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.


Anonymous said...

Here are the unlovables. Make them lovely. Bonus points for using three or more of them together.

*Zen (seriously.)
*Clement Creole Shrubb (tastes fine neat, but...)
*Parfait Amour (aside from the Jupiter...)
*Fee's Mint Bitters
*Pimms #1 (no Pimm's cup)
*Lillet Rouge and/or Dubonnet Blanc
*Gabe's Mom
*Anchor Genevieve and/or Batavia Arrack (more alike than anyone wants to admit.)

Anonymous said...

Impressive, Doctor. I guess I'll dig out the bottle of Zirbenz from the back of my cabinet and give this a try.

Your open-ended offer to extend a helping hand to unloved ingredients may not have been advisable, however. You will be going home on Thursday with a few more bottles than you expected...

Tiare said...

Interesting post and your take on the difficult ingredients is impressive.I haven`t tried Zirbenz and i won`t pay the big bucks to get it shipped to me from say Germany when i can rather buy good demeraras. But here`s a list of booze i`m not very fond of, and which i wouldn´t buy:

Arctic strawberry flavord vodka
Malibu coconut

Rick D said...

Morgenthaler serves this drink at Clyde Commons. On the menu and everything. Go figure.

Kaiser Penguin said...

Totally love the art Craig. Though I guess I can always say that. :)

Ok, my challenge for you:

Creme de Banane

Robert Simonson, "Our Man in the Liquor-Soaked Trenches"-New York Times. said...

Admirable effort, Dr., on behalf of the piney stuff. I share your affection for the neglected. John, as for your list of unlovables, I would hesitate in including Clement Creole Shrubb. It's used in quite a few drinks at bars here in NY.

Anonymous said...

Robert, that you hold my mom in contempt beneath that of Creole Shrubb I shall have to avail...en garde!

RumDood said...

How can people not like Creole Shrubb? Did you eat paint chips as a child or something? Do you routinely abuse your palate by licking old tires that have been soaking in a pool full of rotting fish and old Del Taco?

You might as well say you hate puppies, kittens, rainbows, and unicorns.

Dr. Bamboo said...

JtB: I actually like/use Parfait Amour, Pimm's #1 and Fee's Mint Bitters. What a big, strange world it is...

Nathan- I'm curious yet afraid.

Tiare- You mean you don't enjoy the sweet, delicious coconut rapture of Malibu? ;-)

Rick- Do you mean he serves Zirbenz, or this specific recipe? Did I accidentally steal a JMo original?

Rick- Challenge accepted! I just need to find some.

Robert & Gabriel- I had a feeling this topic would touch off a Creole Shrubb war. I can feel Matt & Craig gearing up right now.

Dr. Bamboo said...

Dood- I sense a throwdown coming ;-)

Anonymous said...

I keep thinking I want to buy Zirbenz ... I have a sick attraction to all the oddball ingredients too.

Tony Harion said...

Ok, I’ve never seen Zirbenz around here, and probably won´t see it…

I have used crème de banana before, and actually think it works well on Tikish drinks.

The Fee´s Mint Bitters… I was thinking about them yesterday… I even mixed something with it yesterday, but I have to admit It´s probably the bitter I use the least.

Some of the most neglected ingredients on my cabinet (or should I say piles of boxed bottles) are the flavored vodkas. For some reason my friends keep giving me this sort of thing as gifts and they all end up getting thrown in the same shelf (box) and forgotten. I can’t help thinking that they have the ability to ruin almost every drink – Kinda like the Malibu thing…

Anonymous said...

Those of you who do use the mint bitters, could we get a few ideas please? I just bought some on a whim/nice comments I'd seen around the web and I agree that it's a great flavor, but not one I really know how to use effectively. I'd been thinking absinthe...

Jordan said...

If you want something from a little closer to home, Clear Creek puts out an Eau de Vie de Douglas Fir. It's the Northwest in liquid form.