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Cheers! Improvise and make a drink at home with what you've got

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Not everyone has this kind of selection, but you just might have what you need to make a nice drink at home.

You can’t go to your favorite cocktail bar. It's closed because of the COVID-19 outbreak. But, you might have a few bottles in your house. What can you make with what you have?

Tammy Coxen with Tammy’s Tastings thinks it’s time to improvise a little. To put her idea to the test, she put a selection on her table and asked Lester Graham to choose some of them and she’d make a drink.

Tammy: A little choose your own adventure game.

We've talked about sours on the show a bunch of times before. We've made whiskey sours, we've made daiquiris and things like that. All of these are part of a group of cocktails that we call sours and that just means they have a base spirit, a citrus, and a sweetener. And you can mix and match those.

If you use gin and lime juice and simple syrup, you've made a gimlet. If you use rum and lime juice and simple syrup, you've made a daiquiri. Lots of our classic cocktails kind of fit into this formula. That's the place to start, I think, when you're at home. As long as you have some citrus, ideally fresh, I will modify my only fresh juice 'rule' for the pandemic. But, if you have even just a little wedge of lemon or lime to add to some bottled juice, that can brighten the flavor at ton.

Lester: Okay, you've got a bunch of spirits here and they're all Michigan spirits. Very nice. A bourbon, rum, a vodka, tequila and gin. And I'm supposed to pick one of these to make this sour. Is that right?

Tammy:Yep. Go ahead.

Lester:All right. Well, I'm going to make it easy. I'm going to pick the bourbon.

Tammy: All right. So we have bourbon as our base spirit.

Lester: And so now you need a citrus?

Tammy: Yes.

Lester: I know that, generally speaking, lemon goes really good with bourbon and rye, any kind of whiskey, right?

Tammy: I think so.

Lester: I'm trying to make this easy for you.

Tammy: Ah, that's very nice of you, Lester.

Lester: All right. Now we have to have a sweetener.

Tammy: That's right. So instead of using just simple syrup, which would make a whiskey sour if we did bourbon, lemon and simple syrup, we're gonna go a little more creative. And you know, you've probably got some random bottle of liqueur sitting around on your cabinet. Maybe you bought it for a cocktail, didn't know what to do with it. So, this is an opportunity to bust out those sweet fruity liqueurs or spiced liqueurs and use those as the sweetener in your sour to kind of put a new twist on an old classic.

Lester: Okay. Some of these look like you've got them as a white elephant gift or something. I mean, I don't know some of these, but okay. This is a ginger liqueur. This is grapefruit. This is spiced pear. That sounds good. I don't know that I've ever run into that. Ancho chile liqueur, that looks really nice. I like that idea of it anyway. Oh, St. Germain, the bartenders ketchup. That's a pretty common. It's Elderflower. Very good. So, I'm going to go with the spiced pear. Would that work?

Tammy: Let's make one and find out.

Tammy pours, mixes, and adjusts after tasting. It turned out to be a very nice drink.

Lester: All right. I did a pretty good job with that pear liqueur. That was pretty good stuff.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Improvised sour #1.

Tammy: I used two ounces of the Michigan Straight Bourbon Whiskey from Eastern Kille Distillery in Grand Rapids. Then I used three quarters of an ounce of lemon juice and then I started with three quarters of an ounce of the liqueur. So that's a good baseline formula. But then you're going to want to taste it because different liqueurs have different levels of sweetness. And in this case, the spiced pear liqueur I was using wasn't very sweet. So I added a half ounce of simple syrup just to balance it. You just shake it up and taste it and then add a little simple syrup or add more citrus if it's too sweet. You can kind of adjust as you go.  (Recipe below.)

Lester: All right. Got that.

Tammy: Well, that was fun. Want to do it again?

Lester: Sure. Let's try another one. I'm not going to be so easy this time. Let's pick vodka, because it doesn't really bring any taste to the table at all.

Tammy: But lots of people have vodka at home. So that's a great choice.

Lester: And then let's use the lime you've got over there.

Tammy: Okay.

Lester: And now a sweetener. Vodka. Lime.  And, let's try this ginger stuff, this ginger liqueur.

Tammy: I like that. It's kind of taking us in a Moscow mule direction. Ginger, lime, vodka.

Lester: Yeah, I guess so. That makes sense. All right. Let's try this.

Tammy mixes and adjusts.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
After starting with a base formula, be sure to give it a taste in case the drink needs a little simple syrup or a little more citrus.

Lester: OK. Well, this looks a lot like the previous one, except it's not yellow, it's clear or clear-ish. It's whitish. So, let's see what it tastes like. (Sips drink.) OK, so it's a sour. Completely different from the other one. As you might expect, I guess. But I thought the challenge of the vodka would give you a curveball or something. But, this has a lot of flavor. It's really delicious. (Recipe below.)

Tammy: That's the joy of using a flavored liqueur instead of just simple syrup. We've got other places that we can bring flavor in from. So the Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur we used just added a lot of flavor here.

Lester: Yeah, I'd say so. So did you make this basically the same way you did the other one?

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Improvised sour #2.

Tammy: I started with that same base recipe that anybody could use to kind of come up with a sour on their own. So that's two ounces of the base spirit. In this case, that was Two James Vodka. And then three quarter ounce of the ginger liqueur. Three quarter ounce of lime juice in this case. And then just like last time I tasted it and needed a little tweak. This time I only added a quarter ounce of simple syrup because the ginger liqueur that we used was sweeter on its own. Plus, I wanted this drink to kind of have a little bit more punch and be a little bit brighter.

Lester: Yeah, it's citrusy. It's really is nice. Any more tips?

Tammy: Well, we've been saying citrus kind of generically, but for a sour to work that citrus really needs to be either lemon juice or lime juice. Orange juice and grapefruit juice just aren't tart enough to really balance the cocktail. If you do want to use orange juice, grapefruit juice, then you'll need to add some lemon or lime juice to balance it out.

Lester: So, the lesson here is kind of crawl through your liquor shelf and see what you've got. You might be able come up with a drink of your own.

Tammy: And don't be afraid to experiment. Lots of new drinks were invented when somebody didn't have what they needed to make an old drink.

Lester: Necessity, the mother of invention. All right. Cheers!

Tammy: Cheers!

Here are the recipes starting with the basic idea and followed by the two Tammy made.

Improvised Sour

2 oz spirit of your choice

3/4 oz sweetener such as simple or infused syrup, flavored liqueur, homemade grenadine

3/4 oz lemon or lime juice

simple syrup to taste - if you're using a liqueur, you might need to adjust the sweetness

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into a coupe, or drink it on the rocks if you like that better!

Improvised sour #1

2 oz Eastern Kille Michigan Straight Bourbon Whiskey

3/4 oz St. George Spiced Pear Liqueur

3/4 oz lemon juice

1/2 oz simple syrup

Put ingredients in a tin shaker. Add ice. Shake well. Strain into a coupe.

Improvised sour #2

2 0z Two James Vodka

3/4 oz Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur

3/4 oz lime juice

1/4 oz simple syrup

Put ingredients in a tin shaker. Add ice. Shake well. Strain into a coupe.

Tammy Coxen and Lester Graham are the authors of Cheers to Michigan: A Celebration of Cocktail Culture and Craft Distillers from the University of Michigan Press. The book is based on the Cheers! episodes heard on Michigan Radio.

Want to support programming like this? Consider making a gift to Michigan Radio today.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Radio from 1998-2010.
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