Cleaning up backlog, part 1: Scav and friends.

Hello there, fellow stranger, and welcome to my blog about drinks (mostly alcoholic), homebrewing, and mixology.

“Cleaning up backlog” series will focus on covering recent-ish events (April — June ’17) that happened before I started writing this blog, but deserve to be covered in some detail. The first story of the series will be about University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt, i.e. Scav’17 for short. For those curious about this tradition, here are some links that can impart onto you some of the flavors of the Scav: official website, Wikipedia article, and this year’s list.

Prequel, i.e. some babbling about Scav

Saturday, May 13th, began, as it is customary for the Scav, on Friday, May 12th. My friend, Arseniy, and I were working on building an automated photo booth resembling one of the campus buildings, and therefore sleep was not an option for that night. Thus, by 10-11am on Saturday, when the photo booth was finished, installed and ready for a live demo, I already was tired, and mostly running on cigarettes, caffeine and aspirin pills, and lite Arnold Palmer. The photo booth itself was an amazing work of caffeine fueled college minds. Its most remarkable feature was complete automation of the process. Any guest could just sit inside, press one button, wait for a bit, and collect the photo strip without any additional actions needed. Below you’ll find a picture of the booth itself, with its proud creators, as well as, a picture of the Mansueto library, which our booth modeled.

Yup, you get two strips. It’s meant to be used with friends!

The resemblance is uncanny…

Battle preparations

Once the photo booth item was officially completed, I’ve finally started planning which mixed drinks I’m going to prepare for the Great British Drink-Off. That’s the name of the mixology/bartneding item/contest for Scav’17. The item itself consisted of three independent challenges, and a general bartending performance award. The challenges were:

1. The team spirit;
2. A classic cocktail;
3. Fou-fou standoff.

The first challenge prompted participating teams to craft a new cocktail or modify an existing one, to reflect respective team’s spirit (pun intended). The second challenge was meant to test our ability to mix a classic cocktail on the spot (Note: Due to the nature of this challenge the cocktail in question was announced only at the start of the contest). The final challenge was focused on decoration and presentation of mixed drinks.

For the “team spirit” cocktail I wanted to have some team synthesized inspiration. I talked to my teammates who were interested in this item, and the general consensus was that since we stocked up on a bunch of Arnold Palmer (AP for short), we should make something that uses AP and whiskey. One might ask, why the hell whiskey? Well, I don’t know, and probably no one on the team really knows why it needed to be whiskey. However, it was set to be an AP and whiskey drink. In particular, I was pointed in the direction of Maker’s Mark[1]. Thus, just a couple of hours before the contest, I bought a fresh bottle of bourbon, grabbed some bitters and Drambuie from my own stash, and headed towards my pre-warzone experimentation station (aka our captain’s apartment).

What is Arnold Palmer (in case you also wonder who is Arnold Palmer here’s the link)? Well, it’s technically half sweet iced tea and half lemonade. However, we are dealing with the lite version which has a more acidic taste profile. I’m not a big fan of lite, diet and other reduced sugar versions of soft drinks, especially in mixing, but that was all I’ve got, so I had to waltz from there. Now, when you hear whiskey, there should be two cocktails immediately coming to your mind: Old Fashioned and Whiskey Sour. Well, the plan for the battle was simple, take AP and ruin one or both of those cocktails, by trying to balance the acidity of lite AP with the taste and flavors of bourbon. Now, the fun part of the Old Fashioned cocktail (at least for me) is it’s extreme simplicity. Sugar, a dash of bitters, a dash of water, ice, and of course whiskey. It’s so amazingly simple that it enables all the rich flavors of whiskey and intricate aromas of bitters to roam free and please your palate. In that case, it makes sense to me that incorporating more whiskeys and more bitters into the cocktail, will add to the general taste profile, without ruining the original message of simplicity. Thus, I switched out sugar (or more commonly used simple syrup) for the honey-and-Scotch goodness of Drambuie. In addition to that, since we already are putting an orange twist into the cocktail, and we gonna add in some AP, I thought that ramping up some of the citrus aromas might be a good idea. Therefore, what we have in the end is a mix of aromatic and orange bitters, Drambuie, bourbon and some AP to top it off and give the summer-y patio vibe to out drink. This is a quite unusual visual representation of Old Fashioned, in my opinion. Yes, I do see Old Fashioned paired with a good cigar, and a round or two of cards, in the evening. I also see myself sipping it alone, in a dimly lit room while listening to some vinyl records. However, summer, patios and the refreshing taste is not something I would ever associate with an Old Fashioned. Thus, I confess, I did commit a sacrilege: not in the creation of a drink, but in its naming.

ArnOld Palmer Fashioned (Scav 2017, Maclean house “spirit”)
1.5oz of Bourbon (Maker’s Mark)
0.5oz of Drambuie
1-2 dashes Angostura aromatic bitters
2-3 dashes Angostura orange bitters
Optional: ¼ to ½oz of lemon juice
Shake! with ice, pour into an old fashioned glass half filled with ice and top off with Arnold Palmer.

Now, a quick note on the second crime that is being committed here. Yes, yes, yes, I know that shaking is a no-no for clear spirits. However, I do prefer adding that tiny extra bit of sourness from additional 1/2oz of lemon juice, and the summer-y vibe of this drink overwhelms me to the point where I feel like shaking something that has “Old Fashioned” in its name.

Day D, Time T

At this point in time, I’m relatively happy with our plan for the first challenge, and I pack my bourbon, bitters and citruses up, and head to the contest. Arseniy joins me to provide moral, and is it turned out later physical, support and assistance in the coming challenges. While I was somewhat sure about how the first challenge will go, and I wasn’t too afraid of the second one, the third challenge was in the back of my mind all this time. On my way to the contest it just grew into a huge bubble of anxiety and lack of preparation that was lowering my morale at cosmic rates. My “perfectionist’s” plan for the third challenge consisted of pineapples, coconuts, fancy rums, and lots of edible garnishes. However, that was as far from the reality, as possible, so I started making peace with garnishing everything with grapefruit peel roses. The real fun began when we arrived to the battleground. I started shitting my pants (gladly not literally) immediately after looking at other teams’ setups. The amount of liquors, people helping with stuff, and glassware and accessories was quite overwhelming. I decided to send Arseniy for backup. His goal was to fetch some of the extra ammunition that I’ve got in my stash. Luckily, he was back with the necessary ingredients right on time. Now, my spirits were up (pun not intended). “Maybe, I won’t get the Star Bartender badge, but at least I’ll put up a hell of a fight” — I thought to myself.

During the contest, the AP & bourbon drink manifested itself well-enough. The remarks about this drink were mostly underlying the summer-ness of the drink, as well as, its notable “college flavor” of lite AP. Below, you can find a photo of the monstrous creation, which I’m proud of as a college student, but slightly disappointed as a “fancy pants” drinks guy.

Now, for the technical challenge, we were prompted to make a classic Manhattan cocktail. One can go on for a long time praising all the fantastic qualities of a properly made Manhattan, so I will skip some of the general discussion. Organizers provided us with two vermouth options (Martini and Antica Formula), a variety of whiskey options, and two cherry garnish options (Luxardo’s Maraschino and some bright neon red stuff). My plan here was rather straightforward: take a classic, and spice it up by adding neighboring ingridients. Therefore, I added some bourbon and Drambuie to my rye whiskey base. However, that wasn’t complex enough, so in order to fancy it up a notch and highlight the legendary garnish, I also added just a bit of Maraschino cherry syrup.

Manhattan (Variation on a classic)
1.5oz of Rye Whisky (Rittenhouse)
0.5oz of Bourbon (Maker’s Mark)
1.5 or* 1oz of Antica Formula vermouth
1 barspoon of Drambuie
1 barspoon of Maraschino cherry syrup
2-3 dashes of Angostura bitters
Add all ingredients into a mixing glass, and stir together without ice. Then add ice and stir. Pour into a cocktail glass or champagne coupe. Garnish with a Maraschino cherry and a grapefruit peel “rose”.

*[why or]: because I was exhausted, tipsy, and honestly don’t remember.
The point of stirring cocktail without ice is to incorporate and properly mix the flavors, especially the heavier sugary ones (Maraschino cherry and Drambuie). Making mixed drinks requires thinking and planning. As you can guess by the previous line and the recipe, I lack both, and my Manhattan was too sweet for my own taste. Furthermore, one of the judges made a comment about it being rather bitters forward, as opposed to a more classical whiskey forward Manhattan. Honestly, my mind is cloudy, and I can’t say now whether I did f*ck up and put in 5-7 dashes of bitters, or whether I overdid it with the entire mix ’em all approach and created something barely palatable. However, even with all these drawbacks, I’ll stand firmly by the statement that it was the best Manhattan I’ve ever made. Even more pleasing is the fact that judges did like my variation on a classic, and it was selected as the winner of this challenge.

My morale was high, I was tipsy, and nothing seemed impossible. Well, almost nothing, because the garnishes available to me were sparse, and I had no way of out-fancying Tiki styled drinks. However, I had a tiny trick up my sleeve. In case, if I can’t make something look fancy by overloading it with garnishes, I will resort to a classic tactic of keeping you entertained with a story and taste to back it up. To be fair, I was toying with the idea of schnaps based drinks since I left Germany in April (a brief one week visit to Goettingen). Furthermore, I was lucky enough to partially realize this idea just a few days before the Scav started. Thus, I had a unique taste going on for me, but I still needed a beautiful story to entertain judges. When I first made this cocktail, its bright red color reminded me of Communist artworks. Now, what’s German like my schnaps and Communist? You’re right, it’s Karl “motherf*cking” Marx. Naturally, I named the cocktail “A True Marxist”, but that wouldn’t make the cut for the challenge, so I had to think further. Well, I knew I’ll have to use the only garnishes I have, i.e. citrus peels. In particular, I got quite good at rolling up peel roses from grapefruits. Then it just clicked! A brief moment of Googling, to double check if Rosa Luxemburg had to do anything with Germany (she did; while being of a Polish-Jewish origin, she became a naturalized German citizen) and there it was: a cocktail, a name, and a story.

A True Marxist
1.5oz of Kirschwasser (Schlanderer)
3/4oz of red vermouth (can be upped to an 1oz for a less dry drink)
0.5oz of Campari
3-5 dashes of cranberry bitters
Stir with ice, serve up in a chilled cocktail glass. No garnish as per original recipe, for the Scav item added a garnish made out of a combination of grapefruit peel “roses”.

In my opinion this drink is a rather interesting take on bitter and nuanced flavors of Campari, and delicate aromas of Kirschwasser. As one of the judges noted, this is indeed a variation on Negroni, which happened rather spontaneously, since at the initial mixing time I haven’t noticed that the recipe simply reworks a classic cocktail. Below, you’ll find a picture of this creation, served sadly in a plastic glass, since my glassware didn’t make it to the contest.

The aftermath

My head was hurting as if the hangover train hit me both on its way there and back. I was exhausted, hungry (the only calories I’ve got were from alcohol) and tipsy. Yet, none of this mattered, because above all I was happy. No, not just happy, f*cking overwhelmed with joy! Yes, I won the Star Bartender challenge, and I did win the best Manhattan challenge. I will conclude this long post with a photo that sums up Scav’17 for me.

I’ll stop this stream of consciousness at this point, and I guess till the next time!

Footnotes, and other thoughts

In my opinion Maker’s Mark is a great whiskey that neatly fits into the niche of not-too-expensive, yet drinkable bourbons. It’s stable in its quality and widely available. One of the big pros for marketing of Maker’s Mark is its easily recognizable bottle with red wax sealing the neck and cap. Many people know this bourbon, and among college students it’s one of the recognized brands of “non-shitty” alcohol. I recall picking up a bottle at a local liquor shop, and being half-encouraged half-judged by a stranger, who made a comment saying that “shit’s good”, but “it gonna fuck you up, cause it’s really strong”. I usually tend to shop at Binny’s Beverage Depot, and it currently sells Maker’s at ~$28 a bottle. The closest liquor store to my current place is Kimbark’s Liquor Shoppe, and it sells Maker’s Mark at ~$34 a bottle (the actual price may vary).

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