The Final Twist
A good cocktail party only requires two ingredients: good cocktails and good company. While finding the latter depends on your particular breed of companionship, the former should be accessible to just about everybody. So why do most people bring wine to a cocktail party and go to the bar for Manhattans?
Nearly everyone has their go-to cocktail and for me it’s a Gibson. Gin – cold and a little dirty, with that savory round onion at the bottom. In truth, for me it’s really all about those gin-soaked onions. Mildly put, I love them. A few years ago, I went for a liquid lunch at Absinthe and sunk my teeth into the best onion I’ve ever devoured. A little sweet, slightly salty, and with a hint of something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on – pine needles in icy air or some nostalgic wintertime taste, like the sage in holiday stuffing.
I swear to Christ, this thing had me rolling back the eyelids and waxing poetic, as if I’d grown up in a John Cheever novel instead of sunny Southern California. When pressed, the sweetheart of a waitress let on that the onions are made in-house with Absinthe’s own recipe, and sadly, she couldn’t pass me a jar under the table. She did, however, bring me three more, delicately speared on a toothpick, and I’ve thought about those onions ever since.
While talking to my pal Kleinman sometime later, it came out that she’d had a similar experience with a gin and tonic. When served her drink, its bourbon color led her to think there’d been a mistake, but the first sip told her that no, Madam, this was no mistake but pure genius. The color came from real tonic water, the kind made from ingredients not found in a Schweppes bottle, and the flavor had a body of its own.
All of which got us to thinking: In both instances it wasn’t the complexity of the cocktail that made it so incredible but the simple components that went into it. So, why not have phenomenal cocktails at home by stocking a bar with homemade ingredients that will make the cocktails themselves phenomenal? That’s a mouthful in more ways than one, and with a flurry of holiday parties on the horizon there was no time to lose.
Our first experiment was to emulate a batch of Kleinman’s storied tonic. We ran down an online recipe from Portland-based bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler and started amassing ingredients, the most worrisome of which was a mess of cinchona bark, also known as quinine powder. While Rainbow Grocery was able to supply the citrus, lemongrass, and allspice (you didn’t know tonic was that complex, did you?), they fell short on the elusive powder. Enter the Internet again, this time in the form of one of those slightly suspect herbal stores, and a week later we had a half-pound bag gracing the kitchen table.
The rest was like a scene from the Wonka Factory: bubbling cauldrons of brown liquid, coffee filters and makeshift strainers clogged with earthy-looking pigment, bottles lining every imaginable surface. After an hour of squeezing the solution through giant squares of old bedsheets (a process not in the recipe, but quite effective for keeping the powder behind while the liquid moves on), we were left with almost three gallons of beautiful, clay-colored tonic water.
Truly, this tonic is like magic. Add a few tablespoons to a glass of gin and ice, fill the rest with bubbly water, and it’s the best gin and tonic I’ve ever had, hands down. It’s earthy and citrusy, with just enough bitterness to give it a kick. Everyone loves it. It’s wowing friends and enemies, addicting everyone with its rusty-colored power, and I can’t keep enough on hand (well, I could but I’ve got a coworker practically mainlining it and he’s run through a gallon jug all on his own).
It’s not just the unique taste that people are getting into, but something more; I swear it’s giving me the most surreal dreams and a strange feeling of lucidity when I drink it. I’m relaxed and yet my brain and senses feel extra sharp. Now it dawns on me that it’s the quinine connection. Sure enough, while the dreamscapes may go unexplained, it turns out quinine is also a muscle relaxant. No wonder we all feel so damn incredible. I figure it’s going to be a long, cold winter, and mix up another two-gallon batch just in case.
I’m beyond confident in my powers to amaze at this point (bolstered by tonic, no doubt) and hankering for something a little more complex. Bitters seem like the next logical step, especially with variations like cardamom and cherry, but all the recipes call for the mixtures to sit for a good long time and I’m one impatient lady. I’ve also recently taken up the very old-fashioned, or “Hemingway” (as I prefer to call it) habit of drinking straight vermouth. So, after finding a relatively straightforward recipe, I figure why not bottle my own?
As with the tonic, it seems best to generate a vast quantity since it’s a bit of a process and chock-full of random herbs. Another trip to Rainbow yields gentian root, chamomile flower, burdock, and a whole host of other witchy-sounding ingredients. Just around the corner, the San Francisco Herb Co. offered up a bag of wormwood. Yes, that’s the same wormwood that gives absinthe a bad name, but it turns out it’ll rot your brain only if you let it. More mixing, more simmering, a little fortification, and voilà!
Another bottle of… the worst shit I’ve ever tasted. Seriously. What went awry I couldn’t say, but my reward was the sensation of sucking on the end of a gas hose and losing all taste for a week, save for a lingering scent of ammonia. Thinking it might mellow with time, it was allowed choice refrigerator space for another week before being mixed with every liquid save milk (Mermouth on ice?), and finally made its way down the drain.
Back to square one. Those onions continue to haunt me, and in other cocktail conversations I’ve also been counseled about the use of a proper cherry when making Manhattans. Now, I’m generally not one to scoff at something with whiskey in it, but I’ve avoided Manhattans since my mother informed me that maraschino cherries contain formaldehyde – whether true or not (google, anyone?) the sickly-sweet taste of the little red cadavers never much appealed to me, nor did their waxy artificial texture. Of course, one always wants to be a good hostess, so with a solid whiskey foundation it seemed only natural to offer up something a wee bit classier cherry-wise.
In the test kitchen once again, I’m testing out two cherry recipes, both of which are incredibly simple: the first, a maraschino version which literally calls for heating Luxardo (a moderately expensive maraschino liqueur) and adding dark sour cherries – about as idiot-proof as one can get. The second is nearly as easy, with brandy as a replacement and the addition of cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves.
I’ve also managed to wrangle Nopa’s recipe for pickled onions from my friend Matty who tends there and claims they’re the best, and after a previous unexciting (unless you find salt exhilarating) recipe I cooked up on the fly, I’m hoping he’s right. While a smattering of cloves, allspice, and bay leaves simmer in a small pot of vinegar, pearl onions are getting peeled down to proper cocktail size.
By now my refrigerator looks like a Midwestern cannery. Stacks of rusty-brown tonic bottles line the back, mason jars of cherries and onions dominate the front.
It’s time to call in the troops for a tasting. The bar is rolled out, liquor bottles arrive, and I’m surprised to find I actually like Manhattans. The maraschino cherries are dark and alluring and completely void of Red No. 5. Though they’re a bit syrupy for most, they’ve got this heavy boozy flavor that is going to be a stunner on a scoop of ice cream with a little sprinkle of sea salt. The brandied version, however, is a hands-down hit. The cherries are delicious on their own, with a warm, cinnamon-y flavor and a complement to bourbon-based cocktails aplenty.
The real winner for me, though, is the onions; they’ve got that salty-sweet crunch with a hint of wintertime. Turns out, some things you don’t need to leave home for after all.
Treat yourself to good company and damn fine cocktails this holiday season by spicing up your bar with the recipes below. Simply round up some bottles, jars, and an extra hand or two and within a few days you’ll be ready to host a houseful of well-wishers (and their bottles of good cheer).
Pearl onions range from the usual cocktail size to nearly that of a golf ball. If you can find them loose, go for the smaller ones; if they only come bagged, just peel off a few extra layers during that part of the process or just mix up bigger cocktails.
1 bag pearl onions
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 tbsp salt
2 tbsp sugar
1 allspice berry
1 generous pinch chili flakes (we threw in a dried chili for good measure)
1 bay leaf
1. In large pot, bring heavily salted water to a boil (it should taste at least as salty as the sea). Prepare a bowl of ice water large enough to hold all the onions.
2. Throw onions into the pot and blanch for 1–2 minutes (they should start to feel soft, but don’t let them get mushy). Remove and immediately shock in the ice bath.
3. Once cool, remove onions and peel off the papery layers. Trim tips and roots if you like – we left the roots on as we like the earthy look.
4. Combine remaining ingredients in sauce pan and bring to a boil.
5. Place onions in a large mason jar and pour liquid over them till they’re covered.
6. Let stand until cool, then refrigerate. They’ll be ready for the eating after a day or so, but they get better if you can resist them for a whole week.
While the original recipe calls for Cognac or other aged brandy, we used a cheap-ish bottle of E&J brandy. Since it was also far from cherry season, we subbed in frozen ones (and they were still delicious).
1 cup sugar
2 or 3 whole cloves
1 2-inch piece cinnamon stick
4 cardamom pods
1 quart sweet cherries, stemmed and pitted (if using frozen ones, do not thaw)
1/2 cup brandy
1. Combine sugar and spices with a cup of water in a small pan and bring to a simmer. Stir until sugar is dissolved and let it bubble gently for 5 minutes or so.
2. Remove from heat and add cherries and brandy. If liquid doesn’t cover the cherries fully, add a bit more brandy. If using frozen cherries, you may need to keep the pot on low heat for a few more minutes till the cherries are warm.
3. Let them cool, then transfer cherries and liquid to a jar and store in the fridge for at least two days before devouring.
We like this tonic a lot. While you could follow the recipe and just make a little, we prefer to go whole hog and make a couple gallons at once, thus having plenty to give away and some left at home. Should you go that route, multiply this at least by three.
4 cups water
1 cup chopped lemongrass (about 2 stalks)
¼ cup powdered cinchona bark
Zest and juice of 1 orange
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1 tsp whole allspice berries
¼ cup citric acid
¼ tsp Kosher salt (if making large quantities, use less)
½ cup agave nectar (more or less to taste)
1. Combine everything except agave nectar in a saucepan or pot and bring to a boil. Once it starts boiling, reduce heat to low and cover, simmering for 20–30 minutes.
2. Remove from heat and strain out the big chunks using a slotted spoon. Let cool enough to touch and begin the straining process. Since the powdered bark settles to the bottom, it’s best to start by pouring off the top of the pot using a French press, drip-style coffee filter, or another fine mesh. Our best strategy involved running the liquid through a variety of square cotton cloths (cut from an old sheet, actually). To do this, lay a large cloth across the mouth of a bowl or pot, clipping it to the sides with clothespins or having someone hold it there. Pour the liquid slowly until it fills the bowl or stops dripping. You can also twist the cloth up like a hobo sack and squeeze, letting the liquid drain out, discarding the leftover clump of powder. Make sure you rinse the cloths well between uses so you don’t transfer powder to the strained batch.
3. Once the liquid appears free of most of the powder (it doesn’t leave a handful behind when you strain it), mix in the agave nectar. We tasted as we added, preferring to keep it not too sweet, but preference is up to you.
4. Pour the tonic into bottles, seal, and refrigerate. Remember, this is a concentrate so be sure to add just a tablespoon or so when making your drink and fill the rest of the glass with soda water.