Homemade Cocktails — Experiments, Critiques & Travels
Ah yes, A Christmas Story: a true yuletide classic. Jean Shepherd’s composite tale of his childhood Christmas during the Great Depression has always been a family favorite — I’m sure a lot of people love it — and I was pleasantly surprised when, upon opening my holiday issue of Imbibe, I discovered a cocktail entitled “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.” Obviously a reference to the warning that young protagonist Ralphie receives numerous times throughout the movie, the drink is a likable concoction of cinnamon, herbs, and rum — not something he’d want to have one too many of before charging out into the snow with his Blue Steel Beauty, the Red Ryder BB gun. That being said, for your consideration, I hereby re-present the following:
You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out
2 ounces Aged Rum (Cockspur or Mt. Gay Eclipse)
1/2 ounce Becherovka
1/2 ounce Bénédictine
1/4 ounce Cinnamon Syrup (see below)
3 dashes Angostura Orange Bitters
Garnish: Orange Twist
Stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass or into a rocks glass over a single large ice cube. Garnish.
From Mathias Simonis of Distil, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Cinnamon Syrup #1
1 cup of white granulated sugar
1 cup of water
Three 3″ cinnamon sticks
Grind the cinnamon sticks with a mortar & pestle and break them up into fairly small pieces. Heat sugar and water on low, stirring frequently, until the sugar completely dissolves. Add the cinnamon and continue stirring for 3-5 minutes. Turn off the heat and let cool, then strain and bottle. Add a bit of vodka and it should keep for a month.
Cinnamon Syrup #2
1 cup of white granulated sugar
1 cup of water
5 cinnamon sticks
Heat sugar and water on low, stirring frequently, until the sugar completely dissolves. Turn off heat. In another saucepan over medium heat, toast 5 cinnamon sticks, making sure to toast both sides of each stick, until you begin to smell the aroma of the spice (3 to 5 minutes). remove from heat and add the toasted cinnamon sticks to the simple syrup, bring the syrup to a boil, then remove from heat, set aside to cool, and strain into a bottle.
Quite a tasty drink, I must say. I tried out Simonis’s cocktail with three different rums — Mount Gay Eclipse, Cane & Abe Freshwater Rum, and Cockspur Fine Rum — as the exact bottle was unspecified and the drink in the photo came out a lovely golden hue (not very possible with a dark rum). Cockspur wins my vote, as it has just enough hogo to cut through the spices. Cane & Abe comes off with a bit too much alcoholic burn, while the Mt. Gay is slightly too mild in flavor. I actually think the Bénédictine is a tad strong…an interesting experiment would be to make the drink with a mere 1/4 ounce of the liqueur while upping the cinnamon syrup to a 1/2 ounce. The orange bitters tie everything together, providing a tinge of citrus that (only just) keeps the drink from being too sweet (though, as Frederic mentions, it is a drink that veers in this direction).
Amazingly enough, the cocktail was covered by Oregon Public Broadcasting alongside a piece on Winter Drinks. Check it out if you need some alternative libations. A lively write-up — including the infamous Major Award and Pop Art piece, the Nehi Leg Lamp — can also be found at Ice + Clink + Drink.
Finally, some notes on our secret ingredient, the cinnamon syrup. My #1 recipe comes from Beachbum Berry Remixed, and is very simple, while the #2 recipe was provided in Imbibe magazine. For the syrup, you’ll want to locate true cinnamon (cinnamomum verum/zeylanicum from Sri Lanka/Ceylon) rather than cassia (cinnamomum aromatica/cassia from China or Saigon, or burmanii from Indonesia). How to tell the difference? Well, here’s a photo, with cinnamon on the left and cassia on the right:
Cassia is hollow, hard, very fragrant, and has a harsh flavor; its color is darker, more of a chestnut brown, and the sticks tend to be thinner. True cinnamon seems rather papery and can be broken up easily; it has less scent, but is fragrant when crushed or ground, and is lighter in color, being a pale, golden brown; one website mentions that the sticks have a cross section that is cigar-like in appearance. Using cassia in infusions results in a harsh, thin flavor, while true cinnamon yields a full flavor with less of an aromatic component. Most people — including me — agree that true cinnamon tastes better.
The bad news? Most of the cinnamon sold in the U.S. — whether ground or in stick form — is actually cassia. The good news? Finding true cinnamon is easier than you might think. Most grocery stores carry it in their import/ethnic section, Badia being the most common brand down here in Georgia. Publix carries 3″ sticks in packs of four for 79¢, as does Super H Mart. Be careful, though: Badia’s large containers of “cinnamon” are actually cassia, even though the label has a picture of true cinnamon on it! It’s almost impossible to determine the source of ground cinnamon unless explicitly stated, but buying it whole and grinding it yourself is easy. What I like to do is use cassia sticks as a garnish (I’ve got a whole container of it to go through) and cinnamon as an ingredient, since cassia is fragrant and cinnamon sticks are not.
Alright, enough about cinnamon. Go out and toast everyone a Merry Christmas by mixing up a few cocktails!
PS: While I love A Christmas Story, a majority of its plot actually comes from a collection of short stories written by Jean Shepherd, entitled In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. If you like the movie, which Shepherd narrated, then you’ll love the book and its equally sardonic-yet-nostalgic style of narration, not to mention the additional time you get to spend with Ralphie, Randy, Flick, and the Old Man. Cheers!
Photos by IJL.