The Road to Nowhere

We’ll be giving out samples of the “Road to Nowhere” at the Birmingham Museum of Art’s Art After Five event on Friday, June 2. The theme for this month’s event is “Road Trip.”

When we think of vacations, we think of rum. To be fair, we think about rum pretty much all the time these days, and especially in summer. The exotic combination of grapefruit, mint, and ginger stirred the old imagination. The tartness of lemon juice tamps down the sweetness. Just get in the car, turn on the radio, and see where it takes us. It doesn’t matter where we are going, and we could just as well be going nowhere.

This cocktail comes with apologies to Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. We couldn’t decide which of the “Road” movies to name it after, so we went with the Talking Heads song instead.

The Road to Nowhere:

Advertisements

Espolon Cock(tail) Fights

AudienceWhat do you get when you combine the bravado of professional wrestling, a rivalry between two cities, a dozen creative bartenders, and a whole lot of tequila? The answer is something like the Espolon Tequila Cock(tail) Fights. Espolon Tequila has sponsored these events in numerous cities. This past Monday, they held their third annual bout between Birmingham and Atlanta, and we were asked to go along for the ride and to help judge the contest, which pitted six bartenders from each city against each other. Birmingham took the belt last year, but our champion Will Hamrick wasn’t able to attend this time around. The event was held at Atlanta’s Terminal West, and the home team came prepared to win back the title.

The Birmingham contingent chartered a bus to Atlanta and brought along a sizeable cheering squad of about twenty fellow bartenders. You can imagine that when you put 25-30 bartenders on a bus, things might get a little raucous.

At the event itself, audience members were allowed to purchase fake money and place bets. They could then cash in their winnings for Espolon swag. Each bartender was asked to adopt a stage personality, which you can see on the betting board below. In the first round, the participants competed head to head, with one Atlanta bartender facing off against one Birmingham bartender. Each made the Espolon cocktail recipe they had submitted to the contest.

Betting Board

Betting Board

I got in on the festivities

I got in on the festivities

Our hosts

Our hosts, Justin Noel and Michael Finn

Team Captains

Team Captains

Georgios "El Boracho Mentioso"

Georgos “El Boracho Mentioso” Ogourousis

Joey "The Undertiki" Schmidt

Joey “The Undertiki” Schmidt

Steve "The Ringmaster" Bradford

Steve “The Ringmaster” Bradford

David "the Donald" Dixon

David “the Donald” Dixon

Charles "Midnight Rooster" Freeland

Charles “Midnight Rooster” Freeland

Mudd

Larry Mudd “Houston Navidad” Townley

Ryan "The Stone" Stone

Ryan “The Stone” Stone

The rest is a bit of a blur

The rest is a bit of a blur

In the second round, the six winners from round one had to make 10 cocktails and a shot in four minutes. They were judged on consistency, accuracy, speed, and technique.

The two best scores from round two faced each other in round three. This ended up being two Atlanta bartenders, David “the Donald” Dixon and Paige “Spitfire” Lane. And the winner was Atlanta’s David “the Donald” Dixon (who used to be a bartender in Birmingham).
So Atlanta ended up taking home the glory this year, but a good time was had by all. We’ll get them next year.

Keep It Simple

20151231_131428Hopefully, everyone out there had a wonderful time ringing in the New Year. We are recovering from our annual NYE cocktail party here at the Whiskey Thief. We have a few resolutions, of course, one of which is to make sure we post here more often (pretty sure that was on our list last year as well). To start off the year, let’s turn to some frequently asked questions.

We got an email the other day asking about how we make, handle, and store simple syrup. A good number of the recipes we post involve simple syrup or flavored syrup, so we thought it would be a good idea to recap our process here for posterity.

Our go-to method is to combine equal parts sugar and water. Unless I’m bartending for an event or throwing a party, I’ll usually use a cup of organic sugar and a cup of filtered water. This yields a little more than a cup of finished syrup, which is just the right amount to fill the bottle that I use. It will last in the fridge for about six weeks, but I tend to use it up much faster than that.

Although we advocate for the 1:1 proportion of sugar to water, a number of bartenders we know prefer different proportions based on amount of sweetness versus amount of dilution added. For some, the proportion has a lot to do with the texture or “mouth-feel” of the cocktail. For more dilution, use more water. For more texture, use more sugar. We’ve had good success with 3:2, but mainly (as the headline says), we like to keep it simple.

Of course, there are different types of sugar out there, and they each have unique qualities. For some tiki drinks and pre-prohibition cocktails, we’ll make a rich syrup using demerara  sugar, which is a deep amber, large-grained sugar with a strong toffee flavor. A rich syrup doubles the amount of sugar you use in the recipe (2:1 instead of 1:1). Other recipes might call for turbinado or other types of sugar. You can also use other sweeteners. Honey mix (equal parts honey and water) is an essential for some classics like the Bee’s Knees and the Gold Rush. Maple syrup and agave syrup can also be diluted for use in cocktails.

For general use in your average home bar, equal parts of tap water and regular white sugar will serve you just fine. To make it:

  • Combine sugar and water in a sauce pan
  • Heat slowly on medium, stirring intermittently
  • Let it come to a boil and stir to make sure all the sugar is dissolved
  • After it boils for 30 seconds to a minute, take it off the heat.
  • After it cools, funnel it into a glass bottle and refrigerate

When I’m experimenting with syrup in a new cocktail, I start with a half-ounce of the syrup and adjust to taste.

Adding herbs, spices, fruits, and other flavors to syrups can add another dimension to your cocktails. I make most of these by adding the extra ingredients in with the sugar and water and then filtering them out after the syrup cools. For our New Year’s Eve party, I made a batch of regular syrup and three special syrups:

  • Rosemary and black pepper – I added two sprigs of rosemary and a tablespoon of black peppercorns. This is great for a variation of the Bengal Tiger, one of my most popular original recipes.
  • Cinnamon and clove – Great for the holidays, I put two cinnamon sticks and four whole cloves into the mix.
  • Hot pepper – I had some dry hot peppers of various sorts that I reconstituted, and then I used the water to make a syrup that is wonderful in margaritas and in my original cocktail the Yetaxa.

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 16

Read from the beginning


IMG_20151215_110009Within microseconds of entering Gustie’s apartment, Coldwater asked her what she had to drink around there. He had already drained his flask on the way over.

“You know where everything is.”

Coldwater opened the door of the pantry where Gustie kept her liquor. A respectable showing of a dozen or so bottles, including your big four base liquors: whiskey, gin, rum, and tequila—plus a selection of liqueurs. She had a big bottle of vodka, which she used for making tinctures, the only real use he had for vodka himself. There was an ancient bottle of pisco that she had picked up on a trip to South America back in the sixties and never actually opened, to her credit. Coldwater had never met a pisco he liked, or a cachaca for that matter. If he was ever going to drink moonshine, it would have to be the American variation. A few mason jars of her homemade bitters and other herbal concoctions sat in the back corner, protected from harmful sunlight.

Coldwater made himself a rocks Manhattan because he didn’t feel like looking around for a mixing glass and spoon. He added an extra helping of Angostura because her vermouth was an inferior brand and hadn’t been refrigerated.

“Damn, Gustie. How many times do I have to tell you to keep your vermouth in the fridge?”

“I go through it so fast, what’s the point?” she yelled back from her perch by the window where she was chain smoking again. There was no way her nurse didn’t know about this habit of hers. He sat down next to her with his glass. “What’s got you drinking before noon?”

“Funeral for the professor who got murdered. Just got back from there.”

“It must be an epidemic. Mrs. Manley upstairs has a son who was just found murdered.”

“Manley?” He drank the Manhattan in one big gulp and stood to make himself another.

“Don’t tell me this was another friend of yours,” she said. “You do know him, don’t you? Just what are you mixed up in, son?”

Genuine concern cast a gray shadow on her face, making her look even older and more frail than she actually was. Her mouth turned down, causing tiny lines to fracture and fragment into a river map that spread across her forehead. He took her icy cold trembling hands into his own.

“Don’t worry, Gustie. I know what I’m doing. And if what you’re telling me checks out like I think it will, it’s almost over.”

He pointed to the glass to communicate that he would explain when properly lubricated. If the authorities know about Manley now, he thought, it would be safe enough to follow up on his hunch about it with Detective Gatlinburg. Or maybe he could just take the widow’s money and make up a story that would protect her. He couldn’t believe he was considering it, but then he couldn’t shake off the way she had held onto his hands at the funeral. It was like she was hypnotizing him.

“I only met young Manley once,” he finally said, after taking his time in the pantry with an Old Fashioned. He added a little allspice dram to it for no particular reason. “But that one time was very informative. He is suspected of killing the professor, but he didn’t do it.”

“Who did?”

“I’m still working on that, but I have at least two viable ideas. Have the cops been here to talk to Mrs. Manley?”

“Yes—a detective was here early this morning.”

“Did you see him? Short, squat fellow that smells like a honey-baked ham and constantly sucks on an unlit cigar like it’s a pacifier?”

“Perfectly describes the man I saw.”

“Well, a’ight then,” Coldwater said, satisfied.

Probably why Gatlinburg wasn’t at the funeral, he thought. Gatlinburg was here following up on Manley. He leaned back on the sofa, satisfied that he’d wrap this thing up neatly, maybe even this afternoon, and deliver it to the cops on a silver platter. Unless they’ve already wrapped it up themselves, but that didn’t seem likely. There were still one or two stubborn little puzzle pieces that didn’t quite fit in the picture.

Gustie seemed to relax then too. She pulled a pint glass down from the cabinet and stirred herself a martini. She’d been the one who taught him how to make it properly, even though it had been her generation that had bastardized it in the first place, first by adding olives and secondly by using vodka instead of gin.

“What else is new around here, Gustie?” He took a sip of his own drink, decided it needed a touch more bourbon, fixed it, and sat down again.

“Oh, you know how it is at my age. I have a new pain in my back every day, but other than that, nothing changes. When are you gonna get yourself laid, young man?”

“When are you?”

She laughed. “Boy, you’ve got no idea what kinds of fun your old grandma gets into in this monkeyhouse. You’d be scandalized.”

“Alright, alright. I probably don’t want to know. Oh, by the way, I was going to give you your keys back, but I think I need your car for another day or two.”

“Ah,” she said, waving at him. “Just make yourself a set.”

He didn’t mention that he already had.


Read Part 17

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 15

Read from the beginning


P1000589Captain Fancypants seemed happy that Munford Coldwater was sleeping at home that night and remained curled up and purring behind the backs of his knees until morning. The detective, though, slept intermittently, his slumber interrupted by lucid dreams of the professor and his wife wielding various medieval torture instruments while he struggled to free himself from a sophisticated array of ropes and chains. When the alarm had the nerve to go off at 8 am, he groggily made the Captain breakfast and then fed himself copious amounts of black coffee, along with soft boiled eggs and dry toast. He had to refill the French press twice.

At 9:30, he fit himself into his most expensive black suit and a yellow tie with a pineapple motif that he chose specifically to add a little lively color to the ensemble. At the last minute, he filled a small flask with good bourbon and slid it into his breast pocket. It was a little early for that, but it was a kind of security blanket. He didn’t want to be caught without it if he needed it. For the same reason, the .25 was still in the glove box of Gustie’s station wagon downstairs.

The funeral home was the Ridout Valley Chapel on the main drag in Homewood, just over the mountain from his Southside neighborhood. The parking lot was full to about 80% capacity when he arrived, more people than he had expected would attend. The professor was more popular than Coldwater had given him credit for.

The widow wore a slightly more conservative black dress than the one she had worn to his office the night before. She was surrounded by some very stern-looking family members, so he kept his distance at first. When they accidentally made eye contact from across the room, he nodded to her, and she waved him to come over. Coldwater offered his condolences, and she introduced him to some of the pale skeletons in the vicinity: a mother, a father, and two prehistoric aunts.

The mother looked like somebody’s idea of a Halloween costume. A thick white mane flamed out from her skull like it was gasping for oxygen. Her face, in contradiction to her hair, was youthful but her eyes were too big for it, giving the impression that she was perpetually surprised. Whenever someone spoke to her, her features intensified horribly, like someone had just rudely woken her from a restful nap. Her funeral garb was shrouded with elaborate black lace. She reminded him of wrought iron.

The father and aunts shared the same distinguished Roman nose that the widow sported, but the family resemblance ended there. He was uncannily tall, at least six foot five, and he’d probably been handsome once, evidenced by a strong chin and wide shoulders. However, the rest of the man was a bony mess that looked to be on the verge of falling out of his suit onto the floor. His sisters, as Coldwater presumed, might have been twins, and they wore twin black shawls that seemed to have been imported from some other century. The two women were both chubby, though the fat on their bones appeared to have been hastily piled on in order to hide evidence of some wrongdoing.

“Mr. Coldwater is a private detective helping the police with their investigation,” the widow said, in a voice that accentuated the patrician elements of her Southern accent. “He also knew David when they were younger. Did you say you were in school together?”

The mother then asked if they had been schoolmates at Sewanee, startling herself at the sound of her own high-born voice.

“Something like that,” Coldwater said, hoping to evade further chit chat. “School of life, actually” he added after an awkward pause in which nobody else spoke.

Another strange silence festered in the air between them for a little while longer before he finally said, “Well, it was nice to meet your family, Mrs. Hornbuckle. My condolences to you all.”

He shook all their frail hands and removed himself to a corner.

Coldwater was surprised that Detective Gatlinburg didn’t make an appearance, but only a little bit. In one corner, a mass of youngsters who had probably been his students stood in a huddle, and near then were some tweed suits that were likely to be his colleagues from the English Department. He recognized a handful of other attendees from the poetry reading where he had first met the widow.

It was hard to believe that had only been two nights ago. Only four nights had passed since the murder. Nothing much happened during the service. There was no drama. Nobody dropped the casket, causing the corpse to roll out gruesomely into the aisles. The professor didn’t suddenly spring back to life and point out the person who had murdered him. What crying there was, was quiet and dignified.

After the chapel service, he followed the motorcade to Oak Hill Cemetery, the oldest in the city, where most of Birmingham’s founding fathers were buried, including several of the widow’s ancestors. The professor would be joining them in the family crypt.

P1000594On the way to the graveside service, Coldwater passed the resting place of Louise Wooster, the nineteenth-century Birmingham Madame who had been alluded to the night before during his conversation with the widow. She had converted her brothel into a hospital during the cholera epidemic of 1873. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was there also, that shining knight of the Civil Rights movement who had died only a few years ago. Near the eastern fence, one of the ubiquitous magnolia trees had uprooted a gravestone so that it was leaned up against its neighbor. These kissing tombstones were a popular landmark, and countless young wannabe scribes in the area had been inspired by them to write some tragic love story, but the truth was that it was just an accident of nature. The two people buried there had not even known each other.

It seemed fitting that Hornbuckle would be interred amidst all this history and local lore. Though he and the professor had not ever been especially close friends, Coldwater felt a twinge of sadness now over how many times they had been in close proximity without ever really getting to know one another. That was Birmingham, in a way, or maybe it was just him. He silently toasted the old boy and then slipped around behind a tall monument to take a swig from his flask.

Again, nothing very interesting happened while they were there. Before he left, he made a point of shaking the widow’s hand again. Her hands were delicate, but not frail like those of her relatives, and they were strong. She held onto him for a few seconds longer than seemed appropriate to him.


Read Part 16

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 14

Read from the beginning


legsMunford “Stone” Coldwater III mixed another round of cocktails for himself and the widow Hornbuckle. He could tell by the way she settled into the couch that she was winding up to tell a long yarn. He wanted to make sure she was lubricated enough to let it all spill out.

“I loved my husband,” she said first, pausing dramatically.

“I never doubted that.” He poured the drinks and encouraged her to continue. The room seemed suddenly a little too bright. He turned off one of the floor lamps in the corner, as well as the desk lamp, leaving her in the soft glow of the third lamp, which was just to the left of where she sat.

“He made his name as a medievalist by writing about the lost city of Lyonesse. You… asked me about that name last night. I assume you have done a little more research since then.”

Coldwater nodded. “Has something to do with Arthurian legend. I forget the details. Also, coincidentally, the name of a rural ghost town west of Tuscaloosa where Bruce Manley’s body is still rotting from a bullet wound. And you just admitted the bullet came from you. So what’s the connection? How did you know Manley?”

“Mr. Manley came to us each separately a few months ago. I think he approached my husband first, and then he found out that I was the one that had a family fortune. Anyway, he had this land out there, and was trying to sell us on this romantic notion of taking it off his hands and building ourselves a rural estate. We visited the property several times. My husband liked the idea, thought maybe we could turn it into a writers’ colony. But it just seemed like a bad investment to me. “

“Okay, I get the picture. How did the deal turn sour?”

She stretched her neck, causing it to crackle. It looked to him like an ideal place to lay his head. The lamplight revealed a light purple bruise there, just above her collar bone, underneath a light layer of makeup. Another round of drinks would soon be due, so he went ahead and emptied the extra ice and water melt from his mixing glass.

“We went back and forth for a while about it, but I had put my foot down. The next thing I know, we get a package in the mail with pictures, and a video on a CD, of my husband with that… girl.”

“Ashley Rose.”

“Yes. Don’t get me wrong. I knew about their little dalliance. We had an understanding about that sort of thing. My only issue with it was that she was a student.”

Now it was Coldwater’s turn to down his drink in one gulp. He quickly made himself another one. The widow’s glass was still half full, or perhaps half empty. He didn’t know her well enough yet to be sure.

“I take it,” he said, weighing his words, “these weren’t just regular dirty pictures.”

“My husband and I had an interest in certain types of experimentation. The photos and video were staged in such a way as to make it look as if the girl had been coerced. You understand, this was just part of the fantasy. However, if it were made public, and she chose to play it a certain way, there would be quite serious legal and professional repercussions for my husband, not to mention the additional embarrassment to my family.”

Coldwater sat on the edge of his desk and pinched his lower lip thoughtfully. He tried not to get distracted by the mental images he had just conjured of the widow wearing black leather lingerie and brandishing a horsewhip. “So Manley was blackmailing you, in order to pressure you into buying his property in Pickens County, and we know now that he was partnered up with Ashely Rose. That gives both of them a motive to be involved in the killing, though there may have been others in on it as well. Did you tell Gatlinburg any of this?”

“Ha!” Her laugh was so sudden and violent that he almost fell off his desk. “Those bitches at Mountain Brook Country Club would love that. This is a small city, Mr. Coldwater. They may gossip about the murder and speculate that my husband was into something he shouldn’t have been. But there’s no corroboration. The gossip with dissolve away soon enough. But attach a sex scandal to it? They’d be calling me the new Louise Wooster!”

“Madame Wooster, despite her occupation, seems to be well regarded by local historians,” he said. “But you still haven’t answered my question. Why did you shoot him?”

“I went there to talk to him, to plead with him to turn himself in. I didn’t know at the time that he’d killed the girl…”

“Do you know that for sure?”

She blinked a few times. “No… I just assumed…. Detective Gatlinberg seems to be making that assumption too. Anyway, he started to get violent with me. He put his hands on my throat…”

“That’s how you got that hickey, I reckon. The makeup you covered it with is starting to fade. I’d recommend a scarf instead for the funeral.” She covered the bruise with her hand. “I guess that’s enough for one night. Come on, I’ll walk you to your car. It’s late, and you have a big day tomorrow.”

“Late? Oh, I suppose it is. I was kind of hoping…”

“Yes?” He’d been kind of hoping for the same thing, but he had too much information to chew on to nibble on her ear at the same time.

“Never mind. You’re right. Will you come tomorrow? I could use your… support.”

He nodded yes and lent her a hand as she stood from her seat.

The car was a silver Beamer with red clay caked on the tires from her trip out to Lyonesse. Otherwise, it was shiny as a newly minted dime. The same red clay was on Gustie’s tires from his own trip out to the country, which reminded him that he needed to return her car. He’d do that after the funeral.


Read Part 15

Fall Cocktails

Fall Harvest

In response to Joey Schmidt’s recent post about Pumpkin Spice tiki drinks (and the general pumpkin spice craze that seems to hit everywhere around this time of year), we are re-posting this story from last fall that includes our Pumpkin Spice Sour.

*

While seeking inspiration for the Fall Cocktails seminar we taught last week, we thought of three things we definitely wanted to use: Applejack, homemade Old Tom gin, and pumpkin.

We’ve said before that we really enjoy using Applejack in our cocktails in the fall. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Applejack is technically a brandy made from apples, though it drinks more like a whiskey than a brandy. Before prohibition, Applejack and strong cider were the the primary products for which apples were grown. Applejack has been making a gradual comeback in recent years.

The Laird’s company of New Jersey is the oldest and most prominent distiller of this product. Their 80-proof blended Applejack is the only variety available in here in Alabama. Out of state, you can get several others including our favorite, the Laird’s Bottled-in-Bond Straight Apple Brandy. There are also a few other companies that make similar products. In France, they make an apple brandy called Calvados, which is quite different in character from Applejack, but it is interesting to switch them out in recipes to see how they play with others.

We paired the Applejack with an equal amount of our Old Tom, which you can find the recipe for here. We’ll spare you the “History of Gin” lecture here since you’ll get most of it if you follow that link. Our Old Tom is heavy with baking spices, especially cardamom and clove, with a hint of orange peel, making it an exquisite partner for the Applejack. We added Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, a little cranberry juice, and bitters to round out the drink, which we decided to call Autumn Spice.

Autumn Spice

  • 1 ounce Old Tom Gin
  • 1 ounce Applejack
  • ½ ounce Domaine de Canton
  • ½ ounce cranberry juice
  • 3 dashes aromatic bitters

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass filled ¾ with ice. Stir to desired dilution. Strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon peel.

We knew we wanted to make a pumpkin spice syrup. Everybody’s crazy about pumpkin spice these days, it seems. But unlike whatever is in your corporate cappuccino, we wanted to use actual pumpkin. We used a sugar pie pumpkin, baked the meat, and then pureed it in the blender. You can also use canned pumpkin puree, but where’s the fun in that?

Pumpkin SourPumpkin Spice Syrup (adapted from themessybaker.com)

  • ¾ cups water
  • ½ cup granular sugar
  • ¼ cup light brown sugar
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon ground clove
  • ¼ tsp ground ginger
  • 1/8 cup pumpkin puree

Add water and sugar to a small saucepan. Set over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally until the sugar has dissolved. Add pumpkin puree and spices. Whisk to combine. Reduce heat to medium low for five minutes, whisking frequently. Remove from heat and let sit to cool. Pour the mixture through a fine mesh strainer or cheese cloth. Bottle and store in the refrigerator.

We tried this syrup in a variety of drinks, but our favorite was a variation on a classic whiskey sour.

Pumpkin Whiskey Sour

  • 2 ounces bourbon
  • 1 ounce pumpkin syrup
  • ½ ounce lemon juice
  • ½ ounce egg white

Pour all ingredients into a shaker. Shake without ice until you feel pressure building in the shaker. Add ice and shake again. Strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice.

For more Fall cocktails, see here, here, and here.