Sunday, September 6, 2009

outlive all the septuagenarians

I don't like vodka. A quickie history of the deterioration of cocktails would go something like this: Prohibition puts some producers out of business and alters the availability of ingredients because of the different economics of the black market; the low quality of moonshine and increasing acceptability of drinking among women leads to favoring sweeter concoctions, a trend that takes off like a rocket in the 70s; faced with the difficulty of marketing an essentially odorless and tasteless product, vodka importers after WWII emphasize vodka's inherent mixability -- with no flavor, it won't clash with anything.  Before long, you have generations of drinkers who don't realize the vodka martini is a variant, not the default.  Horseshit fern bars popularize horseshit drinks designed to get you drunk without having to taste anything that might be unpalatable to a twelve year old, foreshadowing the twenty-first century's fruit punch flavored cigarettes, while horseshit sorority girls glug vodka and Diet Coke.

Vodka is more than a little ridiculous.

Good vodka is even less appropriate for cocktails, because the flavors are so subtle that almost any addition will cover them up.  It's like making a cocktail with mineral water.  This is something I'm struggling with in my remix of the appletini, which we will get to when we get to it.

I don't like tomato juice either.  Whether canned or fresh, it tastes like unseasoned soup to me, not like a beverage.  (And forget about Clamato -- although people always focus on hockey and poutine and the ou diphthong, the real divide between Canada and the US is that no one in the US has ever heard of a Bloody Caesar, which in Canada is so popular some bars will keep Clamato on the gun.)

So ... a Bloody Mary is really off my usual menu.

But from time to time I like to take a thing I don't like, and find a way I like it.  The tricky thing is to do this without violating the semantic boundaries that make the thing that thing.  If I didn't like steak, grinding it up to make a hamburger would be cheating.  If I didn't like pizza, putting pepperoni and mozzarella on a tomato sandwich would still be cheating.  Figuring out where those boundaries are is sometimes tricky.  Finding a way to make a lobster roll I liked was a challenge that took a long time, because if you do too much with a lobster roll -- if you make a bahn mi, if you season it too much, if you deep-fry lobster chunks and make a poboy -- it is simply no longer a lobster roll.

What is interesting and attractive about the Bloody Mary is that it is the only cocktail that encourages innovation and personal touches.  An Old-Fashioned with a bunch of other shit added to it isn't an Old-Fashioned anymore.  A Bloody Mary with a bunch of shit added to it is some guy's Bloody Mary.  You could argue this is true of the Pimm's Cup, I suppose, but it obtains only on the garnish level, whereas checking yes or no next to Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce, bouillon, horseradish, and lemon juice is a common method of Bloody Mary personalization.

Clearly a Bloody Mary must have tomato as the principal flavor.  What is not clear is whether it must have vodka.  Yes, I know there are a million names for "a Bloody Mary made with bourbon instead of vodka" or the like, but I don't care about that.

I've had these issues in mind for a while.  You saw some Bloody Mary brainstorming on the August whiteboard.  A few days ago there was a post on Kaiser Penguin about making a Bloody Mary from tomato water -- made by pureeing tomato and straining it through a bag to get a clear liquid with strong tomato flavor, rather than the pulpy soup-like stuff -- and that solves the tomato juice texture issue for me.

So.  For my first Bloody Mary experiment, for Sunday brunch this fine Labor Day weekend: tomato water and Old Gristmill corn whiskey.  I'm not interested in all that maiden aunt horseshit with the seventeen garnishes and the skewer of blue-cheese-stuffed-olive-wrapped-in-prosciutto.  Is my name T.G.I. Chuckles McBennigans?  Do you see a bunch of shit on the walls?  Am I wearing any flair?  This is a goddamn drink.

The rim is celery root salt, from Fergus Henderson's recipe: you shred up celery root, mix it with salt, bake it until dry, and grind it back up.  It makes an amazing celery salt, great with eggs or potatoes.

4 1/2 oz tomato water

1 1/2 oz corn whiskey

squeeze of lemon juice

dash each of St Germain elderflower liqueur, Fee's whiskey barrel aged bitters, homemade cayenne vinegar


And the brunch to accompany this drink: Duck confit and fried egg, with tomato, roasted green chile (courtesy of Nikki and Bill's annual crosscontinental chile-apple exchange), and lactic corn.

I know.

You're thinking, Bill.  Bill.  Bill.  You're going on about this Bloody Mary, what in the name of the Great Gazoo is lactic corn?

Well, that's perfectly reasonable, because there's a greater than usual chance that I made it up.  You remember what we were talking about with the country ham.  What's the key chemical process in making country ham?  Right.  Lactic fermentation, the harnessing of friendly ambient wildlife in order to create and preserve flavor, which in addition to country ham is responsible for sourdough bread and sauerkraut.

Ah, there you go, you figured it out.

I immersed fresh corn from the cob in saltwater, left it on the counter for a few days until it turned sour, and boom.  Lactic corn -- crisp, tangy, deeeelightful.

As for the drink ... it's certainly better, to my tomato juice disliking palate, than the usual thing.  The ingredients I used in small amounts sort of boost and highlight aspects of tomato flavor, and unsurprisingly corn whiskey is a pretty good match for tomato water.  I don't know if we're there yet, though.


  1. I don't know, Bill. I think a Bloody Mary should be bloody, ie: have the colour red. That said, your interpretation of it does sound tasty. A tomato consomme might be another interesting alternative to regular tomato juice too.

    That plate of food looks amazing. Especially the combo of the duck with a fried egg (with runny yolk I assume)...yum!

    And, no, I can't picture you wearing any flair. haha

  2. Definitely a runny yolk.

    And yeah, this is really a Bloodless Mary. I think the color is probably a requirement if you were going to serve it as a Bloody Mary ... this ends up being a variant.

  3. Also, I'm not trying to defend vodka or anything, it's not my favourite booze, but some vodkas are quite nice (I do like Grey Goose, for example, and Luksusowa which is a Polish vodka distilled from potatoes).

    It's sad to think that the 'deterioration of the cocktail' can partly be blamed on women...I'm not sure if I'd like to agree with that. Maybe it's less of a 'deterioration' with all of its negative connotations, and more of an 'evolution'...?

  4. Deterioration is accurate, though. Cocktails and the ingredients needed to make them were displaced from the marketplace -- not just hard to find, but in many cases no longer produced at all -- as they were replaced by sweetened mixes and so on. It's an evolution of bar culture, sure, but a deterioration of cocktail culture. The fact that for generations marketers have made a lot of money acting on the assumption that women are more likely to buy drinks that are sweet and have few pronounced alcohol flavors isn't the only factor in that, but it's a big one.

    There are some great vodkas, but few great *cocktail* vodkas, and cocktails are what I'm talking about, not just drinking. Vodka is fine as a spirit to drink on its own. As a spirit that is for all intents and purposes flavorless, it's inferior to everything it replaced in cocktails.

  5. You're so creative in the kitchen though that I would have guessed that you'd like it how vodka is such a blank canvas and you can add your own flavours to it. (Vodka infused with fresh rosemary overnight, then mixed with vermouth, a squeeze of lemon, is quite good.)

    Sorry to beat a dead horse. I hate defending vodka because I'm certainly NOT a high-heel-wearing-Cosmopolitan-drinking-Sex-In-The-City type of girl, it's just I find your opinion of vodka and cocktail culture intriguing!

  6. Immersed the corn in salt water ... then left a bowl of water and corn on the counter? Or pulled the corn out of the water and left it on the counter? And what does the salt water do for it that just corn on counter wouldn't get?

  7. Left it in the saltwater on the counter. It's the same process used to make sauerkraut, though sauerkraut is generally left for weeks, not days. You're providing a place for good bacteria (lactobacillus) to grow, in order to "pickle" the corn -- the salt makes a less hospitable environment for bad bacteria that would cause the corn to spoil, as well as drawing out moisture from the corn to keep it crisp.