Friday, January 1, 2021

:: fred's picks for the top cocktails of 2020 ::

At the end of 2010, I was challenged to declare my favorite drink of the year, and I was overwhelmed for there were so many good options to chose from. My choices were influenced by two factors -- tastiness and uniqueness; it had to be both memorable and worth repeating. In the past years, I did one post for drinks that I had out at bars and one post for drinks that I had at home; however, my last two years before this one found me out on the town less, so I combined the two. This year of course, I barely had any cocktails out before quarantine, and the rest were occasional cocktails or mixes to-go (where I did not inquire about the recipe). Each month here was selected for when the drink post appeared and not when it was enjoyed (I have a two week delay before it posts). Before we get going on this, let's take a moment to pay our respects to the bars and restaurants this year; I have written my government officials and tried to support takeout and patios when I can (albeit with my diminished earnings this year). I feel powerless and overwhelmed by the situation, but I can at least control the safety of things in my own home. Without further ado, here is the eleventh annual installment of my best drinks for the year with a runner up or two listed.

January: For top pick of the month, Sother Teague's Improved Kingston Negroni as a riff on Joaquin Simo's 2009 neo-classic gets the nod. The Argyle from the NoMad Cocktail Book as a stylish aquavit cocktail and Jason Alexander's tropical sensation Commando Life are worthy of runner-up status.

February: The month seemed to be amaro heavy with Paul MacDonald's The War on Christmas as part of his Fibonacci series at Philadelphia's Friday Saturday Sunday having a delightful elegance to it. Worthy of mention are Paul McGee liqueur-based Zombie riff Music that Stays on for Extra Days at Lost Lake and The Negroni that Wasn't by Seattle-based bartender Scott Diaz.
March: March's stand outs were all about the sherry. For top billing, Misty Kalkofen's Sel del la Mer captured the beauty of Chartreuse-Maraschino pairing in a Cognac straight spirits drink. For silver and bronze medals, in no particular order, are Fede Cuco's Countess of the Caribbean that appeared in Imbibe Magazine and a quirky number featuring the Cynar-sloe gin that Phil Ward loves in New Zealand home bartender Leslie Craven's Sloe Loris.

April: For 100 days of quarantine, Brian Maxwell offered up a new recipe every day on his Shaker of Spirits blog, and the Reverend Mather was the stiff drink that was needed. Honorable mention to two citrus-laden ones: Colin Shearn's fruity and floral Fair Fight and Beckaly Frank's Daiquiri riff, the Hop, Skip, and Jump. With our Daiquiri Time Out sessions on Zoom twice a week, the Daiquiri and its kin were frequent guests for the first few months of quarantine.
May: I was impressed at Maks Paznuniak's quirky flavor mastery in his Red Hook Burning as a weird abstraction of a Red Hook Manhattan -- very Rogue/Beta Cocktails-ish from one of his Counting Room menus. I also rather enjoyed Brian Maxwell's tribute to Bowie and Beachcomber with Ground Control to Major Donn and Ezra Star's Dry Martini with something extra, the When the British Came to Spain.

June: Found in an unexpected place was another of the quirky recipes that really worked, namely Stephanie Andrews' Sandy Bottoms with the watermelon-Peychaud's component in Maggie Hoffman's Batched Cocktails (I have a recipe there but few in the book come close to being this unusual). I was also impressed with Chantal Tseng's Spectacle Island with Chartreuse-pineapple in Easy Tiki and Ivy Mix's Sinking Stone from her Spirits of Latin America book.
July: There were a lot of tropical options for July especially with my mint patch in full effect. I ended up selecting Paul Shanrock's How to Kill a Friend for it took the Mezcal Jungle Bird template in an unique direction with the Pedro Ximenez sherry and other novel ingredients. Also mezcal but more summery than tropical was the Little Oaxacan and the no tropical at all Genever-aquavit Martini riff, the Bohemia, from the NoMad Cocktail Book were worthy competitors.

August: The heat of this month made the blender see a lot of use as I explored the genre. Jeffry Morgenthaler's PX Sherry Mudslide gave dignity to the much maligned Mudslide and impressed me with the depth of flavors (even more so than other blender drinks like the Frozen Negroni). For runners up, it was a tough choice between two Jason Alexander drinks in Minimalist Tiki but his Arkham Kula was a bit more complex than his mighty and delicious Doomsayer's Grog; also, there was more than one vodka tropical drink of note with my nod to Kirk Estopinal's Paradise Lost with coconut water, Fino, lime, and orgeat.
September: The month's standouts were all about agave. I miss being able to sit at Sahil Mehta's bar at Estragon, so I was pleased to find his Passiflora online. For two recipes of distinction, Eric Alperin's Mexican Monk as a straight spirits number and Samir Osman's Pancho & Lefty with its whiskey-mezcal and maple-sage flavors were both intriguing tipples.

October: I was rather impressed at how Sother Teague's 8 Amaro Sazerac from Amor y Amargo was greater than the sum of its parts; the two recipes that I found online suggest that the composition shifts, and I had to make a few substitutions to get it done. Two other delicious drinks were Yael Vengroff's Clover Club-esque Pink Panther and Rafa Garcia Febles' complex Jamaican rum drink The Host Body. Indeed, we made quite a few of Rafa's drinks this year.
November: I do not frequently pick Old Fashioned riffs as the month's winner, but Matty Clark's Base Camp with accents of peat smoke, chocolate, and allspice was a true delight. I was also impressed with Kyle Davidson's Bells & Whistles as a Manhattan with light but effective touches of the 3 As: apricot, Averna, and Amontillado; in addition, Zachary Gelnaw-Rubin's Filty Rich impressed me with the Cynar-Benedictine match up.

December: Only citrus in the twists for December's winner and next of kin. For top billing, I gave it to Tre Amici by George Delgado in Dale DeGroff's The New Craft of the Cocktail book with its three Italian ingredients (okay, I lied with the first statement since it was shaken with an orange slice). The batters up go to a duo in Brian Bartels' The United States of Cocktails: Kevin King's Creole-like Dead Monk's Society at McCrady's and Jen Ackrill's Banana-Liberal Fool's Gold at the Top of Waikiki restaurant.
Trends?: As for trends this year in my picks, I found myself more drawn to aquavit in both stirred and shaken drinks than previous years. Moreover, I am still a sucker for sherry cocktails (especially with the addition of Fino and Manzanilla to my fridge) and Genever ones. Tropical and blender drinks were winners in the warmer months (although I made some Tiki picks even in the colder ones), and bitter drinks shined in the cooler months especially ones with Zucca/Sfumato, Cynar, Cardamaro, and Campari. I think I featured more Martini riffs than I had before which is intriguing since I rather infrequently make myself classic Martinis. Mezcal and quinquinas still held their ground this year as well.

Favorite Angel's Envy Drinks: Since they were paid for with brand money, I wanted to separate these from the list. However, these three were worthy of mention with that caveat. In no particular order, Fabio Steven Gonzalez's creation at NYC's Park Hyatt Hotel that I dubbed the Battle Annie, the Earl Grey Angel at Backbar, and the Tipperary riff created by Harrison Snow at Wit's End that I called It's a Long, Long Way

Somehow 2020 has come and gone, and I have a feeling that the drinks mentioned above helped get me through the year that it was. Overall, I narrowed the time frame to 36 recipes plus three related to work that proved to be noteworthy mementos of my trip around the sun. Good luck to all of your cocktail adventures in 2021 and stay in touch! 

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