By Charles Perry
Two traditional things for New Year's Eve: 1) drink eggnog and 2) sing "Auld Lang Syne."
Eggnog is an English drink, the name coming from an English dialect word for strong beer. These days, as we know, it's usually made with rum, sometimes with whiskey, and sometimes even with Scotch. But if you really want to lean on the Scottish angle for New Year's, you might consider setting the eggnog aside and experiencing how people really drank auld lang syne Scotch (that's "long ago," as they say over on the English side of the border).
Distilling is a tricky business, and many things can go wrong. Over the centuries, distillers have figured out the science of it pretty well, but in earlier times whiskey was more of a gamble. One batch didn't necessarily taste much like another, and there could be off-flavors, apparently sometimes very off.
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These problems beset bourbon distillers in the United States even into the 19th century. Bourbon was sold out of the barrel, and customers filled up their jugs at "barrel houses," where nobody but the owner knew what was really in that barrel (there was a lot of fake Old Crow being sold).
Merchants often doctored the bourbon with aromatic additions to create a more consistent house style and to cover up any bad flavors. This led to the development of the famous cordial called Southern Comfort, which is basically a doctored Bourbon that seems to be flavored at least partly with peaches.
In Scotland, where whiskey was usually sold out of the barrel at pharmacies and grocery stores, doctoring was also common. One 1725 recipe said to mix the Scotch with rum, sugar, raisins, dates, licorice, cloves, mace, cinnamon, coriander, cubebs, saffron and nuts.
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You see the lines along which they were thinking. First they wanted to sweeten the whiskey, which always puts the palate in a forgiving mood, and then they wanted to add fruits and spices to punch up the aroma. A product like this is still made -- a Northern Comfort, as it were -- under the brand name Drambuie.
Obviously, there was no such thing as a standard recipe. Doctoring whiskey was a do-whatever-feels-good proposition, like making barbecue sauce. I, for one, am usually plumb out of cubebs (I suppose I could throw in some peppercorns instead), and I happen to hate licorice, which in my book is just sweetened roof tar, so I haven't tried out the 1725 recipe exactly as written.
But I have tried most of the rest of the ingredients in that list, and the result was very pleasing, sweet and fragrant, with a clear family resemblance to Drambuie. That resemblance could be underlined by adding some honey. You should use Highland heather honey, if you've got it.
I would say the dates add the most body to the flavor, so I think next time I'll even try leaving the raisins out. Dates, cloves, mace and cinnamon alone would do nicely, though the saffron does add a sophisticated note, which is why saffron appears in one premium brand of gin.
But my experimentation has just begun. I didn't add any sugar to my first batch, but I wonder what a little maple syrup would do, though I probably wouldn't try it if I was getting around to adding rum.
Obviously, to do any this with a fine single malt would be a terrible indignity, not to mention a criminal lack of thrift. Any good inexpensive blended Scotch will do. But it's worth it. You'll have a fine homemade cordial to serve -- in a whiskey glass or even a liqueur glass, of course -- before or after, or even instead of, your eggnog.
Auld Lang Syne Scotch
¼ cup raisins
5 dates, minced fine
1 bottle blended Scotch
½ teaspoon coriander, freshly ground
½ teaspoon mace flakes, freshly ground
1 clove, freshly ground
5 threads saffron, ground fine (optional)
Put the raisins, and dates into the Scotch bottle (if they won't fit, drain off a little of the whiskey). Add the coriander, mace, clove and optional saffron, shake well and leave overnight to blend.
Photo: Auld Lang Syne Scotch for New Year's. Credit: Charles Perry
Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock 'n' roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times' award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.
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