Make Your Own Tonic Water

When I (Shanna – the one who’s drunk for fun on YouTube) tell people about my latest culinary projects, I get the most questions about 1.) my pickled strawberries (not good for cocktails, unless it’s like a shrub) and 2.) homemade tonic water (only good for cocktails).

My quest for good tonic water started with an Advance Readers Copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s forthcoming book The Signature of All Things. I like to describe it as the Philadelphian Gone With the Wind, but with botany instead of “the gentry,” moss instead male suitors. It’s great. The father gets rich on early botanical pharmaceuticals, including powdered cinchona bark, which contains quinine, the key ingredient in tonic water. The stuff you get at the grocery store also has preservatives and corn syrup. If, like me, you’re not a fan then making your own traditional tonic water may be the way to go.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be in the Mission District of San Francisco where I could get some cinchona bark, because the Strip District of Pittsburgh unfortunately isn’t that kind of niche. The Duc Loi Supermarket has everything you could possibly want, including whiskey and Bahn Mi sandwiches… and salvia. Don’t get the salvia. Get cinchona bark. Otherwise known as the fever tree, Jesuit’s bark or Peruvian bark, the quinine in cinchona is known for curing malaria and muscle cramps. It’s also what gives your G+T that nice bitter flavor.

To start, steep the bark in hot water for 30 or more minutes (depending on potency – just keep tasting it), almost like making cinchona tea. Use fillable tea bags or tie up some coffee filters so you don’t get any wood-bits in your tonic. It’ll turn a nice red color and start to take on some bitterness. You can then make a syrup by adding a cup (or more, or less) to every 2 cups of water. Any more is too sweet in my opinion, but it’s up to you. Try adding botanicals while steeping, like lavender or citrus.

Now you have a Tonic Syrup, to which you can add your own soda water. One part syrup for 4 parts soda seems to work well. Bottle, refrigerate, and throw a tonic party.

Strangely, it goes well with bourbon. Try it out!

Mint Julep

We booze nerds sometimes get carried away by the details of a drink’s flavor, debating the merits of finishing casks, whether vodka can or even should have terrior, and other such minutia that so quickly seem vastly important. But one thing that is often overlooked, and quite unfairly so, is aroma. A drink should stimulate at lease four of your five senses with flavor, mouthfeel, appearance, and aroma. I even enjoy the rhythm of a skillfully shaken cocktail.

Since we are only days away from that auspicious American tradition, the Kentucky Derby, we thought that this would be a perfect opportunity to highlight one of the great aromatic cocktails, the Mint Julep. The julep is a profoundly simple drink to make and yields a wonderfully delicious refreshment.

Seen above is a traditional julep glass. While not necessary to enjoy a Mint Julep, it does help inflate your feeling of American bourgeois sophistication.

While Mint Juleps have been made with a variety of spirits in the past, Kentucky bourbon has been the standard for nearly a century. Additionally, some recipes will tell you to muddle your mint in the bottom of the glass, however this destroys the drink’s aromatic qualities and yields a sub-par cocktail. Instead, let your mint leaves float on the top of your Mint Julep and as you sip, breathe in with your nose. This way, the scent of the mint intermingles with the flavor of the bourbon as you drink.

1 oz simple syrup

3 oz Kentucky bourbon

2-3 mint leaves

Fill your glass (or silver julep cup) to the top with crushed ice. Pour over this your simple syrup, then bourbon. Stir until your ingredients are well mixed and a fog begins to accumulate on the outside of your glass (or ice on your julep cup). Garnish with mint and serve.

Traditional julep cups are made of silver so that as you mix, a thin film of ice should accumulate on the outside of your cup. This keeps your drink colder longer on a hot Kentucky afternoon. But for those not born with a silver cup in your mouth, a julep glass like the one shown above is also a great way to serve this drink.

Also, I hear Mint Juleps taste better when enjoyed beneath a giant floppy hat.

Why I do declare.

Dempsey Cocktail

Named for the legendary boxer Jack Dempsey, this cocktail may not be for everyone, but its distinctive combination of flavors could make devotees out of a few. Like its namesake, this one hits hard.

3 oz gin

1 oz applejack

1 tsp absinthe

1 tsp grenadine

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass half filled with ice and stir thoroughly. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

The Dempsey Cocktail

Cuba Libre: More than just a Rum & Coke

At a wedding recently, Shanna engaged in an extended debate with the bartender on the topic which titles this post. It’s tempting to lump the Cuba Libre together with the “and” drinks (i.e. gin and tonic, rum and coke, etc). But details matter, especially in simple to construct drinks. The fewer ingredients, the more important each becomes.

Such is the case with the Cuba Libre. One of only three ingredients, the lime juice makes all the difference. Leave it out and you’ve just got a rum and coke, but that simple addition of lime juice makes the Cuba Libre a far more delicious drink for a warm summer evening.

2 parts light rum

1 part lime juice

top with cola

Fill your serving glass halfway with ice and add your rum and lime juice. Top with cola and stir. For greatest social and historical relevance use Cuban rum and Coca Cola.

Cuba Libre

Film Fridays: The Secret of Kells and the Wild Irish Rose

The day before St. Patrick’s Day it would be downright irresponsible of me to neglect the Irish contribution to cinema and booze in today’s Film Friday post. A few of my favorite films happen to be Irish including Intermission and Breakfast on Pluto, or feature Irish leads as in The Boondock Saints and In America. I even considered throwing a curve-ball with The Company of Wolves, which as a horror nerd I rank at the third best werewolf transformation scene after An American Werewolf in London and The Howling III: The Marsupials.

But I’ll save the gruesome horror and gore for another week. Instead I decided to go in the other direction with one of the most beautifully animated children’s films that I’ve ever seen, The Secret of Kells. Children’s cinema and booze are, admittedly, not the most obvious match. But I wouldn’t have chosen this flick if it didn’t hold at least as much appeal for adults as for children. Plus, the film’s got an Oscar nomination to back me up.

The Secret of Kells

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St. Germaine Cocktail

We discovered this treasure at Les Chefs Des Paris restaurant in Epcot. Now in my top five favorite drinks, the St. Germaine Cocktail is like a glass full of happiness. (Even if technically it’s not a cocktail.)

1 1/2 parts St. Germaine

2 parts Champagne or other French sparkling white wine

2 parts Perrier or sparkling water

Combine all ingredients in a tall glass with ice. Stir thoroughly and garnish with a twist of lemon.

St. Germaine Cocktail

Recipe courtesy of St. Germaine