Monday, March 23, 2009

Sample Jamboree and the Strange Allure of Unpopular Ingredients


As I mentioned in my previous post, I have a strange fascination with drink ingredients that no one seems to like. I don’t know whether I simply feel sorry for them in an orphaned-puppy kind of way, or if it’s more of a desire to find a way to successfully employ something everyone else has deemed unusable. Probably a bit of both.

One ingredient that appears to have been resoundingly written off by the cocktail community (or at least the part of it I communicate with regularly) is Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur. (I‘ve also seen it listed as “Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur of the Alps“, which to me sounds less like a beverage and more like a 1920’s adventure novel . For the sake of brevity, I’ll just call it “Zirbenz” from here on out).

Does this innocent distillate deserve to be lumped in with the other pariahs of the drink world? I should clarify right up front that I’m not saying Zirbenz isn’t good…it’s just that I don’t know anyone who uses it.* I know several people who own a bottle, but rarely (if ever) go back to it after the initial breaking of the seal. Whether this is because they don’t care for the taste or find it difficult to mix with I can’t say. What I can say is that I hate to see something get kicked to the back of the liquor cabinet without a fair shake. And I also have a sick compulsion to salvage stuff that gets rejected. The more people claim something is unworkable, the more I’m intrigued by it and endeavor to find a use for it.

For those that haven’t sampled it, it’s piney. Extremely piney. Imagine grinding up a Christmas wreath, adding the floor sweepings from a 7th-grade shop class and steeping it in a jug of Everclear for a month. Now you’ve got the picture. Which again, doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s just that a lot of people appear to have an aversion to things that taste of evergreen. Rick over at Kaiser Penguin recently discussed this in his investigation into why gin is such a hard-sell for many people.

Without going into the boring details of my personal quest to redeem Zirbenz, I’ll cut to the chase and say that I found gin to be an excellent base spirit to combine it with. I also discovered later on while browsing the Zirbenz site** that plenty of other folks apparently thought so too- most of the recipes listed are gin-centric.

So it’s at this point you’re probably thinking, “By all that is good and decent, why in the world would you pair a pine liqueur with another ingredient whose detractors cite overwhelming pine flavor as its biggest flaw?”

The answer is that I spent a tremendous amount of time and energy combining Zirbenz with virtually every other brand and style of base spirit in my liquor cabinet until I could definitively say that gin works best.

Actually, this is a complete lie. I came up with a drink name first and then hoped that the combination of ingredients that reflected the name would actually make a decent drink. The cosmic forces that govern booze nerd activity must have been on my side, because I think it actually does…

Zirbenz Kingsley

1.5 oz. gin
.5 oz. Zirbenz
2-3 dashes orange bitters
3 oz. tonic

Build first 3 ingredients in rocks glass with ice. Top with tonic and stir. Garnish with lime wedge.

Yep, it’s a just a Gin & Tonic. With Zirbenz. And a blip of bitters to wrap it all up. (It also helps the drink immensely to squeeze the lime wedge into it.)

A simple drink to be sure, but here’s the trick: The gin makes or breaks it. I won’t reveal how many different ones I tried, but I found that a lot of straightforward London drys don’t work well. Plymouth isn’t bad, but the ones I’d put at the top of the heap were North Shore #6 and Right. They’re both very soft, and I think it’s exactly this lack of sharpness that makes them match up so well with the Zirbenz, dulling it’s bite and making it whisper rather than shout. (I take this as some kind of divine sign, since both these gins arrived right in the middle of my experimentation period.)

So the moral of the story is this: If you’ve got some ingredient that just doesn’t seem to work in anything no matter what you try, do the following:

1) Persevere. There’s gotta be a use for it somewhere.
2) Tell me what it is. I have an irrational need to find homes for these things.

*I realize this sounds embarrassingly similar to the quote often (and apparently inaccurately) attributed to Pauline Kael about Nixon’s ‘72 presidential victory. Rest assured, I’m aware that someone has got to be using it.

**I also realized that I’m out of Zirbenz and need to get some more. I’ll bet there aren’t many people who have actually uttered those words.