A Tale of Two Tonics

This was supposed to be a blog post of victory. Of trial and triumph and making my own homemade tonic for the most amazing Gin and Tonic ever.

Most importantly, I would finally uncover the answer, dear readers, as to whether cut/sifted (C/S) cinchona or cinchona powder truly made the best flavored tonic.  So many recipes don’t even specify; or if they call out C/S or powder, they never say why. At last, the mystery would be solved, with tasting notes so you would know which option worked best for your own tonic endeavors.

Powdered cinchona (left) compared to cut/sifted (C/S) cinchona (right)
Powdered cinchona (left) compared to cut/sifted (C/S) cinchona (right)

Oh, how I failed.

The Recipe

As the basis for my research, I used this recipe for  two reasons: I thought the cold brew method would produce the best flavor, and because they were trying to produce a tonic “just barely sweet and pleasantly bitter.” Sounds like a sip of perfect to me!

I split the recipe quantities in half, and for one portion used powdered cinchona and the other portion, cut/sifted. I measured them by weight; powdered is more dense, due to the fine particle, so measuring by volume may have resulted in more actual cinchona in the powdered half, compared to the C/S half.

Tonic ingredients ready to steep! Powdered cinchona shown on the left, cut/sifted (C/S) on the right.
Tonic ingredients ready to steep! Powdered cinchona shown on the left, cut/sifted (C/S) on the right.
USEFUL FACT: Here is the formula to convert between powdered and cut/sifted quantity.
1 ounce of powdered cinchona measures by volume approximately 1/4 cup.
1 ounce of cut/sifted cinchona measures by volume approximately 1/3 cup.
So if you need powdered, and you have C/S, increase the quantity by 1/12 the amount. Conversely if you need C/S and you have powdered, decrease the volume by 1/12. (Or – spoiler alert – don’t worry about it, because you probably wouldn’t detect a measurable difference anyway. Read on…)
Even with equal amounts by weight, I thought the powdered cinchona would come out more quinine-y (is that a word?) because the powder variety had more surface area to be surrounded by alcohol to extract all the flavor.
Two tonics steeping. The tonic with the powdered cinchona is on the left, and the cut/sifted (C/S) is on the right.
Two tonics steeping. The tonic with the powdered cinchona is on the left, and the cut/sifted (C/S) is on the right.
But. I committed one error in this whole exercise. The most grievous error of all. See, I make my own mixers and liqueurs because I despise sickeningly sweet flavors. In fact, I dislike refined sugar so much, I always cut the quantities or replace it with other ingredients. Maybe I got the ratios wrong. Maybe I screwed up by substituting demerara for cane sugar. Maybe I screwed up by violating my primary directive with sweetening boozy concoctions – add a teensy amount of sweetener, check taste, and keep adding an ounce or so at a time – because I wanted to make sure both halves sweetened equally. I just added the amount of rich syrup called for, half in each jar.

Results, Take 1

Long story short: both batches of tonic syrup tasted like lemon-lime soda syrup. Seriously. They weren’t “bad” but when diluted with soda water, they did NOT taste like tonic. The bitter taste of the quinine was barely detectable. I couldn’t even taste it enough to offer an opinion as to whether the powdered or cut/sifted actually turned out better – or even different from one another.

The true test – the long awaited G&T – tasted like Gin and 7 Up. Not “bad”, but totally NOT the effect I was hoping for.

*sobs*

I stuffed the two batches of tonic syrup in the back of the fridge while I contemplated how to recover from this tragedy.

Take 2

Dead Rabbit to the rescue. (Yes, I really did type that…)

See,  The Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual has a recipe for quinine tincture, so I decided to try the powdered vs. cut/sifted taste off one more time. Split the recipe in half – 1 oz c/s and 1 oz powdered, each covered with 2.25 fl oz Everclear.

Dead Rabbit quinine tincture in progress. Powdered cinchona (left) versus cut/sifted (C/S) cinchona (right).
Dead Rabbit quinine tincture in progress. Powdered cinchona (left) versus cut/sifted (C/S) cinchona (right).

After three days of steeping, I strained the two tinctures, and realized that with or without a workable tonic water, I have a DEFINITE preference for the cut/sifted cinchona over the powdered. Even if the powdered was 100 times more strongly flavored (which it wasn’t), I lost so much tincture while filtering, straining, pressing, and re-filtering. The wet powdered cinchona formed a fine, silty mud that clung to anything it touched and clogged up three Chemex® filters. (I should have taken a picture of the cinchona mud, but I was so dismayed that was the last thing on my mind.) Even after all the work, the resulting photos show clearly that the powdered cinchona tincture isn’t, well, clear.

Dead Rabbit quinine tincture after steeping. Even after filtering, the tincture made with powdered cinchona (left) is murky compared to the cut/sifted (C/S) cinchona (right).
Dead Rabbit quinine tincture after steeping. Even after filtering, the tincture made with powdered cinchona (left) is murky compared to the cut/sifted (C/S) cinchona (right).


REMEMBER, dear readers – strain the cinchona really, really, really well. Cinchonism is a “thing”. You can read more about it here.  OK, done nagging now!

Results

I sampled each quinine tincture, and the powdered version is marginally more strongly flavored. It also had an astringent quality – like eating an unripe persimmon – that sucked the moisture out of my tongue. However, once I added the two tinctures to their matching tonic syrups, the other flavors entirely masked the differences.

Takeaways

  1. Powdered cinchona bark is messy to work with and requires thorough filtering. If you’re making tonic syrup, the flavor difference isn’t dramatic enough to justify all the extra work.
  2. You can’t take out rich syrup once you’ve added it.
  3. If you want to make your own tonic syrup, you can buy cinchona bark online here.
  4. I’d rather drink gin in a Corpse Reviver #2 anyway!

Coffee Liqueur: The Results

Over the weekend, I concluded the results of my coffee liqueur experiment. And what delicious results they were!

DIY Coffee Liqueur Recipe Taste Off

As previously mentioned, I split a recipe for DIY coffee liqueur, making half with cold brewed coffee, according to the recipe (mostly…ish) and making the other half backwards – steeping the grounds in high proof liquor instead of water.  This “infusion” method, where the botanical is steeped directly in alcohol, is how I traditionally create my own liqueurs and bitters, and I was surprised coffee liqueur wasn’t made the same way. So I just had to try it to see how the two approaches compared.

Filtering the coffee liqueur
Filtering the coffee liqueur

After giving the blends enough time to steep (full recipes below, FYI), I strained and sampled. Yes, I used a Chemex® coffee maker and filter to strain my coffee liqueur. Ironic, right?

The coffee liqueur results, compared
The coffee liqueur results, compared

Here is a picture of the final products, side by side. It’s very clear (by how not-clear it is) which jar contains the “infusion” method (vodka-steeped) grounds. The vodka drew out more color from the coffee grounds than the water.

Coffee liqueurs, sampled
Coffee liqueurs, sampled

The “infusion” method liqueur also had an unmistakably stronger coffee flavor than the liqueur where coffee was cold brewed.

To summarize the results: the “cold brew” version reminds me of commercially available coffee liqueurs. As you sip, you notice first the sweet, then coffee then alcohol. The “infusion” method by contrast tastes first of coffee, then alcohol and finally sweet. In fact, the infusion version was much less sweet than the cold brew version, despite the same amount of sugar being used in each. (At some point, I’ll learn fancy-flavor-describing terms, and I’ll update this post to sound more clever at that point!)

Here are the two versions of the coffee liqueur, as I actually made them.

Cold Brew Version

This version of the recipe has a sweeter, milder flavor which is more similar to commercially available coffee liqueurs. 

1/8 c ground coffee beans
5/8 c cold water
1/2 vanilla bean, chopped
1/2 c demerara sugar
1/2 c additional water
3/4 c high proof vodka

Add the coffee grounds to the water, shake, and steep in the refrigerator for 24 hours or so. Strain the grounds, and add the chopped vanilla bean to the cold brewed coffee.  Warm the remaining water with the sugar, stirring gently until the sugar fully melts. Once it has cooled, add the demerara syrup, vodka, and chopped vanilla bean to the cold brewed coffee and allow to steep for five days. Strain out the vanilla bean and bottle.

Infusion Method

Definitely my favorite method

1/8 c ground coffee beans
1/2 vanilla bean, chopped
1/2 c demerara sugar
1 1/8 c water
3/4 c high proof vodka

Add the coffee grounds to the vodka, shake and steep for 24 hours or so. Strain the grounds, and add chopped vanilla bean. Allow to steep for five days.  Strain out the  Warm water with the sugar, stirring gently until the sugar fully melts. [Yes, this is a weaker syrup, but the extra water matches the quantity of water in the other half.] Once it has cooled, add the demerara syrup to the coffee-vanilla infusion and bottle.

Coffee Liqueur

I have decided I need Coffee Liqueur in my life. I don’t know why, I just know I need some, and I want to make sure it doesn’t have corn syrup (shudder) in it.

However, the recipes I found online baffle me. They universally call for brewing the coffee in water, and then adding the requisite additional ingredients.  Why? Why wouldn’t you steep the coffee grounds directly in the high proof alcohol, like you would any other liqueur or bitter or other boozy homemade concoction?

Experiment time! I decided to riff on this recipe – half the ingredients to follow the recipe exactly (ish) and the other half to try the grounds directly in the booze.

Full disclosure: I also substituted high proof vodka for the light rum.  Friends, as much as I love rum, it does not return the sentiment.

Coffee Liqueur in Progress
Coffee Liqueur in Progress

Can you tell the difference between the two jars? (Without peeking at my scrawl notes on the lids, that is!)

More importantly, after the samples are done, will we be able to taste a difference? Stay tuned!