Thursday, August 9, 2012

Drink It Up!

“Wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.” – Baz Luhrman, “Everyone is Free to Wear Sunscreen”
I’m usually not much of a drinker. I do enjoy a nice glass of wine now and then, but honestly, if you were to ask me the minute differences between a Super-Tuscan and a Brunello di Montalcino, I’d probably say, “Uh…one’s tastier than the other?”
            This is not to harsh on oenophiles and wine experts. In fact I’m pretty envious of their knowledge of terroir and their palate memory. I’m not going to try to compete with 70 year old guys that can’t find their glasses but can sure as hell tell me which side of the hill a Trebbiano was grown on. I’ll just be content to see a picture of happy vintner in bucolic nowhere-ville.
            I would probably have to say the same of cocktails…until it comes summer. Somehow the combination of heat, bared bodies and stale coconut oil has me thinking cocktails…in any form. Martini, Negroni, Long Island Ice Tea, whatever. As long as it’s cold and it has alcohol, I’ll pretty much drink it.
Cocktail at Grant Achatz's Aviary in Chicago
            This attitude has gotten me pretty far, for the most part. But if anyone has noticed, cocktails and spirits have gone the way of wine, in terms of science and knowledge (and snobbery, but we won’t to there). Want bacon infused vodka? Vaporized tea? Liquid nitrogen? They got it, and then some. Call it molecular mixology or crazy drinking, but this is NOT your dad’s gin and tonic. Bars such as Aviary and Longman & Eagle in Chicago, PDT in New York City, and Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco have re-examined not only the ingredients of drinks but also the technique involved in making them. Even cooking schools have noticed. David Arnold, technology director at the International Culinary Institute[1] and inventor extraordinaire at David Chang’s Booker and Dax, has gotten into the game by distilling his own spirits (Hint: Don’t try wasabi…) and pressure cooking onions for a future drink.[2] Homemade bitters, herb-infused spirits, and vegetables have all become the new ginger ale, sour mix and maraschino cherries for barkeeps. And it’s not just vodka, whiskey and gin. A whole set of old world spirits, such as Fernet Branca[3], Crème de Violette, Herbsaint, have been playing with new artisanal rums, tequilas, and brandies to create some pretty unique concoctions that wouldn’t be out of place in a lab.
            In the spirit (HA!) of the summer cocktail, today’s recipe takes some classic late summer fruits and puts them to boozy use. Blueberries, which are right now in season across northern latitudes of Europe (Germany, Poland, Scandinavia) and in northern US states[4], are amazing in drinks. The problem is with the skin and the seeds, which does not make for a pretty drink. But by muddling and straining the blueberries, you get all the booberry deliciousness without any seeds stuck in your teeth (definitely NOT sexy). But for you men who might think that any “fruity” drink is not manly enough, don’t worry, I’m on to you. To give some hair on this drink, I’ve added a nice herbal element: thyme and mint. By infusing some time into some sugar syrup as well as muddling some mint with the blueberries, you get a foil to all the sugar. Add some gin and you’re ready to rock. But trust me on the sunscreen.

Thyme's up!
Thyme’s Up
Yield: 1 drink

1 c. sugar
1 c. water
Zest of 1 lemon
1 large bunch of thyme (reserve a sprig for garnish)
10 blueberries + 2 for garnish
10 large mint leaves (use Moroccan mint if you can get it)
1 oz. gin (I use Hendricks or Bombay Sapphire, but any good quality gin is good)
1 oz. vodka (I use Stoli, but once again, any good vodka will do)
Soda water
Crushed ice
Lemon cut into eighths
Lemon peel twist for garnish

1.     To make the thyme simple syrup, take sugar and water in a small saucepan and put over medium heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar and let come to a boil. Take thyme and slap it between your hands, as if you were clapping with mint between your hands (to bring out the essential oils in the thyme) and place into the syrup. Add lemon zest and let it steep 8 hours or overnight, covered. (You will have far more than you need for the drink. Save the rest for other things…like more drinks or as a sweetener for tea.)
2.     To make the drink, take a glass muddle blueberries until they are completely juiced. Take mint and slap it (exactly the same method as the thyme) and then place into glass and muddle with smashed blueberries. Take the muddled blueberry mixture and using a fine meshed strainer, strain the juice out of the blueberries until all the juice is extracted (push on the solids with a spoon to get the maximum amount of juice).
3.     Place a handful of crushed ice, gin, vodka and 2-3 tsp. of thyme syrup with the blueberry juice and shake or stir mixture until cold and well mixed. Strain drink into serving glass, top with soda water. Taste to see if more syrup is desired (I like my on the not-so-sweet side) and add the juice of 1 lemon eighth. Garnish with thyme sprigs, blueberries and lemon twist.

[1] International Culinary Institute is formerly known as the French Culinary Institute.
[2] David Arnold is currently working on a book on the science of cocktails. Rumor has it that it will come out with Norton some time in the next year….
[3] A lot of these spirits have been around for ages. Aperol, Chartreuse, Lillet – they’ve been traditional Apéritifs and digestifs for Europeans for quite some time. The interesting thing is their “rediscovery” as cocktail ingredients instead of just a straight shot (or with a bit of soda or water).
[4] Blueberries usually are seasonal starting from June to August. Fruiting primarily depends on latitude and altitude, with lower altitudes and latitudes starting first. Of course with climate change, fruiting is starting earlier and earlier.