Local Libations: The Frida
By Han Shan and Andrew States
A note to readers:
New York City is only just inching into spring. The farmers markets are growing; more and more vendors step onto the sidewalks to ply the wares that have, since the onset of fall, eluded the great city’s denizens. Numerous and new produce fills the rickety, mud covered crates that line the pop up bazaars. But it’s never going to be enough. The terroir profile of the great north eastern United States has not altered to include citrus and agave, and that means that some things will ever remain out of reach. Until the climate of the planet changes so irrevocably that Bleeker Street resembles Guadalajara, this region will have to import many of the things to which the average Californian, and this is no slight, is accustomed.
This recipe revolves around two kinds of alcohol that, by their very definition, cannot be found in the United States, much less New York. This brings up unseemly moral questions: Do we abstain from all things that we cannot purchase locally? How does one strike a balance between ecologically sound consumption and culinary creativity? Is balance really the issue or is it simply that we will continue to eat and drink what we want and swallow our guilt? It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have in a climate so restricted, but a conversation worth having and one that I believe, with all its pitfalls and contradictions, is central to the RecipeRelay ethos. It is primarily a dialogue about sacrifice and a subject with which most conscientious consumers are already familiar. We engage in it every time we purchase exotic fruit, an out of season vegetable, a glass of foreign wine. It is a continuous and dynamic discourse that must temper responsibility with culture. Part of understanding the world is experiencing the richness it has to offer. It must be done carefully and fairly and with a commitment to keep the damage to a minimum. Bearing that in mind, this will be the last time I mention the problem in such detail. I wanted to address the subject more clearly than I have in past posts without trying to shoehorn it in somewhere inappropriate and jarring. Let this act as my last word on the subject and all forthcoming posts can refer back here.
With that said, I present to you a collaboration between myself and Han Shan: The Frida
CLICK HERE for the full post and recipe.
A few weeks ago, I tried to pin Han Shan down for a new drink. He’s a constant fiddler. He takes a sip and tweeks, sips again and tweeks, swirls them around in his mouth and tweeks until he is satisfied that he’s either created something delicious or completely unpalatable. This tendency toward experimentation raises the quality and variety of his drinks above that of most casual mixologists placing him nearer the strata of the new wave of cocktail bon vivants. Which is why I wanted to work with him. He’s also incredibly busy and had to pass on my offer, but not before he excitedly rattled off a list of ingredients with which he’d been meaning to experiment. So, it was with faint optimism that I asked him to help me with this latest post and when he accepted, my mind immediately leapt back to our prior conversation. I told him about Kat’s use of tequila in her Fired up! Margarita and I could see the engine rattling to life. He’d been enamored of tequila lately, due in no small part to an event he’d attended hosted by Phil Ward, star Barman late of Death and Co. and now part-owner and author of the menu at the East Village’s Mayhuel. Han Shan had something in mind. Gleefully fulfilling the role of party bartender at a recent gathering, he’d concocted a drink that he wanted to run past me.
One of the chief benefits of living in a city like New York is the availability of items otherwise elusive. One such slippery element was the first ingredient on our list. Bonal Gentiane-Quina Aperitif Wine was only relatively recently made available in the States by rare spirits importer Eric Seed. Before that, the innovative cocktalier (which is a word I may have just made up – I’m sick of writing “mixologist.) was on his or her own to figure out how to get their busy little hands on the stuff, and it was usually on pretty dodgy legal footing. An aperitif wine delicious in its own right, Bonal Gentiane-Quina is infused with gentian, quinine and various “herbs.” In a broad sense, it has a flavor similar to good sweet vermouth, though the quinine particulars are its truly distinctive element. At Sarah’s urging, I had picked up a bottle of Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal and was lugging it around Manhattan in my backpack. Besides the smoky flavor for which Mezcal is famous, the Del Maguey boasts a 100% organic rating by both USDA and OCIA International. It also tastes fantastic. Back at his apartment I gave Han Shan a sip and his eyes lit up. We’d also bought a bottle of Espólon Tequila Blanco - a 100% agave tequila for a price reasonable enough to appear antithetical to its smooth and easy flavor. Liquor this cheap doesn’t often taste this good. It was the tequila he’d been exhorted to use in his initial experiments and it happened to be the very same tequila Kat just employed. A little piece of symmetry too auspicious to go unmentioned. With a quick stop for ginger and limes, we carried the pieces of our experiment up the pre-war stairs to Han Shan’s living room.
The air outside was swollen with the smell of rain and a light fog lay over the city. We tasted each ingredient separately and talked things over. He explained to me that the classic Mexican artwork on the label of the bottle of Espolón is what inspired the name Frida and we got to talking about the prevailing wisdom and subsequent misconceptions surrounding tequila and mezcal. Tequila’s gotten a bad reputation because it has typically been represented in this country by what are known as mixtos, that is, tequila mixed with grain neutral spirits. It’s the same process that makes bad whiskey, bad brandy, and bad, well almost everything. The preferred tequila, for people who know, is 100% agave. Often smooth, often complex, but not painful and not the paint thinner most places that don’t know any better serve. Where tequila is badly represented, mezcal is unknown. Also from the agave plant, mezcal is baked in the ground in ovens heated with wood charcoal which is where it gets its earthy and smoky flavors. Typically, mezcal is thought to be too powerful, too distinct, to serve as the base for any kind of well-balanced cocktail, and it was with this assumption that Han Shan and I began our mixing.
After concocting a batch of ginger simple syrup, we used the Espolón as our primary liquor. Our intention was to merely float the mezcal on the top as a pleasant finishing note, but as we continued, adding the Gentiane-Quina, the lime juice and the now cooled simple syrup, we found ourselves puzzled and not totally pleased. We could taste the mezcal, but not as much as we’d like. Fine-tuning our portions around the original recipe, we mixed up several versions. I watched as Han Shan went through his pre-tasting ritual. He took quick deep breaths like a pearl diver preparing to go under and then rolled each successive trial in his mouth. Finally, we settled on a new and shared truth: If we wanted more mezcal, we’d just use more. After a little further tweeking, we came to a mix we liked and started snapping pictures. As the end of the process neared Han Shan’s camera died and, while looking for a new battery, he came up with a final flourish. With an unsettled look on his face he shrugged, “What if we use a little grapefruit bitters?” I shrugged back at him. What’s the harm in trying? So, he went through his collection and came up with a bottle of Fee Brother’s Grapefruit bitters. He added a couple of dashes – we’d found the final piece, the element that brought the drink to a close. That’s how it works with recipes. You add and take away, add and take away, slowly navigating your way down the path until you find yourself in a place where nothing should be removed and nothing further need be affixed. We snapped a few final pictures to prove we’d done it and then I bid him goodnight, my backpack once more full of liquor, only now I knew what to do with it.
In the hope that the reader might brave the rich world of agave, we give you our collaboration:
Prep time: 1 minute
Tools: Peeler, knife, sauce pan, spoon, strainer, measuring cup, cocktail shaker, cocktail strainer
Yield: 1 serving
- 1/2 oz. ginger simple syrup (see recipe below)
- 1 1/2 oz. tequila blanco
- 1 oz. Mezcal
- 3/4 oz. lime juice
- 3/4 oz. Bonal Gentiane-Quina Quinquina Vin Aperitif
- 2-3 dashes Fee Bros. Grapefruit Bitters
Ginger Simple Syrup (makes about 1 1/4 cups)
- 1/4 cup ginger, roughly chopped
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1 cup sugar
Ginger Simple Syrup:
- Bring water and ginger to a boil
- Stir in 1 cup of sugar
- Simmer for 2-3 minutes
- Let stand to cool
- Strain out chopped ginger
- In a shaker, add 1 1/2 oz of Tequila Blanco
- Add 1 oz Mezcal
- Add 3/4 oz Bonal Gentiane-Quina Quinquina Vin Aperitif
- Add 3/4 oz fresh lime juice
- Add 1/2 oz ginger simple syrup
- Add ice
- Strain into cocktail glass
- Add 2-3 dashes Fee Bros. Grapefruit Bitters
- Drink heartily