We live in a complex world … The Winchester Cocktail

by KeithP on August 12, 2010

Something simple or something complex? The age old question and if you ask anyone this question on a myriad of subject matter you’ll likely receive an equally long list of responses. Is one better then the other … depends on the situation, issue at hand, etc? Something may be complex because it requires a labor intensive process to make. It might require complex ingredients or parts that are hard to source or are prohibitively expensive.  Complexity might also exist because the skill needed to complete or combine the requisite components into proper proportions is difficult.  Yet for many, complexity for complexity’s sake is worth the effort — if it’s complex it must be better (similar to the adage if it cost more it must be better then the less costly comparable).  Herein lies the rub … does complexity alone make something better and by default something necessarily worth the added effort.  Must you climb Everest simply because it’s there? The “old guard” types scoff at this complexity, this change from the “simple is best” mantra and insist that the more complex you make something the more you diverge from the true meaning of what was pure — what was great about the original. In cooking this question dogs many a chef, food writer, critic and eater.  For the new guard fusion or modern cooking that involves long laborious steps, combinations of multiple types of flavors and ingredients into a single dish or better yet they advance cooking into the world of the “lab” see this as the natural next step.  They are building off of the base of what came first.  The traditionalist sees simple (and yet refined) cooking not as much about how much you can throw into a pot as making it great but a focus on perfect technique and the use of the best ingredients as being the key.  Ever tried a perfectly roasted chicken? Simple yes. Done poorly? Often.  Yet when you try the version done properly … it is luxurious, rich, and decadent.  Just ask Thomas Keller. In modern mixology this very same issue is present and given the recent popularity of craft bars and speakeasy style lounges even more important — what’s better, the preparation of classic drinks that in an of themselves are relatively simple to make (but admittedly done poorly more times than not) or the elaborate, multi step, multi ingredient style drinks created by the wunderkind that are modern master bartenders? So what is all this rambling about?  While logged onto the Mixoloseum chat room last week an article was circulated that was written by an author clearly not enamored of the current cocktail trend toward complexity.  His general thesis, if I have to boil it down, was if it takes more then three ingredients it is either not worth making or not true to being a cocktail.  Reading this article got me thinking and I asked myself, “Is less really more and is complexity hurting the craft of the cocktail?”  Realizing that maybe this was too much for my little cocktail brain to tackle I instead asked a different question, “why do you like what you drink and when do you like to drink and/or make certain drinks?” This blog is far from being a beacon of great philosophical insight and this post is not really intended to delve too far into the many complexities that are cocktails.  In a simple sort of answer – I crave or desire complexity in drinks when it suits me and likewise I crave or desire simplicity when it suits me (yup, I sound a bit like an independent does in politics).  A little bourbon on the rocks after a long day … simple and perfect.  An Old Fashioned, a perfectly refreshing and relaxing Daiquiri or the drink that is equivalent in feeling to me of returning home the Manhattan are equally simple in construction (yeah, three ingredients baby) and yet wonderfully perfect at the right time.  Yet there are times when I want to make a tiki drink using three rums, two sweeteners and multiple kinds of citrus.  I am drawn to cocktail bastions like PDT, Clover Club or the Pegu Club because I am looking to experience something which is new to me, different and probably not easily made at home.  I generally don’t might paying up for drinks at such a place because I am getting something unique or hard to make yet I loath paying half the GDP of Burkina Faso for a drink that is either piss poor made or something I could easily make at home and likely better. So with that rambling muddled train of thought put aside I decided to compare the simple versus the complex and turned to a spirit that if very familiar and near universal in its appeal – gin.  Gin … on the simple front there is one drink that leaps to mind, a wonderfully complex drink in its own right, open to many interpretations and yet at its classic heart … simple.  My “house” formulation for a gin Martini is two and one-half ounces of gin (preferably one with a lot of botanical/floral notes), one-half ounce of quality dry vermouth, two dashes of orange bitters and a twist of lemon. Lovely. Complex.  Simplicity was never so perfect. It is an ideal warm weather or cold weather drink and is one of the easiest drinks to assemble at your home base.  I have recently taken to swapping out dry vermouth for a blanc vermouth such as Dolin Blanc and subbing in celery bitters for the orange bitters … different yet equally nice. What do with the complex?  Good question — unlike many rum-based or rye/bourbon drinks, gin drinks are to me relatively benign in their complexity. Don’t get me wrong … I love gin and there is something utterly magical about the simple complexity of a Last Word but most gin drinks do not stand out from a complex formulation of ingredients standpoint.  Recently I came across a reference to a drink that sounded downright cool, daunting and a perfect subject to test to see if complex is better then the humble simple. The Winchester Recipe sourced from Jay’s Oh Gosh blog based on the original created by Brian Miller at Death & Co. and adapted by theSpeakista •    1 oz Hayman’s Old Tom gin (Ransom was used as that was what I had on hand) •    1 oz Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength gin •    1 oz Tanqueray gin (Beefeater was subbed in) •    3/4 oz St. Germain Elderflower liqueur •    3/4 oz fresh lime juice •    3/4 oz fresh grapefruit juice •    1/2 oz grenadine (house made was used) •    1/4 oz ginger syrup (1:1 simple syrup with ginger infused) •    1 dash of Angostura bitters Garnish: none was used Glass: rocks glass Tools: mixing glass and tin, Hawthorne strainer and fine mesh strainer Assembly: Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, add ice, shake well for at least 15 seconds until well chilled and double strain into the serving glass filled with crushed ice. Enjoy the complexity. The verdict: Oh Jebus! Actually upon first sipping this drink I thought something else but it was in too blasphemous so I decided against writing.  This drink was originally created by Brian Miller the head bartender and master mixologist at Death & Co. as an attempt to expand the world of tiki by using gin.  On paper this thing looks complex and in the glass it acts the same way. I’m in complete agreement with Jay’s assessment that there is an explosion of flavors in this tiny little glass. When confronted with such complexity in a drink I usually try to evaluate the drink to see if I can discern the original components and to see how balanced they are in the new mixture.  Complexity is great but I like to see if that complexity results in something that is more then the some of its parts or just a, well, mixture with a bunch of stuff in it. What’s amazing about this drink is that you are not only able to pick out the gins and enjoy their uniqueness but in certain sips you taste a gin profile that is more then the individuals. The sweetness hits you in different, distinguishable waves as well with the quirky elderflower, grenadine and the ginger syrup all present.  When you sip the drink to sip it, not tasting for the individual components you taste something that is wonderfully complex and yet harmonious at the same time. This drink is a real find and well worth the complexity level of an attempt. theSpeakista’s Rating: 4 1/4 stars (out of 5) I’m thinking about expanding this little philosophical journey to rum, rye and cognac … let us see how the simple versus complex battle plays out over different spirits. theSpeakista asks: 1. Where do you fall in the simple versus complex debate? 2. What is your fav “simple” drink and what is your favorite “complex” drink and why?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

The Godfather August 12, 2010 at 9:01 pm

I am a relatively simple guy. I like sports, chicken wings and good stiff drink. Unfortunately I have the attention span of a 3 yr old so I need to go the way of simple. I’m not skilled enough to pull off a cocktail of more than 3-4 ingredients nor do I have the patience or memory to remember what to put in it. A nice simple drink for me is my new favorite the rum old-fashioned.

Now when I am at Speakista HQ, I will be more than happy to let the resident mixologist concoct me up something complex and special. But when it comes to truly complex I will go over to Death & Co. and have me a Zombie Punch. No Offense. :)

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