Oswald Rivera

Author, Warrior, and Teacher

Category: cocktails and rum drinks

Apple Brandy

This recipe comes from a dear friend, Felix, from the South Bronx. It’s home-made apple brandy. How Felix, from the environs of the Bronx, got hold of this recipe, I have no idea. My research indicates that apple brandy was quite popular in Colonial America where, of course, apples were prevalent. It was a favorite nip of Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson. It has a distinctive lineage. Oh, yes, it gained a rep as one of “patent medicines” of the 19th century. You know the scene from countless movies, where a Dr. “So and So” comes to town in a wagon with a big sign on the side advertising a “medication” that will cure everything from whooping cough to cholera. That’s where the term “snake oil” comes from. I don’t know about its medical benefits, but apple brandy was a most popular potion in many a frontier household.

When one thinks of apple brandy, what comes to mind is the French apple-based Calvados. A drink distilled from selected apples grown in the Normandy region in France; and which traces its history as far back as the 8th century. The other beverage that also pops up is applejack, an other concoction popular in the colonial period which was made by taking the alcoholic fruit juice from concentrated cider and leaving it outside to freeze during the winter cold. It was called “freeze distilling.”

No such process is needed in Felix’s apple brandy. All you need is a good batch of apples (red not green), some vodka (or gin), sugar or other sweetner (I use maple syrup) and spices of your choice. Easy as pie. In fact, it’s apple-like flavor is great as an after dinner drink or with dessert. To my mind, this recipe is more akin to a fine liqueur than brandy. It’s a smooth, sweet elixir with a distinctive flavor, to be enjoyed with friends and family in a relaxed setting. Thank you, Felix.


2 1/2 pound red apples
2 cups vodka or gin
2 cups brandy*
1 cup maple syrup or honey
3 cups water
3 cinnamon sticks
2 vanilla beans

1. Wash and rinse apples, and pat dry with paper towels. Cut into wedges.
2. Place apples in an airtight glass container (a mason jar is perfect for this). Pour vodka and brandy over apples. Cover tightly and store in a dark, cool place for at least a month. I find that a closet is great for this. Note that the longer you age the drink, the more concentrated its flavor.
3. Strain though a fine mesh strainer into a large pot or bowl.
4. In a medium pan, combine maple syrup (or honey) and water. Add cinnamon sticks and cook at a low boil for 1/2 hour. Put aside and let cool. Combine with strained apple mixture and pour into an airtight container. Add vanilla bean and let age for another month or more. You can start drinking the apple brandy after a month or let it age a bit longer for a more pronounced flavor. Enjoy.
*Note: With the brandy (as with the vodka or gin), you don’t need top of the line stuff. You can keep the Napoleon Brandy for other occasions. The finer qualities of an expensive brandy or cognac would be subsumed by the other ingredients in the recipe. In fact, I use the cheapest brandy I can fine, and it still renders a smooth, sumptuous drink. 

Coquito, A Puerto Rican Holiday Drink

Coquito is what my folks called Puerto Rican moonshine. And they were not too far off the mark. Coquito is a made at home in the traditional way, mainly for special gatherings. Some people liken coquito to potent homemade eggnog. And it can be very strong, or very mild, depending on how much rum you put into it.

In Puerto Rican neighborhoods, the coquito flows during Las Fiestas Patronales, or the Feast of the Patron Saints, and Christmas. Every family has its own recipe. According to my elders, in olden times the success of a shindig was measured on the quality of the family coquito.

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Winter Drinks for the Holidays

The thermometer dips, Christmas decorations abound, and gift-shopping is the norm. It’s that time of year again. Winter and the holidays are upon us. It’s also a time for warming drinks. Eggnog is the old standby; and in my culture we have coquito. Yet there are other winter drinks that are just as delicious and warm you all over. These beverages have been with us since anyone could remember. They have become winter solstice tradition. I cite three favorites: mulled wine; hot toddy; and hot buttered rum. So, while it’s bitterly cold outside, sit back in your favorite armchair, wrap yourself and your love one in a nice blanket or comforter, and savor one of these beverages.


This drink goes back to Ancient Rome, where it was first recorded. So, the idea of heating wine and adding herbs and spices is not new. It was very popular in Victorian England, and it still remains so today. The chintziest recipe I came across is noted in the fabled Mr. Boston Bartender’s Guide, which calls it “Mulled Claret;” and has sugar, lemon, bitters, nutmeg and cinnamon placed in a  metal mug, along with the wine, and then a heated red hot poker is put in the liquid until boiling. Not many people have access to a red hot poker these days thus my recipe is more conventional.

In a large saucepan, combine one bottle (730 ml) red wine (Cabernet, Zinfandel, Burgundy, Merlot), 1/4 cup honey, 1 cup apple cider, 5 whole cloves, 3 cinnamon sticks, 3 star anise, 1 teaspoon ground ginger or allspice. Bring to a boil and simmer on low heat for 15 minutes. Stir occasionally to make sure the honey had completely dissolved and the ingredients have been well blended. Pour into mugs and serve. If desired, you can add a thin, round orange slice to each serving. Serves about 4-6.


Another oldie. It was once touted as a sure-fire cure for colds and the flu. I don’t know about that, but it’s great for wet and cold weather. Supposedly, the toddy (or “tottie”) is Scottish in origin. The alcohol of choice for a toddy is whiskey; but you can substitute dark rum if desired.

In a 5-ounce glass put one lump or teaspoon of sugar. Add 2 ounces whiskey. Then fill glass with boiling water. Stir and decorate with a lemon slice, and sprinkle with nutmeg on top.


The drink of hardened sailors in the old days. The drink traces its lineage to the American colonies, where it had been around since the 1650s.

In a mug put one lump or teaspoon of sugar. Add 2 ounces of dark rum, 1/2 teaspoon butter and 4 whole cloves. Add a pinch of nutmeg, fill with boiling water and stir to combine. Another variation is to float the butter on top (after adding the other ingredients), and include a cinnamon stick (which can also be used as a stirrer).

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Coquito , A Puerto Rican Holiday Drink

A Puerto Rican Holiday Drink similar to Eggnog, or egg nog.
Available in my book: Page 255. http://www.amazon.com/Puerto-Rican-Cuisine-America-Nuyorican/dp/1568582447

Rum: The Summer Cocktail

When one thinks of summer cocktails, what comes to mind are the usual standbys: gin and tonic, or a a tom collins or, in you’re down south, a mint julip. Or else you think of all those sticky-sweet frozen drinks with little umbrellas sticking out of them. When hot weather rears its head, our libations change accordingly. You want some thing cool and icy, and quick. If you’re  like me, you don’t want to mess with blenders and such. You want something fast and refreshing, something more substantive than the usual white wine.This is where rum comes in. It’s the quintessential summer drunk. My forebears hail from the Caribbean where they have been battling hot summers with this elixir since time immemorial.

Now, in terms of rum, most people consider summery drinks as being daiquiris, mojitos or pina coladas. That’s great if you want to spend time fussing and blending. But summer rum drinks can be as invariably simple as a rum highball with soda or orange juice. Below are given some tropical rum drinks that are very easy to prepare. So, for that next BBQ or pool side party, or even while hanging out on the fire escape on a hot night, try some of these out.

Be aware that rum, like fine wine or brandy, has different characteristics. Some connoisseurs prefer a dark aged anejo, some prefer rum that is sweet and heady with molasses-like flavor, and some prefer a light, dry variety. In general, rum comes in two types: white (or silver) and dark (or gold).  In terms of alcohol content, they usually come in 80 proof, and you can go up to 151 proof. The latter is not recommended for sipping. It is not a parlor drink. In my culture we use it to make coquito, a sort of high-powered egg nog that is definitely not a summer drink.

CUBA LIBRE:  Mix in a shaker with ice and and pour (unstrained) into a 10 ounce highball glass:  2 ounces white rum and juice of 1/2 lime. Fill glass with club soda or seltzer water.

HAVANA COCKTAIL:  Mix and shake well with ice: 2 ounces white rum, 1 ounce pineapple juice, and 1 teaspoon sugar. Strain into a cocktail glass. (Note: you can substitute, if desired, 1/4 ounce grenadine syrup in lieu of the sugar).
LIBERTY COCKTAIL: Mix and shake well with ice: 1 ounce dark rum, 2 ounces apple juice, and 1/4 ounce grenadine. Strain into a cocktail glass.
MADAGASCAR COCKTAIL:  Mix and shake well with ice: 1 ounce white rum, 2 ounce orange juice, 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice. Top with grated or powdered nutmeg.
MINT CRUSH: Mull 8 fresh mint leaves (washed and wipe clean) and 1/2 teaspoon powdered sugar in an old-fashioned glass (8 oz.) Add 3 ice cubes and 2 ounces dark rum. Fill with water and stir. Decorate with a mint sprig.
MONKEY WRENCH:  Pour 2 ounces white rum into a highball glass with ice. Fill with grapefruit juice and stir.
PINEAPPLE FIZZ: Shake well with ice and strain into a highball glass: 1 ounce white or dark rum, 2 tablespoons pineapple juice, and 1 teaspoon sugar. Fill with club soda or seltzer water.
RUM COBBLER: In a goblet or mug, dissolve 1 teaspoon powdered sugar in 2 ounces club soda. Fill with ice, add 2 ounces dark rum and stir. Serve with a straw.
RUM COLLINS: Pour 2 ounces white rum in a highball glass over ice. Add juice of 1/2 lemon and 1 teaspoon sugar. Stir well and add club soda, a maraschino cherry, and a slice or orange. This can also be done with dark rum. In which case you add the juice of a lime instead of lemon.
RUM FIZZ:  Mix and shake well with ice: 1 1/2 ounce white rum, juice of 1/2 lemon and 1 teaspoon powdered sugar. Pour (unstrained) into a highball glass and fill with club soda or seltzer.
RUM HIGHBALL: Into a highball glass filled with ice, pour 1 ounce white or dark rum. Fill with ginger ale, and add a slice of lemon or lime and stir.
RUM RICKEY: Squeeze juice of 1/2 lime into a 10 ounce glass. Add ice cubes and 2 ounces white rum. Fill with club soda or seltzer.
RUM SANGAREE: Mix and shake well: 2 ounces dark rum and 1 teaspoon powdered sugar. Pour into an 8 ounce glass with 3 ice cubes. Fill with club soda or seltzer and sprinkle some ground nutmeg on top.
RUM SOUR: Shake well with ice and strain into a 6 ounce whisky sour glass: 2 ounces dark rum, juice of 1/2 lemon and 1/2 teaspoon powdered sugar. Add a maraschino cherry and decorate with 1/2 orange slice. Or you can serve the drink on the rocks in an old-fashioned glass.
RUM SWIZZLE: Into a highball glass pour 2 ounces dark rum, juice of 1/2 lemon, 1 teaspoon sugar and 3 sprigs fresh mint. Fill with ice, club soda, and then use a swizzle stick until it froths over.
TRINIDAD COCKTAIL: Shake well with ice and strain into a cocktail glass: 2 ounces dark rum, juice of 1/2 lime, 2 dashes angostura bitters, and 1 ounce grenadine syrup. Serve with a twist of lemon peel.
TROPICAL COCKTAIL: (Created at New York’s Essex House, I’m told) Shake well with ice and strain into a cocktail glass: 1 ounce dark rum, juice of 1 lime, 2/3 teaspoon grenadine, and 1 teaspoon sugar. Garnish with pineapple slices.
WEST INDIAN SWIZZLE: Into a cocktail glass add 2 ice cubes, then pour 2 ounces dark rum (preferably West Indian rum), 1 lump sugar, 1 dash Angostura bitters, and 2 ounces club soda or seltzer. Swizzle with stick to froth.

There they are. Go out, experiment, explore, and have fun.

1 jigger light rum

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Rum Punch

Prior to the American revolution, the drink of choice in the colonies was rum. It fueled the American heart. It’s estimated that the colonists downed 3 3/4 gallons per head per year, and this includes women and children. At his inaugural in 1789, George Washington, the first President of the United States, had a barrel of Barbados rum served at the function. In colonial homes, no social gathering would be complete without a bowl of rum punch.

Today we think of rum mainly as a mixed drink such as in mojitos, daiquiris, or that rite of passage for almost every young person in America, rum and coca-cola. But rum punch at your next party or get-together is not such a bad idea. You can make it as powerful or as weak as desired, and, believe me, it livens up any gathering. Below is given a rum punch recipe from the 18th century. And, yes, it’s as delicious now as it was then. If you want to imitate those crazy Republican tea party folks, put on a tri-corner colonial hat, ruffled shirt and knee britches, and your set to party the old-fashioned way. Oh,yes, the recipe is from my second cookbook, The Pharaoh’s Feast, also published in the United Kingdom under the title, Feasting with the Ancestors.


1 cup pure maple syrup
2 cups lemon or lime juice
1 quart water (you can use sparkling water to give it fizz)
1 bottle (750 ml.) dark rum (I prefer Anejo which is aged over 8 years, but any good dark rum will do)
Ground nutmeg

1.In a punch bowl, mix the maple syrup with the lemon or lime juice. Add water and stir.
2. Add the rum and serve over ice in the punch bowl, with nutmeg sprinkled on top.
    Yield: about 20 servings.

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Mulsum – The Great Aperitif of Olden Times

As noted in an earlier blog, I have always been fascinated by ancient Roman cooking. My second cookbook, The Pharaoh’s Feast (Thunder’s Mouth Press) has a whole chapter on this. Roman meals, especially at the time of the Empire, were sumptuous productions for the upper classes. They were ostentatious and sometimes downright weird. Imagine eating dormice, sow’s womb, and peacock’s brain in a sauce. Admittedly, not something for everyone

Yet, in a Roman banquet (and some of the dishes were quite sophisticated), each meal began with a sweet aperitif, mulsum, a mix of wine and honey. Then the successive courses were served and here, early in the dinner, the guests ate without drinking. Then they drank without eating. Wisely, the Romans, like the ancient Greeks before them, normally drank their wine mixed with water.

An ancient gourmand, Apicius, who lived in the time of Emperor Nero, wrote a tome, On Cookery, or De Re Coquinaria. In it he has a recipe for spiced honey wine that calls for peppercorns, mastic (a sort of resin), bay leaf, saffron, and dates. Trying to emulate this recipe would be a daunting undertaking. I prefer to make the mulsum by simply combining the honey and the wine. The recipe follows below; and note that it is best to use pure, unprocessed raw honey, the type sold in health food stores.


1/2 cup honey
1 bottle medium-dry red wine

1. Heat the honey in a small saucepan. Do not boil. Remove from the honey and let it cool.
2. Mix the wine and honey in a ceramic jar or pitcher and serve at cool room temperature. the wine and honey can also be mixed in a bowl and served in a decanter.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

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