Readers of this blog will know that I am on a mission to perfect the world’s greatest cocktails. Manhattans, Gimlets and Gin&Tonics have been dealt with, but the I needed to gather all my resources before I took on the challenge of that pinnacle of adult beverages, the Dark and Stormy.
OK, that’s a fib. A Dark and Stormy is an enjoyable drink, but hardly a masterpiece of the bartenders art. It’s simply dark rum and ginger beer, usually with a lime wedge for a garnish. Technically it is not even a cocktail since it only has two active ingredients. So not something that I would normally have trained my research sights on.
But these are unusual times…
As part of our scheme to avoid inviting the virus into our fortress, we have been buying groceries by click-and-collect. This requires planning a week in advance what we will need, as opposed to the just-in-time shopping that we have been accustomed to. So inevitably there have been hiccups.
One of these was inadvertently buying fresh ginger two weeks in a row. Normally a smallish piece of ginger is all we need for a couple of weeks. But when you click and collect you get a whacking great chunk because that’s what the store wants to sell. And now we had two whacking great chunks.
So what to do? When the going gets tough, the tough make syrup. Ginger syrup. And sure enough, a few clicks were all it took to find multiple recipes.
To save you the trouble of researching this, the recipes are functionally identical: simmer sliced ginger in a simple syrup. These are the proportions I used.
1 cup white sugar
1 cup water
1 cup sliced ginger. Try for slices about the thickness of a toonie or a £1 coin, but you may want to slice a portion of the ginger very thin (see Tip below)
Mix the sugar and water in a saucepan and heat to the boil. Add the ginger and hold at a light simmer for 20 minutes. Pour the whole contents through a strainer into a large bowl. Let the ginger drip dry, then bottle the syrup. It will keep in the fridge for a long time theoretically, but if your interest in Dark and Stormys has taken you this far then I predict you will use it up quickly.
Tip: Take the thinly-sliced ginger and set it out to dry on a baking sheet or platter. When it is mostly dry, sprinkle white sugar lavishly over the slices. Wait for this to soak in. You may have to repeat a few times but eventually you will end up with candied ginger, which is delicious stuff on its own or added to ginger spice cookies.
So now you’re ready to make your Dark and Stormy. Because the drink is focused on ginger and rum, without the calming soda water element of a ginger beer, I have dubbed this version a Dark and Stormy Force 8 (Force 8 on the Beaufort Scale is Gale force – 30-40 knot winds)
Dark and Stormy Force 8
1 ½ oz dark rum Any decent rum will do. I wouldn’t use anything exotic as the ginger will tend to overpower the subtleties.
1 oz (or to taste) ginger syrup
Shake with ice, then pour into an Old-Fashioned glass with ice. You can use the same ice it was shaken with.
The only hiccup now is that I haven’t settled on a garnish. Lime wedges didn’t seem right – the acid of the citrus contrasts too much with the warm gingery flavour. A Luxardo cherry might work, or perhaps something really demented like a candy cane. More research is evidently required. 😉
In a previous post on the great Gin Challenge of 2019 I promised the recipe for home-made lime cordial. So here it is!
Lime Cordial Recipe
Get some limes. Five is a good number to start. Let them get to room temperature
Wash the limes, scrubbing them with a dishcloth or a soft vegetable brush
Peel the limes using a vegetable peeler, trying to get only the green skin (minimize the amount of white pith). Don’t worry if the resulting peel is in small pieces – it will be used for flavour and then discarded.
Juice the limes and measure the amount of juice
Measure some table sugar. I find for cocktails the best ratio is 1:1 sugar to lime juice, but adjust as you see fit
Mix the juice and sugar in a non-reactive container. The sugar will eventually dissolve but if you want to speed up the process you can heat it up while stirring. If you do this try not to let the mixture come to the boil
Remove from heat, and add the lime peels to the juice, crushing them with your hands as you do
Let the mixture sit in the fridge for 24 hours, then strain out the lime peels
Store in the refrigerator. It will keep for a long time, as the acids and high sugar content make for a hostile atmosphere for pesky microorganisms
If you must have the unnatural neon-green hue of Rose’s Lime Cordial, I suppose you could add food colouring. But you’re on your own – this is one avenue that I don’t intend to explore.
Frankly, this stuff is so delicious that I have been known to just eat a spoonful straight out of the jar. But the traditional use is to thin lime cordial with soda water to make a nice summer drink.
However the key point of lime cordial, at least in my establishment, is that it allows you to mix up a batch of gimlets.
Start with a mixing glass or a the large half of a Boston cocktail shaker.
Pour in 1 1/2 ounces of gin (Plymouth Gin would be a good choice) and 3/4 ounce of lime cordial per serving.
Add a good number of ice cubes: Four will work, but six is better
Stir with a cocktail spoon until the mixture is ice-cold. Thirty seconds is probably enough. You should see a strong layer of condensation on the outside of the mixing tin/glass.
Strain into stemmed cocktail glasses
Hint: if you have leftover mixture in the mixing glass, strain it out into a clean glass and put it into the fridge. If you leave it in the mixing glass it will become diluted. No one wants a weak and watery cocktail.
BTW the cocktail glass shown on the left is a classic design called a Nick and Nora glass. I prefer it over the martini style as it is less prone to tipping over and takes up less real estate in the cabinet. I bought mine at The Crafty Bartender.
Not that long ago, ordering a gin drink was a simple thing. There were three standard choices: the Gimlet – a lime and gin concoction, the Dry Martini – essentially straight gin with an olive added, and the self-explanatory Gin and Tonic.(1) If you ordered at a proper establishment the gin would be one of Beefeater, Gordon’s or Gilbey’s, or perhaps Tanqueray if it was a more upscale place.
The potion you would be presented would contain:
Gimlet: gin and Rose’s Lime Syrup, stirred with ice and served “up” (i.e. strained into a cocktail glass)
Dry Martini: gin, possibly with a minute quantity of dry vermouth, served up
Gin and Tonic: gin, bar tonic (hopefully Schweppes or Canada Dry) and a lime slice, served on the rocks in a lowball glass
So that was the way it was for a long time, but as you may have noticed, dull but simple, enduring standard, market leader and time-tested are phrases no longer in vogue. Constant innovation is the new shibboleth, and though this has not generally been a good thing in some spheres (politics comes to mind), it means boon times for those of us who enjoy a wee dram or two.
A potted history of the new drinks wave
The current golden age for drinkers started in the eighties when it suddenly emerged that wine could be made in places not named France. Soon afterward the first inklings were seen of the oncoming tsunami of craft beer. Single-malt scotches, so unpopular that even in the ‘80s fine distilleries like Port Ellen and Brora were going bust, unexpectedly became a thing and gained a mass following. Mad Men almost single-handedly revived the market for fine Bourbon.
Cocktails (outside of New York City) had sunk to the point that they were found in a “Martini Menu” that included no martinis but many sappy-sweet kiddie drinks (anyone remember the Monkey’s Lunch?). But thankfully, sanity has returned, and as signaled by Sex and the City and the famous Cosmopolitan (a sappy-sweet grown-up drink) we are now in the midst of a full-fledged cocktail boom, with a young generation of mixologists inventing new drinks and new takes on old standards, all made with exotic ingredients and artfully presented. Even Tiki Bars are making a comeback. It is indeed good to be alive. 😊
All things craft and beautiful
The numbers show that in general, in our part of the world at least, people are drinking less, but they are increasingly consuming higher quality products. So intrepid upstarts have responded with a wide and growing range of artisanal or craft products ranging from whisk(e)y to vodka to beer.
(Rant Warning) Craft beer has stolen so much market share that the top mass market brands are trying to buy out the creators wherever possible, and have even started producing faux craft beers that are marketed as if they came from bearded hipsters in a loft. Shock Top and Goose Island are popular examples of the big brewery fakes, while such fine brands as Stanley Park and Mill Street (Labatt’s), Creemore Springs and Granville Island (Molson’s), and Blanche de Chambly (Sapporo) have fallen into the hands of the same people who for a long time abused their oligopolistic control of the market by limiting Canadian drinkers to a near-identical range of bad, chemical-laden brews.
So their ongoing attempt to subvert and control the craft beer market does not bode well. But I digress… (2)
So back to the world of craft potables, and to get to the point, let’s talk about craft gin. For anyone wanting to enter the now-crowded craft spirits market, gin and vodka are the best vehicles. Making brown spirits requires a large investment in oak casks, where the whisky or rum lays dormant for years, all the while needing to be housed and protected. Whereas anyone with a still and a handful of juniper berries is in the gin business.
As a result, even in benighted Ontario, where government nannies decide what the citizens will be allowed to drink, there are now 14 pages of gin choices on the LCBO website. Many come from new producers, and the big brand distilleries have also expanded their ranges considerably.
With choice comes confusion. “But what is the best gin for me?” I hear you cry. Fear not friends. Last year a crack team of researchers assembled to answer for once and all the correct recipe for a Manhattan. The team is now hard at work solving your equally vital gin questions. Herewith is the preliminary report.
The 2019 Gin Challenge Research Project – Phase 1
To mistrust science and deny the validity of scientific method is to resign your job as a human. You’d better go look for work as a plant or wild animal. – P.J. O’Rourke
Job #1 was to frame the problem. We aspired to taste all
known gins in every possible drink formulation in a scientifically valid
manner. However there were limiting factors to be considered: permanent damage
to our livers was to be avoided, and more importantly the host was not to be
left with a huge collection of part-bottles of gin that had been weighed in the
balance and found wanting.
So we made the early decision to set some limits. With a vast array of gins already available and more appearing every day it would have been rather expensive to try and test everything available. Gin fatigue also loomed as a potential problem – it’s not a drink that lends itself to being tasted straight. So we decided that 16 would be the correct number, for no good reason other than the fact that when we were setting this up the Women’s World Cup was entering the round of sixteen.
Narrowing the field
would also have been beyond the scope of budget and interest to try out every
gin-based concoction, so we decided to concentrate on only two of the Big Three
Gin Drinks – the Gimlet and the Gin and Tonic. The Dry Martini was
down-selected because, well, it’s a nasty-tasting drink. As noted, straight gin
is not that appetizing and adding white vermouth, an equally nasty beverage,
does not help. The drink became popular in the US during Prohibition, probably for
the reason mentioned earlier: gin is easy to make. It maintained its popularity
through the postwar era, an age of heavy boozing.
I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
after four I’m under my host. — Dorothy Parker
a less battle-hardened population came to their senses and said, collectively,
“hey, this stuff is nasty. But I still want to get hammered in the fastest way
possible”. And thus was born the Vodka Martini, made famous by James Bond and
favoured during the era of the three-martini lunch on the supposition that
one’s boss and co-workers would not detect the tell-tale signs of alcohol on
the breath. (Slurred speech, bumping into things and needing a rest might still
have given away the game).
So anyway, the martini was out. As were several other worthy drinks, including the classic Gin Collins, the ultra-boozy Fogcutter, and some sugary nuisances (Sloe Gin Fizz, the Singapore Sling). The estimable Negroni was also disinvited, as it might be worth its own research effort. But we would focus on perfecting G&Ts and the Gimlet.
this challenge would require researchers of the highest calibre, willing to
pursue results with vigour and determination. Fortunately I was able to call
once again on the proven skills of the Canadian Beverage Research Institute faculty.
In fact we had sufficient volunteers to make up two teams, meaning that we
could conduct experiments on consecutive weekends.
We aimed to provide scientifically-valid results upon which you, gentle reader, could rely. Oh, and perhaps have a good time in the doing. So to the extent possible the testing was blind. We did not discuss the product range in advance, and the researchers made their notes based on samples identified only by numbers. Only when we compared notes were the identities revealed, and the team members from the first experiment were sworn to secrecy to avoid skewing the perceptions of the next crew.
Scheme of Manoeuvre
Each experiment was intended to follow this programme:
taste a “reference” Gimlet (Rose’s syrup and Tanqueray gin)
record pre-festivities team photograph
taste: five gins, seven tonics, two lime syrups
taste five more gins
sample one or more libations made with the preferred products
repeat as necessary
And it did sort of work out that way. Indeed Team 1 bravely volunteered to continue the testing until all 12 available gins had been assayed.
Yes, that’s all well and good, but when are you going to get to the results?
Oh alright then. But first I must report that a few twists arose from the decision to split the experiment over two weekends. On the plus side, we were able to compare the results of two different groups. Perhaps surprisingly, their likes and dislikes were very similar, so it was looking as though we could plausibly claim some sort of statistical significance. However since some of the gin was provided by team members (¡muchas gracias mis amigos!), we taste-tested a slightly different range of products at each experiment.
Further, as the poet Robert Burns noted, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/ Gang aft agley”. Or as the poet Mike Tyson put it, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. And so it was to be. A nasty GI bug caused two of the Team 2 members to withdraw, and with them went the bottle of Bombay Sapphire. So our results can only be considered provisional.
As you have astutely guessed, the way to rescue the validity of the results and claim absolute authority for all time is simple: at some point soon we will conduct a plenary session where the top gins will face off head-to-head for world supremacy.
The results, please
First, the easy stuff.
You have two choices. Get a bottle of cheap and cheerful Rose’s Lime Cordial and you will be able to make respectable gimlets. Or make your own stuff, which is easy to do and orders of magnitude better. I will publish a recipe on this site, or you can find a good one online.
The contestants were:
Selection (Metro’s house brand)
Fever Tree Indian
Fever Tree Elderflower
Third Place Cocktail Company (a syrup, to be mixed with soda water)
To make sense of the results you should know that we learned early on that gin can be divided into two main groups. The traditional gins are robustly flavoured and fairly heavy in the juniper department. Many of the newer gins are less junipery, letting the botanicals take centre stage.
Best tonic for traditional gin
The top choices were, not surprisingly, traditional tonics:
Canada Dry (preferred by some to Schweppes, and ranked only slightly behind)
Fever Tree Indian
Selection (deemed acceptable, but lacking zing compared to the top two
Best tonic for craft and juniper-light gins
Fever Tree Indian
Unusual but interesting in the right context
Fever Tree Elderflower. This is a well-made product with a very floral and delicate flavour. Most researchers would happily drink it under the right circumstances, but it is really not recognizable as tonic water. So one to have in your larder, but expect odd looks if you serve this in a gin and tonic.
Not recommended/what the hell were they thinking?
Fentiman’s Traditional Tonic. This was by far the most expensive tonic tested, and 10 of 11 tasters pronounced it nasty and undrinkable. So Nicholas is the proud owner of the remaining seven bottles, which were otherwise destined to disappear down the kitchen sink. Avoid.
Third Place Cocktail Company syrup. Thoroughly nasty, metallic-tasting stuff. Like sucking on an old penny. And deep brown to boot. Avoid.
A final note about the tonics: ensure that you use fresh stuff. The big 2l jugs are cheap, but over the course of a week we noticed a slight degradation in a bottle that had been opened for experiment 1.
Gin – the best of the best
We didn’t have exactly the same set of gins at each experiment, so I will give you the rank order from each group, followed by the rank order of the six gins that were tasted by both groups.
Team 1 results
#1 (tied) – The Botanist (Islay/Scotland), Plymouth (England)
#3 – Seventh Heaven (Quebec)
#4 (tied) – Spirit of York (Toronto), Tanqueray 10 (Scotland)
#2 (tied) – The Botanist (Islay/Scotland), Tanqueray 10 (Scotland)
#4 – Seventh Heaven (Quebec)
#5 – Ungava (Quebec)
#6 – Dillons Unfiltered Gin #22 (Ontario)
A couple of themes emerged during this process:
In general the panels were quite accepting of non-traditional gins that featured interesting botanicals. But there seems to be a point beyond which they were not willing to go. For example, the Dillon’s “gin” is a well-made and interesting product, but it really isn’t gin at all, and was marked down accordingly. Testers noted that it could just as easily be labeled craft vodka or non-aged whiskey. So producers beware – spurn the juniper and you will be punished.
Looking over the notes I was interested to see that in a blind testing most people rated the gin they normally buy at or near the top. This is a good sign, I think.
So what gin should you buy?
As noted above, these are preliminary results. We need to bring all of the top-rated gins together before we can decide who is king of the mountain. But you would absolutely not go wrong with any of the top-rated gins from either of the teams.
In my personal bar, I intend to stock Plymouth or Tanqueray 10, the Botanist, and Seventh Heaven or Radoune. I will also pick up some Seaweed Gin or Ungava from time to time.
Of course, that’s after I deal with the large number of leftovers. 😊 That may take a while.
Statement on Ethical Research
No animals were to be harmed in the conduct of these experiments. Researchers were not to be compelled to participate and were to be provided ample food and water throughout. Only mild bullying was to be tolerated.
I ran this plan by the Ethics Committee over a long and convivial lunch, and as the port was passed and the cognac emerged they came to the view that the likelihood of permanent harm being done to the participants was manageable. Or at least that’s the way that I remember it.
I sent a request to the House of Lords asking for some peers of the realm to review these results. They didn’t even bother to respond. And to think these people once ran a world-wide empire. Sheesh!
And finally, thanks to all the researchers who made this an entertaining project. And especially those who contributed hard-to-find gins and home cooking. Standby for the plenary session!
 There is learned debate about whether these are mixed drinks, not cocktails. Some authorities believe that to qualify as a cocktail a drink must contain three or more ingredients.
 And note that Molson’s and Labatt’s themselves were long ago bought out by giant mutinationals, Coors and AB InBev respectively.
A quick glance at the menu in your favourite bar will tell you that classic cocktails are back. The soi-disant “Martini Menu”, flogging such abominations as the Fluffy Duck and the Monkey’s Lunch, has mercifully been consigned to the dustbin of history, and we are back to the real thing, including the Old-Fashioned, the Martini, the Daiquiri and my personal favourite, the Manhattan.
The Manhattan is a go-to drink for whiskey lovers. It’s a simple drink – just Angostura Bitters, whiskey, red vermouth and a cherry. It doesn’t rely on ingredients that might not be at hand (e.g. limes), nor on fussy preparation methods.
But in the same way that a simple dish like crème caramel reveals the skill of a chef, the simplicity of the Manhattan means that any flaws in the quality or proportion of ingredients is rapidly revealed.
In these troubled times it is important that we stand up for what is right, so I set out to answer the question: how to make the right Manhattan.
The simple answer is not to make one at all, but to simply order one at Bar SixtyFive in the Rockefeller Center. They serve the Platonic Ideal of a Manhattan, combining cask strength Wild Turkey, exotic Italian vermouths and those brandy cherries that are endemic to New York City. Properly, it is stirred, not shaken, and served on the rocks in a lowball glass. And the bar is in, well, Manhattan. With a stunning view of the Empire State Building.
So if you live in Manhattan your problem is now solved. For the rest of us there is…
The New Manhattan Project
The New Manhattan Project aims to use scientific methodology to determine the correct recipe for a Manhattan cocktail. A crack team of researchers has been assembled and have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of this important endeavour.
The first activity of this project was a seminar on Sunday afternoon, 4 August at On-the-Plus-Side secure facility and headquarters. The key objective of this seminar was to determine the correct basic ingredients of a Manhattan. Blind tastings were conducted to answer basic questions such as:
– Bourbon or Rye?
– Which vermouth is correct?
– Which type of cherry is best?
Report from the First Plenary
After an initial warm-up round of basic Manhattans, the researchers dove into the thorny issue of vermouth. Six red vermouths are currently available at the People’s Republic Patriotic Commissary LCBO. A preliminary round of research allowed us to down-select to four, with Bosco and Martini & Rossi voted off the island for being one-dimensional.
The four contenders were blind-tasted and compared, with researchers asked to rate them on colour, balance (sweet vs bitter), flavour as a solo beverage, and compatibility as part of a Manhattan. For the most part the scores were close, but a clear winner and a clear loser were determined:
Lowest-rated: Dolin (France). The Tasters found it too sweet and lacking in complexity. Perhaps suitable as an aperitif over ice but not wanted on the Manhattan voyage.
Mid-pack: Cinzano Rosso and Lionello Original (Italy). Both were deemed suitable by most participants, and each received two first-place votes.
Highest-rated: Campano Antica Formula (Italy). A strong preference emerged for this vermouth. Many professional bartenders consider it the best, and a blind tasting confirmed this. A very complex drink that would make a lovely aperitif, its forté was as a mixer. Antica Formula had a dramatic, positive effect and was considered hands-down the best vermouth for a Manhattan.
Needless to say, it is only available at Paternalsim-is-Us the LCBO temporarily, so Ontario residents will want to lay in a supply to tide them over until (a) they re-stock it in another five years or so, or (b) hell freezes over and we get privately-run liquor stores.
Not tasted: Punt e Mes (Italy). Used in the Bar SixtyFive Manhattan. Unavailable in Ontario. Should have tasted it but ran out of glassware. 😉
Bourbon vs Rye
It is likely that the original Manhattan Cocktail was made with rye whiskey. Purists maintain that what was once must forever be, and are riled that bourbon has now become the default option. In order to resolve this debate and bring peace to the galaxy, the two drinks were evaluated side-by-side.
The constituent whiskies were Jim Beam Black Label, representing the bourbon team, and Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye. These are whiskies of good quality – a step above bar whiskey, but not at the top level. (I had Michter’s Small Batch Bourbon and Knob Creek Rye on hand but these are reserved for drinking neat).
This round of tests did not yield a clear winner. The team was split 4-3 in favour of bourbon, but none of the members were prepared to accept this as definitive. Then, as often happens in scientific endeavours, serendipity stepped in. One unnamed member, possibly a bit in his cups already, dumped his two half-finished drinks together. He declared the resulting mash-up the winner, and the panel tentatively agreed. A confirmatory batch of cocktails would be needed, but professional decorum was starting to slide a bit so I called a time out on further cocktails until we had completed the next task.
The panel agreed that a cherry was an essential part of the drink, and that a stem was desirable but not essential. Six types of cherry were evaluated:
Amarena Fabbri Wild Cherries in Syrup (Italy)
Luxardo Maraschino Cherries (Italy) – the original maraschino cherry
Tillen Farms Merry Maraschino Cherries (USA)
Bog standard, bizarrely red cocktail cherries, as seen on a Dairy Queen sundae (Probably grown at Chernobyl)
Home-made New York-style brandied cherries, made with bottled sour cherries and brandy
Home-made fresh cherries in brandy
The above list shows the candidates in rank order from top to bottom. The top two were preferred by a wide margin, with the Amaretto cherries slightly nudging past Luxardo. Merry Maraschino and the industrial cherries were in the middle, while both home-made versions fell far behind. The bottled cherries were deemed unappealingly mushy, and the fresh cherries too boozy. In fairness the latter may have suffered from being too fresh – usually these cherries need about six months to moulder before they are ready. Further research may be needed.
The Correct Manhattan
A final batch of cocktails was produced in accordance with the initial findings, allowing participants to review their work in detail. The team pointed out that findings were not valid unless replicated, so a second batch was produced. By this point they were not making much sense, but they concurred that through diligent work we had scientifically determined the recipe for the Correct Manhattan.
In a lowball glass, combine:
Two dashes Angostura Bitters
¾ ounces bourbon
¾ ounces rye whiskey
1 ounce red vermouth, preferably Carpano Antica Formula
Stir to mix. Add three ice cubes. Skewer a cocktail cherry, either Amarena Fabbri or Luxardo, and add as a garnish. Repeat as necessary.
The team then relaxed. Concluding that they might by then be tired of Manhattans I offered something completely different – a Manhattan Negro, in which Amaro Lucano replaces the vermouth. According to the Gibberish-English mode of Google Translate it seems that these were well-received.
For its next task the research team will set its sights on gin. Amid the current wild proliferation of gin brands and styles it is necessary to determine the best gin or gins for the home bartender. A report will be published in due course. Stay tuned!
The Ethics Committee has determined that this activity met established guidelines. Participants were free to control their own intake. Alternative (non-alcoholic) beverages were available. Only mild bullying was permitted. No animals were harmed in pursuit of this research project.
 Whiskey in this case because it is made with Bourbon or Rye. The no-E (Scotch) whisky version is a Rob Roy. An oddity at best.