Cocktails are all about balance. That is what they always say. What does that really mean though? On the one hand it is obvious, you picture some scales and line them up right in the middle, that is balance. In a drink, it means that no one flavor overpowers the others, that each has a counterpoint. The harsh edge of alcohol is softened by sweetness. That sugar wrestles with bitterness, salt partners with citrus to counteract them both. All these disparate elements coming together to work in harmony, seeking that balance we aim for. Sometimes, we throw that formula out the window and lean into the extremes, but mostly, we just want a peaceful existence. Sometimes it is a struggle to find that glorious utopia in a glass, but that quest for balance is always key. With that in mind, won’t you join me now as we stand and make Johann Goes to Mexico.
Yesterday I turned fifty. Seems hard to believe, but in a triumph of marketing I’m gonna turn that into “over a half century of experience” and keep on keeping on. My dear partner in crime and life gifted me a bottle of Del Maguey’s Pechuga mezcal to celebrate this auspicious occasion. Pechuga is made in very limited quantities inside small, hand-formed clay stills after the Autumn harvest in Santa Carina Minas, Oaxaca. It is distilled twice in these small stills using traditional methods before it is finished with a third distillation adding locally harvested flavors of the season. Wild mountain apples, plums, red plantains, pineapples, almonds and rice from Oaxaca’s central valley come together to add layers of flavor along with the star of the show, a chicken breast. Yep, you heard that right, a raw chicken breast, un pechuga de pollo, is suspended in the still and has the vapors pass over it lending flavor and the spirit of the chicken to the drink. It is then bottled straight off the still without dilution, which meant 98 proof this year. This special and complicated elixir is generally served straight to showcase the nuanced flavor that all of that extra care brings and saved for significant celebrations, like successfully breathing for fifty continuous years.
Naturally, I tried it, enjoyed all of the layers of flavor that unfold as you sip and decided to go against the grain and use it in a cocktail. Not just any cocktail either, but a riff on the drink that began this journey of journalistic imbibery two years ago, my beloved Trinidad Sour. Somehow, I tasted all of those delicate notes and decided that putting them up against a ton of Angostura Bitters was the best path. I was all geared up to invent this drink when I did a little research and discovered that the trail had already been blazed by Josey Packard at Boston’s famed Drink. I am a big fan of this bar and have never had anything but the most well-crafted and creative cocktails there, so I am going to trust her and just make it her way. Besides she has already taken care of the tricky bit of naming the cocktail, combining the origin for the spirit and the creator of the bitters in one catchy soundbite. Bet you did not know that Dr. Johann Siebert first crafted the angostura formula, so you learned something today. Call it a win.
Grab your tins and toss in 1 1/2 ounces of Del Maguey Pechuga, a spirit which should never be wasted in a cocktail. To that add 1/2 an ounce of fresh squeezed lemon juice, 1/2 an ounce of Demerara syrup and 1/2 an ounce of Angostura Bitters. Pop in some artisanal ice and give it a good shake to the beat of Elle King’s “Little Bit of Lovin” cause we have all taken some hits but we still have a little bit of lovin’ left in us. This one is meant to be served ice cold, so when your tins begin to form a frost, double strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with any world views you might have outgrown, a dehydrated lemon slice and maybe toss a little memento mori on there for kicks.
Holy wow. This is every bit as good as I expected it to be. That angostura is right up front, building a big old wall of wonderfully herbal bitter flavor, but the smoke and nuance of the mezcal just comes seeping through the cracks, bolstered by that Demerara to give this drink a great bottom note. That citrus brings a dryness to the drink that accentuates the smoke of the mezcal and it really works. Is the Pechuga overkill here? Probably. I will make it again with a more mainstream mezcal and see how things go. If nothing else it will bring down the per ounce cost on this drink which is way out of the realm of reasonableness between the premium mezcal and way too much angostura. There is a lot going on in this one, but it works.
It works because of that balance. It is all the more apparent because there are big bold flavors working in opposition here. In something like a Cuba Libre or a Doughnut Old-Fashioned you are staying close to the middle just making little moves to balance things out, but in this drink you are pushing the ends of the spectrum. We aren’t building a ranch house here with a picket fence, this drink is a gothic cathedral of flavor, a mezcal nave and angostura transept with flying buttresses of citrus and sweet and even temperature holding things together.
Life is the same way, it wants balance. When things get out of whack you have to find the center again. The bigger the swing one way the harder it is to counter it. I’ve been dealing with some of that lately, big hits that threatened to knock me off the path and I have had to make some painful corrections. I spent a lot of time asking myself what I had done wrong, how I ended up here and as tough as it has been for me to take, I finally had to accept that there wasn’t much I could have done. The die was cast before I ever came on stage. That’s not quite true, I could have found a way to be kinder, because you can always do that, but it would not have changed anything. I wasn’t going to sacrifice my family or beliefs, so the conflict was always going to come.
I have been dreading this birthday, not because I am getting older, it is a privilege denied to many, so I am grateful to have survived way longer than I had planned for. This date loomed for a very different reason. We lost touch with someone very dear to us back at the first of the year. They were working through some things, stuck between a rock and a hard place as they said. The reasons aren’t really all that important and we had little bearing on them in the end so I had hoped for things to get better. As the weeks stretched into months I began to wonder, I figured that my 50th birthday would tell the tale. So, I waited for a call that never came and that hurt.
But life craves balance. For the one call that did not come, hundreds of friends reached out to share their love, to show me that I matter to them. I spoke with people I haven’t seen in years and it made me realize just how blessed I am, how much I love and am loved. I will never be able to properly express the gratitude for all of the people looking out for this overgrown monkey with delusions of grandeur for so long. I’ve got “over half a century of experience” now of living. I spent most of those years making mistakes and trying to learn from them. Like Travis McGee says, “Every day, no matter how you fight it, you learn a little more about yourself, and all most of it does is teach humility.” There have been some hard lessons and I have spent the last several years on trying to be a better human. Becoming a father and trying to set a good example goes a long way toward making you a better person, as long as you embrace that opportunity and responsibility. I haven’t cracked the code just yet, but I am doing my best and working on it every day. Maybe I’ll figure it out in this next half century. Till then, I am going to do my best to be a good father, partner and friend, because at the end of the day all that really matters is how you touch the people you meet along the way. We are all in this together, for better or ill, so we might as well try to take care of each other. Through the bitter and the sweet, it really is about finding that balance and I am so thankful for the opportunity to share the path with so many of you. That is the kind of balance that makes me appreciate how blessed I am and have always been. I hope you all can find it as well, till then stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friends.