courtesy Jayson Landers
Shake combined ingredients with ice; strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with an orange peel.
courtesy Abby Wallace
Combine all ingredients in shaker with ice; shake vigorously until frost coats the outside of the shaker. Strain into martini glass. Top with freshly grated nutmeg.
After-dinner drinks are an enjoyable part of the food and drink experience. When considering a dessert drink, “traditionally, most folks would probably think of a sweet cocktail,” says Jayson Landers, operating manager at Italian eatery Strada and its Social bar. “But there’s really a wide spectrum.”
Popular after-dinner tipples include include cognac (ideally served in a large brandy snifter) and any of a wide variety of amari (Italian herbal liqueurs). The latter – a broad category that includes locally-available liqueurs like Averna, Cynar, Fernet Branca, Montenegro, Ramazzotti and Zucca – is “a very traditional after-dinner drink in Italy,” says Landers. “It’s believed to be good to stimulate digestion.” Limoncello, a citrus-peel based liqueur, is also very common on Italian after dinner menus; we’ll explore ‘cellos in an upcoming DIY-focused article.
Most dessert drink bars carve out their own niche. “We can always recommend a lovely port or a cognac or a scotch,” says Abby Wallace, bar manager at L’ecluse, the dessert bar at downtown Asheville’s Bouchon. “But we like to provide something that’s going to be a little bit more unique, something with a sweeter kick to it.” She mentions three martini-style drinks based on specific flavor profiles: crème brûlée, chocolate and salted caramel.
At Social, Landers offers a rum and coffee liqueur concoction playfully named We’re Going to Need a Bigger Boat. The bar’s Buttercup combines vanilla, pineapple, cinnamon and rosemary flavors. There are plenty of choices for the more traditionally-minded, too. Ask most drinks aficionados to name a dessert cocktail, and some familiar choices will be mentioned. The minty grasshopper (equal parts green Crème de menthe, Crème de cacao and cream or half and half) and Brandy Alexander are among the most popular and well-known drinks.
It is true that cocktails are “usually made more for sipping on their own or enjoying with a meal than an after-dinner dessert,” say the bloggers at northern California’s Sift Dessert Bar. But when a drink’s components are carefully thought out – pairing with a dessert and/or riffing off the flavors of a meal just enjoyed – dessert cocktails truly come into their own.
But choosing the perfect after-dinner drink – especially if it’s going to accompany a dessert – can and should involve a bit of thought. “What you want to think about,” offers Landers, “is, ‘do the flavors and textures complement one another?’” He suggests that when choosing a creamy dessert, “you might want something [to drink] that has some acidity to cut through that creaminess.”
It makes sense to think about what you’ve just eaten for dinner, as well, suggests Wallace. “If you’ve just had the Beef bourguignon or Steak au poivre with red wine, I always recommend the Brandy Alexander,” she says. The Brandy Alexander has some rock ‘n’ roll credibility, too: it was the drink of choice of the early ‘70s coterie of L.A. carousers that included Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, Alice Cooper and Keith Moon. “We ordered them in pitchers,” says guitarist-songwriter Keith Allison, a member of that celebrity drinking club known as the Hollywood Vampires.
For those who want something not so closely associated with getting thrown out of Hollywood bars, Landers notes that wine can actually work in an after-dinner drink as well. “We’ve done wine-based cocktails with Marsala; it matches up great with tiramisu,” he says.
Drinks that combine flavors associated with dessert can pair well, too. Social’s after-dinner drinks menu features the Cafe Toscano, combining Tuaca (a liqueur with flavors of saffron and citrus) and hot coffee. Wallace says that the drinks menu at L’ecluse centers around well-known liqueurs that can be enjoyed neat. “But we decided to mix them together to create our own unique cocktails,” she says.
Baking spices can sometimes serve as the secret ingredient that brings a drink and a dessert together in harmony. “Maybe a little star anise, nutmeg or cinnamon,” offers Landers. His bar often incorporates those flavors by way of a made-in-house flavored simple syrup, or by direct addition of, say, a cinnamon stick. “Infused liquors can help build those sorts of flavors, too,” he says. “That really kicks it up a notch, rather than just relying on basic liqueurs and sugar.”
Trends come and go, of course. But today, cocktail bars that feature or focus on dessert-styled drinks are on the rise. “Dessert bars have been popping up all over the country,” writes Meredith Bethune on the food and drink trend-watching website Tasting Table. In a profile of Austin, Texas bar Nightcap, she also mentions “a reservations-only dessert tasting menu at U.P. in Brooklyn” and new, popular dessert bars in Raleigh and Washington, D.C.
Whether one goes with a simple digestif or a sweeter concoction to cap off an evening, Bouchon’s Abby Wallace notes that the choice is ultimately up to you. “The French don’t really need many excuses,” she says. “After a hearty meal,” she emphasizes, “you can drink your dessert if you want.”
Courtesy Catie Conroy
Combine water and sugar in stovetop pot on low heat. Add herbs as sugar begins to dissolve; bring to a boil and cook for 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat, cool, and refrigerate in sealed Mason jar for 24 hours. Strain.
Adapted from Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s The Bar Book
Warm juice in shallow stovetop pan on very low heat. Add other ingredients and stir until sugar is dissolved. Allow to cool, then bottle and refrigerate.
Mixing an appealing cocktail is not unlike putting together a meal: it’s all about balance. Harmonious blending and contrasting of the ingredients can result in something that’s pleasing to the senses. And a key component of many cocktails – classic and modern alike – is a sweetening agent. A sweet substance can contrast nicely with the sharp sting of base alcohols, and it can soften the sourness of citrus juices, resulting in a drink that showcases the best qualities of all its components. But too often this part of the equation is rushed over, and needlessly substandard ingredients are used. Getting it right – and doing it yourself – can be simple, relatively inexpensive and ultimately rewarding.
When done wrong, however, an attempt to sweeten a cocktail can yield dreadful results. Viewed across the arc of history, it wasn’t all that long ago that many bartenders’ guides recommended use of a sugar cube to add sweetness to a liquor drink. First published in 1934, Patrick Gavin Duffy’s The Standard Bartender’s Guide prescribed “a lump of sugar” as an ingredient in (among other drinks) the classic Old Fashioned cocktail. That same publication – even when updated, revised and expanded in the mid-1950s by acclaimed food and beverage authority James A. Beard – featured the use of powdered sugar in many drinks.
David Embury knew better. In his authoritative 1953 guide The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, he states plainly, “Sugar does not dissolve well in alcohol.” And he would scarcely have considered powdered sugar in any drink, as it contains cornstarch. (If you do stumble across a vintage recipe calling for the powdered stuff, use superfine sugar instead.)
In a word, the ideal solution is making a sugar syrup. Simply warming sugar and water over low heat and stirring a bit will dissolve the sugar, creating a low-cost yet important building block used in countless cocktails. As with most things creative and/or culinary, the recipe varies depending on when and whom asked. Embury suggests a 3:1 sugar to water ratio. A 2:1 mix is the standard in bars in the U.K. and across Europe, while in the United States, a syrup made of equal parts sugar and water is the preferred recipe.
Our own applied research has found that the 2:1 recipe, made in a small quantity (say, one cup of sugar to one-half cup of water) yields the best results. Moreover, as Jeffrey Morgenthaler emphasizes in his lively do-it-yourself guide The Bar Book, “stored in the refrigerator, 1:1 hot-process [melted] simple syrup should last one month, while 2:1 simple syrup should last six months.”
The next logical and easy step beyond simple syrups is flavored ones. Catie Conroy, bar manager at the Scarlet Bee, makes her own herb-infused syrups to add to select cocktails. She often “eyeballs” how much of an herb to add to a simmering pot of sugar and water, but offers a caution. “You don’t want to cook all the good things out of it.” she says.
When it comes to plants or herbs for syrup-making, fresh is generally best. Conroy uses heaps of fresh ginger when making a Demerara sugar-based syrup, for example. But for certain ones – she mentions lemongrass and hibiscus – dried ingredient work better. Even in small quantities, a bold-flavored syrup adds another dimension to a cocktail. “Because if it’s too weak, the liquor is going to overpower the flavor,” she says.
Bright red grenadine is another popular cocktail sweetener. But the commercially-available product often contains absolutely no pomegranate juice, the ingredient that gives grenadine its name. Making the delicious syrup at home is simple and not-too-pricey (see recipe). For those who prefer a simpler method, bartender Simon Difford (Author of Difford’s Encyclopedia of Cocktails) offers this: “follow the instructions for sugar syrup … but use one cup of pomegranate juice (Pom Wonderful) in place of the water.”
The creative home bartender need not be limited to sugar or grenadine as the only cocktail sweeteners. Honey (or, better yet, a 2:1 honey-water syrup) can add subtle sweetness to cocktails. “I do a turmeric honey [syrup] for our Buzzy Bee cocktail,” Conroy says. Agave syrup pairs exceedingly well in tequila and mezcal-based mixed drinks, and store-bought agave is generally free from unwanted additives. For a delightfully woody spin on a traditional drink, maple syrup works exceedingly well; along with bourbon and grapefruit juice, it’s a key component of the classic Brown Derby.
Orgeat – a staple of most every sophisticated coffee shop – is a thick, almond-flavored syrup that adds interest to select cocktails. But even DIY proponent Morgenthaler cautions against trying to make orgeat at home; just buy a bottle, he advises.
Making syrups for cocktails is fun and easy. And the process is a forgiving one, so Conroy encourages home experimentation. She admits that’s how she has come up with many of her signature concoctions. “I’ve sort of figured it out by trial and error.”
Courtesy of Chis Bower of The Double Crown
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Stir until glass is frosted; strain into a coupe. Twist to express the oils from a strip of orange peel over the glass, and rub the orange peel around the rim of the glass.
Courtesy of Casey Campfield of The Crow & Quill
Muddle mint and ginger in a mixing glass. Add bourbon, Aperol, bitters and ice; shake vigorously. Strain into Zombie glass, top with ginger beer and garnish with a sprig of mint.
The origin of most spirits can be traced to a specific region or country: gin is most often associated with England; scotch, of course is a product of Scotland. Rum is a Caribbean spirit, while tequila comes from Mexico. Rye whiskey is often thought of as an American spirit, but it has origins in and around Germany.
So it’s bourbon whiskey that best deserves the appellation of “the quintessential American spirit,” says Casey Campfield of downtown bar The Crow & Quill. “There’s a poetic allure to the history of bourbon that really appeals to me,” he says.
Compared to other spirits, bourbon has a relatively short history. The alcoholic beverage we call bourbon only appeared after European settlers made their way to North America. Despite its comparative newness, beverage historians can’t even agree on where the name bourbon came from.
Many assume that the spirit originated in Bourbon County, Kentucky. But as liquor historian Michael Veach explained when interviewed for a 2013 Smithsonian Magazine interview, there’s strong evidence that the term was first used in New Orleans. Nineteenth century bar patrons were known to request “that whiskey they sell on Bourbon Street,” a Kentucky-made corn-based product aged in barrels so that it would taste a bit like cognac.
Experts do agree on what makes a bourbon. In fact in some – but not all – cases, it’s mandated by law. Bourbon must be distilled from a mash bill (grains and water) containing at least 51% corn. That corn gives bourbon one of its distinctive characteristics: sweetness. The remainder of the mash can include rye, malted barely, wheat and/or other grains. “A high rye mash bill will give you a really nice, spicy kick,” Campfield says. “Wheat creates a gentler, softer, slightly sweeter bourbon.”
“Bonded” bourbon is produced under exacting standards, explains Chris Bower of West Asheville “dive bar” The Double Crown. “Bonded bourbon is 100 proof [50% alcohol] and aged in a warehouse under government supervision. The reason I love bonded stuff is because there’s transparency,” he says. “You know exactly what you’re going to get, right down to the warehouse it was aged in.”
Bourbon must be matured at least two years, in new American oak casks that have been charred. “New oak gives a lot of vanillin and other compounds,” Campfield explains. “It imparts a lot of sugar to the spirit as well.”
“The barrel process is where a lot of the magical things happen,” adds Bower. He says that many factors affect bourbon’s finished character, including where within the rickhouse (ageing storage facility) the barrel is located, weather, and blending. The addition of leftover mash from a previous batch – a process called “sour mash” – helps ensure consistency.
But consistency isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be, says Bower. “I look for inconsistency,” he says. “That way I know the product is actually made by human beings. If I can taste a little bit of variation, that makes it more real to me.”
The Crow & Quill and Double Crown each offer more than 125 different brands of bourbon. And Campfield and Bower agree that sweetness is just part of what gives bourbon its character. “You really want to be looking for sweetness and spice, and the way those two things balance each other,” says Campfield.
Both recommend Henry McKenna Single Barrel, a bonded bourbon aged for a decade, as a good balance of price and quality. “If you want to sip on a sophisticated bourbon, this would be it,” Bower says. Campfield emphasizes that McKenna is “a great mixing bourbon” as well. And Bower says that despite its unfortunate reputation as the choice of rabble-rousing college students, Fighting Cock is a good choice, too. Campfield has good things to say about Buffalo Trace bourbon, but notes that the brand has become more difficult to find locally.
Both men express a preference for the bonded varieties of bourbon. “I really like a slightly higher-proof bourbon for mixing,” Campfield says. “It punches through the other ingredients that are laying on top of it.”
“I’m just a debutante when it comes to all this stuff,” says Chris Bower with a chuckle. “I’m not that intellectual about it; I just love the spirit.” Casey Campfield’s perspective is not dissimilar. “Keep in mind that this is a completely subjective field,” he advises. “Your tastes are just as valid as anyone else’s.”
The Crow & Quill and Double Crown both make a point of offering bourbons that are inexpensive and approachable, right alongside super-premium brands. “Just because you don’t have $250 doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a good bourbon,” Bower says. He believes drinkers can enjoy a wide variety of bourbon experiences at any price point, so there’s no reason not to explore. “Some people say, ‘I only drink Jack Daniel’s,’” he says. “I don’t quite understand that; it’s like saying, ‘I’m only going to eat pizza.’”
Courtesy Mary Minton, The Crest Center
Mix whiskey, simple syrup and lime juice to create base cocktail mixture; top each individual beverage with fresh ginger beer and garnish with a lime wedge and a sprig of rosemary.