Homemade Cocktails — Experiments, Critiques & Travels
Mixology Monday has rolled around once again! This time, Monsieur Dagreb of Nihil Utopia is hosting the party, and he’s asked us to mix up a round of drinks featuring high-proof spirits — anything over 50% ABV as defined in his announcement post. [Mar 27: To see what all of us came up with, check out the roundup.]
Yes, there are the inevitable Tiki drinks (featuring 151º Demerara and flaming Wray & Nephew Overproof), the infusions (hello, Everclear and, again, Wray & Nephew), and a whole mess of Chartreuse drinks that I could play around with…but I’ve recently gotten hooked on high-proof whiskies and felt like featuring a drink that makes use of them as a base. Combine that bourbon obsession with a semi-crazy idea I had for a new syrup and you end up with the following:
Rust n’ Dust
A Tempered Spirits original, named for an antique store in Chamblee, GA that I used to frequent.
- 2 ounces Noah’s Mill Bourbon [57.15% ABV, or 114.3 proof]
- 1/4 ounce Lagavulin Single-Malt Scotch [I used a Distiller’s Edition bottling, but the 16-year will work]
- 1/2 ounce Campari
- 1/2 ounce Smoke Pit Syrup [see below]
- 6 drops Fee Bros. Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters
- Flamed orange twist, to garnish
Stir all ingredients with ice, then strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice. Garnish with the flamed twist, dropping the peel into the glass. If you’d like a more hard-hitting drink, omit the fresh ice and serve the drink Up; keep the rocks glass, though.
Smoke Pit Syrup
In a bowl or jar, combine the following spices:
- 2 tbsp. Smoked Paprika
- 1 tbsp. Smoked Sea Salt [Campfire Salt from Beautiful Briny Sea Salt in Atlanta is ideal]
- 3 tbsp. White Sugar
- 2 tbsp. Brown Sugar
- 1 tbsp. Ground Cumin
- 2 tsp. Chili Powder
- 1 tbsp. Ground Black Pepper
- 1/2 tsp. Ground Cayenne or Chipotle Pepper
- 1/2 tsp. Ground Coriander
- 1 tsp. Crushed/Ground Oregano
Yeah, this is basically a BBQ rub recipe. Add an additional tbsp. of salt and a tbsp. each of garlic powder and onion powder will give you a full-blown rub. But we’re not using it on pork, it’s being turned into a cocktail syrup…
So, to make that syrup:
- 1 cup Brewed Lapsang Souchong Tea
- 2 cups Demerara or Turbinado Sugar
- 2 tbsp. BBQ Spice Mix, above (you can add more, if you like)
Combine the sugar and tea while the tea is still hot. Stir until all the sugar is dissolved. Add in the spice mix and stir, then cover and allow the syrup to sit for at least half an hour. Strain through a coffee filter and bottle. Should keep a few weeks, refrigerated — add a bit of high-proof bourbon or vodka to make it last longer. You’ll have to shake it before using as some of the spices will separate.
The drink is closer to an Old-Fashioned in its construction than, say, a Boulevardier or a Manhattan, omitting the acid of a fortified wine in lieu of a heavy addition of spices and bitters.
First to hit is a heavy base of rich, rough bourbon, caramel, brown sugar, and a relatively heavy charr; this is both on the nose and the initial sip. This quickly gives way to the orange peel notes of the Campari blended with brown sugar and the rich, porky-peaty flavors of the Lagavulin, with sharper cinnamon-spice notes hitting the roof of your mouth on the swallow. The salt from the syrup also hits in the middle ground. The finish lingers quite a while: it’s a tad bitter, but the salt of the Smoke Pit syrup steps in to cancel a lot of that out and you’re left with orange peel, paprika, and and peat hanging out on the back of your tongue for a while.
So, here’s what’s going on: the extra alcohol is bitter and sharp, and the higher proof bourbon needs some sweetness and saltiness to balance that out. This is even more evident if you’re using a burly, barrel-proof bourbon like Booker’s (I tried that here, and it’s honestly just too much; a split of 1-1/2 oz Noah’s and 1/2 oz Booker’s is nice, though). At the same time, a bourbon with such strong character provides a near-imperturbable base to work with. Adding in my oh-so-Southern-Smoke Pit syrup, lots of great, complex flavors were pulled out of the bourbon, but it swung back toward the sweet end. I needed a bitter-sweet flavor to step in again, and looked at a number of amari and apertivos (Averna, with all of its coffee notes, works nicely), but the lovely orange peel flavors (and color) of that old classic, Campari, won out in the end.
Both the Campari and the bourbon’s bitterness are balanced against the salt in the syrup. Pro tip: salt counteracts bitterness, leaving you with pure flavor. I wonder why we don’t see more salt tinctures used in cocktails — yeah, it’s standard in Maragritas and anything in the Bloody Mary family, but it works wonders in drinks featuring grapefruit or bitter aperitifs and digestifs like Suze or Gran Classico. Despite being full of strong spices, the syrup becomes rather subdued in a cocktail, acting as an odd smoky-spicy binder. I’m guessing it acts more like a vermouth because of the tannins and astringency of the Lapsang tea — tea, by the way, is a classic substitute for liquor in mocktails, and is yet another foil against the salt and peppery heat of the spice mix.
To bring out even more of that smoky, barbecue-y goodness, in went the scotch. Let’s face it: if the Scots made pit barbecue, it would taste like Lagavulin. It’s incredibly rich, peaty, smoky, leathery, and, well, porky. There aren’t many other ways to describe it. The barrel-aged bitters lend just a touch of astringency back to the mix to cancel out some of the salt and sugar, as does the flamed twist, which adds even more smoke.
Things to try out in the future: alternate Isaly scotches (I bet Laphroaig would work, but Ardbeg is likely too thin), Gran Classico instead of Campari, and the addition of coffee grounds to the spice mix. Oh, and playing around with that syrup…after all, it tastes liked pulled pork combined with sweet tea. Few things in life are better than that, but the Rust N’ Dust comes awfully close to matching it in liquid form.
Cheers, and happy mixing!
Photo & Text by IJL