Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Northern Lights Cocktail

Yesterday, it rained a long time. It was a dark, heavy rain for most of the day. Occasionally a shard of sunlight would appear through the clouds, and the rain would sparkle and the trees became emerald. But mostly, it was a grim sort of day for the end of summer.

Here is how I spent it:

  • I stayed home from work and lay in bed through the morning listening to the rain fall;
  • ate frittata made by my lovely wife, mid-morning;
  • watched a couple of movies that seemed like good rainy day flicks - decent films, but not so good that they would prohibit the simultaneous reading of magazines;
  • snacked on potato chips and caramelized-onion dip;
  • welcomed the cats to laze about with us on the couch, where they sacked out;
  • prepared, at leisure, to venture out in the deluge to visit our dear, longstanding friend Bob White, who ever so kindly treated us to a very nice meal at Eastern Standard in honor of my birthday;
  • returned home well-fed and drunk enough (1) to think that another bourbon on the rocks was a good idea, and (2) to select the dwindling (and now gone) Pappy van Winkle 20-year old Family Reserve;
  • and, in the middle of all that, mixed a delicious cocktail called the Northern Lights.

The Northern Lights is a truly spectacular concoction, one which requires rare ingredients and a willingness to mix good scotch in a drink. Questions about using scotch in a mixed drink? Sure, it seems wrong, but can be oh-so-right. Take for example, the Blood and Sand, described here back in April of this year.

This beauty is balanced and versatile, unusual and tantalizing. It's name implies so much about the drink's flavors and hue. It is well suited to summer drinking, winter drinking, autumn drinking, and spring drinking. It is just fine on a summer day that is dark as a November evening, a day both humid and cool, with monsoon-like rains. This drink is like smelling an autumn wood fire, while lying prostrate in a meadow of wildflowers.

I first had this cocktail at an amazing restaurant in Cambridge, called Craigie on Main. It is from the mind of a master mixologist named Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli. This is a world-class restaurant with prohibitively high prices; an "occasion" restaurant. The food is incredible. Locally sourced, unusual, fearless. And this drink... complex flavors of smoke and evergreen, citrus and sunshine. It was floral and tart and mysterious. It was the flavor of alpine woods and sun showers.

It took me a good long while to accrue one of the vital ingredients - Clear Creek Douglas Fir Eau de Vie, a green spirit from an Oregon distillery, described as "an infusion of the springtime buds of Douglas fir picked by hand into clear brandy which is then re-distilled and re-infused with more buds" - but it is absolutely necessary in this drink. Without this eau de vie, you lose the woodsy notes that complement the scotch and citrus so well. You must also have St. Germain. There is really nothing one can substitute.

As for the scotch - the original recipe calls for Grant & Sons... I have never seen this, so I use whatever is at hand. That has included: J&B, Johnny Walker Black, and a 12-year-old Caol Ila single malt from Islay (probably the smokiest I have tasted). In fact, this drink is worth trying with different scotches, blended or single malt. The personality of the whisky can dictate the smokiness or fruitiness of the cocktail. Be careful with the smokier Islays - they can overpower the gentler flavors of elderflower and fir.

Now, after that lengthy preamble, here is how you make this smashing concoction:

Northern Lights Cocktail
Recipe for two

3 oz scotch (calls for Grant & Sons, but use anything decent that you have around)
1 1/2 oz St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
1/2 oz Clear Creek Douglas Fir Eau de Vie (find it here)
1 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1/2 oz fresh-squeezed orange juice
1/2 oz Demerara syrup (or, try rosemary-infused syrup)
4 dashes of Angostura Bitters (the Craigie on Main website actually calls for Bittermen's Tiki Bitters, which I have not had the opportunity to try)

Shake with vigor all the ingredients with ice, until very cold. Strain into two cocktail glasses, and garnish with a lemon twist. Bottoms up!

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