Cocktailing for the non-sugar-addled

30 Dec

There’s a lot of alcohol being consumed out there under the paleo banner. Not beer, of course, but there’s cider, which is close enough. And plenty of red wine (which apparently you don’t need a wine cellar to drink). And rumor has it that liquor is still OK, too — well, if we leave questions about wheat and distillation to the side. But let’s face it: even if you’re a paleo/ancestral/human eater, you’re probably still an alcohol drinker. Maybe not all the time, maybe just some of the time, but, either way, you do it. (By the way, I’m not judging you; I am currently inebriated.)

But I’ve left something out: what about cocktails? What is the world of cocktails like for the evolutionarily savvy drinker? Is it all just miniature umbrellas, and slushy piles of sugar, and bloody mary mix with questionable ingredients? A respectable quantity of nastiness to guarantee a little extra edge for your hangover? It can be that way, but it can be better. We know that already. There’s a fellow out there by the name of Robb Wolf who popularized a little something called the “NorCal Margarita,” and now paleo/ancestral/human eaters all over the world are downing glasses of tequila mixed with seltzer and lime before dinner. There’s nothing wrong with this phenomenon, of course, because the drink is delicious. It can even be modified to suit your tastes if you happen not to like tequila: just take that citrus and seltzer and mix it with some other clear liquor. It won’t be as good, Robb Wolf informs us, but hey, we all make sacrifices sometimes.

Can that be the extent of it for paleo cocktailing though? Do we risk certain revulsion if we step outside the charmed circle of the NorCal Margarita? I’m here to tell you that the answer is a happy no. With a little extra work on your home bar, or a little extra irritation/flirtation on your local bartender, you can experience the joys of a well-made cocktail while consuming a minimum of the nasty neolithic garbage.

You know you want this.

• • •

The central challenge for a non-fructose-junkie cocktail drinker will be finding a way to “cut” the alcohol without sugar. Now I say “cut” as if alcohol is something that tastes bad. It certainly can. Sometimes all you have is a plastic bottle of Popov in the freezer, and you feel like a drink, but you don’t want to insult your tongue with something that tastes like crap. But crappy alcohol will in general yield crappy cocktails, so I won’t bother with that here. When I say “cut,” then, what I really mean is just “mix.” Good alcohol tastes good by itself, yes, but it can taste even better mixed. It’s more than just a matter of taste, even, because the effects of the consumption of alcohol will differ depending on how it is presented. Much as a pile of potatoes with butter in it will have a different effect on your blood glucose than a pile of potatoes without butter (please don’t argue with me), a shot of gin in a cocktail will have a different effect than a shot of gin by itself. There is a feeling of well-being that comes from a well-made cocktail that is more than just an appreciation of its flavor. Something chemical is going on. I do think that a lot of it is about blunting the nasty effects that alcohol can have on blood glucose, but beyond that I’ll leave it to others to speculate about this.

And one more disclaimer: I’m not a professional mixologist, just a mixolo-hobbyist. So if you are a professional mixologist some of what I say might sound a little “off” to you (though I daresay not wildly incorrect) and you might have a lot to add. By all means, pile on. What you’ll get from me is not the final word (though I can give you the Final Ward (3/4 oz rye, 3/4 oz green Chartreuse, 3/4 oz lemon juice, 3/4 oz Luxardo maraschino liqueur)). What you’ll get from me is the encapsulated experience of just one ancestral cocktailian. A man, by the way, whose gut flora and improved body composition might be more similar to yours than to that of the average SAD eater, but who might differ from you in any number of other ways. Now that I’ve said what is on both of our minds, I can get to my categorization.

The first mixing strategy I’ll call the sour. This is headed in the same direction as Robb’s NorCal Margarita: it’s all about adding citrus. But instead of seltzer as the third ingredient you have something sweet. So the basic formula is: base alcohol + something sweet + citrus. A classic example of a sour, of course, would be a margarita — a margarita margarita, not a NorCal margarita. Tequila + triple sec (or cointreau) + lime juice. If you order this in a bar you’ll probably get some sugar or simple syrup thrown in there also (simple syrup is water with sugar dissolved in it). Of course, the sugar might be the least of your worries if there’s some kind of kooky margarita mix being used instead of fresh-squeezed lime juice, but that’s another problem for another day.

ASIDE: Wikipedia is a good place to look for the “official” IBA recipes. Check out the margarita, for example. There is, mercifully, no sugar in the official recipe. You can also check out the list of official cocktails on the IBA (International Bartenders Association) webpage.

Now it might look like I am hopelessly disorganized because I said I was going to talk about how to avoid sugar, and here I am adding something sweet. But there was a point to this: the idea is to tinker with the standard sour recipes in order to create something that better suits your paleo-ized palate. Take a Sidecar, for example, another standard sour. Cognac + cointreau + lemon juice. Normally you would see a fair amount of cointreau in this drink, maybe a ratio of 2:1:1, brandy to cointreau to lemon juice. But if you let yourself mess with the proportions you can find something much better for you. When I was making these all the time I settled on a ratio of about 6:2:3 or 8:2:3 — a fair amount of lemon juice and booze, much less cointreau.

The cocktail that is best made for you will strike a balance between all its elements. In the case of a sour, you’re balancing booziness, sweetness, and acidity. But no matter what the elements are, you will go through a process: as you experiment, one element will come out too much, another not enough; you try it again and something is still off; then again; and then, finally — boom, it snaps into place. You don’t taste elements x, y, and z. You taste something that is all of x, y, and z; and yet is also neither x, nor y, nor z. It is greater than the sum of its parts. (Yes, I am aware that I’m going a little overboard. Let’s move on.)

All Hail the Queen

The second strategy is using more bitter liqueurs. Now by this I don’t mean bitters, as in aromatic bitters like Angostura, although I will get to those. I mean bitter liqueurs, things you might sip. Amari, basically, if that makes sense to you. So things like Campari, Aperol, Averna, Ramazzotti, and Fernet Branca (the queen among bitter liqueurs). Campari is an oldie and a goodie. I am shocked again and again that there are people who find Campari too bitter to drink; I find it, if anything, a little too sweet. There’s that “savory palate” of mine again. I like to put a splash (bigger than a dash?) of Campari into champagne on the rocks — add some bitter to some dry. Or mix Campari with seltzer and Meyer lemon (superior to normal lemon, for complex reasons: namely, complexity; see my blog post on the “double contrast”). But the choicest use for Campari is of course as one element of … the Negroni. The basic formula for this one is gin + Campari + sweet vermouth. The classic ratio is 1:1:1 — equal parts of everything. But as with all other cocktails, a lot of benefit is to be had by messing with those proportions. These days I like going with 6:5:4, gin:Campari:vermouth. This ratio respects the fact that the base liquor, gin, is indeed the base liquor. And it keeps the Campari higher than the sweet vermouth, which — you guessed it — is sweet. (I never said this blog post wasn’t going to be monomaniacal. Death to fructose! And again, no arguing allowed.)

ASIDE: A few notes on the Negroni. Don’t forget that vermouth is made of grapes, and will go bad in your liquor cabinet. I only just learned this recently, but, alas, I think it is true, and our parents were wrong. Vermouth should keep for about two weeks in the refrigerator. Also, don’t forget the twist of orange at the end (you can use lemon if in dire straits, or if listening to Dire Straits). You might think a twist of citrus is unnecessarily precious, but it’s not. When that whiff of essential oil hits your nose you’re going to flip out, trust me. Just take a knife to the orange peel, get a nice business-card-sized chunk (go big!) and then twist it over the drink. You’ll see the oils spread over the surface of the alcohol. After that you can drop the rind in there.

And so I don’t forget. Mixing and so on. I shake everything, unapologetically. Even — especially? — Manhattans and Martinis. Only fructose stirs its Manhattans. You don’t want to be fructose, do you? So throw some ice in that shaker, shake your Negroni components, then strain out the alcohol into a nice rocks glass, preferably with some big ice cubes in it. (The Sidecar, by the way, is also a shake-and-strain. Serve it in a martini glass. No garnish.) (And the most erudite among bartenders usually stir their Manhattans, so you know — I was just being difficult.)

Well I needed another picture. If you're ever in Chicago, they make a great Negroni at Bar DeVille (I don't work there and never have). Ask for Punt e Mes as your vermouth.

You can take the basic Negroni recipe and play around with it, which is a game bartenders play all the time. There’s a drink called the Trident — you will be greeted by blank stares if you order this anywhere but a fancy mixology bar — whose recipe is arrived at by subbing out each of the three Negroni ingredients for something similar to it. (Here‘s the source for this one, by the way.) You swap out the gin for aquavit; swap out the Campari for Cynar (an artichoke-themed bitter liqueur); and swap out the sweet vermouth for a dry sherry. And then (why?) you add peach bitters. The result is a terrific, and terrificly dry, cocktail. Similar things can happen when you mess around with the basic Negroni formula in other ways.

Alright, there are a whole lot of other ways to paleo-ize in the land of cocktails. One that I am trying to learn more about is making flips — drinks with egg yolk (or an entire egg). Egg white has been a common ingredient in cocktails for a while, but egg yolk is just so deliciously ancestral that I have set it as a goal for myself to become a master of the yolk-based cocktail. What does our deep-orange, yolky future hold for us? I’m dying to know. One thing I do know is that if I can eat while drinking that’s a step in the right direction. (I’ve also seen people adding bacon, and bone marrow, to cocktails. This might go too far.)

But because I am a mere novice in the world of egg yolks, I’ll close with something else. My third strategy for you will be the use of bitters. And this time I do mean bitters. The most famous are Angostura and Peychaud’s, but you see “craft” bitters popping up all over the place these days. Normally bitters are something you add to a drink for a finishing touch: a Manhattan, for example. Bitters are to cocktails what salt is to food; something that brings out all the other flavors and binds them together. But someone not too long ago had the great idea of resurrecting an idea from a little longer ago and made the bitters not just an addition to the drink, but the basis of the drink itself. The idea is admittedly wacky. If you have ever poured a few dashes of Angostura bitters into a glass and drunk it straight you would be justified in being a little upset right now. Who would want to drink a cocktail made out of Angostura bitters? But I assure you this one — the Trinidad Sour — is one of the best cocktails I have ever tasted.

A batch of my own orgeat; such a nice color

Bitters are bitter. So just as we need to “cut” alcohol in a normal cocktail we need to “cut” Angostura bitters in the Trinidad. The primary agent is orgeat. Essentially an almond syrup, this classic from the pre-1900 world of punches and the 1950’s world of Tiki manages to pair perfectly with the red-bark flavor of Angostura bitters. Look for a recipe online and use it as your guide: you will be soaking almonds, you will be adding about 1/4 to 1/3 of the sugar the recipe tells you to add (for real), and you will be indulging in a smidgeon of bitter almond extract. Normally orgeat takes rose water and orange flower water as well, but I actually think these are distractions in the Trinidad Sour. Whatever you do, though, make your orgeat yourself. It will be worth your while, partly because it is a key ingredient in a killer cocktail, but also because almonds, as we all know, are totally paleo, and you can just guzzle orgeat all day long and remain orthodox paleo.

Will be nice and frothy on top

The other ingredients in the Trinidad Sour are lemon juice and a high-proof rye, usually Rittenhouse 100. The proportions are these (I stray only slightly from them): 1 oz Angostura + 1 oz orgeat + 3/4 oz lemon juice + 1/2 oz rye. Throw all this in the shaker with ice, shake it up, and strain it into a coupe. No garnish. (The garnish would be a distraction, and the fresh lemon juice will make the drink taste fresh. Credit goes to Giuseppe Gonzalez, by the way.) Make this cocktail and people will tell you it’s the best thing they’ve ever tasted. That has its downsides, of course: I normally drink the Trinidad Sour in about 90 seconds. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

• • •

Thus was it blogged. There are plenty of books out there on cocktails, and some of them are quite good. My very limited goal was to offer you a few things that are friendly to my palate — under the hopeful assumption that your palate will be similar to mine. (Remember? We are buddies because of our gut flora? No?) So bring a little citrus into your life, bring on the bitter liqueurs, bring on the cocktail bitters. Their power is fast, furious, bold, and strong.

The new year calls you. Get those glutathione-supporting nutrients and that quercetin. Buy yourself a bottle of Campari and a shaker. Then enjoy the lovely time.

Wishing you and yours the best for the upcoming year,

WCC Paul.

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12 Responses to “Cocktailing for the non-sugar-addled”

  1. Padma Lakshmi December 31, 2011 at 1:25 am #

    Wide-ranging and helpful article.

    • Nicole January 2, 2012 at 1:50 pm #

      I haven’t tried the Trinidad Sour but I will definitely hit that one soon. I will also try the Sidecar at 4:1:1, which I think would work for me.

      Speaking of flips: egg, Cynar and you’re done. You can use a little of something orange if you like (Ang. orange bitters, Cointreau, Aperol…I adore Aperol).

      Infusing booze is another way to add a lot of flavor: jasmine green tea infused rum, Rye with chai or Teavana’s Zingiber tea. I’ve also had duck fat infused Grand Marnier and bacon infused bourbon but none of the fats really seem to add much for me.

      • Paul January 9, 2012 at 3:24 am #

        Thanks, Nicole! Just seeing this comment now. I am definitely going to try Cynar as a liquor to go with the egg. And I have all these new bottles with neat old-fashioned stoppers. Time to infuse something, I think.

  2. Chris B January 11, 2012 at 1:56 pm #

    REALLY glad to find someone else who appreciates a good bitters. I have a great mixology bar here in town and so I have copied down the Trinidad Sour recipe to try the next time I am in there. I would also bet that we can come up with an interesting rum variation (since I am really a rum girl at heart) and I will come back and share it if we do.

    They have a blood orange liqueur that might work …

    • Paul April 14, 2012 at 8:15 pm #

      That sounds great, Chris, I’d love to hear about it. (Pardon me for the three-month-late reply.)

  3. Mama_Z April 13, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

    Oh wow. I think I found my new home. Classic cocktails and (paleo) nutrition? LOVE
    By the by, I am a bitters girl at heart. Just finished my first drink (a negroni, my fav) in 30 days after completing the Whole30. Do you know there’s a bar in SF that has NEGRONIS ON TAP?!

    • Paul April 14, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

      Thanks Mama_Z, glad you like our communal blog. About your Negronis on tap: that kind of reminds me of barrel-aging (maybe the tap is drawing from a barrel? Does that happen?). Negronis barrel-age quite well, there’s a place in Madison, WI called Sardine that does this and they’re delicious — and expensive, because they know they’ve got you hooked! Think I’ll have to figure out how to do this myself.

  4. Mama_Z April 13, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

    Ooopsy. Need to add that a nice little addition to a Negroni is Regan’s No. 6. Many, many dashes.

  5. Daniel Livingston May 30, 2012 at 12:10 am #

    Came across this article while looking for low sugar alternatives for classic cocktails and mixers. My current weaknesses are the Negroni and Boulevardier (sub bourbon for gin in the Negroni recipe). I’m not paleo, just low carb (critically sugar of course) and I do play with ratios. The aforementioned cocktails I typically mix 2:1:1. But reducing vermouth and keeping the Campari? Campari runs about 8g sugar per oz., sweet vermouth half that at 4g. Campari is the crux of those cocktails so one can’t reduce it too much, but if you’re looking to drop sugar that’s where we need to look. I’ve had mediocre success halving the Campari to 0.5oz or even just a splash and adding a few dashes orange bitters instead. You need to compensate sweetness with more vermouth, but that gives it too much vermouth flavor. I’m ok with some artificial sweeteners to enhance, but I guess that’s not paleo-okay.

    What I need to find out is how to make my own low sugar or artificially sweetened vermouthy wine and sweet Campari-ish orange bitters. Sugar is sugar, there is nothing holy about it. With the right recipe one should be able to replicate all the sugary liqueurs with sugar-free variants. I’m on the hunt…

    • Paul June 1, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

      Great comment, thank you Daniel. I never really looked up the numbers on the sugar in the Campari and the vermouth. I suppose I should have, but I guess I was thinking two things: one, I was operating by “feel,” by taste I mean, and somehow the sweetness of the Campari becomes less bothersome to me when it is mixed with gin; two, I keep sugar pretty low in general, so if I’m getting 12g of it in my Negroni then I’m not all that worried — but I know this doesn’t necessarily apply to other people, of course.

      If they just made Campari with less sugar that would be awesome of course, but they don’t. That’s a good call about trying to mix in some orange bitters.

      Ultimately one has to go homemade, I guess. There are some phenomenal bars in New York that have stuff like this. Amor y Amargo on 6th Street in Manhattan has been knocking my socks off in the last few months. They make their own cocktail bitters, and also their own vermouths.

      How much of the sugar content of the vermouth comes from the grapes, I mean, the fact that it is wine? The potable bitters (i.e., the Campari) might be the better thing to try to manipulate.

      I’ve found some other Italian Amari that are very dry. E.g., Santa Maria al Monte, which is pretty amazing. You kind of have to look around and try a bunch of them. Of course you couldn’t mix Santa Maria al Monte into a Negroni.

      But yes, I’m afraid my destiny will take me towards home production. If you want something done right, do it yourself …. or go to a one-of-a-kind bar in New York.

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