Once upon a time, a tall, cold-loving woman went to Austin, Texas. She left Chicago one abnormally chilly summer morning (and it secretly made her happy it was that chilly,) boarding a plane wearing a light sweatshirt, and two hours later when she strode forth through the sliding doors of the Austin airport, the heat and humidity hit her like a fist. And it technically was not even that bad. But this woman, this woman hated heat and humidity. But she embraced it, because inside this heat was a lovely, vibrant little city, surrounded by beautiful hill country. And of course… there was food. And that woman was me. And OH did I eat that food.
There was the beet hummus that looked like a painting, found at Launderette. There was straight up family style BBQ at the Salt Lick, where I spent the entire meal dancing in my seat with joy. My Wisconsin heart leapt with joy at the prevalence of queso, almost always served with homemade tortilla chips. But my primary purpose was to celebrate the impending 40th birthday of a dear friend whom I have known for 15 years. And after I told her I felt the need to create a custom cocktail in her honor, even though libations are still not my forte, she jumped and sent a list of things she wanted to experiment with. Naturally, my eye lit upon strawberry, because, well, it said strawberry. Another was mezcal.
Now this gave me pause. Mezcal. While this is by no means a new spirit, it is definitely new to me. And my head always associates it with tequila, which jumps straight to an unfortunate night in college that may or may not have involved swigging Jose Cuervo straight out of the bottle, and the subsequent morning which basically sealed the notion that I would never drink tequila again. Ever. Most people have that one thing. You know you do.
But the nice thing about being a grown up is that you learn, and not just how to not get drunk because LORD you can not do the hangovers anymore. I have learned that there is tequila out there that is so smooth and lovely you want nothing more than to kick back with a little tipple, get a smidge tipsy, and watch life float by. And now… mezcal. Tequila comes specifically from the blue agave, but mezcal does not. It comes from the pina, the mature heart at the center of a maguey or agave plant, and it has quite the history. In reading up on it, I realized that it is traditionally served straight, not as a part of a cocktail. It has this incredibly complex smoky flavor, which is apparently best left appreciated for what it is. There was mention of topping with ground dried larvae. That… was not going to happen.
I dithered about the internet, and of course found those who, like me, were about to profane the mezcal and make it a part of the cocktail. My friend bought just a ridiculously good bottle of mezcal (it is her birthday, after all,) and we set to it. First we tried it straight up, and it was indeed a revelation. It had this smoke that just rolled right back through the palate and released, letting a deep sweetness find its way to the surface. I had found references to strawberry and mezcal, using other splashes of ingredients to deepen the strawberry so it could play nice with the smoke of mezcal. And so it began. I chopped fresh strawberries, taking in their floral scent, as I always do. I minced up basil, since it pairs so beautifully with the berry, and I thought a hint of herbaceous flavor might be nice. And I needed to sweeten it just a hair, so I added sugar. But I added brown sugar, so I could keep some darker molasses in there, something to complement the smoke. A splash of balsamic, because I always add a splash of balsamic to strawberry anything, and a generous application of heat. More than generous. I placed the pot over the burner and stirred and stirred, watching that magical event where strawberries under heat collapse into sweet, lurid red goo. And then I realized I was making jam. A judicious quantity of water was added, in an attempt to make a thick syrup. When I was fairly sure I could not get it any more saucy, I painstakingly scraped the entire thing through a strainer, so we would not have to contend with seeds or the now black little scraps of basil.
And then… the mix. I wish I had used a cocktail shaker, because really, James Bond had it right with “shaken, not stirred.” Trying to mix things in the glass was… messy. The strawberry conconction kept settling. I spanked a leaf of basil. (No really, this is a thing, spanking herbs.) I carefully balanced a slice of strawberry on the edge of the wondrous glasses my friend had procured. And it was… OK. We kept added a bit here, a dab there, and ultimately discovered it got WAY better when the ice had melted a bit and things were allowed to mingle. Then suddenly that round sweetness of the strawberry basil brown sugar syrup goodness actually showed up and started getting all friendly with the mezcal, and it was delicious.
In the end, we did not experiment too much more, as we wanted to save the syrup, and, well, despite our past, lo those many years ago in our 20s when we shut down bars in Manhattan, now we wanted to stop, maybe make a cup of tea, and watch some Netflix.
So why write about something that is, for all intents and purposes, eh? Not a slam dunk? Because the process, the experimenting, is part of the joy. Yes, I said it. Eh is part of joy, in this case the joy of sharing food (or libations) with loved ones. There were kernels of goodness in this idea. Maybe it really just need a good shake in a cocktail shaker laden with ice before serving. Maybe it needed a small hit of agave syrup to sweeten a hair more. Or maybe it just needed to be a different liquor, or another mixer. But I tell you, sitting there with my old friend, as the waning Austin sunlight glinted through the windows, giggling away while adding things, stirring things, and sipping away while recalling some of the exploits of our youth and how glad we are to be aging (somewhat) gracefully, well… that is not eh. That was joy. With a side of cocktail.
Strawberry-basil-brown sugar concoction
12 oz. Strawberries, sliced
12 basil leaves, roughly chopped
¼ c. brown sugar (can be dark or light, dark gives more molasses flavor)
splash of balsamic vinegar
½ c. water
Place everything in a 2 qt. saucepan, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until the strawberries have completely broken down and you have a sort of chunky sauce. Place a strainer over a bowl, then pour the strawberry concoction into the strainer. Using a wooden spoon or spatula (ultimately the better choice, I discovered ten minutes in,) gently push through the strainer into the bowl below, and continue until you have gotten as much syrup as you think you are going to. You will be left with about 1/3 c. pulp in the strainer, and this will take so much longer than you think. But it is worth it, trust me. Pro tip: rinse out and clean the strainer immediately or you are going to end up with a fine mesh full of dried berry. Which is really no good at all.
The Miss Sarah Martini
(roughly, and if any cocktail aficionados would like to weigh in on technique, ingredients, please do!)
2 oz. Mezcal
1 ½ oz. Strawberry-basil-brown sugar concoction
agave syrup (optional)
fresh strawberry slice
fresh basil leaf
Fill a shaker halfway with ice. Pour in mezcal and strawberry goodness. Shake vigorously. Points for fancy dance moves. Strain into a glass with a few more cubes of ice. Spank the basil and plunk it in. Balance a strawberry slice on the edge. Sip. See if you like. If not, add a whisper of agave syrup to sweeten it up. And maybe shake up a few more. Roughly 2-1.5 on the mezcal to strawberry ratio. And be sure to have good conversation whilst drinking.