November 22, 2011

Pre-Prohibition Cocktail Class at the Wine School of Philadelphia

The Wine School of Philadelphia sent us an alert recently for the debut of its wine-based cocktail class, held last Friday night. Always interested to learn about different cocktails, I jumped at the chance to check out.

Billed as the Pre-Prohibition Cocktail Class, it's objective was to take us "back to the golden era of the cocktail, before the Volstead Act… and long before vodka destroyed the martini."

The class instructor was Jason Wilson, who writes the spirits column for the Washington Post. His column has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is also the author of Boozehound.

The class featured seven classic drinks of the era: the Duke of Marlborough, the Dunaway, Light Guard Punch, Manhattan Bianco, Red Hook, Nouveau Sangaree and Thieves’ Punch.

Before recapping the details of each drink, here are a few interesting tidbits from the class:

- A true martini uses gin and vermouth. A drink with vodka should never be called a martini.
- Vermouth could not be imported during Prohibition. This led to the rise of the dry martini as vermouth never really caught back on once Prohibition ended, which is one reason you see vermouth used less today.
- When making a cocktail use a higher proof version of the alcohol. Jason said above 90 proof is best.
- A good bartender ALWAYS measures his or her cocktails. Always.
- Pre-prohibition alcohols mainly consisted of gin, brandy and whiskey.
- Whiskey is white but the color changes almost immediately after it is put in a barrel to age. But, look for the hip trend of white whiskey to spread over the next few years.

Here are the drinks we sampled, my reactions and links to their complete recipes. I may try making a few at Thanksgiving.

Duke of Marlborough:
Recipe and Summary
Ingredients: amontillado sherry, sweet vermouth, orange bitters
Verdict: Quite good. Light and not too strong with a slight bitter finish. This would make a great pre-dinner drink or nightcap.
Fun Fact: Vermouth can be sweet or dry and is a type of wine. And like wine it spoils once opened, typically after one week in the fridge.

The Dunaway:
Recipe and Summary
Ingredients: amontillado sherry, cynar, maraschino liqueur, orange bitters
Verdict: If you don’t like bitter drinks you will not like this. It is very much like campari and aperol. Cynar is an apertif typically made from artichokes. Unlike others at my table, I liked this cocktail.
Fun Fact: Maraschino was a very common cherry liqueur used in Pre-Prohibition cocktails, if not the most common. During this period, the cherries were preserved and kept in the same bottle. Today the liqueur is rarely used, but the cherries are sold separately as popular dessert topping and cocktail garnish.

Light Guard Punch:
Recipe and Summary
Ingredients: manzanilla sherry, cognac, Sauterne, prosecco
Verdict: Tastes just like a spritzer. Perfect summer drink.
Fun Fact: Jason said that punch should consist of five ingredients - a sweet, a sour, a bitter, a weak, and alcohol. It is commonly said that British sailors "discovered" punch in 16th century India where its name was derived from the Hindu word for five.

Manhattan Bianco:
Recipe and Summary
Ingredients: bourbon, bianco vermouth, preferably Martini & Rossi
Verdict: This is a good starter Manhattan with only a slight hint of bourbon. Without the lemon peel garnish the bourbon taste was much stronger. The lemon peel mellows out the cocktail.
Fun Fact: According to Jason, a Manhattan has to have bitters. Otherwise it is not a Manhattan.

Red Hook:
Recipe and Summary 
Ingredients: rye whiskey, Ramazotti, maraschino liqueur, preferably Luxardo
Verdict: A much stronger Manhattan than the Bianco. I’m not a huge whiskey fan so I preferred the Bianco.
Fun Facts: There are hundreds of types of Manhattan drinks. They often take on the name of a neighborhood in the city where they are created. For example, the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. calls their version the Kensington.

Nouveau Sangaree:
Recipe and Summary
Ingredients:  Beaujolais Nouveau, apple brandy,  sloe gin, grade B maple syrup, angostura bitters
Verdict: A perfect spicy sangria cousin. Sloe gin is what makes this drink.
Fun Fact: Sloe gin is a sweet gin-based liqueur flavored with sloe (blackthorn) berries. It is not gin and is quite sweet.

Thieves Punch:
Recipe and Summary
Ingredients: Cachaca, tawny port, lime juice, simple syrup, angostura bitters
Verdict: This was very good and one of my favorites of the night. The Cachaca added a unique flavor. Tawny is one of the ports I actually like.
Fun Facts: Cachaca is basically Brazilian rum made from fresh sugarcane juice. Standard rum is usually made from molasses.

Jason's upcoming spirits classes are listed on the Wine School website. The next one is on spirits distilled from beer. The Wine School does a nice job with their classes and sells gift certificates, so it's something to keep in mind during holiday shopping.

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