Cognac: A Warm Beautiful (Cocktail) Memory

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It was a bright summer morning in Victoria. Mom and my aunties were in deep discussions over which beauty salon to go to. My uncle was waiting patiently with cup of coffee in one hand, and car keys in the other. I was sipping my coffee in the balcony, looking out at the marina, and watching planes skim over the water when I got a text from my brothers. They had all decided to go downtown right after an early breakfast. No doubt, I’ll meet up with one or all of them later today, after their afternoon of selfies and shopping.

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Until then, I decided to go exploring on my own. Our condo was just a five-minute walk to the Inner Harbour and Empress Hotel. As I wandered in and out of alleys along Government Street, I briefly checked out a number of trendy bars and cheery pubs, making mental notes of which ones I’ll visit later.

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One shop I popped into sold beautifully cut crystal decanters imported from Ireland. Another had intricately carved chocolates that looked too amazing to eat. Was craving finger sandwiches and dainty desserts at that point, but the crowd for afternoon tea at Murchie’s was ridiculous! While lunching instead at an outdoor cafe on Trounce Alley, I chatted with a sous chef from Montreal on his smoke break. He gave me his card and suggested, with his heavy French accent, that we have dinner at his place some evening. “I cook for you, we have some wine and…”, he let the sentence trail off with a nodding smile and a crook of his brow.

My brother Arthur texted me that he was at a bar in Chinatown. He invited me to join him for a cocktail if I was nearby, before meeting up and dining with family in a couple of hours. Past the fruit stands and tea house, I found an alley that looked almost too narrow for two people to walk through, shoulder to shoulder. I took my time exploring the tiny shops and fragrant varieties of burning incense. It was summer, warm and perfect. And I had no intention of rushing anywhere.

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I found the bar just a block and a half away. Arthur wasn’t seated at the counter, where I expected him to be. I saw through a glass partition that he was sitting at a table, staring at an oil painting hanging directly in front of him.

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I wish I knew the name of the artist who did this painting

He was completely absorbed by that gorgeous painting of what appeared to be a costume party, which took up half the wall. He could barely look away, even as he spoke or took pictures of it with his phone. More interesting to me was the cocktail my brother was sipping. He called it the Warm Beautiful.

The cocktail

The Beautiful is a delicious, potent and citrusy cocktail made of cognac and Grand Marnier orange liqeuer. Arthur preferred it topped with a lemon zest. Having worked part-time as a bartender while in medical school, he knew that cognac’s flavor and aroma deepened when warmed. Cognac lovers would often just cradle the snifter in the palm of their hand, warming the cognac with their body’s heat. My brother wanted something a bit more imaginative.

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The cocktail was served in a snifter. He then asked for a “heater”, a small glass half-filled with hot water. Arthur placed the snifter on top of the water-bearing glass. As my brother waited for the cognac cocktail to reach the proper temperature, he rotated the snifter now and again, still gazing in awe at the absurd yet fascinating painting across from us.

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Age of the cognacs

According to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), there are three official classifications of cognac, depending on how long the cognac has been stored in casks:
VS (very special) – At least two years
VSOP (very superior old pale) – At least four years
XO (extra old) – At least ten years

Other classifications have also been used by producers when the cognac has been stored beyond official age scales, such as Extra and Hors d’age (beyond age), which can be as much as 100 years old.

“Rules” of enjoyment

Cognac connoisseurs have very strong feelings about cognacs being used in cocktails. One forbes.com article mentioned that, whereas it is acceptable to use a young VS or VSOP cognac as part of a cocktail mix, it is considered a tragedy to do so with an exceptional-tasting, wallet-busting XO or older cognac. Those can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars per bottle.

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My brother’s Warm Beautiful cocktail was created using Hennessey VS, and a Courvoisier VSOP could have also been used instead. On the other hand, Remy Martin’s $3,000-a-bottle Louis XVIII, which is very popular in China (along with all the other premium cognacs), is an example of one that should be showcased as a solo act.

All drinking aside (for the moment), younger cognacs should also be used for flambe, marinades, sauces, chocolates and fruit preserves.

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And if you’re in the mood to immerse yourself in all things cognac, the French town this liquid luxury was named after hosts the annual La Fete du Cognac , where you can party for three days with cognac cocktails, crowds, cuisine and concerts.

Cheers!

The Beautiful cocktail recipe

1 oz Hennessey or Courvoisier VS/VSOP cognac
1 oz Grand Marnier orange liqueur

Add both ingredients into a brandy snifter, mix and serve. Optional: Top off with a lemon zest, the way my brother and I like it.

Enjoy!


All photos of Victoria BC, Canada by Alexandria Julaton
Remy Martin shop photo by Weng lei – Imaginechina/AP
Still shot of Cognac Festival, courtesy of La Fete du Cognac YouTube video

Cocktails: How to fail at picking up ladies, and the fabulous flavored cube

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There are so many wrong ways to meet women.

On our way to a cocktail adventure downtown, my gal pal and I added a few more to that list. Here’s one: Pulling up alongside us in a dark-colored sedan with tinted windows. Then slowing lowering your driver-side window to reveal a hand, palm up, and fingers beckoning in a “Bitches, come here.” gesture.
Nope.

Here’s another: Stopping your car at a corner, angry drivers honking behind you, while you’re shouting lame come-ons at us with a huge, naughty grin on your face.
Really big nope!

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Yeah, nope again. But kudos for originality!

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Maybe?
I mean, what woman could resist a suave, fashion-forward icon like Austin Powers, am I right?

After that obstacle course of weirdness, we made it to the bar and grabbed seats in front of the bartender. We like to watch the magic happen.

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The Single Knight cocktail at the Luc Lac bar was a game-changing, Whoa!-inducing twist on the Old Fashioned cocktail that made our tastebuds do a double-take. First, a large cube made of deeply smokey Lapsang Souchong tea was placed in the glass. This was followed with their sigh-inducing blend of bourbon, pho syrup, and angostura orange bitters. But wait, there’s more! The finishing touch was a lemon twist, wrapped around a blowtorched bourbon cherry and cloves! Daaaamn!

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When I order cocktails that arrive with a large, slow-melting cube, I usually leave it alone for a couple of minutes before I take a sip. This is so a little of the ice will melt into the mix and make it less syrupy. One sip of the Single Knight and MIND BLOWN! The smokiness from the melting tea cube adding to the bourbon, further flavored by zest with burnt cherry and cloves – I was caught up in a swirl of amazingness.

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Citrus with burnt fruit and spice was all kinds of nice (especially in a bourbon), but that giant cube made of smokey Lapsang Souchong tea made me realize flavored ice cubes that bring out another flavor dimension in cocktails was a thing!

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Single Knight Cocktail at the Luc Lac bar

I wish I had the recipe for this cocktail. However I do have the ingredients list:

Four Roses single barrel bourbon
Pho syrup
Angostura orange bitters
Lapsang Souchong tea ice cube
Bourbon cherry
Cloves
Lemon zest

 

 

Cocktail Etiquette: Surviving a South Korea Drinking Party

Ladies Chillout Lounge

SojuSouth Korea has really got it going on.

After spending the past four decades integrating with the high-tech industry on a global scale, it succeeded in becoming a major player. Currently the world’s 12th largest economy, it has joined “the trillion dollar club of world economies”, according to Forbes.com.

South Korea’s capital, Seoul, was one of the top 10 most visited cities in 2014. Downtown is a hodge podge of working stiffs, captains of industry, hipsters on their smartphones at cafes (ironically, of course), and some of the wildest, most creative fashion trends in clubs throughout the city.

With the Seoul train just zooming along, who wouldn’t feel like livin’ it up Gangnam-style?

But before you start throwing back shots of soju – the local liquor and focus of this post – there needs to be precautions and proprieties  in place prior to partaking (yes, I did have fun saying this out…

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Gin = Vodka?

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The Bar

It was a late Saturday afternoon when I wandered into a downtown bar I’ve never visited before. It was the kind of classy old-school bar that you’d see in 1930’s movies – secret passage to an exclusive, high-stakes gambling room, and pricey bootleg liquor quickly wheeled in through the basement back door, before the cops bust the joint and pistol-whip everyone in sight.

The kind of bar that celebrates the era when beauty and bliss were conceived in a cocktail shaker, and born in a martini glass.

The Man

I sat at the counter, where I could observe the mixology magic. The bartender was busy shaking up a delicious concoction for some lucky customer. He was a dapper older gentleman in his late 60’s, wearing a white uniform and tie. I looked around to see if Nick Charles was working his way through a line of martinis.

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The cocktail choices were impressive; the slim, black leather-bound menu showcased several pages of classic cocktails, their ingredients, plus the years and places of their origins. The bartender and I briefly played a game of “name that cocktail”, where he’d start to make a customer’s cocktail and I’d try to guess its name. I also noted the selection of high-end liquor behind the bar, including one of my favorites, The Botanist, a lovely gin from Scotland that tastes like a revelation (22 botanicals!). I still get wistful thinking about my first shot.

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After finishing my refreshing Moscow mule, I decided on my next cocktail, a Prohibition-era cocktail and my absolute favorite, called the Last Word. “Ah yes, the Last Word. Another fine cocktail,” he said approvingly. We chatted about the origins of the Last Word, a gin cocktail, and about the Carthusian monks who created the famous green chartreuse liqueur for medicinal purposes.

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I watched him neatly arrange his tools, pick up the mixing glass with one hand, and swivel backwards to grab a bottle off the shelf.

The Gin Versus Vodka Lesson

I suddenly froze and stared bug-eyed at him. My voice just short of a hysterical scream as I said, in what I thought was a calm voice but was probably more of a panicky shout, “UUUHHHMMM..is that VODKA you’re about to put in there??!”

When he turned to look at me, he had an impish grin on his face, “Just kidding! Wanted to see if you were paying attention. Although, gin IS vodka.”

“Wait…what?”

Gin IS Vodka?

I had to look that up. It seemed unlikely, I thought, since vodka tastes like…well, nothing…and gin has such depth and variety of flavors. But, that bartender was right. One forbes.com article mentioned that vodka, a neutral spirit, is made from “nothing more than unflavored alcohol and water”. Gin starts out as a neutral spirit, then the gin distillers add a number of other botanicals to their recipes, in addition to the requisite juniper berries. Basically, making gin is like flavoring vodka, according to a foodrepublic.com article, “The most usual production method for gin is to distill botanicals…with neutral grain alcohol.”

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However, to know if you’re getting a gin flavored with artificial or natural botanicals, read the label.  A foodandwine.com article explains:

“What all of them have in common is juniper—but gin is also flavored with other so-called botanicals, such as cardamom, orange peel, anise and coriander seed. As long as you have juniper, then pretty much anything goes… If it just says ‘gin’ on the label then the flavors can be artificial. You are basically buying flavored vodka. The next step up is ‘distilled gin,’ where the flavor comes from distilling botanicals, but things like essential oils can still be added afterwards.”

Speaking of flavorings, I personally keep several liqueurs  in my home bar just for mixing with gin, including and especially Green Chartreuse (not shown here, but pictured above in its solo glory). Most of my friends are gin lovers also, so we could chat into the wee hours over fabulous cocktails.

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The Gins

I recently read an article entitled 5 Styles of Gin, which narrowed the types of gin into five categories:

London Dry – Very dry, light-bodied and pungent.

Plymouth – Clean and bracing, made only in Plymouth, England.

Old Tom – Sweet, full-bodied.

Genever – Malt-spirit base, less botanical, good for sipping straight and chilled.

International – Expanded range of botanicals, ideal for inventing new cocktails.

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These days, there are hundreds of brands of gin to choose from, made all over the world – Italian gins, Australian gins, German gins, French gins, and so forth. Another one of my favorite gins is from France, Citadelle (not shown above because I had finished the bottle before this pic was taken). Delicately fragranced and perfect for making another one of my favorite classic cocktails, the Vesper.

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Whichever gin you roll with, you can celebrate World Gin Day  and lift a glass with the rest of us gin-lovers every second Saturday in June.

Cheers!


The Vesper Cocktail

Vesper is a cocktail where vodka and gin play nicely to create this classic beauty.

2 oz gin
1 oz vodka
1/2 oz Lillet Blanc
1/4 oz simple syrup (because the Lillet is a little bitter)

Stir with ice, serve neat. garnish with a lemon zest.

 

Dating Tales with Cocktails: The Bad Touch (Lady Finger Cocktail)

Samantha’s Story

I was at an upscale whiskey lounge one evening with my gal pal Samantha (not her real name), celebrating her recent interview at the Starbucks corporate office. Sure it was an interview, not a job offer (yet), but in this brutal job market, you celebrate every victory, even small ones.

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After studying floor-to-ceiling beverage options, flipping through the whiskey bible and consulting with the bartender, we settled on a fine choice: A shot of Dalwhinnie single malt scotch, followed by another. Diageo’s 15-year-old was a definite crowd-pleaser, with its smoothness, aroma and lingering flavors of honey and peach. It’s no wonder it won a gold medal at the 2015 San Francisco Spirits Competition. A perfect scotch to sip through tales of dating drama.

Sam’s relationship with her man had been pretty stormy lately. I asked if she had a Match or Tinder account yet. “Oh my god, dating SUCKS!”, she replied loud enough to raise eyebrows across the bar. “I still remember how awful the guys were before I met Jason (not his real name), which is why I’ve stuck with him. Seriously, I went on a lot of dates. A LOT! And, oh man, the stories I could tell you!”

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Sam moved from Some Itty Bitty Town, Washington to big sparkly Seattle for grad school. She made a few half-hearted attempts at exploring the city, but still felt awkward not knowing where anything was or anyone to show her around. Tom, who went to the same grad school, had seen Sam wandering around downtown alone a couple of times. Eager for a friend and grateful for his attention, Sam accepted Tom’s invitations to cafes, movie houses and bars – anyplace a couple of dirt-poor grad students could have a good time, for not a lot of money. Plus, Tom was not a bad-looking guy.

After another heavy makeout session at his studio apartment, they decided they wanted to take it to the next level. Sam, with her unusual Russian-European beauty, had been with plenty of men. Plenty. She had a healthy sexual appetite, and was up for just about anything.

But not this.

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“Stick your finger in there,” Tom said, lying naked on top of the sheets with his back to Sam.

“You want me to stick my finger in…” Sam felt she couldn’t finish her sentence, even as she tried to not sound like some blushing naive bumpkin.

He had told her it felt so good, in ways he couldn’t even describe. There are so many nerves clustered in that little area that the pleasure centers are overwhelming, he explained. So not wanting to be a silly spoilsport, she continued to play along, moving her finger to the spot he directed her to. For all her impressive experience with men, she had never rubbed anyone’s prostate gland before. Now if she could only just find the damn thing.

Weird, she thought. What WAS that? Something floating…disturbing texture…she started to pull her finger out. Something dark and squishy was on it! Tom suddenly grabbed her hand and shoved her finger back in. Oh my God, she thought, was that feces?? Ew ew ew, her mind screamed even as she rubbed his prostate gland. Since his back was to her, Tom couldn’t see the shock and disgust flitting back and forth on Sam’s face that whole time.

After he had climaxed, Sam told Tom she needed to leave. Something on her research report she realized she had forgotten to add. Sam also decided she needed to get out more and make other friends, since she had no intention of hanging out with Tom ever again.


The Lady Finger Cocktail
(courtesy of absolutdrinks.com)

1 part gin
1 part cherry brandy

Combine, shake with ice, serve neat.

 

 

 

Mezcal: The Rockstar Agave

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I was at a Mexican bar one evening. Late enough, and in a neighborhood cool enough, that Uber smacked me with surge pricing. Ugh.

Anyway, it was the kind of warm, late spring night that made it seem all kinds of wrong to stay home. I hooked up with several of my friends who suggested we go to a mezcaleria. I’ve never been to one and didn’t know what that was, but they lured me with sweet promises of an outdoor patio, tiki bar and fire pit. They did not disappoint! And even better, it was “international beats” night, so live deejays played Eurolounge, deep house, electronica, etc. – the good stuff!

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One of my girlfriends turned to me. “You ever had mezcal?”
No, I said. What IS that?
It’s like tequila, she said. But more…interesting. Better.

And she was right. On her recommendation, I first tried the house special margarita – margarita made with mezcal – since I was told it was quite delicious. Plus, she said it was a good “gateway” cocktail to prepare my palate for direct contact with the strong stuff. That was probably the best margarita I’ve ever had, made by someone other than myself (I won’t even pretend to be humble. My margaritas as amazing!).

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It intruiged me. I had to get to know this magical mezcal thing, one-on-one. Savor it more closely, intimately. I ordered a shot of one of their mezcals, asked the bartender to recommend one for me. The patio bar was wall-to-wall hipsters, gyrating, posing, being witty…is that “medicinal” herb I smell? But I was far from being distracted.

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I sipped the mezcal, held it in my mouth and throat, inhaled and exhaled slowly, the way I do when trying a new whiskey. Then swallowed. It was dark, smokey and there was something else. Tobacco? Leather? It was just that complex and yet utterly fascinating. Mezcal, like tequila, is made from the agave plant. But while tequila can only be made from the the blue agave, mezcal can be made from different agave varieties, which accounts for its array of flavors.

Preparation is another way mezcal distinguishes itself from tequila. To make tequila, the agave heart is baked and steamed prior to its juice being extracted. With mezcal, the agave heart is instead roasted underground with wood charcoal and hot rocks prior to juice extraction, resulting in its smokey taste.

If you love tequilas, you have to try mezcals. Just look out for the worm when you get to the bottom of the bottle.

Cheers!

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The Mezcal Margarita
(From bloomberg.com article “The Perfect Margarita Is Made With Mezcal”)

Salt (Recommended: A half-kosher, half-wood-smoked salt blend from Mountain Rose Herbs)
1½ oz. Del Maguey Vida mezcal
¾ oz. green Chartreuse
¾ oz. lime juice
½ oz. agave nectar

Lightly moisten the rim of a glass with a lime wedge, then roll it in salt. Combine remaining ingredients with ice in a shaker, give it a couple of hard shakes, then pour into the glass and top off with fresh ice. Garnish with a lime wedge and a sprig of mint.

 

Life as a Cocktail: Trying Something New

 

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I had a rough week – the kind of rough week that made me want to re-think several of my life and career choices.  After surviving yet another one, I was trying to put it out of my mind and get to a happy place, as I sipped my vodka lemon drop. My thoughts started drifting off randomly to paths taken, and experiences that shaped decisions made along the way as I felt, figured and clawed my way through this existence. All while trying not to feel completely overwhelmed. Or fall flat on my face.

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I meditated and thought back to choices others I knew have made, and the happiness and fulfillment those decisions brought (or didn’t). It was easy to conclude that making those same choices, walking that same path, would result in the same for anyone else. Treading well-worn paths. But if our lives become all about playing it safe, how can we know there is another path, or level of happiness, that could be more rewarding? One more unexpected, surprising, even exhilarating, and perhaps more fulfilling? We really can’t know until we…pivot.

A great idea or quest for some form of happiness had to start somewhere, and it might have been an amazing journey along the way.

A cocktail analogy.

Pivot. Twist. Zag. Change IS scary, with no guarantees of success. Then again, it doesn’t guarantee failure, either. Think about THAT for a moment!

A well-made cocktail is a thing of beauty and wonder. The balance of ingredients, one in step with another, and that with another, and so on, creating the mesmerizing dance of flavors. But is it a perfect cocktail? That depends.

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On YOU, and if you want to stick with one recipe and be perfectly happy to never deviate from it, or decide that tweaking it a wee bit would make it different, and possibly better. Perhaps the art of the cocktail can be more interpretive dance, than classical ballet – creating your own new combination of moves, instead of following someone else’s footsteps.

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The well-worn paths, the classic cocktails, have withstood the tests of time, but they haven’t always existed. Someone started with a gin, aged and smoothed to perfection, added – just for giggles – a liqueur of 130+ herbs and botanicals whose recipe has been guarded by monks in Europe for centuries, then sweetened it with the fermented juice of a thousand cherries. A few more ingredients and experiments later, one of the most famous cocktails (and one of my personal favorites) was created.

But anyway, back to the story.

One evening at home, I decided upon a vodka lemon drop. Nothing like a sweet, citrusy kiss to smooth out my ragged soul after a long week. A few minutes relaxing in my lounge chair with a cocktail, and the world was slowly obscured by a veil of bliss. I wandered over to the refrigerator to choose ingredients for tonight’s dinner. Deciding on stir-fried veggies, I reached for the fresh ginger and noticed the stalks of lemongrass beside it.

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PIvot.

Hey…what if…?

I pulled out another martini glass and poured in a couple of ounces of vodka.

I sliced off a thick piece of ginger, pounded it with a mallet, and let it sit in the vodka while I finished my cocktail. Later, I put some ice in a mixing glass, and added the piece of ginger I had used to infuse the vodka.

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Zag (Ladies and gentlemen, now for my NEXT trick…).

I chopped some of the lemongrass and dropped it into the mixing glass. After muddling and pounding the lemongrass and ginger on the ice, I added a quarter ounce of triple sec, and a quarter ounce of simple syrup, then the infused vodka.

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I poured in a wee bit more vodka (wink), shook the whole thing for a few seconds, then strained the exciting concoction into my martini glass.

MMMMM!! Ginger lemongrass martini – a delicious vodka martini with a couple of exotic twists. If the ginger is too strong, add less next time. If you like it sweeter, add more triple sec and simple syrup. The idea is to adjust it to your taste. As with life, the cocktail is all about you and your happiness, after all.

Also with cocktails, as with life, you can start over and try again – fix something, make it even better, or try something new. Who knows what brilliant schemes and cocktails you’ll dream up next!