The Gratitude Cocktail

We were sitting here thinking what would be involved in the ideal Thanksgiving cocktail. Naturally, it would have to include Wild Turkey. We wanted something that would invoke the herbs, spices, and sweetness of a properly satiating Thanksgiving meal. It also made sense to add Applejack, one of our favorite add-ins for Autumn cocktails in general, and cardamom bitters would give us the spiciness we were looking for. We also remembered that we had some blackberry thyme shrub in the fridge still, and that would be the veritable cranberry sauce on the Wild Turkey.

As it happened, we had made a cocktail earlier in the evening using some fresh rosemary from the yard as a garnish, and we decided to leave the rosemary in the glass, more out of laziness than creativity. However, the nose of the rosemary, along with the thyme in the shrub, turned out to be the perfect herbal component for this Thanksgiving potion. A little Cynar, an artichoke-based apertivo, added some additional herbal bitterness we needed, and a splash of sweet vermouth tied it all together.

IMG_20131127_195030_305The Gratitude Cocktail

  • 1 ounce Wild Turkey 101
  • 1 ounce Applejack
  • 1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 1/2 ounce Cynar
  • 1 teaspoon blackberry/thyme shrub

Stir and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary.

This was honestly right up there with the best cocktails we’ve ever concocted. A great deal of labor went into the creation of each ingredient. We are grateful we had ready access to such rich, decadent fare. We are grateful for the cocktail education that led us to keeping each of those ingredients in our stock. We are grateful for the bounty of this drink. It has truly lived up to its name.

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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.

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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.

The Library of Babel

I made this cocktail for the “speakeasy” theme at Birmingham Museum of Art’s monthly “Art After Five” event.

I had been looking through some old cocktail books and found references to a no-longer-available product called Hercules. Being a curious type of person, I started doing research and found that I wasn’t the first people to go looking for this product. To make a long story short, it was an aperitif wine that was flavored with yerba mate.

Now, I first heard of yerba mate when I was in college and read 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez for the first time. Characters in South American novels drink mate all the time, and I wanted to know more. Back then, it wasn’t an easy product to get, but I did find some at the local health food store, along with the hollow gourd and metal straw traditionally used to drink the tea after it is brewed. Now, you can find yerba mate at almost any grocery store.

I thought at first that I might infuse the yerba mate in an aperitif wine, but I thought it would be safer to make a syrup from it. Then, if it didn’t turn out well, I hadn’t ruined a good bottle of anything–just wasted some sugar. The syrup was so delicious that you could almost drink it by itself. In fact, since I have some left over from the event at the museum, I’ve been using it to make rum and tequila old-fashioneds at home.

To make the syrup, just do a simple syrup with equal parts sugar and water. When it comes to a boil, stir briefly and then let it cool off. While it is still hot, for each cup of water, add a tea bag of yerba mate and let it steep for ten minutes. Remove the tea bags, let cool, and bottle.

For the aperitif, I went with Bonal. Because of its pungent, earthy qualities, I thought it would blend well with the yerba mate. It was easy to imagine that the original Hercules product might have been similar to Bonal with yerba mate added in.

One of the yerba mate products you can buy now in many stores is a soda that includes grapefruit and ginger. I had one of these recently and thought it was a good flavor combination to try with my cocktail. My early experiments using ginger in this cocktail, however, didn’t turn out quite like I wanted them to, so I abandoned that and just went with fresh grapefruit juice.

Since the event had a speakeasy theme, I used gin as the base. When I think of the 1920s, I think of gin first. I used Bombay Sapphire because of the high proof and because the particular botanicals used in that product a great for herbal cocktails.

I named the drink after a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, another nod to the South American roots of yerba mate.

I’ll be making this again at the monthly Nitty Gritty Magic City reading series at Desert Island Supply Company next Thursday (4/12).

Library of Babel

  • 2 oz Bombay Sapphire gin
  • 1/2 ounce yerba mate syrup
  • 1/2 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
  • 1/2 ounce Bonal

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a slice of grapefruit peel.

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:

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 Nitty Gritty Magic City Cocktails for August

IMG_20150812_093253In case you didn’t get the word on Facebook, we are taking a week or two off from our serialized detective novel to catch up on some writing and get ready for school to start. Munford Coldwater and the gang will be back before the end of the month.

Earlier this summer, we mentioned that we regular do cocktails for the Nitty Gritty Magic City reading series, which takes place the second Thursday or every month at Desert Island Supply Company and features local writers as well as travelling talent from across the country. We featured the series in chapter six of the novel, and then they promptly went on hiatus for the next two months. Well, it is back, and we are back, with two seasonal cocktails that we think you will like.

The fig tree in our back yard didn’t produce much this year, but our rosemary bush is doing just fine. We got some lovely figs at Whole Foods and made a fig and rosemary syrup. We used it to add some seasonal pizzazz to a simple (eggless) whiskey sour using Bulleit rye. A spear of rosemary for garnish brings out the rosemary in the syrup. We call it:

The Morris Avenue

  • 1.5 oz rye
  • 1/2 oz fig rosemary syrup
  • Juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • Rosemary garnish

We recommend shaking it and then straining it over fresh ice, as seen in the picture.

Next, we are doing a punch that uses local honey, house-made grenadine, and gin. A little Campari adds complexity to the flavor and keeps the sweeter ingredients from being too cloying. Soda on top makes it refreshing.

Downtown Punch

  • 1.5 oz gin
  • 1/2 oz Campari
  • 1/2 oz honey syrup (1/2 honey, 1/2 water)
  • 1/2 oz grenadine (we use Joey Schmidt’s recipe to make ours)
  • Fill will soda

Build in a tall glass full of ice and give it a stir. Garnish with something fun from your garden, or your neighbor’s garden.

The next Nitty Gritty Magic City is Thursday, 8/13 at Desert Island Supply Co. at 7:30 PM. This month’s readers are Kristi Houk, Jason Slatton, and Lynnel Edwards.

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 9

Read from the beginning.


Coldwater had to give Detective Gatlinburg the whole song and dance down at the station. If Ashley Rose was dead, there was no point in covering up the fact that she’d tried to hire him or how she’d gotten hold of him. The bruise on his face was still tender from that meeting. The car and house turned out to belong to a Bruce Manley, aka Ponytail, who was still missing in action. Coldwater learned that Ashley Rose had been strangled.

“Maybe you did it,” Gatlinburg had said. “Maybe she fought back. Maybe that’s how you got that bruise on your face.”

But he wasn’t a real suspect. Ponytail Bruce Manley was number one on their list. Coldwater tried to recall if he had seen Manley that night at Collins, but he had no recollection of seeing him before the incident at Rojo. Coldwater was pretty observant, he thought, and Manley was memorable. When the coppers finally finished raking Coldwater over the coals, they kindly dropped him off at his apartment. “Say hello to Captain Fancypants,” Gatlinburg said. “Maybe one day you’ll introduce me to that cat.”

“Come on up for a nightcap, and you can say hello.”

“Duty.” Gatlinburg drove off.

Coldwater was glad the detective refused his offer because he fell asleep with his suit on the second his head touched the pillow. He woke up late with the Captain sniffing at his facial contusion. “Alright, alright,” he said. After feeding the cat, he tried to go back to sleep, but the details of the case kept swirling through his mind. He pulled up the al.com, the website for the local paper, and looked up all the recent articles on the Hornbuckle murder, but there was precious little information other than what Gatlinburg had already told him.

He then looked up real estate records for unincorporated Pickens County and found a property that was registered to someone with the last name Manley. Could be a coincidence, but it could also be connected to Ponytail. To check it out, he’d have to borrow a car, and there was only one person he could turn to for that, his grandmother, Gustie. It had been Gustie’s stories about his father and grandfather that had inspired him to go into business for himself a couple of years back.

Gusty lived in an old folks home just a couple of blocks away. In the art deco lobby, several residents were playing cards or board games. The receptionist was a light-skinned African-American girl named Myrtle. She was wearing a blue flowered dress and her hair was done up in a flip.

“You again,” Myrtle scowled from behind the pages of what looked to be a lurid vampire novel. He wasn’t sure what he’d ever done to offend Myrtle. When he first met her, she’d been almost too nice, like she wanted to jump in his lap. Maybe he should have asked her out to dinner, but he was always broke. He tipped his imaginary hat to her and signed in on the registry.

Past the elevator, the rest of the first floor housed various administrative offices, designated by smoky glass windows labeled in a thick black Helvetica. “Director,” “Events Coordinator,” “Nurse Administrator,” “Family Counseling.” Coldwater elevated to the fourth floor and knocked on Gustie’s door. She answered “Coming,” in her smoker’s gruff, and he heard her footsteps padding in from the living room. “Oh, it’s only you, sweetie. I put out my cigarette for nothing. I thought it was Vanessa.”

A trail of cigarette odor had followed Gustie to the door, and the mist of Febreeze she’d sprayed to cover it still lingered as well. Vanessa was her nurse who came by three or four times a day to administer some sort of IV treatment and make sure Gustie took her other various medications, a cocktail of white, yellow, green, and purple pills in various sizes.

The apartment was spacious and sparse with 1970s style cross hatched furniture and monochromatic floral paintings. Gustie sat in her big beige La-Z-Boy by the window, cracked open to let fresh air in and cigarette smoke out. As he passed through the kitchen, he saw mason jars lined up on the counter, her various “tonics” steeping in them. She’d been making things like this as long as he’d known her: rock and rye, bitters, herbal infusions. She always had something cooking.

“What have you been up to this week?” she said, lighting another cigarette drawn from the pouch in the side of her chair. Her dyed-red coif was set in a mushroom-like poof with rigid hairspray. He was always afraid it would catch on fire from her lighter flame, always set higher than necessary.

“Working on a case.”

She beamed. “Oh, you have a client!”

“Not exactly. The client is dead. But I’m helping the cops out.”

“In order to keep yourself out of trouble, no doubt, just like last time. It isn’t that murder that happened downtown earlier this week?”

He shrugged his shoulders at her. “Related,” he said. Anyway, I need to borrow the car to go check out a possible lead in a little town called Lyonesse, in Pickens County.”

“You don’t say. Your grandfather had some relatives who lived near there, in Aliceville. I haven’t been back there in 40 years. From what I recall, there wasn’t much to see out there. Want a drink? I just finished up a batch of rock and rye that’ll set your hair straight.”

“No thanks, Gustie. No time for that today. I just need the car for a few hours.”

“Sure, sure,” she said. “Here are the keys. I should just give them to you. I almost never need to drive anywhere these days. Now, I know you have to go, but tell me real quick about the case. I read in the paper that this professor was poisoned and then stabbed when he was already dead.”

“That’s right,” he said. “They don’t have a toxicology report back yet. I’m hoping to get a jump by figuring out what kind of poison was used. I suspect it was something that was put into his drink that night.”

“Lots of things that could do that,” she said. “All these herbs and roots and things that I use for my tonics… Most of them could kill you if you take too much. But they’d take a while. You throw up, or you get the shits. You have convulsions. From what I read, none of that happened. Just boom, dead. Not so many things that could do that.”

“Any ideas on what it could be?”

She sucked on the cigarette thoughtfully. “You’re assuming it was a plant, but it could just have well been a chemical. Rat poison. Anything.”

“True, but this guy was really knew drinks. I’d think he’d be able to taste something like that. Or smell it.”

She got up without a word and fiddled around on the bookshelf for a little while, came back with a book called Poisonous Plants. “See if this helps,” she said. “Good luck. Come by for a real visit sometime soon.”

“I’ll do that.” He kissed her on the cheek and elevated back downstairs.


Read Part 10.