Challenge Accepted: Cocktail Challenge

Article by Jason Rogers

Ilove cocktails. The only thing I love more than drinking a good cocktail is making one. I often come up with ideas for different cocktails as well as test them out, and I’d like to think I’m pretty good at making drinks. My friend Ben loves music – he comes up with beats in his spare time and they are usually quite good, but recently he has be neglecting his passion. So after a long talk a proposal was made, a pact if you will, to help spur his creativity and out of comradery I decided to do the same. We came up with challenges for each other; his was to come up with a complete new song in two weeks, mine was to come up with a new cocktail every week. But my challenge had a few handicaps, which lead me on a very creative and tasty journey.

Of course this article is about my cocktail challenge (didn’t you read the title) and how it’s going/went, depending on when you read this. First let me explain why I had a handicap and what exactly the rules were. I have been making drinks for about 8 years, first at home for friends and later at bars for guests. I have a little black book of secret cocktail ideas and concoctions that I can whip out at any time. Because of this, simply coming up with a cocktail once a week would be too easy, so I needed to be challenged if this was going to be fair.

The Rules:

  1. Make and test 1 new cocktail each week of December.
  2. Had to be an original cocktail.
  3. Had to get the approval of several people that it was a delicious drink.
  4. (This was the tricky part) I had to get suggestions on what ingredients to use in each drink from random people, I had to use that ingredient in the actual final drink.
    In order to keep things simple for the suggestions I decided to use the 1 flavor & 1 ingredient format and the challenge was off. My first task was to get suggestions on flavors and ingredients. I made a post on WeChat begging friends to give me a suggestion as I had little time to start planning these drinks. Luckily I had a few people reply, I didn’t get any crazy request (sweet sauerkraut cocktail anyone?) but I got a couple and had to pick 4 for each week, I tried to pick an interesting mix.

Week 1: Bitter + Mango
Week 2: Sweet + Rice
(yes, I had to use rice in the drink)
Week 3: Salty + Cream
(This was Ben’s suggestion, I knew I needed time for this)
Week 4: Herbal + Preserved
Tangerine Peels
(Classic Chinese snack)

Week 1

  • Bitter & Mango
    This was suggested by fellow Xianease writer Martin. He’s local from here in Xi’an and although he said he didn’t know much about cocktails I thought his combo sounded really cool and I quite enjoy bitter cocktails. The first thing that came to my mind was, “I have to use a good Amaro for this.” An Amaro is any bitter liqueur made with different herbs and spices and usually comes from Europe, but not always. I also love Amaro so for me it was finding something that worked with mango a tropical fruit. I wish I could say I spent days agonizing over the perfect Amaro but I knew right away which bottle to grab. I went for Amaro Di Angostura (the same people who make Angostura bitters) with its deep and fragrant baking spices and smooth but bitter finish; it’s like tiki meets Amaro and it was a perfect match. The next thing I knew is that I wanted was for the drink to have some character, just bittersweet seemed boring. I wanted depth and usually you can get that from oaky or nutty flavors. Their flavor lingers in the mouth, its heavy on the tongue like molasses. An easy way to and an oaky, nutty flavor to drinks is to use a kind of higher proof wine called sherry. It’s like if whiskey makers tried to make wine one day. On its own it’s a great drink but in a cocktail it gives the drink body. Finally, I thought about the person who suggested this, would he like this drink as is. Honestly I think this drink would have been perfect for me but I got the feeling that most people might want something lighter and the drink seemed to be a little out of balance when I tasted the ingredients together. I knew I needed some bubbles to lighten the drink up but it needed some acid too to balance. Then I remembered I had recently had some kombucha from a bar and it had this crisp bright taste and lots of carbonation. It was like the perfect match for all the other flavors. Soon, I was testing ratios and methods of adding mango (syrup vs muddle vs puree). I finally settled on a recipe and then my big day had arrived.
    To test the drink out, I had decided to ask my good friends at the Craic if I could give out some samples to people. They obliged and I advertised on WeChat my tasting. I honestly didn’t expect many people to come, even for a free taste of a great cocktail, but surprisingly I had a decent turn out. The drink turned out to be a smash, people really liked the flavor, plus how bright it was. I was off to a strong start and with that win I started on week 2.
    Week 2
  • Sweet & Rice
    This combo was suggested by the Bar Manager at On/Off Bar in Gaoxin (it’s pretty awesome, go check it out), and when he said rice the first thing that came to my mind was Horchata. Horchata is a Mexican spiced rice milk drink had in summer or on holidays. It’s a refreshing and sweet drink and the addition of cinnamon and almonds make it a pleaser of all ages. Of course, I felt that just making Horchata and adding some booze was a little uninspired. I decided to take the idea out of the box and thought, “what would Horchata be like if a Chinese person invented it?” So I started researching rice and spices used in Chinese cuisine, on a suggestion from Stephen, our editor, I decided to use black short grain rice instead of long white rice as per tradition to get more sweetness and to create a cool color for my Horchata. After settling on a few key spices and my rice, I started on a grueling labor of creating Chinese Black Horchata. The CBH as I call it has a dark purple hue, almost black when in a bottle, and was sweet and full of familiar spices like cinnamon, star anise and fennel. Honestly, that alone would have made a great drink but now I had to make a cocktail with it.
    I wanted this drink to be more than sweet, partially because I don’t like really sweet drinks, and also sweet is one-dimensional. After trying to think of another flavor that worked with sweet and rice, I was inspired by a bottle of roasted tea from an Everyday. The key flavor to give my drink life was smoky and roasted. I started trying different ingredients including rice wine and mezcal. Finally, I had a basic recipe but I wasn’t 100% in love with. I took my ingredients to the Craic, but this time when I made the drink, I made sure to get feedback from all the guest. The bar had a good number of regulars and newbies, so I had plenty of people to poll. After about 5-6 iterations and removing and adjusting some ingredients, I finally came up with a cocktail I was proud of. And luckily, Troy was at the bar at the time for me to test out the finally product, another success for me. I got praise from him and the other guest from the bar. It was a journey we took together and I am really thankful for everyone’s feedback.
    Week 3 & 4
  • Salty & Cream/Herbal & Preserved Tangerine
    You may be wondering, “Why are weeks 3 & 4 together?” Well my curious friend, it’s because it’s December. A time for holiday parties, events, travel, and NYE. Unfortunately, due to the holiday and all the events planned for this month, I currently haven’t been able to test out the last two cocktails. I have however been able to come up with recipes for them. I’ll tell you a little about them.
    First was the week 3 cocktail, Ben’s suggestion. When he told me salty and cream I wasn’t exactly sure where to go. I started thinking what has cream and is salty. The first thing that popped up was salted caramel. That’s a good start but how do I get that in a drink, will it be salty enough and does that count as a drink with cream. I had to do the some research. I went to the internet and some of my older cocktail books, I came across two things that would tie it all together. Milk punch and salted caramel syrup, mmmm.
    Looking through some pre-prohibition cocktail books I found a recipe for a milk punch drink, simply a drink with brandy and rum that had milk and sugar. And online I found someone who made a salted caramel syrup (just search on YouTube). The only thing next was to play around with the recipe a little. I went with bourbon because Ben’s a good ol’ American boy and I thought the flavor would be more to his liking. Then I wanted to give the drink some spice but also a strong vanilla note to round out the saltiness, I turned to Bacardi Oakheart (a spiced rum that leans heavily on vanilla) to help out. Finally, it was getting the rich mouthfeel just right and I decided to use half cream and half full fat milk (half and half works too). I combined them all, and I have to say, it’s a great winter or dessert cocktail. Finally, the biggest challenge was the herbal drink with tangerine. This drink was suggested by my friend Wang, and it was tough because we recently had a discussion about why Gin wasn’t more popular in China. When I think of herbal, I often think of Gin, but as we had just discussed Gin can come off like medicine to the Chinese palette. I wanted to create a better relationship with the flavor of herbal while still highlighting the tangerine. After some thought and research I decided that I should focus on a single herbal flavor, one that is familiar but not common. My miracle herb was basil, it comes in many varieties but is not overused in Chinese cuisine, it also pairs well with citrus fruits. After finding that the rest of the drink was fairly easy, a simple sour cocktail could bring all these flavors together beautifully. But alas, I have no one to test it on.
  • So, readers If you have gotten this far and are still interested I have a preposition. To work better with the seasons schedule I have decided to combine my Week 3 & 4 challenge into one day and have another tasting after the holidays. For those who are curious come help me by trying the Salty + Cream and Herbal + Tangerine cocktails. After my finally tasting, I’ll have a night to showcase my finished drinks and officially declare me the winner of the bet and I’ll post the recipes for the last two cocktails along with week 1 & 2 in our next issue of the Xianease (see I’m giving you something to look forward to, it’s like an extra Christmas present). So, keep an eye out for the event details, which will be posted by Xianease and me of course. As always, cheers my good friends and see you at the FINAL CHALLENGE!!!!!!

Jason Rogers is a mixologist extraordinaire living in Xi’an.