Blair, a friend of mine from college, was the first person to teach me what a real cocktail was. He was one of the few people I knew who was taller than me, and he had the build of a guy who you could guess wrestled in High School. I always thought he looked exactly like the ideal image of what someone of Scandinavian decent must look like, icy eyes and blond hair as soft as his demeanor. I don't recall exactly how we met but, regardless, he quickly became a part of my life and was eagerly welcomed by my circle of friends. Soon part of our clique we were spending every weekend together watching bad horror movies and whipping together new cocktails. The boy was simply sweeter than honey and as naturally endearing. He still is, in fact.
Blair, like everyone else who first came to my apartment, was staggered by the liquor cabinet my roommates and I had assembled. The cabinet, more of a set of display shelves inlaid into a small inset of living space wall, was packed full with bottles; everything from Anejo and Midori, to Amaretto and Gin. We had it all, and our collection could rival many small bars. Freshmen would look upon it in awe and realize they had come to Nirvana with a swizzle stick. To most college students it was akin to coming across a burning bush and hearing God's voice come out of it. Only, in this case, it was Captain Morgan's voice coming from behind a bottle of Cinnamon Schnapps.
The imbibing impetus for this collection was a small book on cocktails that we had. Every weekend my friends and I would look through the book and decide to concoct something new from its pages. This more than likely meant that we would have to stop at the liquor store for more spirits on our way back from picking up a copy of "Revenge of the Killer Tongue" or other B-horror flick. This meant every single weekend, for about four years, we bought one to three new bottles of liquor. By senior year our bar was beyond epic.
At the time, none of us had any inkling of using fresh anything in our cocktails. This was clear when you realized that we had raspberry, lemon, vanilla, cranberry, and apple vodka sitting on our shelves. For the most part, I think that this is pretty common amongst college students. Home bartending for the student is a means to an end and not a craft. To us the art of craft was saved for Sarah's epic nights of spinning yarn, Andrew's leather working, or my afternoons at gymnastics and fencing. Cocktails were merely flavorful and creative ways to get toasted.
Unlike my other friends Blair didn't see it this way. With a near limitless supply of liquors and spirits he saw brushes and canvas and near limitless colors with which to paint. On one of his first nights over I watched the way he carefully looked through each and every bottle. Every so often he would pull one down and try to tell us what he had learned about the liquor; where it came from, what grain was used, or the details of the infusion process. If he didn't know he would go online and research it and read aloud what he found. "So that way we know what we're doing when we mix it," he would say before grabbing the shaker and some ice. We would simply nod then go back to scaring ourselves with the newest Silent Hill video game. We would only pause a few minutes later when Blair came back with a round of expertly shaken drinks.
Cocktails were craft to Blair, and everyone was happy to have met someone who saw it that way. It made me happy to see someone who enjoyed his mixology - that was what Blair called it, a term I was at the time unfamiliar with - and took pride in it. His commitment became evidently clear when he arrived one night with a bag of lemons. I liked the way he shooed me away when I presented him with a bottle of lemon vodka and he genially pecked me on the forehead, spun me around, and smacked me on the bum to get me out of the kitchen.
So, from the other side of the counter that separated the living space from the kitchen, I watched Blair begin his preparation. It was thoughtful, the way Blair was about everything from what he picked from a menu to simply which road was the quickest to the gas station. I think I was the only one who realized how serious he took this process. Blair was always smiling his broad smile that made you think that the next sentence to come out of his mouth would be a laughing "Aww, shucks." When mixing drinks this smile faded into pursed lips pressed so hard they went from pink to white. He was concentrating so hard that disturbing him, which I probably did a lot of, became taboo. I reasoned that he was dealing with booze and so this was the self-inflicted curse of any viticulture and eneology major.
Crafting simple syrup, spritzing oils, carving off thin twirls of lemon peel, juicing lemons with an actual lemon juicer, and deftly rimming glasses with sugar seemed so easy for him. He scraped and shook and cut and poured until, finally, he presented me with a Lemon Drop.
I sipped and was dazzled. Life became lemon; sweet and sour and no hint of alcohol burn it slipped across the tongue and screamed of citrus candy. I looked at Blair, "Oh. My. God."
"That's what a lemon drop is supposed to taste like," he said.
I've taken these lessons to heart and heightened my cocktail crafting. With the exception of a few artisan, small batch flavored vodkas I always rely fresh fruit to flavor drinks.
A year ago I potted a dwarf yuzu tree on my patio. Yuzu is a type of citrus hailing form East Asia and is used in primarily Korean and Japanese cooking. It is incredibly aromatic and has a flavor profile of mandarin and grapefruit.
One of the prevailing and most valued qualities of yuzu is its use in cooking. While many other types of citrus juices burn easily in cooking - especially in stir fry - and become bitter the juice of a yuzu can withstand high heat and retain its fragrant sweet-sour flavor. It's also a key ingredient in ponzu sauce.
However, the amount of juice per fruit is sparse - about one teaspoon. The interior is mostly seed. However, the skin is packed with yuzu oil. As such, the skin is often candied or zested into baked goods.
My tiny tree gave me three fruits this year and all of them are fragrant and bursting with flavor, as if someone crammed and entire citrus stand into a single sphere.
I decided to tip my hat to Blair and use one in a cocktail. The bright yuzu pairs well with nearly any liquor, but I went with a floral gin that complimented the citrus. Considering how little juice is in a yuzu I had to muddle the whole fruit so hard my hand cramped but the work was well worth it as the oils were coaxed out to mingle with the gin. A small squeeze of lemon added a bit more sour to complete the drink. The result was a yuzu gin fizz that highlighted the sunny citrus fruit.
If you find a yuzu be sure to treasure it and use it wisely. Same goes for your favorite amateur bartender in your life.
Yuzu Gin Fizz Cocktail
2 ounces Gin
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Cut the yuzu into quartes and place in a shaker with the gin. Using a muddler or a pestle grind and smash up the gin and yuzu together until very well mixed. Add the sugar, lemon juice and some ice and shake vigorously. Pour and strain into a highball glass and top with ice and carbonated water.