Monday, December 5, 2016

Two Guys and a Drink: Once Upon a Cape

In "Two Guys and a Drink", Dave and John focus on a single drink and experiment with multiple recipes and ingredients as they search for their own "perfect" recipe. Of course, the "perfect" recipe is purely subjective; as with life, the cocktail is a journey, not a destination, and you should find your own. For this post, they are taking on a travel-inspired original: Once Upon a Cape

Check, check... is this thing on? What do you know, it is. 
So, you may have noticed we've been MIA on the blog for a while. But that doesn't mean we haven't been documenting our drinking endeavors. Keep an eye out for our more regular online activities on Facebook here and Instagram here and here.

Enjoying the view... or contemplating
ratios for a new A&T Original?
It's rare the two halves of A&T are in the same time zone, let alone in the same room long enough to share a drink together in person. For a few blissful weeks in October, though, David and John managed to squeeze in a much needed reunion in beautiful South Africa. From Faerie Glen to Maboneng, Hout Bay to Franschhoek, Pilanesberg to... some very off-the-beaten-path destination in Limpopo, the A&T crew rode again. And wouldn't you know, they came up with a drink to commemorate the whole thing. 

First photographic evidence
of the Once Upon a Cape.
The details are a little fuzzy. Best as they can recall, the drink that came to be known as Once Upon a Cape was born in the Bo-Kaap neighborhood of Cape Town. After a full day of touring, which included a harrowing - and ultimately futile - whale watching tour in Walker Bay and a coastal drive along False Bay, David and John found themselves back at the rental house, face to face with a bottle of New Harbour Spekboom Gin, a smattering of assorted spirits and other mixers, and a bit of time on their hands. The horror.

Proudly South African...with
a touch of Swiss, because why not!
For whatever reason - divine intervention, inspired taste, dumb luck... who's to say, really - the combination of ingredients actually came together quite quickly: New Harbour gin, lemon juice, Caperitif, Suze Fruits Rouges, and honey syrup. Initial experiments were positive but found lacking, the whole somehow less than the sum of its parts.  True to form, the addition of bitters (Angostura, initially) helped bring balance to the whole endeavor. From there, repeated - some might say excessive - experimentation led to the discovery of subtleties theretofore overlooked.

John's bar. Shelves courtesty
of friend of the blog, Pablo.
Eventually David and John found their way back to Pretoria and the friendly confines of John's home bar, and all the amenities it has to offer. Further tinkering led to the final recipe found here with the drink more or less in tact from its Cape Town origins, save for the replacement of Angostura with Bittermens' 'Elemakule Tiki bitters. From there attention turned to christening the damn thing, which turned out to be a far more animated affair then creating the drink in the first place. Eventually, after much back and forth, David's eminently better half, Sharon, chimed in with Once Upon a Cape and the matter was put to rest. And there was much rejoicing.

This is supposed to be a cocktail blog, not a travelogue, right? How about some thoughts on the actual drink.

There is a lot going on here, and it starts with the gin. New Harbour has a more traditional, London Dry taste than some of its brethren in the growing South African gin market. The juniper and pine notes really shine through, along with a touch of citrus. It manages to hold its own, which is saying something given the potent flavors each of the ingredients bring to the table... err, glass.

The Caperitif, a recently revived South African quinquina, and Souze add to the complexity of the drink, contributing bitter, herbal, and earthy tones. The lemon juice and honey ground the drink, bringing needed citrus and sweetening components while adding a bit of texture, as well. I tried substituting simple syrup from fine granulated sugar for the honey syrup, and it just didn't work.

All this talk about liquid goodness has me parched. I'm off to make a drink. David?

We've come up with a couple of drinks thus far, but this is the one that I think shows the most promise. It's worth going slightly heavy on the gin in order to make sure it shines through the rest of the ingredients, which are all strong enough that they can overpower it otherwise. Slightly, though--otherwise the gin itself will do the overpowering. The quarter-ounce seems to hit that balance. I wasn't able to refill my South African gin stocks on the way home--due entirely to the fact that every spare bit of space in my baggage had a wine bottle in it. This isn't as heartbreaking as it might otherwise be because it's some seriously good wine... but I digress. That'll have to go into a different blog. In the meantime, you'll have to take John and me at our word, that South Africa has a seriously good distilling scene, and they're making some amazing gin down there.

If you can't find that--and if you're not in South Africa, I'm (very) sad to say you probably can't--you can take heart from the knowledge that there's a ton of good gin being made all over the place these days. Far from limited to the bog-standard London Dry, there are plenty of options, and I like more of a new-world style for this drink. Three distillers in Washington DC alone are making great stuff. 

I didn't have any of that either--obviously I need to go shopping again--but I did have some very nice Cold River gin from Maine. Not a standout favorite, but it's a very solid performer with strong juniper in the foreground, and a nice grassy softness right behind that. It did the job well. 

For the honey syrup I used a very dark, strong buckwheat honey from Pennsylvania. That's much stronger than what we used in South Africa, but I'd definitely go with something local regardless. Interestingly as much tweaking as we did with the recipe, the type of honey you use really will make a difference as well--this one, almost molasses-colored and strongly earthy, gives a different flavor and a different color to the drink. It's worth playing around with, as "honey-flavored" is actually a very wide spectrum. Play with the concentration as well--I used about equal parts honey to water given how powerful this particular stuff is, but with lighter-flavored honeys you might want to bump the concentration up a bit.  

I used my own bitters for this... but the Bittermens Tiki is a really good pick. 

All in all... refreshing and sharp, but with a complexity that balances it out really nicely. Gin and lemon can easily become overpowering, combining into something better suited to poolside rather than speakeasy, which is how I usually understand "refreshing" when I see it in print; but the strength and complexity of the rest of the ingredients keeps that at bay. 

The Recipe:

2.25 ounces - gin (recommend New Harbour)
0.5 ounces - Suze Fruits Rouges
0.5 ounces - Caperitif
0.5 ounces - Lemon Juice
0.5 ounces - Honey Syrup 
1-2 dashes - Bittermens' 'Elemakule Tiki bitters

Combine all of the ingredients and shake with ice. Strain through a fine mesh strainer into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist. 
David and Zebra agree: this drink will knock your stripes off!

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