By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson
1.5 oz Hennessy VSOP Privilège Cognac
1.5 oz Ruby Port
0.75 oz Monin Gingerbread Syrup
Mix together at room temperature in a snifter
Featured Glassware: Modern Grace Brandy by Villeroy & Boch
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When mixology becomes the official religion that it should be, Gaz Regan will surely be the patron saint of bartenders – long after his tenure as first pope, of course. For, in his heart of hearts, Gaz is just that, a bartender who cares deeply for the trade and for other bartenders. This perspective has led him to write a myriad of books, many of them geared directly to those behind the stick, including The Joy of Mixology and his newest bible, Gaz Regan’s Annual Manual for Bartenders 2011. Add to that his Ardent Spirits website, which is specifically for mixmasters and includes the Worldwide Bartender Database of more than 2,000 bartenders around the globe. Quite simply, the man is on a mission to celebrate his trade, and we are ever so pleased that he has chosen to celebrate with us.
Gaz gives us the facts about his simple, but elegant presentation, appropriately named The Gourmet:
“I came up with this drink for the Gourmet Magazine food-pairing challenge in 2004 and I’ve been serving it over the December holiday season ever since. It’s not a creative masterpiece, but the gingerbread syrup plays real nice with the port and cognac here, and the drink is perfect for sipping after a huge holiday meal.”
The gent’s self-deprecating observation about his creation doesn’t do it justice. In fact, the combination of just three ingredients – cognac, port, and gingerbread syrup – produces a smooth, slightly sweet capper to a languid evening of celebration. Cognac and port are natural after-dinner drinks and ginger is an oft-used aide to digestion, making The Gourmet an ideal post-repast sipper. Given that it is served at room temperature, it makes for a perfect batched drink – ready to go for a group after dinner or whenever you may need that extra bit of fortitude.
Ginger has a long and colorful history, having been used as a cooking spice in Asia for over 4,000 years and as a medicinal ingredient for over 2,000. But, by far, its most familiar use is in the popular form of gingerbread – cookies, cakes, and the like.
The tradition of gingerbread – a cake made with honey or molasses and flavored with ginger and other spices – arrived in Europe in 992 courtesy of an Armenian monk named Gregory of Nicopolis. Dear Greg settled near the town of Pithiviers, France in the Loire Valley where he taught the locals how to cook gingerbread. French gingerbread uses honey, not molasses for its richness; early recipes didn’t even use ginger. In 1596, Henry IV officially recognized the corporation of pain d’epiciers in the Loire town of Reims, where the gingerbread is made of rye flour. Today, in the Loire, the Gingerbread Brotherhood of St. Gregory of Nicopolis (La Confrérie du Pain d’Epices de St. Gregoire de Nicopolis) commemorates Gregory’s invention of a gingered honey cake. Similarly, there is a Brotherhood of the Gingerbread in Dijon, a city famous for its pain d’epices, or spiced bread. In fact, the French are so enthusiastic about gingerbread that they have a Museum dedicated to it in Alsace.
Outside of France, gingerbread traveled across Europe and made its home in various countries, each of which customized it to the local tastes. In the 13th century, records mention Swedish nuns baking gingerbread for digestion; biscuits were also decorated and hung in windows. The town of Market Drayton in the UK has been known for its gingerbread (it’s on the town “welcome” sign) since the 1600’s. In northern parts of England, you will find Parkin, a harder version of the bread made with oatmeal and treacle. One legend even suggests that Queen Elizabeth I invented the “gingerbread man”.
In Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Estonia, the locals bake ginger biscuits, a crispier cookie associated with Christmas. The town of Bergen, Norway lays claim to the world’s largest gingerbread city, freshly constructed each year by various local children and adults. Bits of whimsy include a train running through the cookie houses and even a gingerbread oil rig. Sadly, in 2009, unexpected vandalism destroyed the sweet city and now guards are posted during the festivities. Elsewhere, in Poland, the cookies are called pierniki, the most famous and traditional being produced in Torun since the Middle Ages. During the same period, Croatia saw the evolution of the heart-shaped, intricately hand-decorated licitars; the Croatian capitol city of Zagreb uses them by the thousands to festoon the Christmas tree in the town square.
And, here in our own U.S. of A., gingerbread houses pop up across the country during the holidays. A particularly amazing collection of gingerbread houses can be found inside the lobby of Le Parker Meridien hotel, which our friends over at Smith & Ratliff have been too kind to document for the holiday.
With regard to the gingerbread syrup Gaz uses, if you can’t find Monin, Torani also makes a version (but we bummed our Monin off of the local Peet’s Coffee). We also experimented with a homemade version, and initially came up short. Our recipe of light brown sugar and powdered ginger, cloves, and cinnamon just couldn’t reproduce the “buttered bread” quality of the Monin. Then, inspiration struck and we found a secrets ingredient, revealed in the recipe below. The homemade syrup has a different profile – more like real gingerbread – so substitute at your discretion.
Homemade Gingerbread Syrup
1 cup Filtered Water
1 cup Light Brown Sugar
0.25 tsp each Ground Cinnamon, Ginger, Cloves
4 Werther’s Original Hard Candies
Add everything to a sauce pan and heat over a medium low flame until simmering
Allow to simmer, stirring occasionally, until candy is completely dissolved
Let syrup cool, then strain through the finest mess you have, removing as much of the remaining “powder” as possible
Yes, the secret ingredient here is the Werther’s hard candies, whose buttery, caramel quality helped approximate the bready taste of the Monin. And while it’s not a perfect facsimile, it’s quite lovely in its own right.
Christmas is almost upon us, and as you finish up the last of present wrapping, prepare for the big dinner, or just need a respite from the relatives, The Gourmet may be the perfect way to satisfy your gingerbread fix. It is truly a case of having your cake and eating it too.
Esoterica: Should you desire to build a gingerbread house with your two-year-old son, here’s how you do it. Built the house while your child is asleep or away. After you have spent several painstaking hours constructing the house with Howard Roark precision, present it to your child and marvel in the joyful destruction which will quickly follows, as your child levels your masterpiece in mere seconds. Finally, take solace in a Gourmet and the knowledge that, someday, your future grandchildren will extract revenge on your behalf.