would add just a bit of tartness that would still be balanced out by the candied peel, and using the kumquat syrup in place of the traditional sugar or simple syrup would make the drink even more flavorful than the original. And the bourbon-soaked candied kumquat is by far the best garnish I’ve ever tasted! It all came together into a delightful cocktail that I hope you’ll try while these tiny fruit are still in season.
Candied Kumquat Old-Fashioned
This is a drink that is equally tasty served neat or on the rocks. Either way, serve it in a nice rocks glass. Cocktails like this deserve to be enjoyed in style.
1 candied kumquat
1 tsp kumquat syrup (from making the candied kumquats, above)
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
1.5 oz bourbon
splash of water or club soda (optional)
Put a candied kumquat in the bottom of a rocks glass. Add the kumquat syrup and Angostura bitters. Add a few cubes of ice, if desired. Pour the bourbon over the ice and give it a stir or two. Add a splash of water or club soda, if desired.