I know some things are better left to professionals. But every now and then I get a wild hair and attempt some cocktail magic in the kitchen.
I’ve infused vodka with fresh horseradish root (thumbs up) and ginger (not my favorite), and occasionally re-created craft cocktails I’ve tasted at fine bars here and there.
But I’ve been stumped lately, awaiting inspiration in the presence of an unlikely mixer. It’s called Moxie, a cola-type product with a cult following and mostly available just in its native turf of New England.
My mother loved the stuff when your correspondent was growing up there. And I only came to it later in life as an acquired taste — kind of a root beer or Dr Pepper subtle sweetness with an herbal, medicinal aftertaste (thanks to gentian root extract).
Every now and then a New England friend drives through and delivers a case, so I’ve been wanting to give it a place in a cocktail.
I posed the challenge recently to my mustachioed friend Victor Swerdlove, who lords over and creates cocktails behind the tiny bar at PotPie on Westport Road.
He’d never heard of the stuff, but he did offer an intriguing solution. Try gin, he said. Anytime you’re in doubt, he added, the distinctive flavor profiles of gin can guide you.
Fair enough. A gin experiment ensued.
I had two kinds of gin at home — a standard-issue London-style spirit called Plymouth and a boutique product from Wisconsin, Death’s Door, which I was very grateful to have discovered at a gin seminar (yes, it really was) at last summer’s Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival in Kansas City.
The distinction of Death’s Door gin comes from its bold lineup of botanical ingredients. In addition to juniper berries, the foundation of all gins — the word stems from the Dutch for juniper,
— the craft distillers at Death’s Door use coriander and fennel. Almost all of their ingredients are grown on Washington Island, the distillery’s home off the Door County Peninsula. The result is an aggressively flavored and textured gin that I’m happy, from time to time, to sip straight.
It occurred to me that, despite the already present herbal bitterness of Moxie, some version of bitters should come into play in this cocktail experiment, and so I lined up a few bottles, cracked some ice and started pouring. I made four variations with each pairing of gin and Moxie, or a total of eight cocktail samples using, in succession, Angostura bitters, Angostura orange bitters, Bitter Truth Xocolatl Mole chocolate bitters, and, for something completely different, Dolin Vermouth of Chambery.
The first version, with a couple or three dashes of Angostura bitters, proved the least satisfying mix. There was a pleasant kind of easy balance with each gin and Moxie, but both samples seemed flat and unexciting. My kitchenmate’s reaction when tasting the Death’s Door glass affirmed my lack of enthusiasm: “Ew,” she said.
She and I agreed that the next cocktails, made with orange bitters, were far better. The citrus layer helped cut through the soft drink’s inner, understated sweetness, and each of the gins held their ground in the mix (stirred, not shaken, given the soda’s fizz).
Next came the version with chocolate bitters.
Interesting that the glass with the Plymouth gin held onto a distinctive aroma, and the Moxie’s bitterness seemed preserved, although not necessarily for the better.
The Death’s Door version had much better balance; its collision of strong flavor profiles worked together quite harmoniously. It felt much like a winter drink (good timing, given our screwy spring) and the tastemate’s judgment might have been right on when she said, “That tastes like a man’s drink.”
I used the Chambery vermouth in a one-to-one ratio with each gin and an equivalent, freely poured splash of Moxie. The Plymouth version had a kind of elegance, though it leaned more to the sweet side. (Does that make it a woman’s drink?) The Death’s Door version, no surprise, was far more aggressively herbal, but was softened nicely by the vermouth. I think we both liked it a lot.
Perhaps some day you’ll come across Moxie and like it. But maybe you’ll have your own kitchen experiment to conduct with another mysterious mixer. If so, take Victor’s advice: Start it with gin.
Steve Paul has been a writer and editor at The Kansas City Star since 1975 and regularly contributes restaurant reviews. He cooks a bit at home, has developed a decent knowledge of and experience with wine, and makes frequent forays into the taste and practice of craft cocktails.