(Recently, my friend Luke quietly published a book of poetry. It's called Abacus, and you can buy or download it here. I created a signature cocktail for the launch party, and because I sometimes get asked how I go about inventing a new cocktail, I thought you might like to see my thought process for this one. It's a longish story, so I've broken it up into six pieces, each of which will be a separate post and conclude with a recipe. Last week's chapter, "What goes into this artist's cocktail?" can be found here.)
Chapter 3: What's in a name?
Cocktail names are fascinating. They evoke the exotic, the powerful, the hazy and bygone, the impossible-to-place, and the strange. Even something as mundane as a left hand acquires a sense of ominousness or ethereality when it becomes a cocktail name. Whose left hand is this? What will it do to me? (And why is it liquid?)
The fact that alcohol's effects on us are at once so familiar and so inscrutable is probably responsible for this. We talk about distilled spirits the way that our ancestors talked about actual spirits: a grandparent might have a long and close relationship with one, or a friend might not get along with another, and we talk about the capricious and distinct effects each one has on us when they take over our bodies, and the fact that none of the details are consistent from person to person doesn't affect our certainty in the slightest. Of course we name our drinks to offer meaning without understanding.
I have always found it easier to fit a recipe to an existing name than vice-versa. Like my poet friend, I find constraints to be creatively useful, and the puzzle of creating a drink that's relevant to its title is often more fun than trying to create something ex nihilo. Fortunately, poetry shares the tendency of cocktail nomenclature to connote without denoting, which makes a book of poems a good place to start when naming a drink.
A few of the titles jumped out at me, particularly "Magnetic North" and "Nightglow," and the partial title "Trackless Trailhead." And there were individual lines tempted me, too: "Slowly Turning Galaxy," "Roiling Gray Haze," "Breaststroke Kirschwasser Wavelengths."
Kirschwasser being a favorite accent ingredient of mine and actually mentioned by name, I decided it had to be incorporated, and considered naming the drink either the Kirschwasser Wavelength or the Nightglow, after the poem in which it appeared.
There are certain cocktail ingredients that manage to feel like they're supposed to be part of one's bar without having many (or any) classic recipes that call for them specifically. Dubonnet is one, a fortified wine that you rarely need in practice unless the Dubonnet Cocktail is your thing. Kirschwasser is another - an unfortunate thing, given what a wonderful ingredient it is, but even the best drinks that call for it have faded into relative obscurity over time.
Like me, David Wondrich is a fan of kirsch, and particularly of the Rose, a 1920s cocktail known to us today almost entirely because of him. It's delicious, it's low-proof, and has a lovely soft pink color. If you're observing Lent, you might want to keep it in mind for Laetare Sunday (and if you're not, you might want to keep it in mind for breakfast).
2 oz. Dry Vermouth
1 oz. Kirschwasser
1 tsp. Raspberry Syrup or Raspberry Liqueur
Stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
Optionally, garnish with a maraschino cherry.
Stay tuned for next week's post, "Chapter 4: Taking stock. Now what have we got?"