The Palmetto

A few nights ago, I went to an unfamiliar bar in Plymouth, Massachusetts, ordered a “Rum Manhattan,” and found myself explaining to the people I was with that it's called a Palmetto, and it's delicious. The bartender overheard that conversation, and informed me as he was delivering our drinks that he'd never gotten an order for a Rum Manhattan before, and wouldn't have recognized the name if I had ordered it as a Palmetto. I don't know what rum he used, but it was a pretty good drink. Medium body, understated, and subtle. A pleasant surprise, particularly given that they didn't seem to have a broad rum selection in the first place.

This was a fairly minor experience in the grand scheme of my cocktail life, except for one thing: It was a dream.

I've had drinks in dreams before, sometimes good ones. I've probably ordered drinks in dreams before. But never, in any dream that I can recall, have I had an entire conversation explaining what a drink was and outlining my reasoning for ordering off-menu in a particular way. The moment I remembered this in the morning, I burst out laughing.

I have to assume that I had this dream because I've had that exact conversation a whole bunch of times lately. I've said before that I don't have a single favorite cocktail, but I do tend to go on kicks where I'm drinking one thing a lot. Lately, that's been the Palmetto, a handsome drink with a respectable pedigree (the earliest printed recipe I'm aware of dates to 1908).

It's not exactly a Rum Manhattan, but it's not far off. It's a combination of aged rum and sweet vermouth, ideally with orange bitters rather than aromatic ones. And the Palmetto tends to skew vermouthier than the Manhattan – you see it listed as a 1:1 recipe reasonably often. But the drinks are still very similar, and when one is in the mood for a Palmetto, one will in my experience be quite satisfied with a Rum Manhattan.

This is a particularly convenient fact because I spent a recent weekend in New York, and had more than a few drinks at the Yale Club thereof (both for reasons to be detailed in a later post), as well as at some establishments that don't really have craft cocktail programs but still know what a Manhattan is, because, well, that's where they are.

I've always believed that there is a time and a place for all kinds of drinking except for those that involve Fernet Branca, and so I generally tailor my drinks to the occasion. You should never be the guy asking for an Aviation at a dive bar, etc.

But I'm still me, and over time I've scouted out territory for reasonable off-menu orders under various circumstances.

For instance, my go-to drink in highball-heavy environments (nightclubs, wedding receptions, and so on) is a Rum and Tonic. A friend of mine introduced me to the concept in college, and I and everyone else who knew him thought he was out of his mind. It took me many years to actually try it. I was in Key West for my cousin's wedding, and I figured, what the hell, it's supposed to be a Caribbean drink – when in Rome, right?

Turns out my friend had been onto something: now I can't get enough of them. But most people don't know that the combination works, and give me the same odd look I used to give him. Which is fine! “What are you drinking?” is a great automatic icebreaker, and ordering a drink that's a little unusual but no harder to make than the standard fare often leads to an interesting conversation with the bartender.

The Palmetto fills a similar role in slightly different environments. There are lots of restaurants and hotel bars throughout the world that haven't kept up with the cocktail renaissance, but have a long enough history and a high enough standard of service that certain cocktails never went out of style there. These are the sorts of places where you can generally expect a Manhattan, Martini, and an Old Fashioned to be available to a reasonable standard of quality, but your odds of getting a Twentieth Century or a Penicillin are slim to none.

Don't get me wrong, those are all delicious drinks. But sometimes I want a rum cocktail, and the Daiquiri often has poor associations at these sorts of places (I once tried to order one at the Parker House, and the bartender told me she couldn't make it because she didn't have a blender).

That's when I turn to the Palmetto. The establishments I'm thinking of fairly reliably have a bottle of Mount Gay or something similar lying around, and if they haven't got orange bitters, they certainly have Angostura, and that makes a perfectly lovely drink.

As a side note, I'm also fond of deploying the Frisco Sour in these kinds of places. They usually have a dusty bottle of Benedictine on the shelf, in case someone orders a B&B or because it's just Something You're Supposed to Have. If they have that, lemon juice, and whiskey, you've got a Frisco Sour, and you haven't asked them for anything more complicated than a Sidecar.

But for today, I'll stick with the prophecy in my dream and present my recipe for the Palmetto:

1½ oz. Aged Rum
1 oz. Sweet Vermouth
2 ds. Orange Bitters
Stir, strain, and serve up.
Optionally, express an orange peel over the glass and discard.

The version I'd make around the house uses Mount Gay XO and Dolin sweet vermouth, with Regan's No. 6 for the bitters. I want to say that any aged rum you enjoy will work nicely in this drink, but there are definitely exceptions. I would stay away from high-hogo Jamaican rums and anything with a similarly funky flavor profile. Also best to avoid Martinique rhum agricole, which can veer into the savory/vegetal palate; although Rhum Barbancourt, which is a Haitian rhum agricole, seems to have the right profile here. And seriously heavy-bodied rums, particularly blackstrap rums, will probably make the drink too sweet.

I will say that whatever aged rum you keep around for general cocktail purposes will probably work nicely in this drink, since those others usually perform more specific roles. Aside from Barbancourt and Mount Gay (and really, all expressions of either should be fine), I'd recommend trying it with Appleton, Bacardi 8, Plantation, or the local rums made by Privateer, Granite Coast, or GrandTen.

And as always, there's nothing wrong with using more than one rum in a drink – feel free to experiment with combinations!