Rumor had it that Nosh, the downstairs Silo sibling, had upped the ante on its small but inventive drinks menu, so a return visit seemed in order. From the modified list of novelty cocktails, you can order a flight of three for $9, but through a misunderstanding I ended up with four (they’re small, OK?): the revisited Basil Bliss, a Dark & Stormy, and the new-to-me Backporch Lemonade and Bourbon Sweet Tea, leaving only the Elevated Bloody Mary unsampled.
Only the Basil Bliss achieved order-again status, but the Dark & Stormy got me thinking about simple drinks that depend solely on two main ingredients. The drink is the signature libation of Bermuda, and it is classically made with the island nation’s Gosling’s Black Seal rum. The “official” recipe calls for just rum and ginger beer; lemon or lime garnish optional.
But nothing is ever that easy. The only thing is that universally agreed upon in the world outside Bermuda is that one serves the drink in a Collins glass filled with ice. Many recipes call for lots of fresh lime (Nosh uses both lime and, atypically, simple syrup), but just as many diehards refuse lime altogether. The ratio between rum and ginger beer ranges from 1:2 to the more casual “fill ice-filled glass almost full with ginger beer, add rum on top.” Some bartenders feel the rum should be floated on top of the beer and not stirred, others float, then stir, still others start with the rum, then add the ginger beer and add a twist of lime peel.
What the hell is ginger beer, anyway? And how does it differ from ginger ale? Your obedient imbiber has been researching this very question, and the answer is a) it depends, and b) it doesn’t. Usually.
There are ginger beers that are mildly fermented (there’s even a ginger-beer plant), but good luck finding one in San Antonio. Most versions, beer and ale, are carbonated, and the difference between them is marginal. Further, it’s Jamaica, not Bermuda, that’s best known for its ginger brews. “All Natural Jamaican Style Ginger Ale” is emblazoned across the label of Reed’s Original Ginger Brew. It’s made in Louisiana, but upon reading all the back labels at Central Market, this one seemed to have the most straightforward ingredients — including “17 grams fresh ginger per bottle.” Fever Tree, the English-made fave of local bar guys, is another, though expensive, contender also available at Central Market. And then there’s Blenheim, a product of our own genteel South Carolina, and the “all natural” ginger ale from Boylan Bottleworks in New Jersey. With a little help from some friends, I sourced all four.
I also decided to make a run at fermenting a brew myself from a recipe by the Food Channel’s Alton Brown. The recipe is simple:
1 ½ oz. peeled and finely grated fresh ginger (a microplane works great)
6 oz. white sugar
7 ½ c filtered water
1/8 t active dry yeast
2 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
Place ginger, sugar and ½ cup of the water in a saucepan over medium-high heat, stir until the sugar dissolves, remove it from heat, cover and let steep for one hour. Pour syrup through a fine mesh strainer into bowl, pressing on solids. Chill until room temperature (about 70 degrees).
Using a funnel, pour syrup into a clean, 2-liter plastic bottle with cap, add the yeast, lemon juice, and remaining water, cap and shake gently to combine. Leave bottle at room temperature for 48 hours. Open and check for amount of carbonation. Once the desired level is achieved, refrigerate to stop further action, opening cap daily to let out excess carbonation. Keeps two weeks.
Forty-eight hours (give or take) later: The brown brew is pleasant, with a nice ginger bite and an almost floral aroma, but it’s not very carbonated. Nevertheless, it entered the lineup. Let the storms rage.
We made far too many combinations to detail them all, but here are the major conclusions: Start by filling a Colllins glass with ice, then fill to within about a inch and a half of the top with ginger ale/beer. (This should measure around 6 ounces.) For visual reasons only, try one drink with about 2 ounces of the rum floated on top. Yes, it’s pretty. Now, stir. Taste. Add lime to taste if you like. The On the Rocks panel thought lime — from a quarter to a half, freshly squeezed — improved almost all versions.
These were the best, all with the same proportions as above:
1. Black Seal 80 proof with Blenheim Ginger Ale. Blenheim is served at Liberty Bar and is available by mail from several online sources. It’s hot, hot, hot (there’s apparently a milder version). With a little lime to tame it, this made the most integrated drink. Dark and seriously stormy.
2. Opinions differed, but majority rule gave this spot to Black Seal with Fever Tree Ginger Ale and about a half a lime. Spicy, a little sweet, but nicely spritzy.
3. Black Seal with Reed’s Original Ginger Brew. This was one combination that worked without the lime; adding it changed the profile by punching up the ginger but diminishing the rum — OK if that’s what you want.
As expected, the delicate homebrew didn’t stand up to the dark rum (just drink it on its own). Our crew also tried the Light ‘n’ Stormy, made with the much paler 10 Cane Rum and Fever Tree; the drink was OK, but not worth repeating. With Cruzan Single Barrel Estate Rum, a product that falls somewhere between Goslings and 10 Cane, the result, again with Fever Tree, was complex, almost pretty, and much more appealing. Let’s call it a Cloudy ’n’ Squally — and also call it a day.