The Cocktail Spirit with Robert Hess

The Cocktail Spirit with Robert Hess is dedicated to the creation of quality classic cocktails. Watch as he mixes up cocktail recipes from the past using the best ingredients.


Product Choice is Important - The Sidecar Cocktail

11 Dec 14 5    ·   Brandy, Cognac,

I recall one of the first times I went to the liquor store to “stock my liquor cabinet”. It was a tad daunting to try to make sense of all of the different bottles of booze and understand what I was needing. And the price range, wow! At the time, I didn’t really have any true knowledge of brands and quality variations, but I knew enough to realize that just because there might be a brand that I had heard of through their marketing efforts, didn’t necessarily mean it was a good product. Since there were several different products I needed to buy, and a budget to deal with, the $20+ products became less and less appealing. Knowing that with wines, price wasn’t really a useful measure of the quality, I assumed the same could be true with spirits, and so I tried to be selective on finding “bargain” priced bottles. At first, I thought it was just the recipes I was using which were making my cocktails lackluster. Thankfully I did the right thing when it came time to replace a depleted bottle, I intentionally bought a different brand, and since I only needed to buy one or two on this visit, I was able to buy something a little more expensive. My cocktails quickly improved. This isn’t to say that all of the good spirit choices have to be expensive ones. There are lower-cost products that you can use which can make cocktails as good, if not better than, their costlier counterparts. And sometimes, even if a more expensive product will make a better cocktail, is the difference noticeable enough to warrant the expense? Courvoisier, is a great cognac. Their VSOP costs, say $45 per bottle, but their VS is more like $25. A sidecar made with the VSOP will be a better drink, but will it be twice as good? If you were to compare them side by side, you’d probably pick the VSOP as the better drink, but you’d still really enjoy the VS as well. So in this case there is nothing wrong with going with the less expensive Courvoisier VS. Cointreau is a triple sec, and most recipes for a Sidecar simply list “Triple Sec” as an ingredient. Cointreau costs, say $34 a bottle, while you can get a bottle of triple sec for around $10. The difference here however can be quite amazing. Not only would you clearly identify a Cointreau Sidecar in a side-by-side comparison, but you might be hard-pressed to finish the one made with triple sec after this discovery. So selecting products you are going to use in your cocktails, realize that your choices will make a difference.

When Good Recipes Go Bad – The Old Fashioned Cocktail

4 Dec 14 4    ·   Bourbon, Rye Whiskey,

In Hannah Glasse's 1747 cookbook “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” the following recipe appears - A Savory Veal Pie: TAKE a breast of veal, cut it into pieces, season it with pepper and salt, lay it all into your crust, boil six or eight eggs hard, take only the yolks, put them into the pie here and there, fill your dish almost full of water, put on the lid, and bake it well. The recipe appears fairly simple and straight-forward, but it is also devoid of enough information to allow somebody who has never made it before really understand how to do it right. How large of a breast of veal is it? What sort of “crust” is supposed to be used? Are the egg yolks supposed to be left whole, or broken up? By “lid” do they mean a physical lid or a lid made of crust? What temperature to bake it at, and for how long? Many cocktail recipes are even less descriptive then Hannah’s recipe above. If we take the Old Fashioned for example, one of the earliest published recipes (not counting earlier recipes simply referred to as “Whiskey Cocktail”) for it is from "Modern American Drinks" (1895) by George J. Kappeler - The Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail: Dissolve a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey-glass; add two dashes Angostura bitters, a small piece ice, a piece lemon-peel, one jigger whiskey. Mix with small bar-spoon and serve, leaving spoon in glass. Drink recipes by their very nature are of course are far simpler than cooking recipes, but we are still faced with many unknowns here. For example, how large is a “small lump of sugar”? How much water is “a little”? What type of whiskey is expected to be used? When a recipe leaves out important details, it requires the reader to fill in the gaps to the best of their ability, often without having any idea what so ever what the actual thing they are trying to make should taste like when done properly. This means that whatever they end up with, they will consider as “the way it should taste.” And then they teach this to another bartender, who teaches it to another bartender, who… you get the picture. Perhaps more than any other cocktail, the Old Fashioned is the one to suffer the most from bad interpretations of a good, but poorly written recipe, as well as just plain bad recipes (typically based on a bad interpretation of a good, but poorly written recipe). Here is where a solid understanding of a recipe, and more importantly the foundation that it is built upon, can aid the reader in better understanding how to make it properly. That, plus more details is part of what it takes to make a good recipe. Of course you also can run into the problem of recipes that are just plain bad from the start regardless of how they are made.

Don’t Use Bad Ice in Your Cocktails - Mai Tai Recipe

19 Nov 14 9    ·   Rum,

Ice has become one of those things that some cocktail geeks can really… well… geek out about. You don’t have to look too hard to find people discussing the science of crystal clear ice, how to make hand-carved ice balls, or various other highly involved details about the ice that goes into mixing the perfect cocktail. As these deep examinations on ice start turning into esoteric exercise, it is easy to start dismissing the importance of ice all together. Ice is just frozen water isn’t it? What’s the big deal? In truth, thinking about the ice you put into your drink is a very important consideration. At the most rudimentary level it is all about size/shape, and temperature. Some bars will use what is referred to as Half-Cube or Crescent ice. These are two slightly different shapes, but about the same size, about the size of a pat of butter. This small and flatish ice will fill the glass with more ice than cubes would which will make the glass look like it is fuller of beverage than it actually is. Since there is more surface area exposed on this shape, it will melt faster as well. The result of course is a flabby drink, and not much of it. Higher end bars will go out of their way to use nice sized cube ice, the larger the cube, the less surface area exposed, and the slower the melt. For serving a drink on the rocks, you can select a size that virtually fills up the glass, but for mixing a drink you need something smaller so you aren’t fighting with the ice when you stir. The most common size is just a little over 1” cube. From a temperature standpoint, at a fairly rudimentary level, ice can be either “wet” or so cold it is “dry”. Wet ice has already started melting, and has a thin layer of water on it, which will immediately go into the drink. “Dry” ice (not to be confused with the CO2 based “dry ice”) is so cold that its surface hasn’t started melting yet. If you touch a cube of “dry” ice, your finger will stick to it because the ice is so cold it freezes to the small bit of moisture on your finger. So, while there is nothing wrong with geeking out about ice, your primary concern is to use nice sized cube which are as cold as possible.

Don’t Use Old Vermouth

12 Nov 14 15    ·   Vermouth, Gin,

There used to be a time when the amount of dry vermouth that would make it into your Martini would have been better measured by an eye dropper instead of a jigger. To this day, you can still find little spray bottles being sold as “vermouth misters” to allow only the slightest amount of vermouth to be added to your Martini. When you are using that little vermouth in your Martini, that means that you are going through your vermouth very slowly, making it very, very old before you make even the slightest dent in it. Vermouth is a wine. And like any wine, it will oxidize over time, which will impact its flavor. Vermouth is what is known as a fortified/aromatized wine (Port and Sherry are simply fortified wines). Fortification simply means adding an alcohol to the wine, usually brandy. This originally was done to help preserve it, the higher alcohol content would make it last longer. Aromatization means that herbs, spices, and botanicals have been added to it. The original intent of this was to produce a supposedly medicinal beverage, with wormwood being the key ingredient of vermouth, which is where it gets its name. These botanicals also had a side-effect of giving the wine a longer shelf-life, not because it reduced oxidation, but because it would sort of mask the effects of oxidation. Even with fortification and aromatization vermouth is still a wine, and so its shelf life, once opened, is limited. Those dusty bottles of vermouth you might have on your shelf are not going to do anything good for any drink you use them in. This could be part of what leads to the fear that some people have of vermouth, and hence the gymnastics they may go through to use as little of it as possible in their cocktails (the Martini specifically). You owe it to yourself, and the guests you are serving, to use as fresh of a bottle of vermouth as you can. This will mean buying as small a bottle as possible and keeping it refrigerated when not in use. If you have any doubts about the age of that bottle, then relegate it for use in cooking, where it works quite well.

How to Choose Proper Glassware - Sazerac Cocktail

30 Oct 14 8    ·   Cognac, Absinthe, Rye Whiskey,

When it comes to glassware, it can far too often come down to simply using what you have on hand. In a pinch, there may not be anything wrong with that, but even when you are simply making a drink for yourself, you deserve to do things properly and serve it up right! Wine drinkers have long known that different wines taste better in particularly shaped glassware (Thank You Riedel!) In much the same way choosing the right glass for your cocktail can make a big difference in the final results. With cocktails it isn’t so much the nuances of the flavor profile, but instead it is the functionality of the form, the visual presentation, size of the drink, comfort, and elegance as well. Drinks that need to be served with ice obviously need to be in a larger glass than those that don’t. Iced drinks should also be served in glasses with more vertical sides like a typical “Rocks” glass as opposed to an angle-sided “Martini” glass. Many times, the cocktail glassware you might see for sale in various houseware stores, while well intentioned, only exacerbates the problem. Most of the “Martini” style glasses you will see for sale are designed to hold 7, 8, 9, or even more ounces. When you think about a true Martini, it is mostly booze, with a little water from the melting ice. A properly sized Martini will only be a little over 3 ounces of liquid once it is made. If you put this into a 9 ounce glass, it will look like an insignificant drink, which may lead you to pour WAY too much into the glass. Even a “sour style” drink like a Cosmopolitan, should only be around 4 ounces when it is properly made, which is still too small for such a large glass. So even if you are simply preparing to make drinks for yourself at home, you should gather a small collection of glassware so you can treat every drink you make properly. For tonight, Lucullus dines with Lucullus!

Sour Mix: Just Say No - Daiquiri Cocktail

22 Oct 14 11    ·   Rum,

As the saying goes, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. For bartenders, that “hammer” can come in the form of “sour mix”. For sour style cocktails (such as Daiquiri, Margarita, Sidecar, Cosmopolitan, etc.), the proper balance between sweet and sour is important to achieve. You can add just a quarter ounce too much tart citrus juice to a cocktail and send it over the cliff. So imagine the value of getting that “just right” balance ahead of time, in bulk, and then being able to turn out well-balanced drinks that much quicker, without having to be as concerned about getting the recipe right. One of the problems of course is that not all sour style cocktails are created equal. Even a great sour mix, made from scratch, won’t work well in multiple recipes. Probably the only time that a sour mix “batch” is appropriate, is for a catering type of operation or event. This would be where you either know you are going to be slammed all night with people ordering a specific cocktail, or you have to use untrained staff. In such a situation you can have the “right” sour mix for the couple of drinks you’ll be offering, make it easier for untrained staff to get the recipe right, and take a little less time doing it. Sour mix was not created as a cocktail ingredient, but as a cocktail shortcut. The next time you see a recipe that calls for “sour mix”, realize that you will be far better off looking for another recipe.

When to Shake and When to Stir a Cocktail

16 Oct 14 3    ·   Vermouth, Bourbon, Rye Whiskey,

This is one of those galvanizing issues that can really show that you take quality cocktails even slightly seriously. Shaking a Manhattan is like serving your guests instant coffee. There, I’ve said it. The question about When to Shake and When to Stir still confuses many, more so when you see contradictory information about this in different recipes for the same drink. The rule to follow here is really quite simple. “Stir drinks that are made with transparent ingredients, shake drinks that include cloudy ingredients.” The reason for this is mostly due to aesthetics. Drinks served in a beautiful clear glass, look better when they themselves are clear and transparent. Shaking a drink will often make it cloud up, and make it unappealing. Often it will also put a scummy looking foam residue on the top which makes it even more unappealing. If the drink already includes cloudy ingredients (such as a citrus juice, cream, or egg white) then no amount of stirring will make it clear, so go ahead and shake it. A corollary of our simple rule, is this: “It is rarely wrong to stir a drink, but often wrong to shake it.” Which makes it all the more surprising when you see bartenders who not only shake all of their drinks, but don’t even have the tools necessary to stir a drink if they wanted to. So the next time you find yourself making a Martini, Manhattan, Negroni, or Derby, take a little extra time and stir it instead of shaking it.

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