Monday, October 20, 2008

Sipping an Earl Grey MarTEAni?

This blog post is another of those pieces that originally appeared in the pages of the Washington Examiner back in 2006. This one actually IS still available online at the Examiner website, so you could either go there directly by clicking here, or simply read below.

WASHINGTON - While on the west coast last week I had occasion to sample an unusual and, frankly, unfortunate tasting spirit, Green Tea Vodka. It was just a small sample and followed some outstanding cocktails and spirits (which I intend to report back on another time), so it is possible that it didn't get a fair hearing (the product shall remain nameless for the time being). I mention it now because it brought to mind a far more interesting tea-infused spirit concoction that is extremely good, perhaps even sublime: the Earl Grey MarTEAni.

As the brief post-Thanksgiving weekend portion of November is always such a slow period in the nation's capital, this little concoction makes for a pleasant diversion. For starters, it takes time and patience to prepare. The drink is the creation of New York mixologist Audrey Saunders, the mad scientist of cocktails behind the Pegu Club in Manhattan's West Village. It is a pretty simple formula: a spirit base, some acidity (fresh lemon juice), some sweetener (simple syrup), and an egg white for texture and added depth. As in all such things, however, the genius is in the details. The spirit that serves as the base here is Tanqueray gin which has been specially infused with Earl Grey tea.

Audrey Saunders created this following a working trip to London. She had been invited to work a Thanksgiving celebration at The Ritz Hotel in London several years back, and thought up this little number while enjoying British tastes and flavors. The cocktail proved a big hit in London and in New York, and led to a spurt of tea-based cocktails on both sides of the Atlantic.

Infusing spirits is a wonderfully easy way to experiment with flavors. Any number of herbs and spices, even vegetables, can be called into service here. When testing these infusion ideas out, stick to high-proof bottlings, the alcohol will work to boost the flavors. Most people prefer to work with vodka, like the unnamed perpetrator of the Green Tea Vodka, because of vodka's high alcohol content, clarity, and nearly zero taste profile. It is virtually like painting on a clean, white surface. Gin is a bit trickier, but only a bit. Tanqueray gin, at 47.3 percent alcohol by volume, is a good and not too expensive bottle to play with, as is Beefeater (47 percent), Bombay Sapphire (47 percent), or even Van Gogh (47 percent). Or you can go wild, spend quite a bit more, and tinker with something already sublime like Old Raj Gin (55 percent). The only limits here are self-imposed.

In the Earl Grey MarTEAni, Ms. Saunders's genius was in recognizing somehow that the distinct Bergamot flavors of Earl Grey would somehow blend well with the botanicals in "London Dry" styled gin. The lemon juice helps to bind and tame the flavors, while adding a supportive zing, the simple syrup helps balance out the acidity while complementing the tea, and the egg white elevates the whole into something rich and silky.

Here then is the Earl Grey MarTEAni (adapted from Audrey Saunders' recipe).

First, you must infuse your gin, this simple, but time-consuming. Add 1/4 cup of loose Earl Grey tea leaves to a 1 liter bottle of Tanqueray gin, screw the cap back in place and shake the hell out of the bottle. Let this steep for 2 hours or so, then gradually strain out the tea leaves, but don't press the tea leaves, otherwise you'll extract bitter tannins as well as excess gin.

Then put 1 and 1/2 ounces of your Earl Grey Gin Infusion, 3/4 of an ounce (about 4 tablespoons) of fresh lemon juice with 1 ounce of simple syrup, and 1 egg white into a cocktail shaker filled at least 2/3 full of hard, cracked ice. Shake the hell out of it for about 15 seconds or so, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon. Although I'm less convinced of the worthwhileness of adding this extra step, I should mention that the original recipe calls for the pre-chilled cocktail glass to be rimmed lemon-zest infused sugar (finely grate the zest of 1 whole lemon andmix with 1/2 cup of granulated sugar).

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