When I was in college in Pittsburgh, there was an Italian restaurant where everyone went when they turned 21. Because most of us had only had beers, hard lemonades, and wine coolers up until that point, we all became obsessed with ordering classic cocktails once it was suddenly legal for us to get wasted. Some TV show or movie would mention a cocktail (like when Sex and the City made Cosmos a requirement of a girls' night out) and then one person would order it, bring it back to the table so that 5-10 friends could try it, and then a craze would ensue. One week, we were all ordering grasshoppers. Another week, it would be a round of Manhattans. Then dirty martinis. Then tequila sunrises. And so on as we challenged the limits of the bartender's handbook.
One night, I suddenly decided I wanted to try something new. I had been watching a lot Jeeves and Wooster and there must have been an episode in which Wooster went to America and indulged in some illegal gin cocktails at a party. I can still picture Hugh Laurie doing a frantic Charleston while spilling a drink all over his white gloved fingers. So I took a chance and ordered a lime gimlet, then proudly brought my prize back to the table, where it was passed around and excitedly sipped by a gaggle of theater majors. The gimlet then became the official cocktail of the week.
Wanting to retain my crown as a drink taste maker, I did a little research before my next trip to the local hangout. The following week, I sauntered up to the bar and ordered a Bee's Knees. The bartender sighed at me and shook his head at my pretentiousness, but he mixed up the cocktail all the same. Sadly, this one wasn't as much of a success as my previous choice due to the bartender being out of honey (which is kind of essential to the flavor) and my crown was usurped by a dancer who introduced everyone to Sex on the Beach.
The same thing would happen with beers. Everyone started off ordering whatever the $2 special was, but slowly we began asking about some of the more adventurous brews. This was before the micro-brew explosion happened, so things like seasonal releases from Samuel Adams were usually enough to impress us. Still, this kind of experimenting taught me that beer could actually be flavorful and complex and didn't just mean sipping vaguely bitter carbonated water that gave you gas and heartburn before it ever got your drunk.
These days, I like to honor my beginner drinking days by mixing up classic cocktails at home or trying new beers with friends. Picking up random finds from the grocery store or liquor store has helped me really identify what I like and what I don't. Still, I'm no mixologist, so I tend to stick to the classics. But now when I go out, I'm now a little more informed when browsing a cocktail menu or a beer list then I was back in my college days.
Last weekend, I queued some Jeeves and Wooster and put myself in the mood for some classic gin cocktails. I recently discovered Eau Claire Distillery, a Canadian company that just debuted its craft spirits in Chicago, and I was anxious to test out two of their signature products: Parlour Gin and Prickly Pear EquineOx.
The gin reminded me of more European styles, which tend to have less sweetness and more of an herbal flavor. I made a twist on a Bee Knee's with it, adding some Earl Grey tea along with lemon juice and honey. I really liked how smooth the gin made the cocktail, adding flavor and not just bite. The bergamot in the Earl Grey really complimented the subtle fruit and herb notes in the gin as well. Now with the Prickly Pear EquineOx, I didn't want to go the expected route and make a margarita. Instead, I used it to revamp my favorite classic cocktail; the gimlet. A little lime juice, a little agave syrup, and a splash of tonic water brought out the sweet fruity flavor of this spirit. I kid you not, this tasted pretty much like the most delicious juicy candy and I had to resist the urge to mix up more of these babies.
I also had the chance to sample a new brew from The Bruery out of California. I am already a huge fan of their Girl Grey, an ale brewed with Earl Grey tea (did I mention Earl Grey is my favorite flavor ever?), so I was interested to try their Saison Ardennes. To be honest, I'm not usually partial to blonder beers, but I am a big fan of sour or tart beers. This saison had a wonderful pucker to it, but it stayed firmly on the more savory end of the spectrum without veering too fruity. The floral and malt forward flavor made this ideal for pairing with simple, hearty food. I really enjoyed this alongside a BBQ chicken flatbread with some pepper jack cheese, which matched the beer's tang as well as it's spice.
I was sent products free of charge by the companies mentioned in this post, but all opinions are my own.