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At (or Perhaps Just With) Death’s Door

June 25, 2010

One would think that, with more than 25 years of writing about wine, spirits and beer, that I might at one point or other have served time as bartender, or at least made a cocktail or two. But such is not the case.

I have poured gin over ice, added a splash of tonic water and a lime wedge and pronounced it good. I have also sloshed together brandy, Seven-up, cherry juice and Angostura bitters and called it an Old Fashioned. But craft an elegant martini, spin up a fruited blender drink or produce anything shaken and not stirred? You would find yourself barking up the wrong stir stick.

Thusly, I found myself recently at Barrique’s on Monroe Street in Madison, standing with my friends from Death’s Door Spirits and learning how to make a Tom Collins. Really, it was very cool.

Death’s Door is a Madison-based distiller of gin, vodka and “white whiskey” made entirely from Wisconsin products and a brand that’s starting to gain national notice. Products from Death’s Door, named for the watery passage between to the tip of Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula and Washington Island, where the wheat and juniper berries that go into Death’s Door products are grown, is currently in 17 states with an eye toward being in 35 states by the end of summer, according to company president Brian Ellison.

But tonight there were seven of us standing around a table in the Monroe Street wine store as John Kinder, a former mixologist who is Death’s Door’s representative in Chicago, gave us the history of the cocktail (a truly American phenomenon, he said) and prepped us to make a Tom Collins.

But it wasn’t always a Tom Collins. It was once called a John Collins and had its start as a rum punch derivative invented in London. Someone decided to replace the original tea that was used with sparkling water, so the name had to be changed to protect the insolent.

“Punch,” by the way, is the Hindustani word for “five” (some of us already knew that) and refers to the five elements found originally in punches: sour, sweet, strong, weak and bitter. That’s important because it defines Kinder’s approach to making a perfectly balanced cocktail, and by the end of the evening he us convinced he was right.

Take the Tom Collins. We started filling our cocktail shakers with an ounce of lemon juice (sour), an ounce of simple syrup (sweet), 2 ounces of Death’s Door Gin (strong) and ice cubes to the top (weak). We shook the combination until the aluminum shaker had iced over, then pour the concoction into – what else? – a Tom Collins glass and garnished with a lemon wedge (sour again.)

Okay, that drink didn’t quite fit the bill, but the result was extremely refreshing. We learned that if a drink is too sweet, a little club soda mixed in can help dry it out (most of us didn’t know that.) We also learned that you always start building a drink with the least expensive elements first. That way if you make a mistake, you aren’t throwing out the good (i.e.: expensive) stuff.

“Making a cocktail is more like baking than cooking because the measurements must be precise,” Ellison said. That makes a lot more sense now.

As Kinder was holding court over his would-be students, Ellison was mixing something else in a much larger shaker. He wanted to introduce us to a Ramos Gin Fizz, at one time the most popular cocktail in New Orleans. As a thicker mixture, it required a lot more shaking, so we all took a turn. By the time it reached me, it was like shaking a can of paint encased in a block of ice. When he poured it we found our why.

A Ramos Gin Fizz is a combination of gin, lemon and lime juices, egg whites and cream, with a dash of Peychaud Bitters on top. It is what they call a “breakfast cocktail,” we were told. And it was absolutely delicious.

“Huey Long took his bartender with him when he went to Washington so he could have his Ramos Gin Fizzes,” Kinder said. After tasting one of these, that would seem to be more of a necessity than a luxury.

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