The idea behind it is to get people who visit it making better drinks for themselves and their friends. Mostly at home but I’d like to think even bar professionals might get something out of it. I’d advise drinking in moderation but I expect you’ll drink however the heck you damn well want to thank-you-very-much.
Created by Zachary Gelnaw-Rubin, former protege of the late cocktail legend Sasha Petraske the Debbie, Don’t had always put me off with its kinda dumb name. Supposedly it has some connection to a ghost which haunts the toilets at Dutch Kills cocktail bar but it all sounds a bit Harry Potter to me. I’m not a fan of cocktail names that are too opaque – even if I might fall prey to that vice now and then myself. Eventually I got over my grumpy self by just actually trying it. Just as well because in addition to being a rather tasty delight the Debbie, Don’t (sigh) is also a wonderfully simple drink to put together – as long as you are possession of a decent amaro*. The original recipe calls for Averna in equal quantity to some reposado tequila and a little lemon juice and maple syrup which puts it in that rather interesting “hybrid” category which falls between the sour and the aromatic cocktail families (my own Bobby Cee would be another example). While there are not too many drinks in this twilight zone it’s a style that I find refreshingly different and I sense that we’ll be exploring it more deeply in the near future.
Being the habitual tinkerer that I am I’ve messed with Zack’s supernaturally inspired creation by switching the amaro (I find Averna a bit too “earthy”) and bringing the tequila flavour a little more to the fore and thus I present two recipes beneath; firstly the original and then my slight twist for which we’ll just re-jig the name ever so slightly
1oz/30ml Averna (Italian amaro).
1oz/30ml reposado tequila (100% agave).
0.75oz/22ml fresh lemon juice.
0.5oz/15ml maple syrup (the real stuff!)
Shake with ice and double strain into a chilled champagne coupé.
Toast the ghost.
0.75oz/22ml Ramazzotti or Lucano** (Italian amari).
1.25oz/37ml reposado tequila (100% agave).
0.75oz/22ml fresh lemon juice.
0.5oz/15ml maple syrup (the right stuff!)
Shake with ice and double strain into a chilled champagne coupé.
There’s a particular flavour present in some (but by no means all) Jamaican rum that is completely almost unique in the rum world. Often described as “funk” or sometimes “hogo” or “dunder” it’s a love-it-or-leave-it taste that is often said to be akin to over-ripe banana. I’m not going to go into detail on how these high ester rums are made because a) I’m not sufficiently informed on the subject and b) from what I do understand the process is gnarly enough to put you off trying them and that would be a real pity. It’s a flavour that really grows on you even if you find your first experience of it a bit perplexing. I know I did. There’s been a mini explosion in demand for funky Jamaican rums recently which shows a wider appreciation of what was until recently though to be something only the locals had a palate for. Funky rums can be white or gold, regular strength (40%), navy proof (57%) or overproof (usually 63% in Jamaica) but the best known examples are perhaps Smith & Cross (gold 57%) and Wray & Nephew Overproof (white 63%) and those two are firmly funky albeit in slightly different ways. Being a fan of all things funky I also stock a less well known gold Jamaican rum called Coruba NPU which is less strong, just as funky and extremely affordable. The last time I ordered some I noticed there is now a new aged version so I snagged a bottle of that too. Review time!
But before we get (finally) to the review part we need to get one thing straight; there’s Coruba rum and there’s Coruba rum. Huh? In 1889 a Swiss company called Compagnie Rhumière de Bâle was founded to bring Jamaican rums to Europe. At some point (details are sketchy) some distribution rights were sold off the end result of which is that some Coruba is owned by Campari . This Coruba is distributed in the US market (and some others) and includes a dark rum along the lines of Myers’s that is a popular choice with American Tiki-heads that is said to have a strong molasses flavour (I’ve not yet had a chance to try any). However in Europe we get a completely different Coruba, still owned, blended and bottled by the original company which has a completely different flavour. Both Coruba variants are Jamaican rums made and aged by (as I understand) J. Wray & Nephew and both are really quite inexpensive if a bit tricky to find. I’m going to be talking about the European Corubas here so be aware that these rums may not be available in your region.
First up, Coruba NPU* (left). The very normal screw cap bottle has a super cheesy label with I would have thought were some iffy racial stereotypical design details – all the more surprising as this is a very recently redesignedlabel. It comes wrapped in a loose dried grass web which is a nice touch that is normally only found on higher end rums. Which brings us to the price. At just €14/700ml this is one of the cheapest bottles to grace my rum shelf. At 40% ABV it is a long way from the strength of Smith & Cross yet has a very similar flavour profile. If anything it has even more of the fruity elements although it’s not quite as elegant or punchy – but then it’s almost half the price and it still delivers that classic funk flavour to a cocktail so I can forgive it for being a little rough around the edges, especially at this price! I’ve a feeling there might have been a slight change in the flavour along with the newer labeling but I can’t confirm that as I neglected to hang on to some of the previous style (rookie error!). If true it’s not major just a slightly less aggressive funkiness but without a side by side comparison I admit I could be mistaken. Coruba NPU is my “secret weapon” which I deploy as one of the mix of rums in my Navy Grog, Jet Pilot, Zombie or, indeed, any time a gold rum is called for and I feel like funkin’ it up a bit. It also represents an excellent introduction to this style of Jamaican rum for the uninitiated funkster. Largely due to the excellent value for money Coruba NPU scores a straight:
A.Coruba 7 year old solera.
The new version that caught my eye has a similar presentation to the NPU but with a sort of “night time” look. The NPU tag is dropped in favour of a “Solera 7 Years Aged” statement. It’s not clear if all the rum is 7 years old – that whole solera thing can be a bit sneaky but its darker colour suggests that there is at least that possibility. Being bottled at the more respectable 43% is another promising sign and I’m really looking forward to cracking this one open. But when I pour some in my glass I immediately notice something wrong; Funk – where is thy whiff? Barely there at all alas. A sip does little to uncover it. I believe I actually exclaimed out loud, “They’ve aged the funk out of it!” Once I’d calmed down a bit I realised that it’s still a decent rum that’s more rounded, a little spicier and a bit woodier than the younger version but with the dunder really held in check as a background note rather than the main event. The problem is that at €22 you are getting fairly close to the price of the much loved funky rum benchmark that is Smith & Cross (€25). For the exact same number of rum tokens as the 7 year you can even come by the overproof version of NPU at 74% (Hwa!). It would seem that rum funk simply mellows away with age and indeed all the best loved funky Jamaican rums are minimally aged. While I applaud the makers for trying something new it just doesn’t fit our mixing requirements very well (although it is perfectly sippable) and in combination with its mediocre value for money just gets a:
*NPU stands for “non plus ultra” which I think is French for “the dog’s bollocks”.
With their tanks, and their bombs, and their bombs, and their rums…
I’ve been putting this one off for too long. Not because there’s anything wrong with the Zombie – in fact it is one of my favourite cocktails – but because it’s a complex drink with a complex story. The Zombie is no beginners drink but you’ve been making some remarkable progress recently and I think you’re ready for the challenge. And I was on the Z’s anyway.
Along with the Navy Grog, the Zombie is easily Don the Beachcomber‘s most famous creation. Indeed you could consider it a Navy Grog on steroids with the same core formula of rum, lime juice, grapefruit juice and some syrup, blended and served with ice. But the devil is in the details. A good Zombie (hmm) is a carefully considered balance of rums, citrus, sugar and spices that create a depth of flavour and complexity that few other cocktails can approach. While the ingredient list can look intimidating it isn’t that difficult to make a superb Zombie, especially with the subtly tweaked recipe I present below. They don’t call me the Zombie Whisperer for nothing*.
Allegedly created to help a hung-over businessman through an important meeting, Donn’s original 1934 Zombie created a sensation at the time and was widely (and usually badly) copied giving rise to a multitude of mediocre mixtures. Before long anything containing an obscene amount of rum and a bit of fruit juice or (gawd ‘elp us) sour mix was getting the Zombie moniker slapped on it and there were even a bunch of shucksters claiming they’d invented it (that’s right I’m talking about you Monte Proser!) In any case, any hint of the original Zombie had pretty much vanished by the late 60s – not least because by then folks had discovered newer ways to get off their tits in under 5 minutes.
To be sure there is a lot of rum in a Zombie and I find the original version just a touch over the top with its (equivalent of) 5oz(!) of rum but, hey, prohibition had just ended and people presumably felt that they had some catching up to do. One of those and you certainly shouldn’t be driving or operating heavy machinery, heck, you’ll be lucky if you can operate your legs. Donn Beach himself limited Zombies to a maximum of two per customer which probably only added to the notoriety. In the interests of full disclosure I should probably add that I’m drinking the 1934 version as I’m writing this because that’s the kind of sacrifice I make for you guys.
Yet simply pouring a ton-o-rum does not a Zombie make and The Beachcomber tinkered with the recipe throughout his career as well as defending it from his imitators by keeping those recipes secret. And secret they remained until Tiki expert in chief Jeff “Beachbum” Berry painstakingly uncovered the original recipe – along with a few others – in the early years of the cocktail renaissance (1998- ∞).
If you still don’t have his book Beachbum Berry Remixed order it now or I refuse to continue. Good, about time. This most indispensable Tiki tome has a recipe from the Las Vegas Aku Aku (in the Stardust casino) from 1964 that he reckons is Donn’s final version** and it certainly bears all his hallmarks. I tinkered with this recipe just a touch to bring it back up towards the strength of his original 1934 version. To me this Zombie ticks all boxes; it’s essentially a Donn recipe, it has the character of the original but with out being too strong*** and the proportions are much easier to measure and remember compared to the 1934 version. Let’s do it!
Zombie (Proof version of the Berry version of the Aku Aku version of the original 1934 version).
1oz/30ml fresh lime juice.
1oz/30ml white grapefruit juice.
1oz/30ml cinnamon syrup.
1oz/30ml Dark Jamaican rum (see notes below).
1oz/30ml Gold rum (ditto).
1oz/30ml Overproof Demerara rum (ditto).
1 teaspoon of Zombie mix (WTF?****)
1 or 2 dashes Angostura bitters.
Pulse blend 6 or 7 times with a small scoop of crushed ice*****. Pour unstrained into an ice filled Collins glass or Tiki mug.
Garnish with a sprig of mint.
Dark Jamaican: Myers’s, Coruba dark (US), Blackwell or Captain Morgan’s Black/Jamaican (EU).
Gold rum: Lot’s of choices here for example dry Spanish style (Havana Club Anejo Especial, Abuelo, Brugal, Don Q etc.), Barbados (Mount Gay, Cockspur etc.) or even gold Jamaican (I particularly like Coruba NPU in my Zombie).
Overproof Demerara: A bit trickier; Ideally Lemon Hart 151 or Hamilton 151 but more realistically Plantation OTFD which is a good substitute and widely available. For those in the UK, Wood’s 100 will do the trick but use 1.25oz/37ml.
* Oh, all right, you got me – I made that up. I’m just channeling The Beachcomber who was always making up BS stories about himself.
**He wrote their menu a few years prior.
***It’s still a very strong drink (just under 4oz equiv), so do be careful!
**** Equal parts of absinthe, grenadine, falernum, curaçao (or other orange liqueur). I like to keep some in a small 50ml bottle for impromptu Zombiage.
This hybrid of the Negroni and the Navy Grog might sound like an abomination but please reserve you judgement until you’ve tried it. Besides, you trust me, don’t you?
I was about to make myself a pre-prandial cocktail the other evening and was torn between two of my favourites, the Navy Grog and the Negroni. Whilst paralysed with indecision a strange thought wafted into my consciousness: What if you made a Grog using the three ingredients in a Negroni instead of three kinds of rum. What madness – that would just be disgusting! So I did it anyway. And to my astonishment this ludicrous frankencocktail was simply superb – although those with a sweeter tooth might well disagree. The basic premise of equal parts of grapefruit juice, lime juice, honey syrup, gin, Campari and sweet vermouth all blended with ice worked well enough to get my attention but upon further investigation it became clear that a few tweaks were in order. First and foremost was the boosting of the gin component to give it a bit more backbone; I mean you can hardly replace three ounces of rum with one of gin and still allude to things naval. I’d also make a case for using the strongest gin in your arsenal and if that should happen to be a navy strength gin (57%) so much the better*. It also transpires that using a ginger syrup is more harmonious than the usual honey syrup. The process is almost identical to that for a Navy Grog – blend until almost smooth with a small handful of crushed ice (not too much, you’re not trying to make a slushie here) and pour into a double Old Fashioned glass containing an ice cone. Sure, you can skip the cone and just serve with a straw but then you won’t be a proper pirate.
1oz/30ml fresh lime juice.
1oz/30ml white grapefruit juice (bottled is fine if you can’t find fresh white grapefruit).
1oz/30ml ginger syrup.
1.5oz/45ml gin (see text).
1oz/30ml Italian/sweet vermouth (very preferably Punt e Mes).
Blend with ice as described above.
Serve as described above and garnish with an orange or grapefruit twist.
Toast the Tiki Gods who whisper strange and exotic ideas in your ear at moments of indecision.
*Being deficient in the navy strength gin department I used Tanqueray No Ten (47% and some change). Plymouth gin would be another good option with the navy strength version being a veritable double whammy.
The poor old Martinez is another old timer that doesn’t get enough love these days. Hailing from somewhere in mid 19th century America – our guess being Martinez, California – it was a fairly straight-shootin’ gin and Italian vermouth cocktail with a small portion of sweetening liqueur (mostly maraschino, sometimes curacao, occasionally both) and a dash or two of bitters. Some theorise that the Martinez predated and then gradually morphed into the Martini but whether there’s anything to that is beside the point as they are certainly now two entirely different drinks and have been for at least a century. If you’re ordering a Martinez in a cocktail bar I strongly suggest that you heavily over-pronounce the “nez” (MarteeeNEZ!) or you’re likely to get served the far more common Martini. Early iterations of the Martinez varied a bit but most had more vermouth than gin which we can probably put that down to the vermouth craze that was going on at the time. Around 1900 the gin/vermouth proportions got flipped around and it’s been that way ever since. But the problem then becomes that the Martinez starts to resemble other drinks such as the Gin and It and the Manhattan a bit too much. A second problem for the poor old Martinez was the disappearance of its main component Old Tom gin*, a slightly sweetened gin that was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. We’re gonna solve both those problems and kill two birds with one stone using history (da-da-daaaaaaaa!). First it would be remiss of me not to point out that Old Tom has recently made a reappearance (Hayman’s Old Tom is a popular choice) and you could certainly use that once again. But wait: In 19th century America they weren’t drinking Old Tom, which was much more of an English affectation, but Dutch gin. Time out!
Jenever (correctly pronounced Yeh-Nay-Fir) AKA genever, Hollands gin or Geneva (totally incorrect but that didn’t stop anyone) is the grand-daddy of all gin and has been produced almost entirely in the Netherlands and Belgium ever since the 16th century. It was originally made in a similar way to whisky: from a fermented malted grain mash, pot distilled and then with juniper (jenever in Dutch) berries and other herbs added to mask the roughness of relatively unsophisticated distillation. British soldiers took a shine to it while passing through the region and carried the concept back home where it was copied, modified and lazily abbreviated to “gin”. Back in the low countries the original continued to be made the traditional way until a new type of jenver began to be produced around 1900 which used the relatively new-fangled column still to distill a lighter version of the spirit which has more in common with vodka. Thus there are two styles of jenever, old (oude) and young (jonge) and despite the misconception that this refers to whether they are aged or not the truth is that they represent the older (pot still) type and the “younger” (column still) type. As it happens the young style is never aged but old jenever can be aged but doesn’t have to be. A third style called korenwijn/corenwijn is like old jenever on steroids but rarely seen outside of the region. All types are usually 35-38% ABV and are less heavily botanicalified and therefore less dry than modern “London style” gin. The young has a crisp neutral taste and the old a very agreeable malty character with the aged versions bringing a little wood to the party. Old jenevers can have variations based on the cereal used such as spelt or rye. That’s right – you can get a pot stilled, barrel aged, rye jenever that is much more like a rye whisky than a gin. Who knew?
Meanwhile back in 19th century America the locals, considering things English somewhat unpatriotic due to some recent disagreements, came to replace tea with coffee and London gin with jenever. Furthermore the jenever they imported was old jenever. We know this with some degree of certainty because young jenever hadn’t been invented yet. Also this “Hollands gin” had to cross the Atlantic in a fairly slow boat and in a wooden barrel. So, allowing for some additional warehousing time at each end of the voyage, it was wood aged – albeit accidentally – old jenever. How about we try to replicate that in our Martinez? I picked a one year old (sounds about right) oude jenever from Zuidam who are a small distiller in the south of The Netherlands. Or are they? You see Zuidam Distillery is located bang in the middle of in the most geographically bonkers town in the world. Baarle-Nassau (Baarle-Hertog to some) is a small town that can’t decide what country it’s in so ended up being in both Belgium and The Netherlands at the same time. Sort of. Hang on, I can’t explain this without a map:
X marks the distillery. In NL but almost surrounded by B.
See? Bananas. The chaotic border runs through individual houses and businesses with hilarious consequences such as houses with two addresses (in different countries) and more. But I’m getting sidetracked and none of this is in any way relevant to the Martinez.
Using our Ur-gin with its slightly woody and warm malty notes in place of the dry gin or old tom gives us a completely different Martinez. Combined with a good bittered vermouth (Punt e Mes** as always), a dash of earthy-sweet maraschino and a couple of heavy-handed dashes of our favourite bitters the Martinez becomes something really, really good and I can’t help but wonder if this was the way it used to taste more than 150 years ago.
1.5oz/45ml old jenever (or old tom gin, see text).
1.5oz/45ml sweet vermouth (ideally Punt e Mes).
0.25oz/7.5ml maraschino liqueur (eg. Luxardo).
1 healthy dash of aromatic bitters (De Ooievaar Angostura if you can).
1 healthy dash of orange bitters (Regans or another brand)
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled champagne coupe or Nick & Nora glass.
Garnish with an orange twist.
Feel free to play with the gin/jenever to vermouth proportions. Two parts gin to one of vermouth would be more modern and the opposite more original.
It’s the time of the year when the Japanese go nuts for cherry blossom (aka sakura). And as it happens I’ve been going nuts trying to add one or two sake based cocktails to my repertoire. The problem: I know next to nothing about sake. Sure, I’ll enjoy some with a Japanese meal but as to which kind is the best and why: clueless. Still, I did a little experimentation and not a few pretty unpalatable cocktails went swiftly down the drain before I finally came up with something potable. Considering that I was pretty much flying by the seat of my pants I’m quite pleased with this little concoction which I’ve named after a detail from one of my most favouritest novels; Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer (read it to find out why).
Sake, a unique ingredient which is neither wine, beer or spirit but with properties of them all, is tricky to mix with and I found little little success in simply subbing it for other ingredients which is why the formula below looks quite unlike any other cocktail: the usual guidelines just don’t apply to this stubborn “spirit”. Sake has some acidity to it (like wine) which is the reason for the relatively small amount of lemon juice. Of course a cocktail containing lemon juice would normally be shaken but with so little – compared to the other ingredients – and a desire to maintain some clarity we can get away with stirring our Black Sakura. One flavour that I was keen to include was, for reasons most obvious, cherry and luckily the sake and some cherry Heering seemed to get along just fine. Our sweet/sour balance being just about right I turned to the wonderfully woody Fee’s black walnut bitters to round things off. If you don’t have that particular bitters or something similarly woody I would just leave it unbittered rather than overpower the subtlety of the sake with the likes of Angostura. And that’s it – there’s really nothing else to say except “Kanpai!”
2.5oz/75ml sake* (nothing too fancy).
1oz/30ml Heering (a cherry liqueur).
0.5oz/15ml fresh lemon juice.
2-3 dashes Fee’s black walnut bitters.
Stir* with ice and double strain into a chilled champagne coupé or Nick & Nora glass.
Garnish with a cherry or lemon peel. Or both! Or neither!
Monks seem to have a bit of a thing for making booze (Dom Perignon, Benedictine, Chartreuse, Averna, Trappist beer etc.) and it seemed to me that we should recognise their noble dedication with a cocktail in their honour. At the same time I felt it was time for a new Scotch based drink. But which Scotch? Given the brief it was quite clear – there can be only one…
I was quietly pleased with my early experiments until I realised I had simply reinvented the venerable Bobby Burns (2oz Scotch, 1oz Italian vermouth, two dashes of Benedictine) but with Buckfast tonic wine instead of vermouth. Nuts. However it was a blessing in disguise as I quickly found another monky liqueur that made for an even tastier accent component. It doesn’t get much monkier that green Chartreuse; made by Carthusian monks in France since 1737 and based on an even older (1605) recipe. It’s not cheap but you never need very much of it and it lasts forever but more to the point you’re gonna need some for making Last Words anyway. Yet, amazingly, the Chartreuse isn’t even the most bonkers ingredient in the Monky Business – that prize goes to the:
Buckfast tonic wine.
Those unfamiliar with this peculiar ingredient are going to need a bit of a primer here and as unlikely as much of the following may sound let me assure you I am not making this shizzle up. Buckfast is a fortified wine based on an ancient French recipe made by Benedictine monks (and under their licence) in southern England since 1890. At 15% and with additions including caffeine and vanillin it is somewhat comparable to an Italian vermouth. So far, so normal…
The thing is Buckfast has a bit of a bad rep due to its ubiquity with a certain underclass in central Scotland** where it goes by such alternative names as “Wreck the Hoose Juice”, “Coatbridge Table Wine”, “Cumbernauld Rocket Fuel”, “Holy Water”, “Commotion Lotion”, “The Devil’s Calpol” or more often just plain old “Bucky”. If you didn’t get the hint from those nicknames let’s just say Buckfast has a strong association with petty crime and anti-social behaviour, particularly in the housing estates in an area between Glasgow and Edinburgh which is known as the Buckfast Triangle. Don’t just take my word for it: according to Wikipedia, “A survey at a Scottish young offenders’ institution showed of the 117 people who drank alcohol before committing their crimes, 43 per cent said they had drunk Buckfast. In another study of litter around a typical council estate in Scotland, 35 per cent of the items identified as rubbish were Buckfast bottles.” Despite many a campaign to reign in the Holy Water the monks – safely out of the splash zone down in southern England – have remained unrepentant with a sort of “we only designed the bomb, we didn’t drop it!” attitude.
But don’t worry, we’re not a bunch of neds who are going to be necking four bottles of Bucky and breaking into a petrol station, we’re just after an ounce for its vermouthy properties, monkish credentials and maybe just a tiny whiff of its notoriety. If you’re wondering exactly where to find a bottle (or can) of “Loopy Juice” the unofficial Buckfast fan website has a handy app for that. Failing that just use some regular sweet vermouth but be assured we will be making use of the “Lurgan Champagne” again before too long…
20z / 60ml Monkey Shoulder Scotch whisky (or similar).
1oz / 30ml Buckfast tonic wine.*
0.25oz / 7.5ml Green Chartreuse.
2 dashes of Angostura bitters.
Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail coupé. No garnish.
Toast monks: makin’ ra swally since forever man.
*If unavailable use Italian vermouth, Carpano Antica probably being the closest match.
**and to a lesser extent in parts of Ireland. The Irish (brown bottle) version of Buckfast is 14.8% ABV and lacks the vanilla flavour but has even more caffeine.
The Short Straw – Alternatives to the plastic straw.
There is, quite rightly, a bit of a war on single use plastics going on these days. I’m fully on board with the idea that no turtle should have to swim around with a plastic straw stuck up her nose* and so are the EU who have put in place legislation to end the sale of single use plastics which, naturally, includes straws and drink stirrers by 2021. Us cocktailistas should join in and make it our mission to save the planet – one cocktail at a time. So what are the responsible alternatives? One option is simply not to use straws at all but a) if a guest wants a straw they should get a straw b) it’s simply barbaric to drink a crushed ice cocktail such as a Caipirinha or Mai Tai without one. This brings us to the central problem: While there are plenty eco options for long drinks the traditional short “sipping” or “stirring” straw is a specialised instrument for use with drinks served in a double old fashioned glass which has far fewer plausible replacements. Requirements are for a short straw of about 12cm/5” with a narrow bore to allow the imbiber to enjoy the cocktail at a leisurely pace, to prevent the up-suction of small chunks of ice and with sufficient rigidity to stir the drink as the ice melts. Let’s look at some options.
Hey, can’t we just snip a regular paper straw in half!? No. Paper straws suck. They get soggy. And they’re still single use. Game over paper. Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect 200 whadevas.
On paper these look like a good option. They get top marks for hygiene as you can put them through a dishwasher without damaging them. Of course they are very durable and rigid but with that comes their big problem: sooner or later you or a guest are going to get poked in the gum or lip (or eye if you’re particularly careless/drunk) with a hard and unforgiving shaft (you’re damned right!) o’ ice cold steel. Hmmm. Another problem is that it’s quite difficult to find any that are as narrow as I’d like. Not a bad option but you need to be careful.
Fast-growing bamboo is overflowing with ecological credentials such as sustainability and bio-degradability. Bamboo straws look great in Tiki drinks which are often crushed ice based and thus the very category where a straw is pretty essential. I’m a big fan of bamboo straws but they do have a couple of downsides: They can be hard to find in shorter lengths and with consistently narrow bores (being a natural product they vary quite widely in aperture). As they are a semi-porous natural substance I remain to be convinced of their long term hygieneosity and durability. Visually attractive and very probably the greenest option but certainly no panacea.
Huh? I know. Some enterprising cocktail fans have put some thought into this very problem and come up with these silicone straws. They fit the brief perfectly in terms of the length and bore with the bonus of an angled end which helps keep the precious liquid flowing at the right pace without blocking. Hygiene isn’t an issue with non-porous silicone and they can go in the dishwasher if needed. Silicone is clearly not going to injure you like steel might but it does bring up my main quibble. While they are marketed as being firm enough to stir with I still found them to be a bit on the floppy side – you can stir with them but it just feels a bit weird. They are available in six straw packs of the three neutral colours shown (I’m pleased they resisted the temptation to get all garish) or in a mixed colour pack. I’m definitely a fan but just wish they were a bit more rigid.
Ultimately all of the above – apart from dismal paper – are viable alternatives with different advantages and disadvantages. Per-straw prices are in the same ballpark so ultimately you pay your money and you take your choice but for goodness sake choose at least one option and leave those poor turtles** alone!
*Some of my best friends are turtles.
**Turtles rock! Other sea creatures also need help.
One of my favourite versions of the Negroni is the simply named Mezcal Negroni which simply replaces gin with a good quality mezcal. But what if we double down on the substitutions in a quest for something that is more tangential to the beloved Negroni? For such an endevour I turn to a favourite of mine, Amer Picon, which is a distant cousin to Campari with some flavours that mesh very well with mezcal. Indeed it transpires these equal quantities of mezcal, picon and sweet vermouth get on pretty well together but need a little help to fully bond. This is where a dash or two of bitters can help cement a relationship and normally I would expect orange or Angostura bitters to do the trick. In this case we have a drink that already has orange notes and plenty of bitterness so we turn to one of the sweeter bitters that we keep around for Pisco Sours (and a few other things). Yep, Peruvian Amargo Chuncho is the slightly unlikely glue that holds this motley crew together.
Now at this point we have only the sweet vermouth remaining from the original Negroni formula so we’ll definitely be needing a new name. Most mezcal is produced in the Mexcian state of Oaxaca (wah-hack-ah) and the original people of that region were the Zapotec, one of whom would be a Zapoteca. Boom.
1.25oz/37ml mezcal (a decent joven*).
1.25oz/37ml Amer Picon (black label is best).
1.25oz/37ml Italian vermouth (Punt e Mes being my go-to).
3 dashes of Amargo Chuncho bitters.
Stir with ice and strain into a DOF glass containing a block or sphere of clear ice. Garnish with a peel of dried slice of blood orange. Mrs Proof told me to stick a couple of pineapple leaves in too and she is never wrong.
Toast the Zapotecs (c.700BC – 1521AD) – the first(ish) great Mesoamerican civilization.
If – and it’s a pretty likely “if” unless you live in France or its immediate neighbours – Amer Picon is unavailable to you then substitute an equal amount of Ramazzotti and add an extra three dashes of orange bitters. This is in addition to the Amargo Chuncho. If you don’t have any Amargo Chuncho go and buy a bottle it’s not that expensive and you’ll need it for a proper Pisco Sour anyway.
*I used Atenco but other suggestions are Del Maguey VIDA, Los Siete Misterios Doba-Yej, Nuestra Soledad or other entry level quality joven mezcals. Nothing that contains any colour or dead animal.
One of the main problems with mezcal is finding a good mixable one that doesn’t break the bank. The usual choice is the widely available Del Maguey VIDA but my long time favourite has been Los Siete Misterios Doba-Yej. It’s a bit of a mouthful but we can break it down a bit. The first part is the brand name (the seven mysteries) and they market a range of quality mezcals that are mostly in the €100+ range. Which we won’t be mixing with, will we? Good. However their entry level offering is a really good assertive mezcal that, at least in my neck of the woods, is affordable enough to mix with coming in at around the same price – or often a little less – than the ubiquitous VIDA. Doba-Yej is a local name for the most common form of agave – espadin – so it’s not quite as exotic as it sounds. If you’re new to the wonders of mezcal, the species of agave is to mezcal what grape varieties are to wine and espadin is the sauvignon blanc of the agave world. We really wouldn’t expect anything fancier at this price. I particularly like the eye-catching and slightly gnarly label designs and appreciate the simple bottles with a good wood-on-cork closure. But then things get complicated.
The Mezcal Lottery.
Now the really weird thing about this mezcal is that it changes from batch to batch with bottlings from different mezcaleros in different villages. Nuts heh? But really it shouldn’t be that surprising as this kind of mezcal is an extremely small scale (dare I say artisanal?) operation, usually involving no more than a handful of guys and a donkey. Los Siete Misterios are giving us access to that world at a fair price while making it a bit easier to track by changing the label with each bottling and printing plenty of information on the producers, methods batches and bottlings. Unfortunately this doesn’t help too much given that it’s often necessary to buy mezcal online as it’s not deeply stocked (if at all) by most European bottle shops. Some online sites are not yet very knowledgeable about mezcal (it’s still a pretty recent phenomenon outside of Mexico) and therefore are not that diligent at keeping the picture and data up to date. This makes Doba-Yej something of an interesting lottery but the good news is that even though there’s a lot of variation the contents of the bottle are mostly solid mezcals and good value.
I first discovered Doba-Yej in 2015 and it was love at first sniff but I noticed a big difference when the 2016 batch showed up. It had a powerful and slightly synthetic smell of pear drops and briny flavours that were up front and in your face and I was kind of disappointed by the lack of subtlety. All the stranger at the relatively low (for mezcal) strength of 42%. It was still a decent mixer but I was worried that the high tide mark for affordable mezcal had come and gone. While I’ve never sipped of the 2017 batch* I’m happy to report that the 2018 is much more to my liking. The nose is of dusty dry wood and the flavours are much more together and a lot less shouty even though it’s back up to 44% ABV. The smoke is there and there is a nice pepperiness too but all in a nicely rounded way. Sadly I didn’t keep any of the 2015 batch (although luckily I still had the empty bottle) as at that time I was unaware of the changing nature of this brand but my memory is that it was a very well integrated mezcal with decent smoke, fruit and brine flavours. I also note that production seems to be increasing with much larger batches (1200 bottles in ’15, 2003 in ’16 and 4500 in ’18) and the bottles no longer being individually hand signed and numbered. Mezcal is being changed by it’s own success but it’s reassuring to see that this isn’t always for the worse.
Now this has been a lot of waffle but I’m getting to the point now and that point is that Los Siete Misterios Doba-Yej is an interesting and affordable mixing mezcal if you’re the type that can embrace a bit of randomness. For now I’m happy to recommend the 2018 batch from lot DBY01/18 with the skeletal lady waving an agave bible in the air but if you come across any remaining bottles of the 2015 batch (skeletal pirate dude, 44.3%) snap them up immediately! I’d suggest passing on the 2016/17? batches (banner-carrying priesty-looking stiff) if you intend on sipping it but for mixing it’s still pretty acceptable. On the other hand you might be the type that values consistency over excitement in which case Del Maguey VIDA will never let you down.
For obvious reasons I can’t grade all batches** of Doba-Yej at once but the 2018 lady-Yej gets a well deserved:
*If there even was one; I’ve certainly seen no sign of any.
**I should also point out that it is at least possible that there are different batches within each year and labeling but in my (limited) experience there has been consistency within each year.