Today’s tipple is a simple 1:1 combination. I hesitate to even call it a cocktail. But it is delicious and a wonderful complement to your holiday cheer.
Making the drink is simple: Pour equal parts Benedictine and Brandy into a snifter. Done!
Tasting notes: Warming, herbal, and sweet, with notes of honey, rosemary, nutmeg, sage, anise, and orange peel.
Most liquor stores carry a pre-mixed version of this called B&B, but you should skip out on that and mix it yourself. This lets you pick your brandy of choice, which you can also enjoy on its own or in another wonderful holiday cocktail, the Brandy Alexander. And you’ll have leftover Benedictine to make Vieux Carres.
Back in January my friend Zak Schusterman of Sleepy Hollow Handiwerks gave me a toasted oak stick to use for aging cocktails. He had been over for drinks the week before and he sampled my aged Negroni. Since he does a lot of woodworking, I asked if he could give me some sources for buying untreated American Oak to make more staves of my own. Being the gracious guy that he is, Zak not only found some, he even toasted it for me.
Zak’s toasting notes: Wrap the staves in foil and toast in the oven for 1.5 hrs at 400F, then .5 hrs at 450F.
I knew immediately what I wanted to use the oak stave for: My Dad passed along some unaged homemade pear brandy made by a friend of his. It was too harsh to drink (almost like Everclear), so it had been sitting in my cabinet for two months. This was just the stuff that aging was made for.
Traditional brandies are aged in oak casks, which serves two goals:
Integrating the vanilla overtones of the oak with the fruit flavors of the brandy.
Allowing the brandy to breathe and expel alcohol, which concentrates the flavors as time passes.
The toasted oak stave will do the job of number 1. Since these are toasted instead of charred, they will impart vanilla instead of smokey flavors that charred stick would into the spirit they are aged with.
To mimic number 2, I read around on home distilling forums and found that the most common way to let a spirit breathe is to put it in a glass bottle with a coffee filter over the top, so I did just that. It has been aging in my bar cabinet for the past two months.
Here are some photos of the aging process, beginning January 26 and ending March 26.
I was pleasantly surprised with the outcome! After just two months, this spirit turn into something that is almost sippable. It is still a little hot, but the flavors have really opened up. I enjoyed the couple of ounces I had. The alcohol has toned down quite a bit and the pear flavors are shining through. The oak definitely imparted some very nice vanilla and caramel notes. I even taste some honey on the end of each sip.
For now, I’d say that it is still a mixing brandy. After a few more months, it will probably be a regular sipper!
Make this year’s Christmas festivities special and make a batch of eggnog now and age it in your fridge for the next 73 days.
This stuff is so much better than the cartons you see in stores around the holidays. I talked my parents into making some around the beginning of December last year and it turned out great. It was even better around the beginning of January. The age improves it pretty quickly, rounding out the bite of the alcohol and blending the flavors together.
It probably isn’t worth the time and fridge space tradeoff aging it longer than 2-3 months. There is some disagreement on exactly when the aging peaks. I suggest a test in the spirit of science and fun: Make it now and split it into two containers. Drink one at Thanksgiving and the other at Christmas!
You need to get some decent alcohol, but there are so many flavors in eggnog that you don’t need to go top shelf. The subtleties that sets top-shelf liquor apart won’t shine in this drink. For bourbon, look for Old Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond, Old Fitzgerald, Four Roses Yellow Label, or Old Grand-Dad. For brandy, I usually grab E&J VSOP (the blue label) for mixing. To be honest, I’m not that knowledgeable about rum so I’m not going to make a recommendation. My parents prefer white rum, I prefer dark rum. Choose your favorite.
Don’t worry, there is enough alcohol in there to keep the bad bacteria away as long as you age it in the fridge. Use a gallon jug, two growlers, or a few large jars. Stir the mixture once every two weeks until Christmas.
To serve, make sure you pick up some whole nutmeg and use your micrograter to top each drink.
Here are some photos my parents sent me last month of mixing together this year’s batch. I think it is going to become a yearly tradition. There is nothing better than sipping a cup of this in front of the fireplace on a cold night. I’m excited to go home for Christmas!
Most maraschino cherries are bright red, sickly sweet, and drowning in red dye and corn syrup. Not something you want to put in your cocktails. Luxardo cherries are another story, but they are pretty expensive as far as garnishes go. Since cherries are in season right now, I thought I’d pick some up and make enough maraschino cherries to last until this time next year (or to give out as host gifts with a bottle of rye around the holidays…)
Homemade Maraschino Cherries
3/4 cup raw sugar
1/2 cup water
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 stick cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg
1.5 lbs pitted cherries
1 cup amaretto, Luxardo, brandy, or dark rum. See note below in #3.
Pit the cherries.
You can pit cherries with a straw, cherry pitter, icing tip, or a funnel. I opted for using a funnel and pitting them from the side, as I wanted to keep the stem. You can remove the stem if you want, but I think they look a lot better in a cocktail with the stem. This takes about 20 minutes, so put on an episode of 99% Invisible and get pitting. You could leave them whole, but they wouldn’t soak up as much alcohol and syrup.
Cook down 1/2 lb of the cherries with the raw sugar, water, lemon juice, cinnamon, and nutmeg over medium heat until the cherries are mushy. Let cool slightly and strain the juice/syrup into a separate container. Discard the cherry mush and cinnamon stick.
Mix this syrup with the cup of liqueur you chose to use. I used amaretto and I’m pleased with the flavor it gave the final product. Traditionally, maraschino cherries are made with Luxardo maraschino liqueur, but amaretto, brandy, and dark rum are good substitutes.
Fill the four 16oz jars with pitted cherries, then pour the hot syrup/alcohol mixture over the cherries up to the fill line.
Wipe off the rims of the jars, screw on the lids, and process them in a water bath for 10 minutes for long-term storage, or keep them in the refrigerator if you plan on using them within a month.
The cherries turned out wonderfully for me. They are great in an Old Fashioned or a French 75. I had a couple Old Fashioneds this week with mine:
I recommend letting these cherries sit in the jar for at least a week before you crack it open and start using them. Enjoy!
UPDATE – June 9, 2016
These cherries age very well. They firm up, darken, and retain their flavor. Here they are a year later: