Tag Archives: Tips and Tricks

The Right Way to Shake A Cocktail

[embedplusvideo height="388" width="640" standard="http://www.youtube.com/v/VEBrhNu_Z6A?fs=1" vars="ytid=VEBrhNu_Z6A&width=640&height=388&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=" id="ep4965" /]

Ask the Internet and one shall receive.

As we get closer and closer to having the best gin available to us, I wanted to ensure that when I address the “shaken vs. stirred” debate, that my shaking technique was appropriate.  Luckily for me, the good folks at Chow have already addressed the issue and have created a YouTube video to help demonstrate.

In the video is A. J. Rathbun, author of the books Good Spirits , Luscious Liqueurs, and several other books on cocktails and spirits. I have several of his books and trust him in what he has to say.

How (Not) to Drink Whisky


The majority of this is pure silliness, it’s little more than whisky affectations gone to the extreme. To typical drinkers – meaning those of us  who go out to drink to have a fun night with friends where we spend time talking about anything BUT the quality of our drinks – there are only two bits of information here worth mentioned.

  1. For 22 year olds, its rare to have to add water make it smoother. Note, however, that I don’t say “You shouldn’t add water!”.
  2. Adding hot water to your drink will make it difficult to appreciate the subtleties of scotch whisky.

All of the other items are either nonsense, or tips for professional tasters and whisky critics.  For one, I’ve never run across a bartender who has heaped dozens of pieces of ice into a “scotch on the rocks”. It’s an exaggeration. Second, ice  in the drink is perfectly acceptable (albeit in a small amount), because it changes the nuances of the drink as the ice melts and the drink goes from cold to room temperature.

Also, I don’t think bars would look too kindly on folks, either customers or bartenders, who swirled whisky in a glass and then flung the spirit upon the floor.

Yes, great whisky can be poorly handled. People mindlessly handle well made products all of the time. But even the consumer who desires to treat a great whiskey with respect should approach the drink that’s comfortable to them. Anyone doing 95% of what the gentleman in the video is doing is little more than a poseur in my eyes.

How To Write a (Non-Fiction) Book Proposal

I’m posting this as much as an exercise for myself as I am as a How-to for those who may want to know.

Non-Fiction Book Proposals are weird beasts, as you’re trying to sell a publisher or agent on an idea of a book, rather than a completed one. For a fiction book, the book should be complete (or complete enough) to be sold soon after purchase by the publishing house. The publisher knows immediately just exactly what they are trying to sell. For non-fiction, the publishing house is essentially looking to understand how to sell the book months, sometimes years into the future. The non-fiction book proposal should have ideas on how to solve that problem throughout the document. Here is the template I’ve used that seems to work well for me.

Section 1. General Overview: I term this the “purpose and scope” section, or the “Why My book idea is interesting” section. Keep this at a paragraph, maybe two, to discuss the premise of the book. For example:

99 Drams of Whiskey seeks to explain the world of whiskey to the newcomer, in a way that provides context to its history, rather than the myths and legends that are used to sell it today.


Sweet Tooth is a book where the dreams of our childhood meet the realities of adulthood. It’s a world-wide candy binge where consequences must be paid.

A little flowery, I know, but the quicker and more succinct the premise of the book that this section gets across, the better an agent, or a publisher can sell that idea to somebody else. Remember! Other people have to sell your book for you. Make it easy for them! They should be able to sell your idea in less than 30 seconds. This is the section that let’s them do just that.

Side Note: I’ve taken to adding blurbs about me in this section as well, below the purpose and scope. For example

Section 1.1: Praise for Kate Hopkins · “…Hopkins’s enthusiasm for giving us the lowdown on the best tasting brands makes (99 Drams) well worth sipping slowly.” – Playboy

This is me up-selling myself. Nothing more. If someone is going to read only one page of the proposal, I want to intrigue them enough on who I am to make them want to read more. I have no idea if this hurts or helps.

Section 2. Book Synopsis: Here’s where you get to explain the book in greater detail. This section should not only explain the idea of the book so that anyone who gets to this page starts to understand it, it also provides you the roadmap you want to travel (or have traveled) when writing the book.

I break this section down into several parts:

  • Section 2.1: Thesis: This is the exact point you want your reader to get when they read the book. If you don’t have a thesis for the book, you should ask yourself why you are writing it. I may elaborate on this in a later post.
  • Section 2.2: General Summary: Here’s your chance to expand upon the General Overview in Section 1. Here is where you want to start getting into the details of the why (is the book worth writing, publishing, and reading) and the how (are you going to prove your thesis). My summaries have never taken more than a page.
  • Section 2.3: Proposed Table of Contents: Remember in section 1 where I said you have to provide just enough information for an agent or publisher to sell your book in less than 30 seconds? This section (as well as the General summary) gives them enough insight to know what the book will look like. If they are able to get someone’s attention with their 30 second pitch, questions will soon follow. These sections should help them answer those questions. A brief paragraph of a sentence or three to explain each chapter will go a long way in accomplishing that.You should note the word “Proposed”. You will find that an idea you have had at the start of the writing process will be unworkable for one reason or another. This is okay, but make sure that you keep those who have bought your proposal in the loop.
  • Section 2.4: Book Delivery: This is the “I promise to deliver the first draft of the book consisting of x amount of words on such-and-such a date” section. My section for Sweet Tooth looked like this:

    Book Length
    It is anticipated that the book should be approximately 70,000 to 75,000 words.

    Plates and Graphics
    As of this writing, I would like to set aside sixteen pages for color graphics. However, this request may change as the book evolves.

    Copyrighted Materials
    “Accidental Hedonist” is a brand owned and copyrighted by Kate Hopkins. She should retain the right to all content provided on her website in regard to this project. She will license the use of her site at no cost to the publisher.

    Delivery Date
    The first draft of the book can be delivered to the editor twelve to fourteen months after all the applicable contracts have been signed. Much of this is dependant upon time needed to co-ordinate travel plans.

    I ended up at over 80,000 words and used no plates or graphics. I did hit the delivery date. I’m of the belief that the delivery date should be written in stone (at least in my mind). Everything else is up for discussion.

    Section 3. The Book’s Market Place:

    Answer this question – Who do you want to, or who do you believe will buy your book? This is the section where you make that case. And, from anecdotes I’ve heard from other non-fiction writers, this is the part that is the most difficult to craft.

    For Sweet Tooth, I specified five markets (Candy and Chocolate fans, food historians, Foodies, Travel Aficionados, and online enthusiasts). I then explained each market as best as I could, and then found evidence (through magazine subscription numbers, to the amount of non-fiction books dealing with food in the Amazon top 100 list). The goal here is to demonstrate that the market to which you want to sell is big enough that the publisher should be willing to risk x amount of dollars in your project. Remember, the money they invest in you and your book, they expect, not only to make back, but also to make some measure of profit from it. If you can explain this market well enough, it should make them want to research their own numbers (which are assuredly better than yours) to support your initial assertions.

    Into this section I list other similar books and when they were released. This does two things

    1. Publishers will check the sales numbers of these books to see how viable of a project it may be for them.
    2. It forced me to look at what I am bringing different to the marketplace. If my book concept is too similar to another book on the shelves, why publish it at all? There are dozens, if not hundreds, of whiskey books out there. Very few are written from the perspective of an outsider to the industry.

    Section 4. Promotion: Or as I term it “How far will I go to sell this book”. Most books don’t have an extensive marketing budget. This is the section that tells the agent and publisher what new and innovative (or old, but triend and true) ideas you have to sell your book. The more ideas the better, and one may just catch the eye of the publisher.

    This is important: Do not levy any requirements on the publisher in regards to promotion. This section is all about you and what you will do. It is not about expecting your publisher to pay for a publicity tour, and getting you on the Today show.

    Section 5. The Book (Sample Sections): You should have written at least some of the book already. Place a chapter in here that demonstrates both your writing skills, as well as the premise of the book. I’ve placed anywhere between 3000 to 5000 words in this section. For 99 Drams, it was one full chapter. For Sweet Tooth, it was two separate sections.

    Section 6. The Author: Again, more up-selling of yourself in this section. Who are you and what experience do you have? I’ve typically placed two to three paragraphs in this section, pretending that this was the section that would end up on inside of the book flap.

    I have also added 1 or 2 small samples of additional writing in this section, mostly to convey my sense of humor as well as the “voice” in which I write. Both samples came from other published work. I would never put samples of unpublished work in here, for a variety of reasons.

    When all is said and done, the proposals should be anywhere between fifteen to twenty-five pages, depending. I add a cover page that reads:

    Sweet Tooth:

    The Accidental Hedonist’s Quest for the History of Candy
    A Book Proposal

    …along with my contact information in the lower left corner.

    I then send the proposal to an editor friend who ensures that my problems with grammar and spelling aren’t apparent. Following that, I print the document (never handwritten, and never printed in a font that’s more flamboyant than arial), and then send it on its way to the proper people.

    I am not saying that this is the perfect proposal, but it has worked twice now. And I’ve purposefully avoided discussing the current state of the publishing industry, as well as the idea of self-publishing. Those are posts for later times. Right now, all I wanted to convey is how I write a book proposal.

    My key points:
    1) Write the book you want, but make sure that the proposal is written in such a way that it makes an agent want to sell it and a publisher want to publish it.
    2) Writing is a professional business. That means that the proposal should be approached in a professional manner.
    3) The proposal is the means by which people sell your book. It’s how you sell your book to an agent, how the agent sells the book to a publisher, and how the publisher sells the book to others at their publishing house. The more effective you are at explaining how interesting/novel/exciting your book is, the greater the probability of selling that proposal.

    Now go off and do magnificent things.

How to Pour a Pousse-café

Pousse-café sounds horribly exotic. In truth, it’s nothing more than a layered drink, and it’s quite easy to accomplish. The results, when done well, are amazing to look at. To accomplish this, it requires a bit of knowledge of science, and a bit of skill.

First, the knowledge – one of the properties of liquids includes something known as a specific gravity. As Wikipedia puts it “Specific gravity is the ratio of the density of a substance to the density of a reference substance.” For liquids, the reference substance is water. The higher the specific gravity of a liquid, the heavier it is. This property allows for different liquids to appear as if separate from one another.

The spirits world is filled with a tremendous variation from alcohol to alcohol. Typically speaking, the more sugar and less alcohol, the higher the specific gravity. The lower the sugar and higher the alcohol, the smaller the density. So, in selecting your alcohols, you would want a variation between which alcohols you picked.

So Step 1? Pick your alcohols that you wish to use in your drink.

Step 2 – Pour your drinks from heaviest to lightest. The trick is to pour slowly off of the back of a teaspoon (or other similar surface that gains you some measure of control), onto either the side of the glass, or just above the previous layer. This does take some skill, but it’s not a difficult one to master. When I’ve tried it, it took me two attempts to get it right. I also found using a Martini glass helped immensely.

Here’s the specific gravity of some of the more popular liquors out there, along with their flavors and colors:

Specific Gravity 1.18
Crème de banane (banana): Gold
Crème de cassis (black currant): Blood Red

Specific Gravity 1.17
Anisette (licorice): Clear

Specific Gravity 1.16
Crème de menthe – colored – (mint): Green
Grenadine (pomegranate): Orange-red

Specific Gravity 1.15
Crème de cacao – colored – (chocolate): Brown
Crème de menthe – uncolored – (mint): Clear
Kahlúa (coffee): Dark Brown

Specific Gravity 1.14
Crème de cacao – uncolored – (chocolate): Clear
Maraschino (cherry): Clear

Specific Gravity 1.13
Parfait d’armour (Rose/Orange/Vanilla): Violet

Specific Gravity 1.12
Cherry Liqueur (cherry): Dark Red
Crème de noyaux (almond): Bright Red
Strawberry Liqueur (strawberry): Pink/Red

Specific Gravity 1.11
Blue Curaçao (orange): Blue
Gallioano (vanilla-orange): Amber

Specific Gravity 1.10
Amaretto (almond): Amber
Blackberry Liqueur (blackberry): Dark Red
orange Curaçao (orange): Orange

Specific Gravity 1.09
Apricot Liqueur (apricot): Orange
Cranberry Liqueur (cranberry): Red
Tia Maria (coffee-rum): Brown
Triple Sec (orange): Clear

Specific Gravity 1.08
Drambuie (whisky/honey): Reddish Amber
Frangelico (hazelnut): Brown
Sambuca (licorice): Clear

Specific Gravity 1.07
Apricot Brandy (apricot): Amber
Blackberry Brandy (blackberry): Purple-Red
Campari (herbal/bitters): Bright Red

Specific Gravity 1.06
Cherry Brandy (cherry): Purple-Red
Peach Brandy (Peach): Yellow-Orange
Yellow Chartreuse (herbal): Bright Yellow

Specific Gravity 1.05
Midori (melon): Green
Kümmel (sweet Caraway, cumin, fennel): Clear
Peach Schnapps (peach): Clear

Specific Gravity 1.04
Sloe Gin (plum/sloe): Purple-Red
Brandy (Brandy): Amber
Cointreau (orange peel): Clear
Peppermint Schnapps (peppermint): Clear

Specific Gravity 1.01
Green Chartreuse (herbal): Green

Specific Gravity 1.00

Specific Gravity 0.98
Tuaca (brandy-vanilla): Amber

Specific Gravity 0.97
Southern Comfort (bourbon-fruit): Amber-Orange

Specific Gravity 0.94
Kirsch (cherry): clear

(PHOTO CREDIT: From RNAlexander via the Creative Commons license)

How to Judge a Knife

During the quest for the perfect knife, I’ve been contemplating what aspects/characteristics I should be looking at. Here’s a list of what I’ve come up with so far:

Subjective: These are the characteristics that will vary from person to person, depending upon tastes or needs.

Balance: Probably better known as weight distribution of the knife. The idea here is that when knife will set in a hand, it will feel as if it is an extension of the hand. This likely differs from person to person due to the fact that people’s hands range in size from small to large. A knife that feels balanced to a large handed person may feel bulky or clumsy to someone with small hands.

Weight: Related to balance is weight, or how heavy/light a knife may be. Subjective because weight will end up being decided based upon personal preference.

Size: Freudian jokes aside, some people like things bigger, others smaller. Another personal preference characteristic.

Ergonomics: Better known as ‘Does the knife feel comfortable in your hands’? This too, will vary from person to person. It is also difficult to quantify. Usually the handle is the primary focus of most people, but the back of the spine should also be taken into consideration as the thumb will rest there from time to time.

Types of blades: There are several different ways a blade can be shaped, each with their own pluses and minuses. Again, this will end up being a personal preference.

Quantifiable characteristics: These are the aspects of a knife to which one can say this is better than that, and give objective evidence supporting their claims.

Right Tool for the Job: Does the knife do what I need it to do? If I need a knife that can cleave, cut, and fillet, can it do all of those tasks?

Blade Composition: Are ceramic knives better than steel? What metal composition works best in steel blades? Was the steel knife forged or stamped?

Edge Sharpness: How sharp an edge can easily be determined. But this aspect is…ahem…pointless if not considered with…

Sharpness durability: A Knife that significantly loses its sharpness after only a few uses is a waste of time. Also related to…

Knife Sharpening: How well does the blade take to being re-sharpened?

Knife Durability: How well does the knife hold up under extensive use? Does it rust quickly? Does the tang fall apart?

Some of the aspects above are more important than others, to be sure. But I think that if I address all of these issues in one way or another, I will find the perfect knife for me.

How to Taste Whiskey – Pt. 2

Yesterday, I touched on the eyes and nose of a whiskey. In regard to the look of whiskey, Matthew noted in the comments that there reputedly a fair amount of brands who put caramel coloring into the mix, in order to make their whiskey look more appealing.

This is true, to a certain point. Just this past Saturday I purchased a cheap bottle of corn whiskey (for research, don’tcha know) that has a orange-brown tint to its color. This clearly (no pun) comes from coloring that has been added to the mix, as the color of a whiskey comes from the wood in which it was aged. As corn whiskey is not required to be aged, and in fact, it is cheaper to not age whiskey, then it doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to figure out that if this cheap whiskey was not aged, the color had to come from somewhere else.

There are bottlers of higher end whiskeys that color their drinks as well. From what I’ve read, all blends have coloring added. However, many of the single malt whiskeys who do not, explicitly say so somewhere within their documentation. A lack of caramel coloring is a selling point. For any whiskey you purchase and taste, a bit of research will likley be needed in order to determine if your drink’s color is authentic.

And yes, adding caramel coloring can affect the flavor of the drink.

But let’s move on from yesterday…

We’ve talked about looks and we’ve talked about nose. The question then becomes – what’s the best way to bring about both the look and aromas of the whiskey? A lot of this is determined by just how serious you wish to be about tasting. If you’re not that serious about it, old fashioned glasses will do just fine.

There are many, many professionals who will tell you that I am full of it when it comes to this. They will say that the only way to enjoy a dram is through the use of Single Malt glasses. They will say that these single malt glasses are specifically designed to not dilute the colors through the use of cuttings on the glass, and that the tulip shaped design of the glass helps keep the aromas. As Michael Jackson noted, a good nosing glass “is tulip-shaped, with a decent bowl (for swirling the spirit) and a narrow lip (to catch the aromas).” If you are serious about tasting (and nosing) whiskey, then yes, getting a decent single malt glass is probably not a bad idea. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the glass needs to be crystal, but the shape of a glass does determing how well one can control the aromas of the drink. (There’s scientific proof to back up this assertion. A 2001 paper called The influence of wine glass shape on perceived aroma and colour intensity in wines came to the conclusion that a major factor in enhancing aroma is the ratio of the glasses cup diameter to the diameter of its opening. But they had is no evidence that glass style had any impact on taste, flavor or mouthfeel. And while I am a bigger fan of whiskey than I am of wine, I’m not such a fan as to make an assertion that the characteristics of whiskey are any more or less special than that of wine.)

Okay, so you have your special glass, and you’ve poured in two ounces of whiskey and one ounce of water.

Well, first make sure you’re in a room that lacks any odors that may be a distraction. That means no drinking around wet dogs and/or teenage girls who just discovered perfume.

Then swirl your glass and take a look at the whiskey, using a well lit and white backdrop for your background. You may see certain characteristic such as oils, or may start to go a bit misty in appearance. Each of these are a clue as to how the whiskey was produced.

Place your nose in the glass and take a quick inhale. Take note of what aromas you find, either mentally or literally. As you judge other whiskeys later on down the line, compare them against these notes.

Be aware of what alcohol smells like (and how it affects you physically) so you can then separate that aroma from the others.

Then take a drink. Let it sit on your tongue for a moment or two. Note the primary taste. That’s the flavor that hits your tongue immediately. Then note how the liquid feels. Is it oily or viscous? Does it come across as dry? Swallow and note the flavors that play in the back of the throat (actually, these are aromas that are filtering up to your nasal cavity, but that’s quibbling at this point). Note these aromas, and how the taste finishes. Does the taste linger and decrescendo? Or does the flavor just quit suddenly? Finally, are there aftertastes to the whiskey? How long do they last? All of these are relevant and can help shape your opinion of the drink.

As I mentioned yesterday, there are no wrong answers here, just people who have a better vocabulary to answer the questions posted above.

As an exercise, read the tasting notes found here. Notice the differences of opinion here. Each taster either found or focused on completely different characteristics of the whiskey. If you start reading whiskey reviews, you will find this to be quite common.

My point in bringing this up is we all find different things in different whiskeys. Don’t worry that you tasted something different from someone else. Your experience matters, even if no one else had experienced the same thing. This leads us to the best part of this entire process – talking with other people about it. Some will agree with you, others will not. And you will likely find yourself saying something along this lines of “How the hell did you taste chocolate in that?”

This is not only normal, but some would say the best part of tasting whiskey. Because the real point in tasting whiskey is to discuss it with others who had also tasted it.

That concludes my “How to taste” series. It wasn’t too in depth, and should be considered more of an introductory course. I’m not certain if I will get into more detail later down the line, but it’s always a possibility. Tomorrow – my first tasting notes!

How to Taste Whiskey – Pt. 1

It’s probably the height of arrogance for me to write a post about how one should taste whiskey. There are loads of people out there who have already covered this base, and they are far more knowledgeable on the subject. For me, whiskey is first and foremost about stories and anecdotes. The tasting of the alcohol is simply the fuel that allows the stories to flow more freely (oo.. how poetic! I’ll have to remember that bit).

But, for the sake of those out there who have never thought about “tasting” whiskey, it’s good to put this information out there. And since I will be posting various tastings on this here site, it’s a good idea to give you all the process I will be using.

First and foremost, let’s get one thing out of the way. There’s a huge chasm between the idea of tasting whiskey and the idea of enjoying whiskey. One activity does not necessarily have to include the other. If you enjoy making cocktails out of the various whiskeys available on the market, then have at it. But it’s impossible to get a clear taste of whiskey once you adulterate it with bitters, ginger ale, or sour mix.

Additionally, tasting a whiskey involves more than simply putting it into your mouth and swallowing. It’s an encompassing experience, using the same amount of our senses as we use when consuming any other food or drink. So let’s define tasting as the act of learning the characteristics of the flavor of whiskey through the use of the senses. But which senses? The same ones used for tasting wine and judging food – seeing, smelling, and tasting.

The eyes gives us insight into the drink. It can tell us how young it is, or the kind of barrel in which it was aged. Generally speaking, the lighter the whiskey, the younger it will be. Whiskey straight from the still is often white, while there are some whiskeys out there that have been aged so long than they have a deep red to them. Bourbon gets it amber red color from the new and freshly charred oak barrels used in its aging process. If bourbon did not use new barrels, or if they didn’t char the new barrels they did use, the Kentucky spirit would have a completely different color.

Finding the nose of the whiskey is even more important than the look of it. Some would say that the aromas of the whiskey is more important than the taste. From my reading, I’ve found that it’s not uncommon for blenders to base their recipes primarily on aromas. But if you’re not a blender, the nose is of secondary importance, behind taste.

To release the aromas of whiskey, a little water may be necessary. The best way to think of this is that a bit of water wakes up the whiskey that has been asleep from anywhere from 3 to 25 years. But how much water? According to Michael Jackson, you want to add just enough water dilute to around 30% alcohol by volume. Roughly speaking, this translates to a .5 to 1 water to whiskey ratio if your drinking 80 proof whiskey, or a 1 to 1 water to whiskey ratio if you’ve found yourself a whiskey that’s 100 proof. This is simply a rule of thumb, and one should expect many exceptions to this, especially in the older whiskeys.

A quick side note – ice should be avoided, as well as chilled water, as they close down the aromatics of the whiskey. The water added should lack any obvious characteristics of its own. For example, you wouldn’t add mineral water to your whiskey. It is said that the best water to add to the whiskey is the water found at the site where the whiskey was distilled. Since I’ll assume that the vast majority of you out there are not millionaires, and cannot fly off to Kentucky or Speyside simply for a drink of whiskey, let’s just stick to bland water.

So what are you looking for when you smell a whiskey? That I’ll leave up to you to decide. From my point of view, there are no wrong answers to this question, because tasting is a very personal experience. If you place your snoot in a dram and the aromas remind you of Newark, then by god, that’s what you experienced. Yes, there is a vocabulary used by professional tasters, and usually they are simply variations of more broad terms (woody, fruitful, medicine, smoky, citrus-like). The aromas you find will likely trigger some sort of sense memory. The skill of a professional taster is to put a very specific and accurate word to describe their own sense memory. Or to put it another way, an amateur taster may say that a drink smells a bit fruity and a bit woody. A good taster will say that a whiskey carries a strong oak smell with an undercurrent of raisins. A great taster will say that the whiskey had been in two different casks, one that used in bourbon and the more recent one used in the making of sherry; additionally, there are hints of currants and peaches, as well as a little bit of vanilla.

All of these answers are right. The reason the last taster was able to put more words to the aromas was because they do this activity more often.

That’s the end of part 1. Tomorrow, I’ll post about whiskey glasses, and what to do once you actually put the whiskey in your mouth. And, as always, feel free to correct any of my mistakes by addressing them in the comments of this post.

Part 2 is here