Monday, November 28, 2011

Pre-Prohibition Cocktail Class with Jason Wilson

On Friday, November 18, Jason Wilson, the spirits columnist from the Washington Post, lead a class on Pre-Prohibition Cocktails at the Wine School of Philadelphia. Originally supposed to discuss and sample wine cocktails, the name of the class was changed by the Wine School a week before it was given to attract more people.
Arriving on Friday evening, every seat was full and people were eagerly anticipating both the drinks and Jason Wilson's impressive knowledge of liquors, cocktails, and their histories. Over the course of the night we had seven flights of drinks and were allowed to sample some of the ingredients in the cocktails. As we drank, Jason asked us what we thought about each cocktail, including any tastes or pairings (food or weather). We started off the evening with Light Guard Punch, which was a hot-weather punch. As we drank the punch, Jason gave us a background of the punch: since drink history is generally nebulous and passed down orally, it is hard to be certain about the origins of drinks; for instance punch was the first mixed drink and dates back to the 16th century. It was possibly first made by British sailors.
He noted that punch (and any good cocktail) should have the following five elements: strong, sweet, sour, bitter, and weak.

We then tried a drink containing sherry, sweet vermouth and bitters called the Duke of Marlborough, a version of which can be found in most early-20th century guides. Variations of the ingredients in the drink can lead to different names. Both sherry and vermouth are fortified wines, although Jason added that the latter was much disdained in the United States, leading to the creation of the dry martini. To Jason, bitters (which are 90 proof and can be bought in grocery stores) are used like salt and pepper - it brings the flavors of the drink together, and you use only a dash or two.

In the picture to the left, the Light Guard Punch is on the left and the Duke of Marlborough is on the right. These two are light cocktails, consumed early in the meal. Delving for a short time into the history of vermouth in the United States, Jason speculated that as vermouth became popular around the Civil War, which was about when martinis originated, ordering a martini was ordering the Martini-Rossi sweet vermouth with gin, as there was a limited variety of alcohol in bars at the time.

We then had two variations of the Manhattan, which generally contains whiskey (rye, bourbon, or Canadian), vermouth, sherry, and bitters. The Manhattan bianco consisted of bourbon, a lemon peel twist garnish, and Bianca vermouth, which Jason said was the most popular spirit in Italy, where it is drunk on the rocks with lemon. We then had the Red Hook, a more complex drink, of which the ingredients were rye whiskey with Punt e Mes and Maraschino liqueur and a Maraschino cherry for garnish.

The other drinks we had were Thieves' Punch, (which consisted of cachaca, a distilled sugar cane liquor that is the most popular alcohol in Brazil, port, lime juice, syrup, and bitters and tasted a bit like tequila due to the lime but did not induce a gag reflex as tequila often does for me), Nouveau Sangaree (which was red wine, applejack, sloe gin, maple syrup, and bitters), and the Dunaway (made from sherry, Cynar, maraschino liqueur and bitters).

Though I omitted ice when listing ingredients, it was used in the making of every cocktail except for the Nouveau Sangaree. Towards the end of the class, Jason fielded some questions about a variety of topics. When asked how old bars operated (contrasting them a bit with the new speakeasy style bars), he said like today, they did use measure out the quantities (and proportions) of alcohols using jiggers. A bourbon fan then asked a question that I thought was fairly relevant to college students: should he use his high quality bourbon for drinking on the rocks (on ice in a tumbler) and use cheap low quality bourbon for mixed drinks? Jason thought about this one for a little and then remarked that if the man liked his bourbon, he recommended not using total garbage in mixed drinks, as you want the real thing. He added that you also don't want a low proof whiskey when mixing cocktails, because with a high alcohol whiskey the flavors can compete, then commenting that an act of Congress regulates the content of bourbon (and then someone said "at least they got something right!"). We also learned that the charred oak bottle that bourbon must spend time in determines the color of the whiskey, as distilled whiskey comes out white. I came away from the class with a fantastic buzz, some fun recipes, a broadened alcoholic pallet, and a greater appreciation for early 20th century cocktails.

1 comment:

  1. Small world. We were at this event too. Enjoyed your recap especially since it added a few points we did not cover in our post about it. Thanks.

    Too bad we did not know you were at the event as it would have been fun to say hello. Next time...



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