Homemade Cocktails — Experiments, Critiques & Travels
Sometimes, simpler drinks are better. True, you can whip up some smoked air to mix with your cardamom- and saffron-infused gin (the gin itself being homemade…who needs commercial gin, right?) and pour it over all the passion fruit juice ice cubes and Cointreau caviar you want — but that concoction sounds like something best left to the pros. Instead, I give you a simple, elegant classic — “a very great favourite” — from The Savoy Cocktail Book that contains a mere two ingredients yet remains utterly delightful…
1 ounce Apple Brandy or Calvados
1 ounce Sloe Gin
Stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. If you like, garnish with a maraschino cherry or a lemon twist (be sure to express the lemon oil into the drink).
Simple and effective — a crisp taste of Fall in a glass. While composed of only sweet and strong elements, the Tango perfectly balances the apple notes of the brandy with the tart, berry flavor of the sloe gin. Stylistically, the drink is a “duo,” sort of like the Rusty Nail, though it contains the deep, wintry flavors of a good Manhattan; there’s nothing better for starting off an Autumn evening.
Here’s the caveat: the quality of the ingredients makes or breaks the Tango.
First, the apple brandy: Laird’s Bottled-in-Bond is, of course, the go-to spirit of choice, though the higher proof results in a rather brusque drink. I suppose you could mellow it a bit with Laird’s Applejack, but the Tango won’t have the same flavorful punch as when made with the bonded brandy. Regional availability makes the use of Laird’s Bonded a bit tricky, and the use of the blended applejack yields a perfectly acceptable cocktail, though one that will lack a more bracing quality. [UPDATE -- August 25, 2012: Laird's Old Apple Brandy (7-1/2 year) also makes a fine Savoy Tango when mixed with Plymouth sloe gin; it's a bit easier to locate than the Laird's Bonded, and is definitely worth the extra $3 when compared with the Applejack it's probably sitting next to.] The other option is to go with a French calvados, which will lend a greater complexity to the drink while shaving off the rougher edges imparted by the American brandy. Calvados is a bit tricky to find here in the US: Minorval is a cheap, serviceable option, though mild and unexciting, while Boulard is widely available, albeit a tad pricey, and both have a chianti-like nose that sometimes irks me, but works well balanced against the tartness of the sloe gin.
Speaking of sloe gin, don’t cheap out and buy DeKuyper, Hiram Walker, or any of their ilk — they’re just not worth it…unless you’re making shots from the 1980s or an Alabama Slammer. Sloe gin is something that English grandmothers make around Christmas time — gin is infused with the berries of the blackthorn bush and sweetened with sugar, resulting in a lovely wintertime liqueur that can be sipped next to the fireplace in the comfort of your countryside cottage. That being said, if you’re after the market’s best, you’re left with two options: Plymouth Sloe Gin, imported from England, or Bitter Truth Sloeberry Blue Gin, from Germany. If you can’t find them where you live (psst, if you’re in Atlanta, check Toco Hills or the H&F Bottleshop), well, guess you’ll just have to take a raincheck on the Savoy Tango. If you’re lucky and you end up having to choose between either Bitter Truth or Plymouth and are hard-pressed to decide between the two, take my advice and go with the Plymouth, as it has the strength of flavor that stands up to mixing. (Should you live in the UK, there is a plethora of sloe gins available, as Summer Fruit Cup reports).
Actually, I did a bit of a taste test to back up my recommendation (no, I wasn’t provided with samples: it was done independently). To start with, Bitter Truth’s Sloeberry Blue Gin clocks in at 56 proof (28% ABV) and comes off somewhat thin, though it has a nice purple-red tint that matches it moniker. BT’s sloe is oakier and more acidic, reminiscent of wine, and not quite as sweet as you’d expect a liqueur to be, though the signature berry flavor is evident; it has a slightly alcoholic nose and a bit of a sharp, gin-like note. Tasting it in two different Savoy Tangos — one with Laird’s, one with Boulard — I’ll say that BT’s sloe is a much better match for the French brandy. Both ingredients’ wine-like notes are enhanced and the drink has a bright, crisp, berry-filled nose, and though it remains somewhat thin, the French-German Tango has very subtle complexity to it that I like. Try to mix BT’s sloe with Laird’s Bonded, however, and it’s blown out of the water, the brandy being much too powerful. One thing that bothers me a bit is the sediment in the bottle: though small in amount, it looks a little like seeds or hacked up bits of berries, and is, perhaps, a bit too rustic.
If, on the other hand, you’ve ended up with Laird’s and Plymouth, you’re in for a treat. The Plymouth is 52 proof (26% ABV), and is thick and sweet with a heavy berry flavor, closer to strawberry jam than the wine-like Bitter Truth sloe. Plymouth is a dark, rusty red, and is more a more typical liqueur in terms of sweetness; Plymouth also has greater depth of flavor, I think, and is more full-bodied. A Savoy Tango made with Plymouth and calvados is slightly odd, taking a drier, more acidic and astringent tack (perhaps the cause of Erik Ellestad’s disappointment during his Savoy Stomp). Plymouth, however, is the perfect match for Laird’s, its heavy sweeteness and intense sloe flavor standing up to the brash brandy.
So, need a subtle, complex Tango? Mix calvados and Bitter Truth Sloe Gin. Want a punchy pick-me-up on a cold night? Laird’s Bonded and Plymouth Sloe Gin will answer. Oh, a bit of lemon peel compliments the Savoy Tango rather well.
PS: Another personal favorite is the Tiger’s Milk — swap the apple brandy for cognac and add a lemon twist. I first spotted this variation on CocktailDB; most recipes for Tiger’s Milk appear to be a variation on the Milk Punch, so it may be more appropriate to call this mixture of brandy and sloe gin the “Tiger’s Milk #2.”
PPS: I’d like to try out some bitters in the Savoy Tango, perhaps something with wintry spices, probably from Bittercube. We’ll see.
PPPS: I wonder if the Savoy Hotel still makes them?
Photos by IJL.