Review: Wild Hibiscus Flowers in Syrup

For approximately half a year, the Rebel Bartender worked at one of the wineries in the Sonoita region of Arizona – yes, we have wineries, and multiple areas of them, at that!  One of the products we regularly demonstrated were these:  wild hibiscus flowers, candied in syrup.  And while the salesmanship of the winery staff was certainly above par, the fact that we sold so many of these probably had more to do with the product itself than anything about our demonstration.

Like many great ideas, it’s simple enough at the core, but endlessly versatile.  Pour a flute of champagne and drop one in the bottom along with a bit of the syrup; you have an instant cocktail fancy enough to serve at a party with less than a minute of preparation.  Drain a few and use for color and sweetness in a salad.  Use as garnish to any cocktail with a sweet/floral character.  Or – as more than one returning winery customer admitted to doing – grab a fork and eat a few straight out of the jar for dessert.  (They’re quite tasty, if a bit sweet – the jar claims “raspberry and rhubarb flavors”, but the Bartender always felt they resembled a Fruit Roll-Up in both texture and taste.  Perhaps a bit much on their own, they complement the dryness of champagne nicely.)

Really, their only downsides are their rarity – the Bartender has only found them in specialty stores and gourmet food shops – and their price.  A small jar (eleven blossoms, give or take) tends to run $10-$12, and a large one (50 blossoms) closer to $40.  Theoretically, they don’t spoil, but after about six months in the fridge the Bartender lost the remaining half of her large jar to fermentation, so if you work with yeast in the kitchen at all and don’t have a large party planned, the smaller jar might be a better investment.  Or you could take the remaining blossoms with some champagne to a sunset picnic on top of a mountain and impress your friends with a beautiful and delicious dessert.  A

Picture of Wild Hibiscus jar ganked from  Picture of hibiscus at sunset taken by the Rebel Spouse atop Mule Mountain, Arizona.

Recipe: Pink Victrola

Hailing from the Hendrick’s website, this little gem provided the Bartender with that rarest of all cocktail sentiments – the absolute conviction that it needs no tinkering or improving whatsoever.  Fun as it can be to swap around ingredients and change the proportions to find that just-right balance, there’s also a distinct joy in finding that recipe that’s already perfectly formed.  It’s much like finding a pearl washed up on the beach, and almost as rare an experience.

The Bartender found this one particularly surprising – she had expected the grapefruit to completely overwhelm the other flavors, but instead found that it showcased the unusual flavors in Hendrick’s gin quite admirably.  And then there’s that lovely pink color; fortunately, this time it’s attached to a drink that’s both tasty and visually striking.

Pink Victrola

1 1/2 ounces Hendrick’s Gin
1 1/2 ounces fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice
1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup
1 spoonful (about 1/8 ounce) grenadine

Shake all ingredients and strain into chilled martini glass.  Garnish with a citrus twist, cucumber balls, or music device appropriate to your time period.

Review: Hendrick’s Gin

It Is Not For Everyone.

Preferred By 1 Out Of 100 Gin Drinkers.

Loved By a Tiny Handful of People all Over The World.

Are the makers of Hendrick’s Gin attempting to market themselves the Anglophile-snob market, or simply to find some way to emphasize how their gin (and their campaign) is different from the usual crowd?  Frankly, it’s anyone’s guess.  But let the record show that the Bartender is a sucker for the elitist appeal, and would therefore likely have been interested in the stuff even if her favorite barkeep hadn’t recommended it to her.

And in all fairness, the product is something new and different.  Still gin, yes, but significantly less juniper-y than usual, with some surprising notes in the nose.  The makers claim to infuse it with cucumber and rose petal essences, and while the Bartender’s faith in her own nose isn’t quite strong enough to override her knowledge of the powers of suggestion, she won’t argue with the assertion.  There’s also very little harshness, other than what you might expect from the alcohol vapors.

It’s on the tongue where the stuff really differentiates itself, though.  The initial impression is very strongly sweet and floral, but a secondary fruitiness – yes, possibly English cucumber – slowly spreads over the tongue.  The traditional “gin” flavor comes out more towards the end, with juniper and perhaps a touch of coriander on the finish.

Much as with Cîroc, if you’re a gin purist, this likely won’t be your cup of tea.  But if you’re tired of Tanqueray and its ilk, or even if you just want something that “tastes a lot less like licking a pine tree” (to use the Rebel Spouse’s words), this is well worth trying out.  A++ with cherries on top

Note:  Their website, while it strongly plays up the “whimsy” aspect to their marketing, is also worth exploring – in addition to the amusing design, you get some tasty recipes, clever ad copy, and surprisingly good ideas for cucumber garnish.  Might the Bartender recommend, from personal experience, a bone-dry martini garnished with cucumber balls on a pick and a rose petal or two floated on the surface?  

A little change of pace

Due to an ill-advised experiment last night, the Bartender has found herself temporarily without much taste for alcohol.  (Note to self:  Never, ever combine rum and diet cola again.  Ever.)  While hardly a problem in her day-to-day life, this makes writing posts for a cocktail blog a little tricky.  Let us hope that it proves to only be a temporary setback.

For the moment, however, a friend has come to the rescue, pointing the Bartender to a video from none other than CNN’s Rachel Maddow, demonstrating one of her favorite cocktails.  The Bartender has never tried a Jack Rose, but while she cannot completely approve of the use of artificial grenadine, she appreciates the attitude toward mixology shown here, both in its seriousness (“Measure.  You owe it to the liquor.”) and in the fun, seat-of-your-pants aspect as well.

Enjoy, and pray for the Bartender’s swift recovery!

Thanks to Cyrano for the link.

Recipe: Pomegranate Martini

Funny thing about buying pomegranate juice to make grenadine – you end up with a lot of juice left over.  Not one to waste perfectly good ingredients, the Bartender flipped back through some of her older recipes to see if there were any that might prove assistive in putting the stuff to use.

This particular recipe actually proved doubly helpful; a while back, she had also purchased a bottle of Cîroc, but it had proven too bitter for her initial “shake it up straight for a martini” idea.  The fruity richness that sets it apart from other vodkas, however, both stands up to and complements the strong flavor of the pomegranate juice, while said flavor is more than enough to hide the vodka’s bitterness that otherwise comes out along the sides of the tongue.

Should you find yourself without grape-based vodka, however, your regular mixer should do the trick, if with a slight loss in depth of flavor.

Pomegranate Martini

1 1/2 ounces Cîroc vodka
1 1/2 ounces pomegranate juice
3/4 ounce triple sec
Lime wedge

Pour first three ingredients into the shaker; add ice and squeeze lime wedge into it.  Shake and strain into chilled martini glass.  Garnish with a lime wheel, or something involving pomegranate seeds if you’re feeling extra-creative.

Recipe: Grenadine

While a common ingredient in cocktails, grenadine these days is most often found in the shape of a Rose’s bottle on the shelf at your local liquor store for some outrageous sum (hint: you can replicate the product easily simply by adding red food coloring to a far cheaper bottle of corn syrup).  Its origins were not always so ignoble, however; once upon a time, the stuff was made from pomegranate juice.  Indeed, if you’ll excuse the quick bit of language pedantry, grenadine’s name comes from the French grenada; our term for its source fruit likely comes from their pomme-grenada, “seeded apple”.

One could argue that, given the extremely small amounts generally used in a given cocktail, grenadine suffers no particular loss from its gradual cheapening into what is effectively red syrup.  The Rebel Bartender, however, being a bit of a snob, suggests that you make your own classic grenadine – it’s surprisingly easy, and lends a vibrant color to whatever infusion you happen to adulterate it with.


1 cup 100% pomegranate juice
1/2 cup sugar

Put juice in saucepan and heat on medium for a minute or two; whisk in sugar.  Continue whisking until thoroughly dissolved, then cool and funnel into clean container of your choice.  Cover and refrigerate; should keep for at least a month.

Photo of Rose’s Grenadine stolen from BevMo’s website.

Review: Luxardo Sambuca

Rejoice, friends; The Rebel Bartender has reached a milestone.  Thanks once again to the fine clerks at Plaza Liquors, the Bartender has her first free sample for review!  In point of fact, this post represents two firsts; Luxardo also happens to be her first experience with sambuca of any sort.  Keep in mind, therefore, that this is a purely objective review; the Bartender’s lack of comparative experience may make it less than useful to those experienced with the spirit.  But every body of knowledge has to start with a few scattered facts; and it appears that today is a good day for fact-gathering.  So here we go!

Sambuca (or, at least, white sambuca) is a simple creature.  Anise is the major (perhaps only) flavoring in the stuff, and the nose makes that extremely clear.  Very sweet, very potent, not very complex on its own – there’s a lot of black liquorice and not much else.  However, sambuca is traditionally served with three coffee beans, representing (depending on the source) the Father, Son and Holy Ghost; health, wealth, and happiness; or “romance” (with no additional explanation offered).  Whatever the symbolic importance, the beans are also important functionally – they add a much-needed extra dimension to the nose, the coffee and anise smells complementing each other nicely.

In this case, at least, what you smell is very much what you get.  Anise, and lots of it, with sugar to round it out and really give you the “I’m drinking a liquid black jelly bean” feeling.  It’s not unpleasant, once you get over the first shock, but a little one-note; chewing one of the coffee beans (again) gives the flavor a lot more depth.  There’s a little bit of spirit burn in the back of the throat, just enough to give that proper sensation of warmth, and the mouth-feel is nicely creamy.  (It’s worth noting that one of the uses of anise oil is as a topical anaesthetic; just a few sips of this stuff are enough to make the newbie’s tongue go noticeably numb.)

The Bartender is hesitant to give this spirit a specific rating, as (again) she has no real frame of reference with which to compare it.  However, she does like anise, so for her, the experience as a whole was quite enjoyable.  It might even make an interesting flavor base for a cocktail, though given the strength of it, she would guess that the corresponding advice would be to tread lightly.  B+

Recipe: Blushing Duchess

Aside from sounding like an inn in medieval Europe, this is a delightful drink that makes for an excellent summer afternoon pick-me-up (or put-me-down – it may not taste like it, but the Duchess is blushing for a reason!).  It’s also one of the few drinks that needs no extra touches for presentation; a mint sprig would add a nice dash of color if one is feeling particularly ambitious, but otherwise, the drink itself is lovely to behold.

A few notes regarding the ingredients:

  • Turbinado sugar is a type of raw sugar that you can find for obscene prices in the supermarket’s baking aisle, or for quite reasonable prices in bulk at the local co-op or health food store.  (If you’ve ever tried Sugar in the Raw, you know what to look for.)  You can substitute plain white sugar in a pinch, but turbinado has the dual advantage of the superior flavor and prettier presentation.
  • The quality of your grapefruit will make a significant difference here; if you can get it, the Bartender especially recommends fresh Arizona grapefruit due to its soft texture and sweeter flavor.  Be careful, though – the stuff is like citrus crack.  Once you start buying it you may not be able to stop.
  • The recipe is originally from Grey Goose’s website (with, of course, a couple of tweaks); the Bartender discovered it as part of her ongoing campaign to find a drink that makes the stuff worth the $30ish price tag.  Having tried it with both Goose and with Skyy (her standby mixer), she can safely recommend that one use higher-quality vodka in this drink; the grapefruit helps hide the harshness, but Skyy’s bitter flavor still came out strongly.  If you don’t feel like shelling out for Goose, however, something less expensive but still quality like Ketel One would probably do the trick nicely.  Edit, 4/27/11:  Having tried it with Ketel One, the Bartender actually recommends it over Goose for this drink – K-1’s citrus overtones, rather than being overwhelmed as expected, in fact complement the grapefruit beautifully.

And now, the recipe!

Blushing Duchess

Turbinado sugar
3 wedges of grapefruit, peeled/seeded
2 ounces vodka
1 ounce triple sec
Lime wedge

Run the inside of a grapefruit peel around the rim of a rocks glass and coat it with turbinado sugar.  Roll the grapefruit wedges in remaining sugar and put them in the bottom of a shaker; muddle vigorously.  Add vodka, triple sec, and ice; shake, then pour everything (including ice and grapefruit wedges) into the rocks glass.  Squeeze the wedge of lime into the drink and serve!

Newly Rebellious, Part VII: Proudly Presenting…

And here we come to the seventh and final installment in this series, and possibly the most enjoyable one.  Tinkering with a recipe is fun, and showing off your technique is great, but it’s that moment where the recipient first lays eyes on the completed product that differentiates between the ultimate assessment of “That was tasty” and “Wow!”.  People may be able to fall in love with each other slowly, true, but when it comes to drinks it’s love at first sight or not at all.  Or, to paraphrase Megamind’s best line, what’s the difference between a drink and super-drink?  Presentation!

We’ve already addressed the first step in the process – having proper glassware handy.  And while this might seem to go without saying, the Bartender will emphasize it anyway – your serving glass should be clean, dry, and free of chips or cracks.  Always hold the glassware by the stem, if you can – it keeps unsightly fingerprints off of the part that actually displays the drink.

The next part of the equation is the drink itself.  If it’s a shaken cocktail, things are pretty simple – although a popular trick is to add a dash of egg white to create a pleasant white froth at the top.  (Pro tip:  For more tropical-flavored drinks, coconut milk will do the same without the danger of salmonella poisoning.)  Certain drinks, however, will create a layered effect when you build them over ice; as you learn the relative densities of different ingredients, you can add them in the proper order to create that graduated-color look that’s always impressive.  (Just remember to offer the recipient a straw or a swizzle stick!)  If you’re making a drink with herbs of some sort, be extra-enthusiastic with your muddling – smaller pieces that tear off will float in the liquid and often look quite striking.

Finally, however, there is the pièce de résistance, the part where the aspiring bartender can really show their creativity – the garnish.  From the classic maraschino cherry to a mouse painstakingly carved from a single radish, the garnish is often the most visually interesting part of the cocktail, and therefore what really grabs the recipient’s attention.  Invest in some toothpicks (or, even better, long metal cocktail picks), and start experimenting.  For tropical drinks, chunks of fresh fruit are always pretty, especially when speared on a paper umbrella. If the flavor is more herbal, try floating pieces of fresh basil on the surface, or garnishing with a sprig of rosemary.  Candy is also fun and eye-catching, especially for sweeter drinks:  There’s the classic peppermint stick in a cup of hot chocolate; you could try floating a sour gummi on the surface of that liquid Jolly Rancher, or spearing a fun-size Snickers bar for that chocolatini. Even purely decorative garnishes still add visual interest to your creation.

When you have a frothy surface (either from a cream-based ingredient or whipped cream topping), you can sprinkle a spice atop it:  freshly-grated nutmeg or ground cardamom both look emininently classy.  Be careful, though – spices will add a surprising kick to your concoction, so don’t overdo it, and make certain that the flavors are complementary!

In this endless garden of possibilities, do keep in mind that not every garnish has to be fancy or complex.  Indeed, there’s a reason some of the simplest creations are the most iconic – serving a Manhattan with anything other than a single maraschino cherry might well make you a victim of mob justice in certain circles.  The Bartender recently was impressed by a drink designed to taste fruity, spicy and Christmasy; the garnish was simply a pick strung with small dried cranberries and golden raisins. Simple, striking, elegant.

But there’s also nothing wrong with letting your inner Lady Gaga go hog-wild. Maybe incredibly elaborate and colorful garnishes will be your trademark.  Maybe you’ll be known for your riffs on the classics.  Perhaps you’ll find ways to create minor works of art out of common household objects.  Experimentation is fun – but when you unveil your creations to the “oohs” and “ahhs” of the recipients, you’ll start to see where the real joy of bartending lies.

Recipe: Cobbanhattan

Due to technical difficulties, the final installment of Newly Rebellious is being postponed (though hopefully not for long); in the meantime, here’s a recipe for a nifty twist on a classic, courtesy of Cobban, a kooky friend, fabulous karaoke partner and all-around excellent guy.

Cobban (whose talents include video editing, and can be seen hamming it up during a weekend home alone here – give it a watch, he’s hilarious) is very fond of Manhattans – in his words, “That sound of the ice in the shaker?  Just like the cat with the can opener, for me.”  However, like all professional drinkers and their favorite cocktails, he prefers his to be made in a particular fashion, with particular ingredients – in this case, Maker’s Mark bourbon.

Of particular note is the lower vermouth proportion; Maker’s Mark is already fairly sweet, so a traditional 2:1 ratio ends up being almost candy-like – or so the Bartender is told.  Of course, the inclusion of maraschino cherry juice seems a step in the wrong direction, there, but this isn’t her recipe.  (And, in all fairness, the results are really quite tasty.)


3 ounces Maker’s Mark Bourbon
3/4 ounce sweet (red) vermouth
Dash of bitters
Dash of maraschino cherry juice

Put a bit of maraschino cherry juice along with a cherry in the bottom of your cocktail glass.  Shake remaining ingredients with ice and strain into glass.  Optional:  Add an orange slice for extra garnish.

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