As a self-described bourbonite, I've yet to find a quote that better captures the spirit of my beverage of choice. Festive and feisty, bourbon can also be smooth and seductive. And, as years of imbibing have taught me, it has an adaptable year round appeal.
Unlike Scotch which seems well-suited for winter, or vodka or tequila which, in my opinion, have an inherent chill making them perfect for summer, bourbon isn't a strictly seasonal pour. In every month on the calendar there are occasions that seem custom-made for the drink. So, it stands to reason that there should be drinks custom-made for those events.
With May about to bloom, and with the Triple Crown at the gate, I wanted to christen a special cocktail in honor of this weekend's Kentucky Derby. In fashioning that drink, I turned to three different classics from the whiskey/ bourbon catalog and set out to create something new. I started with the basic ingredients of the Whiskey Sour, the Mint Julep and the Manhattan, and after a lot of shaking, stirring, steeping and pouring - down the drain as often as down the hatch, I have to say - I hit upon two formulas that made me, and those who shared them, quite happy.
I approach making cocktails the same way I cook. I follow my instincts, marrying flavors and textures that I think complement each other. Just as I've never studied under a professional chef, beyond a few classes here and there, I've never taken a proper bartending class. There are several wonderful opportunities for the latter here in San Francisco, most notably the acclaimed courses offered at Bourbon & Branch. The classes are a little pricey, though, and while I'm not opposed to being taught by a master mixologist, I've already spent a great deal of time and money learning how to drink. It was at a place called Penn State.
Relying on my instincts, and previous imbibing experience, I set out to concoct a drink this week that accomplished three goals: I wanted to enhance the inherent oakiness of the bourbon, reflect a bit of the Triple Crown's tradition, and also give a nod to the bright promise of spring. The result? A little cocktail I call the Kentucky Clover.
I'll give a quick run down of its inception, then I'll get out of your way. I started the recipe with the idea of adding cloves and allspice to bourbon. The roundness of the allspice seemed a good match for the booze as did the bite and heat of the clove, but I was concerned they might be too warm for this time of year. I cooled them down with some ginger, orange peel and fresh-squeezed lemon juice. While all of these elements combined well, the sweetness of the drink was still overpowering. I cut back on the syrup - which I was relying upon for its viscosity - and then tried adding more lemon juice and also a jigger of vermouth. I liked both versions, while my taste-testers threw their votes behind the cocktail containing vermouth.
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The Kentucky Clover
For the spiced syrup....
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups water
13 whole allspice berries
7 whole cloves
peel of half an orange (or more if you prefer)
1/2 tsp fresh, minced ginger root
For the cocktail...
1 to 2 TBS fresh-squeezed lemon juice (I prefer more, than less)
2 oz bourbon of choice
2 oz vermouth
1 to 2 oz of spiced syrup
For the garnish...
Slice fresh lemon
Slice blood orange (or regular orange)
Sprigs of fresh mint
1. Make the syrup by dissolving sugar in water over medium heat. Stir frequently. Add spices, orange peel and ginger. (FYI: I used a vegetable peeler on the orange, pounded on the strips to help release the oils, then threw them in. I did not go down to the center of the fruit.) Bring to just a boil, turn heat down and allow to simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to steep for at least an hour. Let cool. Strain. (If you prefer a syrup with real zip allow the spices to remain in longer.)
2. Place desired amount of ice into rocks glass. Pour in the bourbon, followed by the cooled syrup, then add lemon juice. Using a bartender's spoon or an iced tea spoon, stir to combine.
* If you're not going to add the vermouth you can stop here. Garnish and serve.
3. Pour vermouth into glass and again, stir to combine. Garnish and serve. Enjoy responsibly!
NOTES: I used Maker's Mark for one version of this and Bulleit for another. I also had some Jim Beam on the shelf but didn't get around to making a version with it. The vermouth I used was sweet, but you can use dry if you prefer. If you choose to leave out the vermouth entirely the cocktail will lean more toward the flavoring of a Whiskey Sour. If you add the vermouth you'll have hints of a Manhattan. I also tried adding blood orange juice in one version but the color of the drink was not appealing and the flavor was a little too acidic. Juice from a navel orange was a nice addition but it boosted the overall sugariness of the drink to a level I wasn't happy with so I left it out in subsequent batches.