Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Jerry Thomas Project The Champagne Cocktail

So today I ran into a huge stumbling block when trying to make the Whiskey Cocktail. I don’t have Boker’s bitters and since the cocktail is just whiskey, gum syrup, and Boker’s bitters I’ve decided that I need to try a lot harder to make a batch of Boker’s bitters before I make this cocktail. The next four cocktails utilize Boker’s bitters - so they are going on the backburner until I get some made.

O.k. so seriously, why can’t you buy Boker’s bitters? They seem to be Thomas’s favorite bitters. David Wondrich, who has written extensively on pre-prohibition mixology, says that they were the leading cocktail bitters for much of the nineteenth century but just like the horse and carriage they are now only found in Amish barns (the Rumspringa kids drink them for fun) or on the shelf of super geeky mixologists. Making Boker’s bitters has proven harder than anything should be in this day of Internet love. Catechu was holding me up, thank god I don’t have to call places and ask for it - as I don’t even have a clue how that word is pronounced. I finally figured out that catechu comes from the betel nut - so that is what I am going to use to make Boker’s bitters. I found the best price for betel nuts on a site that also sold ten different book titles on pagan spirituality, so it will be interesting to see the junk mail I get from these mailing lists. Everything has been ordered, so hopefully I can start the bitters early next week and they will be ready by the middle of October.

Instead I made the Champagne Cocktail, which is still a cocktail that I get orders for on occasion. Not as often as ten years ago, but every once in awhile I’ll have a woman order one. My most current patron who orders them always tells me how to make it, which always makes me want to roll my eyes and glare at her for a good fifteen seconds but no one would find me charming then, now would they? So instead, I smile reassuringly as she tells me about the sugar cube.

Thomas uses a lump of sugar, I just used a cube. We’ve made sugar “cubes” in the restaurant before and I really should have take the time to make such a lump - but I didn’t want to wait a day to make a sugar lump so I just vied for the simplicity of the store-bought cube. Or I could be trying to make it a lot harder for no reason because it could also just be old vernacular for a cube, as the Brits say lump when they really mean a cube. Anyhow, I don’t think the flavor would change - just the lump would dissolve faster and you probably would get more bubbles as the lump might have more surface area. Thomas says that a quart bottle of wine will make six cocktails, so each cocktail is a little more than five ounces. This one was simple and I already knew it was delicious. In my decadent younger days my friends and I would drink Pez Clicquot Cocktails, using pez candy as the sugar lump and foregoing the bitters.
(If only wine still came in quart bottles!)

As for gum syrup, I am going to make a batch using gum arabic - as I would really like to know the flavor difference between that and simple syrup.

Concerning ice, Thomas calls for putting a small lump of ice in his champagne cocktail. Which I wouldn’t typically do, but I did for this drink. It occurred to me that Thomas’s ice most likely came in huge blocks and he either had to chip it or shave it away. Wondrich confirmed my believe and clarified that the debate over ice was just as hot in 1887 as it is today, Thomas argued shaved ice should be used in drinks where there was no water added and lump ice should be used when using egg, milk, wine, and vermouth (but the ice should be removed before you served the drink - although he doesn’t say to remove the ice in the champagne cocktail recipe). Today we argue if you should use commonplace restaurant ice, freeze your own ice and chip it, create ice balls one at a time with a $200 machine from Japan, or purchase a Kold-Draft ice machine (which makes the densest coldest commercial ice available). It makes you wonder what ice is going to be like in another 130 years.


  1. There is a guy in England who is selling Bokers by mail. I believe it ends up being a little over $20 shipped from the UK per small bottle.

    Catechu I found on a store on eBay. A lot of the herbs that I cannot source locally I get on eBay as well (although a different store: Frendzco -- I highly recommend -- everything from Tonka bean to benzoin resin). The hippies/new agers/pagans or however you want to call them are a great resource. They keep a great library of herbs especially ones that are eschewed by modern cooking and medicine, and they're rather fresh and often organic and hand harvested. My friend in the commercial brewing industry also praises them as a resource.

    Please feel free to contact me at yarm-at-verizon.net or via CocktailVirgin if you need further guidance in finding herbs, bottles, or other advice.

  2. Great post on The Jerry Thomas Project The Champagne Cocktail. I really enjoyed this post very much............