Sake + Spirits
Bear Trap

Our Editor has named "death" as the theme for the remainder of October here on Umamimart, and it's quite fitting because for most readers death is an apt description of the state of the Happy Hour column. As some of you know I haven't written in over a month, having started a sabbatical to begin preparing for the B.A.R. course and exam, which is one of the most intensive spirits and mixology education programs that exists and offered only once a year at the end of September.

Over the course of the month of September I put practically everything--Happy Hour, bills, marriage, social life--on hold to study and prepare. You could see all my student loan lenders by simply glancing at the list of missed calls on my cell phone. And even though the course and exam concluded several weeks ago, I needed some more time to tend to all the things that were swept under the rug.

Thankfully the Happy Hour column is not dead, largely due to the effort of friend and fellow booze blogger Fredo Ceraso of Loungerati, who swooped in at my request to administer the necessary CPR that kept Happy Hour alive. If you haven't read his two Happy Hour posts yet, you really ought to, as he provides wonderful cocktails for the Autumn season. Needless to say you should bookmark his blog if you're a fan of great style and great cocktails.

Now that I'm back I figured I'd share a bit about my experience at the B.A.R., and afterwards share a recipe for an original cocktail I recently created while away.

Having taken and passed both the New York (two days, six hours each day) and California (three days, six hours each day) Bar Exams, I can confidently assert that I'm not easily phased by the rigors of academic examinations. That said, the B.A.R. exam administered on the final day of a week-long intensive course was not like any examination I had taken before; neither the Bar Exams, nor the LSAT or SAT compare.

The primary difference is that unlike previous academic tests, this one wasn't purely academic.  In fact, the academic portion was the easiest section of the exam. The remaining sections (five total, and you must pass each section to pass the entire test) tested an array of skills from the ability to mix classic cocktails with speed, dexterity, and congeniality (yes the ability to converse matters in real bartending) to the ability to tell the difference between different classic cocktails or different spirits in blind tastings. And by "taste the difference" I mean not only be able to discern one spirit type from another (e.g. Bourbon from Rye whiskey), but also be able to say something about the relative proof, age, and other critical elements of each spirit. Not easy.

It's not enough to memorize different taste and aroma characteristics of various spirits, as one must also be able to detect them physically on the palate. In this way it is the interaction between the cognitive (knowledge) and neural (sensory) functions that made this exam a different animal altogether, and those best able to negotiate that intersection were the most likely to pass.

How did I do? The truth is I don't know yet--none of us do, and we probably won't find out for another few weeks. In that agonizing regard, it is very similar to the Bar Exams.

Regardless of my performance on the exam, I can confidently say I exited the course with an exponentially higher level of knowledge than when I entered. That's because the entire week was a grueling affair, with each day's class beginning at 9am and concluding at around 9pm. Over the course of each 12 hour day we learned everything there is to learn about the history of alcohol distillation, the history and evolution of the cocktail, and the rules and regulations governing the production of all the major spirits categories which exist today. Peppered throughout these lessons were multiple sessions of spirits tastings, often beginning first thing in the morning, so that by week's end we easily tasted over 100 different spirits (I lost count by day 2). Tough, but delicious, as I got the chance to taste many rare and expensive spirits that probably cost more than my life. The toughest part was spitting them back out (on Cognac day I learned a valuable lesson on the importance of spitting, having gotten nearly wasted before lunch).

The greatest lesson from this whole experience was coming to realize how little I knew, affirming more than ever that famous phrase, "the more you learn, the less you know."

But enough dribbling on about academic stuff, it's time for a cocktail. This week's recipe is for a cocktail I call the Bear Trap, made with gin, mezcal, honey liqueur, and a couple other good measure modifiers.

Bear Trap
1 1/2 oz gin (I used G'vine Nouaison)
1/2 oz honey liqueur (Barenjager works)
1/2 oz mezcal (Mezcal Vida is a great, well-priced choice)
1/4 oz Pelinkovac (used Maraska brand)
1/4 oz Vermouth Perrucchi Blanco
2 dashes Bitter Truth Xocolatl Mole Bitters
Lemon twist

Tools: mixing glass, bar spoon, julep strainer
Glass: chilled coupe or cocktail glass

Pour all ingredients in a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir until very well chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and twist the lemon peel over the drink to release its oils then place in drink as garnish.

You can use any brand of gin you like in this cocktail, but I much prefer the G'vine Nouaison here if you can get your hands on it. What distinguishes this gin is that whereas gin is usually a grain-based distillate (distilled from beer), this is a grape-based distillate (distilled from wine, like Pisco) flavored with the botanicals commonly found in gin. Specifically it's distilled from the Ugni Blanc grape so it's actually closer in relation to Cognac prior to being placed in barrels for aging; and the specific botanical notes in the gin are of green grape flower, nutmeg, coriander, ginger root, liquorice, cassia, dried lime, and of course, juniper berries. It's less juniper-defined than the traditional London Dry category of gin, and has floral and very strong coriander top notes that work well in this cocktail.

This cocktail utilizes a few ingredients that might seem obscure to some of you, so let me try my best to offer alternatives for those who can't find some or all of the products in this recipe. If you can't locate Barenjager liqueur try substituting Drambuie instead, which is more commonly available. Mezcal is much more easy to acquire and any smoky mezcal will do the job here, although I particularly like Vida from Del Maguey for its flavor profile, quality, and relatively low price point. If you can't find a Pelinkovac simply substitute another digestif amaro like Del Capo, Ramazzotti, Cynar, or even Jagermeister (yes, the much maligned Jagermeister is an amaro). As for the Vermouth Perucchi Blanco, if you can't find it substitute Lillet Blanc, Cocchi Americano, or even a Pineau des Charentes; they're not perfect substitutions but they'll allow you to end up with a generally balanced cocktail that's a rough approximation of the one above. Lastly, if you can't find the Xocolatl Mole Bitters then just make the drink without it, as there's really no adequate substitute. Again it won't be the same but it won't be the end of the world either.

It's great to be back!

*Got a cocktail question? Hit me on twitter @paystyle, email me at payman(at)lifesacocktail(dot)com, or simply drop me a comment below.
Column: Happy Hour
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1 comment

  • Welcome back, Pay. We’re all so proud of you for going through the BAR exam. Although I must say you’re quite the test-taking masochist. Ha. I stopped after the SATs. Call me an underachiever.

    Never leave us again like that. NEVER.

    I brought back lots of Mezcal from my trip to Oaxaca. Gotta try this cocktail.

    And yes, big ups to Fredo of Loungerati for filling in! We hope you drop in again soon!

    kayoko on

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