Sunday, November 22, 2009


Since I started Small Hand Foods, I often get people asking me about my syrup-making process, so I thought I'd share some of it here.

When people find out what I do, one of the first things they say to me is, "Wow; you do all of that out of your house?" Um... what? No. You can't legally sell stuff you've made in your home kitchen. Actually, in some states you can certify your home kitchen, but California ain't one of them.

"Don't you need permits for that sort of thing?" Yes. You need a Processed Food Registration, food safety certification, Organic Processed Product Registration (if you use organic ingredients), seller's permit, Fictitious Business Name Statement, and business licenses in both the city you make the product in and the one you live in, assuming you do things like keep records in your house. There may be other permits you need for where you live; state and county offices will be able to tell you what you need.

If you are interested in starting a small food business, one of the big initial hurdles is finding a space to cook out of. Commercial kitchens are available for rental, but they can be expensive. They also may not have all of the equipment you need. Many people get their starts through the generosity of people already in the industry, myself included. I owe so much to the former owners of Fellini in Berkeley, Camino in Oakland, and of course, to Charles Phan and the entire Phan family of Slanted Door and Heaven's Dog. Often deals can be worked out when restaurants are closed; i.e. mornings in a dinner-only establishment, or on a Sunday or Monday when a particular restaurant is closed. I start cooking in the afternoon and usually finish midnight or later, because that is when the space I use is available.

I usually start each cooking session by picking up my produce from Berkeley Bowl. It's just slightly higher in cost than wholesale, they have the quality I need, plus they're really nice. I pack it into my cargo van (size 14). Here are 20 cases of organic pineapples.

I buy my bottles from California Glass. They mostly serve the wine industry, but have a number of other bottles and jars for people like myself. They're wholesale only and have a $500 minimum, which was daunting at first, but I got over that quickly. Now I buy from them about every six weeks or so.

I cook in really big pots. I have to stand on a crate to see inside.

Bottling by hand is really time consuming. Especially when the gum syrup is bubbly, and I have to fill the bottles, wait for it to settle, and top off each one.

I slip on the capsules then use the heat gun I have left over from refinishing furniture to shrink them on.

I used to use stock black capsules, but my bottles have these tiny glass bumps on the necks, and the capsules often broke and shrank away from the bumps.

I switched to custom capsules from C&E Capsules, and now they not only match my labels, the glass bumps no longer break through!

When I finish a batch, I've usually been working 12 or 14 hours. Plus the bottles are pretty hot, and I'm too tired and cranky at this point to wait for them to cool, so I put them away to label later.

Labeling by hand is also ridiculously time consuming. This is one of several times in this process where the economies of scale turn around and laugh in my face. How I wish I had a machine to do this! I use a ruler for the first bottle, then just visually line up each bottle with the first and apply the labels by hand.

I generally cook a larger quantity than I'll need at any given time, and I'll cook usually one or two products a week. I ask my customers to place their orders by Friday, then I know what I'll be cooking next and what ingredients I'll need to order. I cook on Mondays and Tuesdays, label and deliver on Wednesdays, then finish with my shift at Heaven's Dog Wednesday nights. I invariably get panicked calls on Tuesdays for syrups, and if I have the product in stock, I'm happy to oblige, but sometimes I get cleaned out. I do my best, though.

So that's my process. Like most small businesses, my company lives or dies with me alone. The rhythm of production doesn't afford me the luxury of illness, and I've been dreaming of a vacation for two years. But, like most small business owners, I love it, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Some resources:
Small Business Administration: Frequent classes, most of them free.
Small Business Development Center: One-on-one counseling sessions: free!

In San Francisco:
La Cocina
Renaissance Center

Thursday, September 17, 2009


I make and sell a grenadine through my company Small Hand Foods. It differs vastly from what is currently on the market, and some people have been asking why.

First and foremost is the issue of taste. There are generally two kinds of grenadine on the market: ones that contain juice, like Stirrings and Sonoma Syrup Company, and ones that don't, like Rose's and Monin. Unfortunately, although the ones with juice in them are far tastier than their artificial addititive counterparts, when mixing them into cocktail, they simply don't taste like pomegranate. There is the sweetness, of course, and the citric acid tartness, but none of the tannic juiciness I associate with ripe pomegranate.

I had always understood that grenadine was a syrup made from pomegranate and sugar, grenade meaning pomegranate in French, and granada in Spanish. But unlike other cocktail ingredients I can find almost no recipes for it in my collection of old cookbooks. In fact, the only recipe I found is in Home Made Beverages: The Manufacture of Non-Alcoholic and Alcoholic Drinks in the Household by Albert A. Hopkins, first published in 1900. And it is a rather unfortunate one:

Extract grenadine, 2 oz.; liquid foam, 1 oz.; red fruit coloring, 1 dr.; syrup, 1 gal. Mix then add fruit acid, 2 oz.

(Syrup here would refer to simple syrup, made in this book by adding 2 pounds of sugar to each pint of water and heated until dissolved.)

So I guess we shouldn't fault the modern artificial versions too much; they obviously are following a long heritage as well. But for me, I want a simpler product that tastes like its ingredients. I like to drink the way that I like to eat, close to the earth with minimal processing. I want to know my ingredients, how they were grown and produced, and if possible, the people that grew and produced them. So I knew that my grenadine was going to taste like pomegranate, and hopefully, make cocktails that tasted like there was pomegranate in them.

In a lot of classic cocktails, grenadine is called for in dashes, leading me to believe that it was used often for color. And if you look at a modern version of a common grenadine cocktail like a tequila sunrise, you will see that yes, indeed, there is a very noticeable color addition.My problem is that if grenadine is made with just pomegranate and sugar, it wouldn't be a bright red, it would be a darker, more wine-like color.

Perhaps we have gotten so used to artificial colors that something natural looks too muddy. When we serve a Shirley Temple at Heaven's Dog we use Fever Tree Ginger Ale (as the Shirley Temple was originally made with ginger ale, not 7up or Sprite) and sink some Small Hand Foods Grenadine into the glass. Kids, and the occasional adult who order them, often look askance at the beverage until they take a sip. It's really good, and tastes like ginger and pomegranate, like the actual ingredients. Unusual, yes, but only compared to the high-fructose corn syrup and FD&C Red #40 concoction we've become accustomed to.

There is a great discussion in the Spirits & Cocktails forum on eGullet about making your own grenadine. There are many, many recipes that contributors have posted, and every one of them is vastly superior to anything you can find on your typical liquor store shelf. However, one of the most interesting parts of the discussion is that some people add additional flavors to their grenadine, from vanilla to orange flower water to star anise. One post compared grenadine to pomegranate syrup like orgeat to almond syrup, as in, one is a pure flavor syrup and the other is a flavored syrup with pomegranate or almond as the base. Etymologically this is erroneous, of course, as grenade means pomegranate, and orge actually means barley, the culinary root of this syrup, which has evolved into its current form.

I tried adding flavors to mine. I love orange flower water, and thought vanilla, since it is often used in artificial grenadines, would make the syrup taste a bit more familiar. I even tried adding hibiscus, thinking it would donate a brighter red color and a bit of that lovely sorrel-like zing. But they all tasted weird to me. The vanilla made the syrup taste more like artificial grenadine, which was really unfortunate. The orange flower water tasted out of place and lended a body-product floral unpleasantness, the way too much lavender or violet can. And the hibiscus just muddied the bright acidity of the natural pomegranate.

So I came back to a pure pomegranate syrup. It's dark and murky, like a reduced red wine sauce, and adds a lot of color to a cocktail. But it tastes juicy and rich, less sweet than commercial products, and still has a tannic bite that reminds you it comes from real fruit. And yes, it will add more flavor to your cocktail than the other stuff. But I think that's the way it should be.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Sherry Wine Punch

I have a predilection for sherry-based cocktails for drinking on hot Sundays while relaxing with friends.

You may recognize the setting for this photo as the same as the one for my Italian Lemonade post. Last year I made a sherry and milk lemonade for exactly the same purpose: kickin' it on the river the Sunday after a big party at my friend Jen's farm in the Capay Valley. I figured, why break with tradition?

This time it was our friend Beth's birthday. We ate under the stars and played in the river. I napped and read about pickles. We took eggs warm from the hens. Jen made pita from scratch. There was a pinata for the kids, and another one that was supposed to be for adults, but I never saw it get cracked. (What is in a pinata for adults? Weed and porn?) We slept under the stars. These parties are always fabulous.

So I needed a low-alcohol drink for the day after such revelry. Sherry-based drinks are ideal, and a brief search turned up a Sherry Wine Punch listed in Harry Johnson's "New & Improved Illustrated Bartender's Manual" published in 1888. It includes Orchard Syrup, an ingredient I have been working on for a while. This time I made it with extra lemon juice and more warm spices like cloves and allspice. It came out a bit too apple-pie-like, but the cocktail was still tasty. Next time I think I'm going to try Chinese 5-spice powder.

I made it all in a large jug for sharing, but here it is scaled down for one:

Sherry Wine Punch

3 oz amontillado sherry
1 oz orchard syrup
1/4 oz lemon juice
3/4 oz red wine

Stir sherry, orchard syrup and lemon juice together in a frappe glass, then pack crushed ice in to fill and stir briefly. Float red wine on top.


Sunday, August 9, 2009


As a pretty geeky bartender, I like to scan old bar books looking for drink recipes that call for obscure ingredients (see Capillaire and Orchard Syrup).

I first came across Sirop-de-Groseille in the Savoy Cocktail Book, although it's also listed in Harry McElhone's "Barflies and Cocktails." It's a red currant syrup, sometimes used as a substitute for grenadine or raspberry syrup. It's often described as having a similar flavor to those, although I find it quite different, tannic and with an odd seedlike flavor, like biting into an apple seed. I think it is this quality that makes it a good match with kirsch, as kirsch is made by fermenting whole sour cherries including their pits.

Stone fruit seeds and apple seeds contain benzaldehyde, a poison related to cyanide (see The Trouble With Cyanide). The flavor is barely noticeable in fresh red currants, but when I cooked it into a syrup, the seedlike pungency is much more pronounced.

The first recipe I saw with this syrup was the Artist's Special from the Savoy. I always like drinks that combine sherry with another liquor, and the nutty oxidation of the sherry tones down the tannins and seedy flavor of the groseille. Erik Ellestad of Underhill-Lounge describes his experience with this cocktail here.

Artist's Special Cocktail

1 oz whisky
1 oz sherry
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz groseille syrup

Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

CocktailDB lists the Nineteen-Twenty, a cocktail with both groseille and kirsch. I love this combination, and I love this drink, although I prefer a variation made with genever instead of gin. My co-worker Jon suggested this as I was working out the drink, and I think it is just fabulous.

Dutch 20

1 1/2 oz dry vermouth
3/4 oz genever
1/4 oz kirsch
1/4 oz sirop-de-groseille

Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

There is a French cocktail called The Rose, published in "Petits et Grands Verres" from 1927 that is essentially this drink without the gin. The name refers to the color the syrup lends the drink.

CocktailDB also lists a recipe for making the syrup:

Express the juice of small red currants, reds. Per quart of juice obtained, add 2 quarts of water and 3-1/2 lbs. of sugar. Dissolve sugar in water before adding the juice. Leave standing for several days. Filter or clarify and bottle.

I suppose you could put the currants through a juicer, but I find it easier to simmer them in water for about 10 minutes until the water is bright pink and the fruit looks anemic and sad. Press the whole mass through a chinois. You don't need to de-stem the currants, either, just throw everything into the pot. And I don't know why you would let it stand for several days, except to eliminate solids. I am far too impatient, so I let the whole mass drip slowly through a jelly bag. It still had a tiny amount of sediment, but not enough to be noticeable in a drink.

In any case, red currants are only available fresh for a short period of time every year. But the syrup will last for a while, so give it a try! Or come into Heaven's Dog, for as long as my bottle lasts, of course.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Like many bartenders, enthusiasts and all around bar geeks, I spent last week in New Orleans at the annual Tales of the Cocktail event. It's more interesting than a lot of cocktail events in that there are seminars and workshops, not just brand shills. (Unfortunately, some of the seminars are given by brand shills, so you have to read the descriptions carefully.)

But for most of us working bartenders, it's really an excuse to rub elbows with those industry folk we admire, and hang out with bartenders we like but rarely have the opportunity to spend time with outside of their bars (and ours). And drink, of course.

The workshops themselves were a mixed bag. I've learned to go by the people giving them, as they tend to be pretty informative. One I went to, Asian-Influenced Cocktails, was essentially a brand promotional event given by two soju and sake producers trying to convince everyone that these liquors were the Next Big Thing. (Example: Soju cocktails are low-calorie! Which everyone appreciates! Um, aren't they lower in calories because they're lower in alcohol? And why is the drink you're serving me blue?) I wish I had spent the same money on the ice-carving demonstration given by an actual bartender. The best one I went to was Sugar: The Science of Sweet given by Darcy O'Neil of The Art of Drink. He discussed various sugars (sucrose, glucose, fructose, etc.) and how they act in the mouth and in the presence of other ingredients like acid and alcohol, all important considerations when composing cocktails. I've been a fan of Darcy for years, and will happily sit in any seminar he gives.

One of the most fun nights was a party and barbecue held by a handful of San Francisco bartenders who had rented a house right near Frenchman Street, home of some of best bars to see live jazz (more on that later). It was close to our rented apartment, which, seeing as I did not have a prize-winning cocktail that garnered me a spot in the Hotel Monteleone like last year, was a far more practical option.

Me and Miss Jackie Patterson, the two lady bartenders of Heaven's Dog

The Pisco Duggan was drinking was delicious. I would totally buy it if I knew what it was.

One of the absolute best things about San Francisco bartenders is our support of each other and willingness to share tips, techniques, recipes and anything else involved in making our drinks. It's a dynamic I haven't seen, at this level, in any other city. When we're off work, we sit at each other's bars and ask questions, and drink, and talk shop. No one is cagey, and no one is rude, or even rarely very arrogant. People who act that way don't fit in very well, and it's pretty obvious. We all work so much that we rarely get to hang out without being at a bar, in which case, one of us is working. So when a San Francisco bartender party gets going, it's pretty much love all over the place. Smack-talking, of course, but mostly drunken, drunken love. Ronnie from Magnolia worked the grill, there was swag and product promotion (i.e. free booze) all over the place, and it was overheard that "if this house burned down you wouldn't be able to get a decent drink in San Francisco for ten years." Great fun.

This year I brought my boyfriend, a member of the Oakland-based Dixieland style brass band Blue Bone Express. Although I had been to New Orleans before, I got to see a whole new side of it (arguably the better known side) as he took me to club after club, introducing me to his industry giants. The New Orleans Jazz Vipers at d.b.a.

Kermit Ruffins at the Blue Nile

We also saw Treme Brass Band, but the venue was little more than a smoky basement, and none of my photos turned out. It was pretty amazing; I've lived in California my whole life, and was never exposed to this kind of music before. But in New Orleans, live brass is played nightly, and often for free. It was a welcome respite from the 10:00am drinking workshops, too.

Our last day we rented bikes and had a picnic in Audubon Park. Anyone who knows me well knows I love picnics!

New Orleans in July is the low season because of the ridiculous heat, so hotels and apartments are dead cheap. The struggle with the conference on the whole is how to negotiate brand sponsorships while trying to provide informative discussions on aspects of drink-making. I don't consider a sales pitch something I'd like to spend money on, and yet I did, unwittingly until I was there. I left early from such events, and felt taken advantage of. I know the event itself is expensive, and sponsorships help offset that cost. But if the seminars continue to consist of brand shills and company bartenders, I'm pretty sure home enthusiasts and professional bartenders will stop attending. So I'd recommend the event for next year, but with the advice to only take classes taught by folk you have heard of, on subjects you are interested in. Taste the brand products in the tasting rooms. They're free.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Egg White Situation

As I mentioned before, I really like fat and protein in my drinks. They add extra dimensions not often found in modern cocktails. With the resurgence in pre-prohibition cocktails and cocktail culture, a greater amount of attention has been paid lately to texture.

Egg whites are a perfect example of a texture additive: once used to disguise the inferior quality and overall nastiness of bootlegged and homemade booze during prohibition, as well as the vile flavored stuff known as "bathtub gin," modern bartenders now use egg whites to round out and integrate often aggressive, singular flavors into a cohesive whole.

I do think sometimes we've gotten a little too egg-happy. We have plenty of great-quality booze available, so we shouldn't be trying to mask undesirable characteristics. The integration ability, however, can be used to great effect, often unifying strong elements like acidity from citrus, or sharpness and spice from high-proof rye.

In the case of the Ramos Gin Fizz, the protein unifies the herbal gin, the fat from cream and the floral orange flower water. The egg white also prevents the cream from curdling as it mixes with the lime juice. Try making one without the egg white; it tastes good, but every ingredient is readily identifiable, whereas with the egg it turns into a lovely, cohesive someone-spiked-my-orange-julius delight.

Two of my colleagues and friends make a similar drink, a gin-cucumber-mint spritzer sort of thing. Erik makes his with egg white and Cate makes hers without. The ingredients are almost identical, but the addition of the egg white changes the drink completely. They are both delicious: Cate's Gin Snaggler is like having an amazing brunch with your epicurean friends and feeling a little naughty because it's barely noon and you've got a buzz on. Erik's Cricket Club Fizz is like being at brunch with the same buzz, but at a polo match at the same time.

So make them both!

Gin Snaggler
Cate Whalen, Pizzaiolo, Oakland, CA

1/4 cup chopped cucumber
1 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz 1-to-1 simple syrup
several mint leaves
11/2 oz gin

Muddle cucumber in mixing tin. Add ice and remaining ingredients and shake vigorously. Double-strain into a flute. Top with Prosecco. Garnish with a sprig of mint.

Cricket Club Fizz
Erik Adkins, Heaven's Dog, San Francisco, CA

several slices fresh cucumber (peeled if waxed)
several mint leaves
1 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz St. Germain elderflower liqueur
3/4 oz 1-to-1 simple syrup
2 oz gin
1/2 oz egg white

Muddle cucumber in a shaking tin until juicy. Add remaining ingredients and shake without ice for several seconds. Add ice and shake vigorously. Double-strain into a fizz glass. Top with seltzer. Garnish with a slice of cucumber threaded with a sprig of mint.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Pisco Punch

Recently I had the pleasure of providing punch for a party hosted by the folks at Nirvino. It was a user appreciation party held at Le Colonial in San Francisco. I demonstrated making a punch in front of everyone, Martha Stewart-style, complete with swapouts and pre-measured ingredients. I also had two punches served at the onset for socializing. One of these was Pisco Punch.

Pisco Punch was a drink concocted toward the end of the 19th century by a barman
named Duncan Nicol at the Bank Exchange in downtown San Francisco (where the Transamerica building now stands). Pisco, a clear grape brandy either unaged or aged in glass or stainless steel (which prevents color being added) is debated as being originally from Peru or Chile. Both countries have a history of making this spirit, although the methods of production differ slightly. Several types of grape are used, most often Muscat varietals. Pisco became popular in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, was widely imported, and was known for being quite alcoholic without tasting strong. Pisco punch was often compared to lemonade, but with "a kick like a mule." Unfortunately the Bank Exchange closed its doors at the start of Prohibition, and cagey Mr. Nicol took his recipe to his grave.

What we do know are the ingredients of this drink: Pisco, lemon juice and pineapple gum syrup. Gum syrup (also known by its French spelling,
gomme) was widely used back when bartending was a learned trade like any other, and bartenders passed on their knowledge in apprenticeships. They regularly made syrups, bitters, infusions and other ingredients for cocktails. Unfortunately, when Prohibition occurred, the men either had to find other work or leave the country, and a lot of culinary knowledge pertaining to drink-making was lost. So gum syrup largely stopped being used in favor of the far easier to make simple syrup. Gum arabic, resin from the gum acacia tree, is expensive and difficult to incorporate into a sugar syrup, and mixing water and sugar is, well, simple. But gum arabic lends a silky, viscous texture to cocktails that simple syrup does not.

Many modern bars, if they make a Pisco Punch at all, use a pineapple syrup made without gum arabic. And this, I think, is the problem with most incarnations. For a drink with only three components, one of which is the light and delicate Pisco, each one plays a very specific role. Without gum arabic, the drink is thin and rather flat. But with the added viscosity, it is round and flavorful, not rich per se, but full-bodied and satisfying.

Pisco Punch is not a true punch. (More on that later.) But it is well suited for being served as a punch, that is, in a large bowl for a crowd. Keep in mind, however, that dilution is a key component in this and any other drink, so you may want to add some water if the punch will be consumed rapidly. Otherwise let sit over large pieces of ice for a little while before serving, so the drink comes to an adequate balance.

Of course, it certainly can be served as a single cocktail, as pictured above. The proportions are absurdly easy, so scaling to any volume is simple. An added bonus is that when shaken vigorously with big chunks of ice, the gum arabic froths up to a nice foamy head and gives the drink a lovely white cap.

Pisco Punch

1 oz fresh lemon juice

1 oz Pineapple Gum Syrup (this recipe is for Small Hand Foods syrup; if you make your own, add to taste)
2 oz Pisco (I use Marian Farms California-style Pisco. Neither Peruvian nor Chilean, this biodynamic farm in the San Joaquin Valley distills fantastic brandy in a copper pot still from Muscat and Thompson grapes.)

Shake vigorously with large chunks of ice and double-strain into a coupe. Garnish with a strip of lemon zest if desired.

Friday, April 24, 2009


I've been enamored of the curdled/strained milk addition in cocktails ever since I made Italian Lemonade. It's often called for in milk punches, although bartenders tend to make milk cocktails to order. Shaken and consumed immediately, one often avoids curdling the milk, at least in the glass. But mixing the milk and citrus ahead of time, allowing it to curdle, then straining out the solids leaves the protein of the whey without the richness of the rest of the milk.

One of the features of the Italian Lemonade is its incredibly low alcohol content. I wondered if I could harness the flavors but punch up the booze to make it a proper cocktail. Also, while making it, I had to strain it several times. But the mixture remained cloudy. Although the drink did not appear mottled and curdled, there was still a lushness that betrayed the dairy content. I wondered if I could remove all of the solids, and what the remainder would taste like.

Rather than mix everything at once, I isolated the two components that cause the curdling: citrus and milk. I substituted lime for lemon, mixed them together, and waited until it was quite chunky.

Straining required time and patience. A coarse sieve removed the bulk of the solids, then a tea strainer, then finally I wet a kitchen cloth, set it in a funnel and let the liquid slowly make its way through. Ultimately I was left with a greenish-clear substance that smelled kind of like a lime popsicle.
I've been enamored of Marian Farms California Style Pisco since it became available last summer. The farm is located in the San Joaquin Valley and distills spirit from biodynamic Muscat and Thomson grapes in a copper pot still. The result is an unctuous, flavorful spirit with a lower phenol content than other Piscos I have tried, giving it a cleaner, more mixable quality. It lends a backbone to cocktails, yet is mild enough to let other delicate flavors come through. I think this is what some bartenders default to vodka for; they don't want the spirit to ruin the flavors they have put together. I try instead to match qualities of spirits to the qualities of the added ingredients. As much as I love agricole rhum, it would kill the nuances of this drink. And yet vodka would add nothing. This Pisco makes me happy.

This cocktail does something I delight in: the ingredients mesh so that it is hard to identify any one thing. Various bartenders I have made this for asked if it had gin, or egg white, or rum. The foam created looks like egg white, but it's not as slippery. And the whey adds a familiar protein quality but having the rest of the milk removed makes identifying it elusive. I love this!

I submitted this cocktail to the guys at Left Coast Libations for their upcoming book. It's promising to be a very interesting collection of recipes from the specifically west coast style of bartending. I'll write about it more when it comes out.

1 oz lime/whey mixture*
1/2 oz manzanilla sherry
1/2 oz Cointreau
1/2 oz 1-to-1 simple syrup
1 1/2 oz Pisco
Shake all ingredients together vigorously in mixing tins. Double-strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with an orange peel.

*Mix 8 oz nonfat milk with 3 oz freshly squeezed lime juice. Let stand a few minutes to curdle. Strain through successively finer strainers, then pour through a wet kitchen cloth, letting stand until the clear liquid has filtered through.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Trouble With Cyanide

How to Mix Drinks by Jerry Thomas is usually the first reference for anyone looking into pre-prohibition cocktails. But as a confectioner as well as a bartender, I am equally intrigued by the appendix added to this book, almost as long, titled A Manual For The Manufacture Of Cordials, Liquors, Fancy Syrups, Etc. Since I know that modern commercial orgeat is not made from actual almonds, I decided to see how historical recipes were made.

424. Orgeat (or Almond) Syrup.

2 lbs. of sweet almonds.
3i ounces of bitter almonds.
3 pints of fresh water.
6 or 6 1/2 lbs. of sugar.

Take your almonds (sweet and bitter) and drop them into boiling water. This blanches them, and they are easily skinned. Having peeled them, drop them into cold water, in which wash them; when ready put them into a clean mortar (one of marble is better than bronze), and mash them; next, squeeze in the juice of two lemons, or add a little acid, and, as you pound the almonds, pour part of a pint of clean water into the mortar; mash thoroughly, until the mixture looks like thick milk, and no pieces of almonds are left; then add another pint of the spring water. Now squeeze the white mash through a hair-cloth, or other good strainer: a common plan is to have a large strainer held by two persons; as they twist the milk may be caught in a clean basin; whatever of the almonds is left in the cloth put it back into the mortar, and mash it over again, adding a little of the spring water; then strain it, and mix with the former almond milk; this done mix it with your sugar (about 6 lbs.) which must first, however, be clarified and boiled to a " crack" (see No. 17); whilst adding the almond milk let the pan of hot sugar be off the fire; when mixed give another boil up; then remove the pan from the fire, and stir the syrup until cold;* pour in a small portion of the tincture of orange flowers, or the least drop of the essence of neroly, and pass the mixture again through a cloth; give the bottles an occasional shake for a few days afterward; it will keep the syrup from parting.
*This is done to keep it from separating and splitting up after being bottled.

This is the first recipe I came across that calls for bitter almonds to augment the sweet ones. Now, I am a methodical cook; I will happily adjust recipes to suit my tastes, but I have to make the original to the letter the first time. How would you know how to adjust it without a specific frame of reference?

So apparently I needed some bitter almonds. Turns out, they are pretty much M.I.A., at least in the U.S. Even scouring food boutiques that specialize in European foods (I'm looking at you, Boulette's), I was only able to find some specialty varieties of sweet almonds. Delicious out of hand, absolutely. But not what I was looking for.

So I started researching it.

The bitter almond is rather broader and shorter than the sweet almond, and contains about 50% of the fixed oil which also occurs in sweet almonds. It also contains the enzyme emulsin which, in the presence of water, acts on a soluble glucoside, amygdalin, yielding glucose, cyanide and the essential oil of bitter almonds, which is nearly pure benzaldehyde. Bitter almonds may yield from 4-9mg of hydrogen cyanide per almond. Extract of bitter almond was once used medicinally, but even in small doses effects are severe and in larger doses can be deadly; the cyanide must be removed before consumption.

So this explains why bitter almonds are so hard to find in the U.S. And it explains why modern recipes never call for them. Many websites detail that the cyanide is neutralized with cooking. Which is why, I suppose, we have been able to take delight in the lovely flavor that is the bitter almond, as it flavors marzipan, Italian and Chinese almond cookies, and anything else with almond extract in it, as the heat-processing of the extract makes the result safe for consumption.

It also explains why old recipes call for whole bitter almonds, but always within the context of a highly cooked product. The cooking was necessary to neutralize the poison.

Now, in my attempt to make the original recipe, I was stymied by the lack of available bitter almonds. However, other stone fruits also contain benzaldehyde in their kernels, including peaches, cherries and apricots, as well as apple seeds. I know that apricot kernels are available in some herbal pharmacies, as they are sometimes used as a natural cancer treatment. A controversial medicine called Laetrile, first sold in the United States in the 1960s, was touted first as a cancer cure, then relegated to treatment status, and ultimately claimed to be only a preventative measure. The USDA stopped its import and sale in 2000, although there are ways to get around this ban. Laetrile is made from amygdalin, a substance found in, you guessed it, apricot kernels.

So I headed to my local herbal-specialized grocer and indeed, found a big jar of apricot kernels. They were unblanched, so I had to go through the hassle of blanching them myself, but ultimately I had enough to make the recipe. I even went so far as to clarify my own sugar using egg whites, a procedure I do not recommend unless you are happy having to forever afterwards light your stove burners with a lighter because you have completely killed the pilot lights.

I made the modern concession of using a food processor instead of a mortar and pestle. But when I boiled the whole thing with the quantity of sugar specified, it was so thick that by the time it cooled it had to be spooned from a jar. It reminded me of pomade, or the solidified part of a can of cream of coconut. And after a couple of days, the entire thing crystallized and had to be chipped out of the jar.

Flavor-wise, however, it was delicious. The apricot kernels had imparted a profound bitter almond flavor, much like almond extract. And the richness that came from using actual almonds was apparent. The fat and protein in the mouth make for a depth of flavor and texture that simply is not possible when just using sugar syrup and almond extract.

Obviously there were problems. I can't see having to spoon a mixture into a cocktail shaker a practicality at a bar. But this, combined with what I learned from the Art of Drink recipe, gave me a great foundation for attempting to make an orgeat I feel will work in a modern bar but be made in an old-world sensibility, with real, whole ingredients.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Ward 8

This week I had the good fortune of being at work when two bartenders from Death and Company, Brian Miller and Joaquin Simo, came into town. Joined by Camper English, a favorite local spirits writer and a blogger-inspiration of mine, they warmed the bar for most of the night. Camper wrote about this Drink Jinx of an evening here.

Of course, we promptly started geeking out on all things bar- and cocktail-related:

"Who makes your shaking tins? No, not those ones, the other ones?" "Listen to the sound they make when you shake."
"You still have some old Noilly Prat left? Lucky you."
"Those are some sexy ice spears. Where do you get your molds?"
And there was one reference to a cocktail so delicious one might want to put a part of his anatomy into it.

I was referred to, at least once, as the "Queen of Syrup," a moniker that brings me immense delight.

Once people learn that I make cocktail ingredients, they are usually interested in having a drink made with some. So Joaquin ordered a Ward 8, purportedly one of his favorite whiskey cocktails.

The Ward 8 or variably Ward Eight, is a cocktail originating in 1898 in Boston, Massachusetts at the bar of the Gilded Age restaurant Locke-Ober. In 1898 Democratic political czar Martin M. Lomasney hoped to capture a seat in the state's legislature, the General Court of Massachusetts. Lomasney was nicknamed the "Boston Mahatma" and had held considerable power in the city for nearly 50 years. The story goes that the drink was created to honor his election, and the city's Ward 8 which historically delivered him a winning margin. Competing, but unfounded myths abound in print and on the Internet. One story purports that it originated in New York in an area known for political corruption, another that the cocktail is a traditional drink of the Scottish Guards.

I've never been a huge fan of this drink; perhaps this is because I, like many, tend to drink my whiskey straight or in aromatic cocktails like manhattans and old-fashioneds. I often taste a "dirty" quality when mixing citrus into whiskey. I'm not sure where this comes from. I have noticed it is more prevalent with rye than bourbon. But made with a sweeter, richer, less spicy bourbon, the Ward 8 can be a lovely, integrated cocktail that nonetheless showcases the spirit quite well.

One note: These proportions are based on Small Hand Foods grenadine. If you make your own, or use commercial stuff, you may have to adjust the recipe to taste. I highly recommend making your own, as I have yet to find widely available grenadine that is made primarily of pomegranate juice. A good discussion on homemade product can be found via the lovely folks at egullet here.

Ward 8

2 oz whiskey
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz fresh orange juice
1/2 oz grenadine

Shake vigorously in mixing tins, then double-strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist or orange twist, if desired.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


The French 75 is one of the great classic cocktails. Spirit, citrus and sugar, the makings of a great sour, but topped with Champagne. Awesome.

There's significant debate over the origins of this cocktail. The story I heard (and I know it's romantic bullshit) is as follows:

Some English soldiers were holed up in a lemon orchard in the French countryside during World War I. It being France, there was plenty of cognac to be had, but alas, straight cognac was too strong for the soldiers. So they mixed it with lemon juice from the orchard and sweetened it with sugar from the pantry, then topped it with Champagne. It being France, of course, Champagne is obviously drunk like water. When the soldiers returned to England they made the same drink with their native spirit, gin.

There are some other stories out there, mostly justifying the use of gin. The truth is, I prefer the cocktail with cognac. The wood-age counteracts the high acidity of the other ingredients, and the Champagne makes a brilliant integrative turn. It both lightens the texture and rounds out the ascorbic acid of the lemon with malic and/or lactic acid, providing a greater range of acidity and hitting your mouth in more places. With gin, the drink is mostly high notes. When you substitute cognac, the charred wood the spirit is aged in adds caramel and sugar, lending a depth and rich earthiness you just don't get with gin.

My friend and co-worker Kent shares my high esteem for the French 75. So much so, in fact, that he has embarked on a "75 French 75s" series. Spirit, sweetener, citrus and sparkling are all interchangeable in this quest. Kent is an outstanding bartender, using a restrained hand and acute sense of balance, and every iteration I have tried has been stellar. He even made one with my Orchard Syrup. (I should probably make some more of that...)

"75 French 75s" may eventually be a coffee table book. I think Kent should also start a blog (but I'm biased). But as neither of those things exists yet, in the interest of furthering awareness of delicious drinks and the folks who make them, I'm going to post his creations here. So stay tuned.

For an initial exploration, here is my basic French 75 recipe:

French 75

1 oz cognac
1 oz fresh lemon juice
3/4 oz 1-to-1 simple syrup
Champagne or other dry sparkling wine
Stir cognac, lemon and simple over ice in a bucket glass. Top with champers and stir again. Garnish with a lemon peel.

And here is one of Kent's versions:

Italian 75
1 1/2 oz Jacobo Poli Pinot Noir grappa
1 oz fresh lemon juice
3/4 oz 1-to-1 simple syrup
Billecart Salmon Brut Rose Champagne
Shake grappa, lemon and simple in mixing tins. Double-strain into a flute. Top with Champagne.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Commercial Orgeat

As I mentioned before, I love the orgeat recipe on the Art of Drink by Darcy O'Neil. It is light and milky and lush. I could practically drink it by itself. But why is this recipe so vastly different from all the orgeat on the shelves?

Commercial orgeat is slightly cloudy, and may or may not louche when added to water. Louching is the process whereby certain oils in an emulsion are destabilized, and come out of solution into suspension. The best-known example of this is adding water to absinthe, although it will occur with any pastis (and any spirit with a certain amount of essential oil in it, like Cointreau or Blue Gin). The oils in the product are soluble in sufficient ethanol, but when the proof is brought down with the addition of water, the oils pull out into suspension, thus giving the liquid a cloudy appearance.

What is in commercial orgeat? How does it differ from Mr O'Neil's recipe? Here I've listed brands of orgeat that are common in bars, plus their ingredients:

Torani: Pure cane sugar, water, natural flavors, fractionated coconut oil, ester gum, citric acid, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate

Monin: pure cane sugar, water, natural almond flavor

Trader Vic's: high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, water, cloud (water, acacia gum, medium chain triglycerides, glycerol, ester of wood rosin, brominated vegetable oil, citric acid, sodium benzoate), propylene glycol, sodium benzoate (a preservative), natural and artificial flavors

Fee Bros.: corn sweeteners, sugar, water, natural and artificial flavor, citric acid, less than 1/10 of 1% benzoate of soda as a preservative, propylene glycol, xanthan gum, gum acacia & glyceryl abietate

1883: sugar, water, glucose-fructose syrup, natural aroma including natural almond extract

Sonoma Syrup Co. (called Vanilla Almond syrup): cane sugar, water, vanilla extract, natural almond extract, orange flower water, citric acid
(I wouldn't really call Sonoma Syrup Co.'s syrup orgeat, but they are a well-respected locally-based "natural" syrup maker, so I wanted to put them in anyways. It's super vanilla-y, thus taking it out of the realm of typical orgeat.)

So, the Torani and Trader Vic’s brands have clouding agents in them: fractionated coconut oil in the Torani and the “cloud” concoction in the Trader Vic’s. None of them have actual almonds in them. Assuming almonds donate fat to an emulsion, this would provide for a louche effect. If you eliminate the almonds but still want the visual, you’re going to have to get some oil in there. Thus the coconut and vegetable oils added. But when mixed with water, the louche is actually pretty subtle, nothing at all like absinthe or other pastis.

Call me a purist, or a snob, but I think that I’d rather use actual almonds and the effect that they create rather than try to approximate the effect with ingredients that have no other purpose in the syrup.

I feel the need to add that I have had bartenders in bars I greatly respect on both coasts swear up and down that 1883 is amazing, and ostensibly different and superior to other brands. So I ordered a bottle. And I’m sorry to say I was sorely disappointed. It tasted just like thickened sugar syrup with almond extract added, which is exactly what it is. And after tasting every commercial product I could get my hands on, including one from a deli in New York that came highly recommended, I’ve got say that they all pretty much taste the same. Certainly, the brands with artificial ingredients taste more processed than the others. But they all taste kind of forced, in that overwhelming almond extract kind of way. In pastry, almond extract is used to bolster the flavor of an almond confection, like in amaretti or almond cake. But here it's as if we are trying to be convinced that the flavor of almond extract alone is the actual flavor of almonds. And it's not.

Now, forced to choose, I’d rather consume something like Monin or 1883, simply because they have fewer ingredients and no artificial preservatives. But really, I’d actually rather consume something from real food.

Purist, or snob...