I do enjoy a good recipe challenge. I've had a few friends ask me to come up with signature recipes for special occasions, particularly weddings. It manages to be a nice and very personal alternative to a traditional wedding present - as well as a lasting one, because I give them the recipe.
(Shameless plug: I will also do this for money! If you want to commission a custom cocktail recipe, there's contact information at the bottom of this page.)
Recently, a friend of mine quietly published a book of poetry. It's called Abacus, and you can buy or download it here; doing so may help you understand the rest of this post. I'm always happy to see people produce interesting writing, particularly when they're people I know, and this is an interesting volume: every poem is constrained in some way beyond the verse form. If you're familiar with Gadsby, the novel written without the use of the letter "e", that's the sort of thing going on in each poem, except that doing without a single letter is much easier in a poem than it is in a novel, and so the constraints Luke has chosen for his poetry tend to be stricter.
In any case, we had a launch party for his book, and I was placed in charge of the signature drink. Because I occasionally get asked how I go about inventing a new cocktail, I thought it might be interesting for fans of the blog to see my thought process for this one described in depth, particularly because, in this case, it turned out poorly before it turned out well.
This is a somewhat long story, so I've broken it up into six pieces, each of which will be a separate post and conclude with a recipe.
Chapter One: What goes into an artist's cocktail?
Ingredients and cocktail styles often acquire associations over time. If you wanted a drink to evoke New Orleans, you would probably use Peychaud's bitters. For Vermont, you'd reach for the bottle of maple syrup. Dozens of bars have played with the Jungle Bird's rum-bitters-pineapple formula and put the results on their menus with avian names. If the cocktail's name has "revive" or "reviver" in it, you can bet it's a variation on the Corpse Reviver #2 (not even on the less popular Corpse Reviver #1); if it has "Word," odds are it's a Last Word riff. And if you call something a "Julep," people are expecting mint and thinking of Dixie, even though the word got its start in the Middle East talking about rosewater.
More than any other spirit, absinthe says "art." It has a tradition of being taken to spur creativity, whether by hallucination or mere ordinary intoxication. It calls to mind the Bohemian era in Paris, when liberally quaffed by poets and painters and occasionally their patrons. Even the experience of drinking it is aesthetic, ritualistic, transformational. An artist's drink if ever there was one.
As if to prove my point, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec somewhat famously invented a cocktail using absinthe, which he called the Earthquake ("Tremblement de Terre" in French, which, let's be honest, is a much cooler name). It consisted of three parts Cognac, three parts absinthe, and a glass. What I love about this is that it doesn't matter what you use to measure your ingredients. It could be a jigger, a punch bowl, or your left shoe, and Lautrec will still insist that you fill it three times with each one.
I've served a less earthshaking version at events in the past, and it is delicious. It's essentially a glass of Cognac with a quarter-ounce of absinthe stirred in and a lemon twist. Not unlike a Sazerac. And that became my jumping-off point.
Tremblement de Terre
2 ½ oz. Cognac
¼ oz. Absinthe
Combine in a rocks glass and stir without ice. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Stay tuned for next week's post, "Step 2: What goes into this artist's cocktail?"