Cooking Up Tradition
Just a content warning here: this article discusses alcoholic drinks and the responsible enjoyment therof. We always try to remain as open as possible to as many fans as we can, but we're also adults who enjoy a nip of the water of life now and again. So if that isn't for you, feel free to skip this article. Thanks!
It's con season! And just a little over a month away is the king of all nerd conventions (at least as far as I'm concerned), Dragon Con! Over Labor Day weekend, downtown Atlanta hosts a family of about 80,000 like-minded nerds, geeks, dweebs, and whatever other goofy word you want to use to describe people like us. It's always a ton of fun, and if you've never been, I highly recommend trying to attend at least once.
Now, if you HAVE been to Dragon Con, you almost certainly know it has a legendary drinking culture. Flasks are hidden in more cosplay repair kits than you'd ever know, and once the evening rolls along folks can get rowdy. One of the traditions within this drinking culture is the production of homemade cocktails, mixed drinks, and shines of all kind, with the most famous being "Pie"-i.e. Apple Pie, a apple juice/cider mixture containing a (perhaps UN)healthy amount of grain alcohol. Typically it's sickeningly sweet and overspiced, which helps to hide the tremendous kick it carries.
I've seen many people whistfully saying that sampling Pie is one of their favorite traditions, or something on their bucket list they've not done yet. And to that, I say: "Make it yourself!" (So long as 21+, of course!) I made Pie last year, and while it was certainly effective, I wasn't happy with the overall product. I simply followed a very basic recipe, that was in essence 1 part apple cider, 1 part apple juice, and 1/4 part gain alcohol, with some cinnimon sticks tossed in to spice it up.
This year, I'm revisiting Pie, but I want to make it a bit more interesting. To that end, I started considering various options to improve my recipe. I'll be working off the same basic idea, apple juice and cider mixed together with grain alcohol to stiffen it up. But this year I'm going to experiment a bit, and see if I can come up with a combination of a few extra flavors beyond just cinnimon and sugar to make by batchs more interesting.
My biggest complaint about Pie, and the one I've gotten from most of my friends who have tried it, is that it's too sweet. Some recipes I've seen actually call for adding extra sugar, as if the sweetness of both apple products isn't enough! Obviously, the sweetness isn't something you could (or should) totally eliminate, as it's needed to balance the drink and make it approachable, but I'd like to try and tone down the sweetness.
So overall, let's look at what makes a good cocktail/drink:
Taste: Really this should always be #1. I personally think the best cocktails have a specific, focused approach to taste. I appreciate some layers and complexity, but overall if you start dumping too much it, the flavors get muddled and confused. I think that's why most of my favorite mixed drinks are gin-based, like traditional Martinis and Gin and Tonics--they have flavors I describe as "sharp", not in terms of acidic or bitter sharpness, but sharpness of focus and flavor. They cut through confusion.
Balance: The next biggest priority for me, a good drink is always well-balanced. The classic dichotomy is dryness vs sweetness. Too much one way or another throws off the drink, although I tend to prefer the dry side of things. With beer, the same can be said between the balance of hops and malt. Too much focus on one or the other really throws off the experience for me. In the case of Pie, we need to carefully balance the sweetness to make it pleasant but not cloying, and balance the overwhelming alcohol hotness that comes from the grain alcohol with other aspects.
Drinkability: Typically that isn't something I'd worry too much about, because if you're just making a mixed drink, I'd only plan on having one or two anyway, so if it's a little overwhelming that's ok. But with Pie, since it will be enjoyed over the course of a long evening of fun, it needs to hold up. Traditionally, Pie is extremely high in alcohol, and I don't want to shy too far away from that, because a little nip needs to get the job done. I worry more here about the sweetness, once again. When a drink is too cloying, I find it hard to have much of. However, lots of folks have a sweet tooth when it comes to their drinks, so we've got to keep it approachable for them too.
Look: Normally, I'd worry about this a lot. When I design a drink at home, I spend lots of time thinking about the right glass to use, the color it will end up having, anything I want to add for extra visual flair, etc. But with Pie, it's almost a moot point. 99% of the time, this stuff is going to be in an opaque container like a flask, thermos, or water bottle, and nobody is going to see what it looks like. When you're using apple products, and adding extra spices in, clarity is going to become a problem. And I think if most people actually saw how many flakes of junk were floating around in my Pie last year they might have thought twice about having any. But since it's got to stay mostly hidden anyway, I'm not too worried on this front. I'll do my due diligence in terms of clarifying and filtering, but if it's a little cloudly I'm not worried at all.
So, this year, we aren't worried about the look, we're concerned with keeping the drinkability high, and we want to improve the balance and taste. So how are we doing it?
We start with the apple-based core of the drink, juice and cider. For the most part, juice is juice, though I think it's important for authenticity to stick with 100% juice. No mixes, no added sugar, no concentrate. I really wanted to find some local juice, since I live in apple country (and in fact my family were once prolific apple farmers) but nothing was readily available, as juice isn't a huge product in this area. Partially, I think that's because any juice that is produced goes into the rapidly growing cider industry here.
Which means I was able to get some nice quality, locally produced cider, which I'm happy about. Last year, I also used local cider; specifcally, I used "hopped" cider, their attempt to overlap with the uber-popular craft beer market here. Sadly, I didn't get much hop flavor out of it. This year, I considered actually getting a big bag full of hops and letting the whole mixture sit on them for a while, but with the ginger idea hops are long gone. Instead, I focused on local cider with no extra flavors or spices added...just the essence of apples. I was also able to get "dry" cider, so hopefully I'm able to cut that sweetness down some.
The grain alcohol is grain alcohol. Specifically I use Everclear since it's easily avaiable. So long as its produced relatively well, there shouldn't be any flavors there at all...just a boatload of ABV.
Working from that base, I'm planning 3 different batches. First will be "traditional", i.e. using cinnimon for some flavor. I'm also going to add a bit of maple syrup to increase that breakfasty flavor. The only challenge is preventing the sweetness of the syrup to overwhelm the drink.
The second batch will be inspired by a suggestion from Cyrus; while thinking of ideas for new flavors, he immediately mentioned ginger, which should be an excellent flavor match. Plus, my hope is the heat and spice from the ginger is going to help balance away some of the sweetness. I'll also add some citrus in the form of fresh squeezed orange juice and orange zest.
The final batch will be focused on darker red fruits that should pair with apple. I'll use fresh plum along with pomogranate juice, to dry and bring a more depthful and fruit forward version of good old Pie.
I'd like to follow up this post with some results, tasting notes, and reviews from a few guinea pigs. And if you're at Raleigh Supercon or Dragon Con this year, seek me out for a bit of good old fashioned Pie!