There’s a Blue Gin in Town: The Empress 1908

The Empress 1908 gin‘s growing popularity has it pouring into cocktails far beyond the Empress Hotel in Victoria BC it was named after. And, of course, it even has its own storefront at the Victoria International Airport.

Last week, I saw it listed at a fancy bistro and at a smoked meats restaurant in the Pacific Northwest.

What makes a micro-distilled, small-batch gin stand out from crowded liquor shelves? Here’s a hint: How do you make your cocktail the color of an evening sky, sapphires, or the Caribbean Ocean, without adding Curacao or artificial color? Easy. This new gin from Canada is BLUE (dabba dee dabba dah). Right out of the bottle.

The Research

I first read about the Empress 1908 gin in several online articles and, having never seen a gin pour deep blue out of a bottle before, I was extremely curious. So I flew to Victoria, Canada, and headed to the Empress Hotel at the Inner Harbour. Standing in their lobby, I was oddly craving potato chips. Hmmm.

One flight up the lobby stairs took me to Q Bar, with its floor-to-ceiling arched dark wood design and stylized art pieces featuring Queen Victoria. The vibe was so relaxing, chill and classy. If I lived nearby, I would be here just all the time!

Then again, it may have been relaxing and chill because it was noon on a Tuesday. :^ )

The Taste Test

I grabbed a bar stool and noted the Empress 1908 gin bottles proudly displayed at one end.

I chatted up the barkeep about it. He gave me a sample, and the gin flowed blue right out of the bottle. So…it’s not juniper-forward or fragrant like a London Dry. I mean, the juniper is there, and there’s also citrus (grapefruit?), plus some other botanicals, but there’s also something…earthy? What IS that??

I looked it up on my phone. The “eight carefully selected botanicals”, includes grapefruit – not surprised – plus coriander, cinnamon, rose petal and ginger. Mystery ingredient number one is Empress black tea.

I’ve heard of infusing gin with tea, but not having tea as an ingredient in the actual making of a gin. Seeing the teacup in their promo pic, just to the right of the bottle, should’ve clued me in. I just assumed it had to do with bored, sad British housewives hiding their alcoholism by secretly sipping gin from a teacup, or something <shrug>.

Photo courtesy of the 1908 Empress Gin website

Mystery ingredient number two is the butterfly pea flower, which creates the gin’s all-natural blue color and also adds to that earthy, woody flavor.

So here’s the cool part. How do you make the gin go from deep blue shot to violet/purple martini and then to pink gin and tonic?
Acidity.

The Demo

The barkeep put on a show for me.
The gin poured out deep blue (sigh). As it hit the citrus slice, the gin mingled with its acidity and turned purple/violet as it trickled to the bottom of the glass. When tonic was added, the color lightened to a lavender pink. Gorgeous.

The Conclusion

So about that taste test…

If there’s such a thing as color therapy, it was working on me because just looking at the shades of the Empress 1908 gin lulled me into a blissful haze. As for its flavor…frankly, as a lover of gin in all its levels of botanical offerings, my mind wasn’t blown. The earthiness from the tea and flowers was interesting – and a bit confusing – but the sipping experience was a bit lacking.

It’s now available at stores in the United States. If I ever get a bottle (because the blue hue is just so lovely) I may experiment with mixing it with other gins, just to add the vapors and flavors that are a baseline for all gins I enjoy.

Cheers!

—————————————————————-
Credits:
Photos by Alexandria Julaton
https://www.liquor.com/recipes/color-changing-martini/
https://foodgressing.com/q1908-cocktail-empress-1908-gin/
https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/butterfly-pea-flower-benefits
https://www.bonappetit.com/drinks/non-alcoholic/article/butterfly-pea-flower-color-changing-tea
https://www.empressgin.com

Cocktail science, magic and history – the Clarified Milk Punch

How do you turn MILK into a clear liquid, then into a smooth, tasty cocktail? Alchemy, magic and science.

The History

The classic cocktails I’ve had were mainly from the 20’s and 30’s. The clarified milk punch cocktail, though, is centuries older! As in, even Benjamin Franklin had a recipe for it.

Benjamin Franklin’s recipe (The Educated Barfly)

No one’s really sure who actually invented this cocktail. Some say the oldest known written record of this recipe is that of housewife Mary Rockett, circa early 1700s. However, other records show that Aphra Behn – writer, courtesan and party girl – served it at her soirees in the 1600s.

Aphra Behn (Wikipedia)

According to The Bartender’s Guide (circa 1862), the clarified milk punch is “a literal hot mess of curdled dairy, citric acid, pineapple juice, tea, and booze”. Yes, it sounds disgusting. So why am I writing about it, right? Because weirdly cool cocktail science, people! Come on now!

When I first heard about it, I kept asking myself, “WHY, though??” As in, why would anyone put themselves through such a pain in the ass hassle – perform way more than a reasonable number of steps – just for this cocktail?

Lots of people back in the day were hooked on it, too, so I was curious.

Clarifying the milk (The Inspired Home)

The Science and Magic

When milk comes in contact with acid and alcohol, it separates. The curds settle to the bottom, and the milk proteins (casein) strip out the color and bitterness caused by tannins.

After the acids curdle the milk, it’s time for the magic to happen. Now you strain out the solids by pouring the curdled mixture through a cheesecloth, coffee sieve, or whatever. Or if you’re using ol’ Benny’s recipe, “run it thru a jelly bag till it is clear”.

Then you mix that clarified citrusy liquid with booze (like brandy, bourbon or rum) and spices. The result is, according to Aphra Behn’s recipe, a cocktail that’s “devoid of color but also dangerously easy to drink. Slightly sweet, full of spices, and velvety-smooth on the palate”.

The Experience

I flew to Santa Fe and went to the only bar I knew of that had it on their menu – the La Fiesta Lounge.

One evening, I got to the bar just before the live music and dancing started. I asked the bartender if I could watch him make the clarified milk punch.

He said sorry, no.

The whole mass-production process takes about a couple of days, including 8 hours just to strain out the milk solids. So he gave me a sample in a fancy aperitif glass.

I’m staring at the glass, and I can see right through it. Who would’ve believed this started out as MILK? Then I took a large sip and MMMM! There’s a “fullness” to the flavor, probably from the booze and spices. Plus, the milk’s whey proteins create a slightly thick silkiness to the cocktail’s texture as you sip it. You can sip it straight – I can see this as a winter drink – or add ice to lighten it up.

I thanked the bartender for the taste and ordered the full-size cocktail. This is probably the strangest cocktail I’ve ever had, but it’s very tasty, smooth, and easy to enjoy. I’d definitely order this again!

Cheers!

The Recipe

There are many variations and versions of the Clarified Milk Punch. Here’s one video I found:


Credits

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/clarified-milk-punch-recipe
https://theeducatedbarfly.com/benjamin-franklins-milk-punch
https://theinspiredhome.com/articles/a-winter-spiced-make-ahead-cocktail
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphra_Behn
https://www.splendidtable.org/story/2017/09/15/classic-cocktail-revived-americas-test-kitchen-on-milk-punch

Tiki Kava Bar in Hippie Town, Maui

Authentic or canned, I’ll take a Polynesian paradise experience any way I can get it! Along with blissful chillouts on a gorgeous beach with ukelele music nearby, the chickens are wild and the natives are sometimes restless.

During a recent trip to Maui, we drove to the North Shore area and wandered through Paia – a hippie/hipster/beach bum/surfer town beloved by tourists. If there’s a kava bar to be found, it would definitely be here!

A yoga instructor, on her way home, helped me find the parking lot ticketing booth. She was a recent transplant from the mainland, and was “really stressed” about going back to attend a meditation retreat. Had to think about that one.

Kava Lounge

Aumakua Kava Lounge’s entrance was in a corner of a strip mall near the edge of town, across from a church. Soon as you walk inside, the vibe is 1930’s tiki hut with thatched roof, bar stools and charming island theme touches, including mermaid light fixtures. And, of course, the tiki gods! A huge fan of tiki lounges, I was diggin’ this pretty hard.

It was just before sunset, and the kava bar wasn’t crowded yet. Later on, we got a taste of the local flavor – chatted with a couple of sweet guys with salty stories. Just going to say that Paia is a laid-back town with a whole lot of character(s).

History

We wanted to first try straight-up kava in coconut shells – like the traditional ceremonies in Fiji and ancient Hawaii. From what I’ve read, kava is the drink of choice when good things happen, or when you want them to.

In Fiji, kava is traditionally served on special occasions and as part of a ceremony welcoming guests to a village. In ancient Hawaiian culture, kava was offered as a ceremonial gift to ancestral spirits to ensure the prosperity and well-being of the village. Farmers offered kava to the gods to ensure the success of their crops; canoe makers would offer kava to the forest gods while choosing a Koa log for an unsinkable canoe (one hopes); plus, kava was fed to the ocean spirits to bring lots of fish to nearby shores.

The Kava Experience

During Fiji’s welcoming ceremonies with the village chief, guests are seated around a kava tanoa communal bowl, where the dried kava root is pounded. The pulp is then placed in a cloth sack, and mixed with water. The result is a brown liquid – the “Kava gold”. After it’s strained, it’s ready for drinking.

The lounge sources their dried kava roots from Vanuatu, which is ground into a powder. Our hostess mixed and strained the kava in a large bottle of purified water, then served our kava in coconut shells.

The hostess offered us our kava cups at “high tide” (full cup). The kava looked like a brownish tea. We all clapped once, yelled “Bula!”, then drank the entire cup. After that, we clapped 3 times and she shouted something that meant the ceremony was done. Might have been ‘Maca!’ ?

After drinking it, I felt a little loopy. Not drunk or high, just calm and floaty. Makes sense that kava’s been a go-to to relieve anxiety and stress, or even just to get that feeling of calm happiness. Also, there was a little numbness around my lips and tongue. Probably due to it being a nightshade plant.

Kinda gives new meaning to bartenders asking customers “What’s your poison?”

The kava was a teensy bit bitter, but not unpleasant. If you want to bypass the kava ritual and bar (why??), you can get it at organic and natural food stores as a liquid in small bottles. Use the dropper to place drops into your mouth, or into other liquids (like juice) that cover up the taste. You can also opt for kava capsules.

Even better, you can have it in a cocktail!
This kava lounge makes classic cocktails and uses kava in place of rum. And they’re tasty! We had a round of Blue Hawaiians and Hurricanes.

I would love to partake in a traditional kava ceremony with a village chief in Fiji, someday. Until then, I’m down for the faux ritual prep, followed by clapping, shouting and drinking at the nearest kava bar with friends!

Bula!

Even more fun than a recipe, here’s a video on how kava is made, Hawaiian-style:

The Pickleback: Booze and Pickles, #Why?

Some experiences are more “cautionary tale” than “epic adventure”. Like cocktail ingredients that shouldn’t occupy the same shot glass. Irish Cream and lime juice, for instance. Plus, others that shouldn’t even be in the same room.
Case in point, mayonnaise.

AND YET!…
Bailey’s Irish cream + lime juice = The Cement Mixer
Absinthe + vodka + mayonnaise = The Stinger Worm

Just goes to show there are people with minds and palates far more open than mine. Like the Irish! Although their reactions don’t vary much past anger:

https://youtu.be/rFH0J29QMKc?t=109

Or even bewilderment:

https://youtu.be/rFH0J29QMKc?t=119

Which brings me to today’s cautionary tale (or epic adventure) – The Pickleback!

Cocktail History: The Pickleback

But first, a little cocktail history. The pickleback is a whiskey shot chased by a shot of pickle brine/pickle juice, or a bite of whole dill pickle. Upon first hearing about the pickleback, I was torn between curiosity and outrage. So I tried piecing together the pickleback’s origin story.

Some say in 2006, a customer at Brooklyn’s Bushwick Country Club – one of the divey-est dive bars in New York City, according to Eater – asked for a shot of pickle juice to accompany her vodka. Curious about this request, bartender Reggie Cunningham decided to have his own little experiment by downing several shots of Old Crow Bourbon, each followed with shots of McClure’s pickle juice. He loved it, and started serving what he dubbed ‘The Pickleback’. Later, Jameson became the whiskey of choice for the pickleback.

However, pickle juice chasers aren’t new to the cocktail world. Long before Reggie’s epiphany, they were paired with tequila shots in Texas. Plus, pickle dills followed vodka shots in Russia.

The Pickleback Experience

This all sounded like crazy talk. And in my deeply heartfelt opinion, whiskey is an art and a science, involving craftsmanship and a quest for perfection. So why would anyone … ANYONE … want to F– it up with pickles?? According to one theory, the brine soothes the burn from the booze. We’ll see about that.

On a mellow Tuesday late afternoon, I wandered over to a saloon called The River Pig – a quick stop before heading over to meet a gal pal for HH nachos and tequila. Later that night, mosh pit thrashin’ on Bluegrass night at another local bar.

It was the holidays, so the saloon was decked out in Christmas decor.

What is a “river pig”, you ask?
Back in the day, they were the guys who guided logs down the river to saw mills. They also walked on the floating timber, and used a 12-foot pike to free up log jams. It was a super dangerous job, with guys sometimes falling off one log into the river, before being smashed to death by several others. Because it was so risky, the river pigs were paid more than lumberjacks. Later, that hard-earned money was spent on many glasses of whiskey at the end of the day.

Soon as I sat on my bar stool, I ordered a pickleback. The barkeep brought me two shots – shot of Old Taylor Bourbon and shot of pickle juice. For a while, I just sat there staring at them.

The bourbon shot, I could totally do; it was the pickle juice that gave me pause. I mean, it was A LOT of pickle juice! My courage was faltering. Hmm.

Decided to put in an order for some curly fries, as a precaution or ’emergency response’ tactic. Figured I might need them to scrape my tongue, after I threw up in my mouth. As soon as the curly fries arrived, I was ready.

The Verdict

Down went Old Taylor (MMMMM! Zero burn, by the way). Down went the pickle juice, and….
HUH! It really wasn’t all that horrible. It was actually…kinda tasty! The sweetness from the bourbon and salty sourness of the pickle juice reminded me of those experimental, suprisingly tasty fusion snacks you find at the potato chips section, like chipotle ranch dressing Cheetos, or something.

They say conquering your fears makes you stronger. And perhaps I am a better person after this.

But I STILL draw the line at mayonnaise in my booze. Cheers!

The Pickleback
Adapted from recipe at Liquor.com

Ingredients:

1 1/2 ounces Jameson Irish whiskey
1 1/2 ounces pickle juice/pickle brine

Steps:

Add the whiskey into a shot glass.
Add the pickle brine into a separate shot glass.
Instruct the drinker to take the whiskey as a shot, then the pickle brine as a chaser.


Credits:
TRY Channel on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFH0J29QMKc
https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/513951/brief-history-pickleback-shot
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pickleback
https://www.thrillist.com/drink/nation/pickleback-shots-11-things-you-didn-t-know-about-picklebacks
https://www.liquor.com/pickleback-recipe-5087251