How to Invent a Cocktail, Part III of VI

(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).

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Rose
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?"

How to Invent a Cocktail, Part II of VI

(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 an artist's cocktail?" can be found here.)

Chapter 2: What goes into this artist's cocktail?
Luke is a case study in how to manage a home bar.

I suspect that most people who keep liquor in their homes do it accidentally, accumulating a seldom-used collection of gifts and one-off acquisitions that they'll someday pass down to their grandchildren, cabinet and all.

There are also some people who become alcohol hobbyists, and like to keep a large bar on hand so that they can conduct experiments and make a wide variety of classics. This group is in particular danger of eventually becoming alcohol professionals. (I speak from experience.)

But the unsung heroes of cocktail culture are people who maintain a small but deliberate home bar, the ones who have one or two cocktails that they know they like, who decide that they should learn how to make those drinks well for themselves, and who are always prepared to make them should they or their guests be in the mood for a tipple.

Luke is one of these. His cocktails are the Gibson and the Old Fashioned, and his house is permanently stocked with the ingredients for both. He makes them carefully and well. He also enjoys absinthe, and has the tools for proper absinthe service.

But that's really it. He has, essentially, a house cocktail menu (and a rotating beer list). It's a good formula, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys cocktails but finds the prospect of building up a home bar daunting or bewildering. It's also a useful thought for those of us who have large home inventories: if you have a few house specialties, it's easier to prioritize when stocking up.

And for the purposes of our devising a cocktail recipe, it's useful to know the tastes of the person you're making it for. In this case: classic, spirit-forward, enjoys both whiskey and gin, and likes slightly savory things. I can work with that.

Because it's his most idiosyncratic preference, I decided I'd especially like to make something that appeals to his Gibson-drinking side. The Gibson, you might recall from my taxonomy of the Martini and its cousins (if not, see here), is today understood as a Martini garnished with a cocktail onion instead of an olive or twist, like so:

Gibson
2 oz. Dry Gin
1/2 oz. Dry Vermouth
Stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a cocktail onion.

The proportions used reflect Luke's preference for a 4:1 drink. I tend to skew towards 5:2; others may like other ratios. As a general rule of thumb, however you like your Martini is how you'll like your Gibson - although lemon-twist partisans like myself should be prepared for a savorier cocktail than we're otherwise used to.

Stay tuned for next week's post, "Chapter 3: What's in a name?"

Distilled Knowledge Cocktail: The Martini

Damn if I haven't tried to write this post more than once. But we all have our Things, and the Martini is one of mine. And there's a lot to be said about it.

Let's start with the recipe, because I know I have a handle on that. When I sat down to make a Martini for this post, it so happened that I could make a delicious version using just ingredients from Portland, Maine:

Martini
3 1/2 oz. Aria Portland Dry Gin
1/2 oz. Sweetgrass Dry Vermouth
Stir with ice and strain into - what else? - a Martini glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

Note for the home bartender: "Garnish with a twist of [fruit]" means take a strip or a small medallion of the peel of that fruit, twist it over the glass to express the oils into the drink, run it around the rim of the glass, and then drop it in. It occurred to me as I was writing that that it often shows up in recipes without explanation, and could easily be confused for, "Drop a piece of lemon peel into the glass," which wouldn't be quite as effective.

Ordinarily, Martinis are garnished with a lemon twist or a cocktail olive (the latter sometimes accompanied by some of the olive brine to make a Dirty Martini). It's easy to overlook garnishes when making cocktails at home, but if you won't take my word that you should avoid doing so in general, please at least take my advice and avoid it here. The Martini is disproportionately defined by its garnish, to the point that one variation - the Gibson - is distinguished today entirely by being garnished with a cocktail onion. There's more to that story, but...well, we'll get there.

I'm a twist man, myself. That little bit of lemon sharpens and highlights the citrus notes already present in the gin; the resulting cocktail is crisp and bracing. To my tastes, the olive garnish slows down the drink - and the drinker - with that heavy, salty/savory flavor. There's certainly nothing wrong with that, and I've enjoyed an olive Martini from time to time. I recommend trying both and seeing which one you prefer. Honestly, that's a good rule of thumb whenever you have a choice between two cocktails.

I also tend to like my Martinis on the dry side, as, it seems, do most Martini drinkers. But just as it's possible to have too much of a good thing, it's possible to have a Martini that is too dry, usually by preparing one without any vermouth whatsoever.

In fact, let's take a moment to review all the ways in which people insist on soiling the Martini's good name, shall we?

The Herzog Cocktail School's Official List of Martiniological Heresies

  1. Serving a "Martini" that's just gin, or gin with a garnish. Often cutesily accompanied by a "solemn look" in the direction of France, Italy, or the vermouth bottle; equally often served on the rocks in a cocktail glass. Even worse if you do this with vodka.
  2. Failing to assume that gin is the standard base spirit unless otherwise specified. If someone asks you for a Martini, respect them enough to assume that they'd have asked for a Vodka Martini if they'd wanted one. If you ask for a Martini, respect the bartender enough to assume they'll make it with gin; if you want vodka, ask for it specifically. "Gin Martini" should be as necessary a phrase as "Whiskey Manhattan" or "Rum Daiquiri."
  3. Assuming that anything served in a cocktail glass can be called a "Martini." For pity's sake, I see menus all the time that list the Sidecar or the Cosmopolitan under the heading, "Martinis." In fact, I can't count (or conceive of!) the number of times I've seen a "Martini Menu" on which not a single drink contained gin, vermouth, or any other kind of fortified wine.
  4. Ever applying the "-tini" suffix to a drink. Ever.
  5. Shaking your Martini without a very good reason. It won't "bruise the vermouth," as is often claimed, but it will dilute the drink needlessly and take away some of the delightful crispness the Martini naturally possesses. Unless you're drinking a Vesper, can explain why I made an exception for the Vesper, or are James Bond, stir.

But why all these rules, and what's the deal with the Gibson, anyway? Well, all that history is part of what makes this such a complicated drink to write about. But with thanks and apologies to David Wondrich, who covers a lot of this in more detail in Imbibe!, I'm going to give it a shot in a second Martini post (I did tell you I had a lot to say, didn't I?). Stay tuned for Part II!

    Prohibition Cocktails

    Finally getting around to putting up the recipes from our Repeal Day party - which, in case you're wondering, went very well:

    We'll definitely be using the model again, so keep a look out for announcements on other holidays. In the mean time, here are the recipes we covered:

    Hanky-Panky
    1 1/2 oz. Dry Gin
    1 1/2 oz. Sweet Vermouth
    2 dashes Fernet Branca
    Twist of orange or dash of orange bitters
    Stir with ice and serve neat.

    The first patron to consume this drink is said to have downed it in one gulp, and then exclaimed, "That is the real hanky-panky!" At that time, and in Britain especially, which is where it was invented, the phrase would have meant something like "black magic," and the whole sentence roughly, "That's so good I can't believe it." Its *ahem* other connotations, particularly in the United States, didn't exactly hurt the drink's popularity during Prohibition, when speakeasy bartenders were serving titillating drinks like the Between-the-Sheets and the Monkey Gland. (In our age of Screaming Orgasms and Slow, Comfortable Screws Against the Wall, it all seems a little quaint and innocent, doesn't it?)

    Those who know me know that Fernet Branca is, in my view, the most foul drinking concoction yet conceived of by man. Yes, it's worse than Malort - and by a long shot. Yes, it's worse than Dr. McGillicuddy's peppermint schnapps. Yes, it's worse than plastic-bottle Popov vodka. It's like someone took a perfectly good bottle of Amaro Meletti and threw all three of those in there, with a little Aunt Jemima's for color. By what hanky-panky it has brainwashed so many otherwise-reasonable people into claiming that they like it, I have no idea.

    Having said all of that (and much more besides; don't get me started), I have to compliment the Hanky-Panky Cocktail, for being the only drink I have ever had that uses Fernet Branca well. It adds a suite of interesting flavors, including its signature menthol, saffron, and bitter bite, all of which are able to contribute without overpowering one's senses because there are only two drops of the stuff. Perhaps the secret to using Fernet Branca well is to treat it as a non-potable bitters, and never use more than a dash. In any case, it and the little, remarkably essential bit of orange oil are enough to pull this cocktail's flavor profile far away from the sweet Martini it would otherwise be.

    Scofflaw
    1 1/2 oz. Rye Whiskey
    1 oz. Dry Vermouth
    3/4 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
    3/4 oz. Pomegranate Grenadine
    Shake with ice and serve neat.

    Another Prohibition drink-naming style is the "laugh about how illegal all of this is" school. The Three-Mile Limit falls into this category, named after the distance one had to travel off the coast before reaching international waters and legal hooch. So does the Twelve-Mile Limit, invented shortly after that distance was quadrupled.

    The Scofflaw is another such funny case. I assumed for a very long time that "scofflaw" was a general old-fashioned word for a ne'er-do-well, but it actually referred to scoffing at one law in particular. The Boston Herald held a contest, to see who could coin the best term to describe all the people flagrantly and frequently violating the Volstead Act; "scofflaw," submitted by two different people, was the winner. So, in a purely technical sense, one could argue that the teetotaling '20s kingpin Arnold Rothstein was less of a scofflaw than the average speakeasy patron.

    As for the drink, which is somewhat similar to its cousins the N-Mile Limits, this is a nice case where what you see is what you get. It's sweet and it's tart, and it's a bit smoother and more complex than it would be without the vermouth. The end result is what you would get if a Brooklyn and a Jack Rose met up for a little law-scoffing and ended up with a little hanky-panky.

    Brooklyn

    1 1/2 oz. rye whiskey
    1/2 oz. dry vermouth
    Dash or two Maraschino liqueur
    Dash aromatic bitters

    Four out of the five boroughs of New York have cocktails named after them, of which the Manhattan is by far the most famous. Staten Island, somehow, is the teetotaler.

    When the other three borough-cocktails are mentioned, it's usually to pan them. Embury tells us that far more Manhattans than Brooklyns are made even in Brooklyn, which, while definitely true, is perhaps rubbing it in a little too much. It's a very pleasant drink from time to time.

    Among those who bother to make it, there are two schools of the Brooklyn. One simply makes it a dry Manhattan (implicitly making the sweet Manhattan coextensive with the Manhattan category). This, too, is an enjoyable cocktail, but there isn't much reason to give it its own name.

    I prefer the second school, which adds Maraschino liqueur to the mix, creating a decidedly different drink. Maraschino fills out the body and adds a sweet, earthy dimension to the flavor profile.

    I went with Dutch's Boomtown Bitters, previously written-up, on top. Amer Picon is often specifically indicated, in this and other cocktail recipes, but there's no need to wring your hands if you haven't got it. It's a bitters. Experiment with your own citrus or aromatic bitters until you find one that you like.

    I should also note that my above recipe is approximate. The Brooklyn is a great tinkerer's drink. If you find you like it with a tablespoon of Maraschino, more power to you. These proportions should at least have you playing in in the right ballpark.

    Vieux Carré

    Vieux Carré (dry)

    1 oz. rye whiskey
    1 oz. Cognac
    1 oz. dry vermouth
    2 barspoons Bénédictine
    2 dashes Angostura bitters
    2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

    Stir before adding bitters. Serve neat or with ice, as you prefer.

    I’ve been wanting to put this one up for a while. I made these left, right, and center while Mardi Gras was upon us, but they were going down so fast I never got a photo of one. Until now!

    "Vieux Carré" is the French name for what Anglophones would call the French Quarter, New Orleans’s oldest, most famous neighborhood. The Vieux Carré is not New Orleans’s most famous cocktail, that honor probably falling to the Sazerac, but it was invented there, at the Carousel Bar of the Hotel Monteleone.

    This is a nice cocktail in that all of the recipes are very similar. It’s not quite as formulaic as the Negroni, but it’s reasonably easy to get in your head. Start with equal parts of whiskey, brandy and vermouth. Add a spoonful or so of Bénédictine, then top with equal parts of Angostura and Peychaud’s (ordinarily one or two dashes). All the recipes I’ve seen for the Vieux Carré can be described like this, although they quibble over the precise numbers. Mine is more Bénédictine-heavy than most, but, hey, I like Bénédictine.

    The Vieux Carré is most commonly found with sweet vermouth. I have to credit Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails with the knowledge that it can be made with the dry stuff as well. It’s a perfect one-for-one substitution. That’s not always the case - Jon and I had to do a lot more doctoring when we tried to make a dry Americano. But in this case, don’t stress about your vermouth. I just use whichever I feel like that day, or in this case, happen to have on hand.

    According to Haigh, this drink had been forgotten at the Carousel Bar itself, until very recently. I’m happy to report that this is no longer the case. The Carousel Bar is, in fact, where I first met the Vieux Carré, during Tales of the Cocktail in 2012.

    Levantine Martini

    Levantine Martini

    2 oz. Boodles gin
    1/2 oz. Noilly Prat dry vermouth
    1/4 oz. Kassatly Ajyal Lebanese tamarind syrup
    Twist of orange

    It amazes me, in hindsight, that this wasn’t the first thing I thought of when that bottle of tamarind syrup walked through my door. Truth be told, it came to me because I was trying to devise a drink as visually interesting as the Yale in a different color palette. It isn’t quite, but it’s tasty enough that I don’t mind.

    This result should be surprising to no one. Both this and the Yale are essentially variations on the classic Martini, and this one hews much closer to a Martini flavor. The tamarind hits sour and savory notes, both of which complement the gin and vermouth that are the cocktail’s bread and butter. In the Martini, you ordinarily get one or the other: a twist of lemon, or a cocktail olive.

    Someday I’d like to visit a bar where the “Martini Menu” contains nothing but honest-to-God members of the Martini family. The Yale, the Vesper, the Martinez, the Gibson - it’s a surprisingly robust group, and there’s still more that can be done with it. Unfortunately the market for such a place is on the small side. Do let me know if you find one.

    Martini

    Martini

    5 parts (1 1/4 oz.) Booths London dry gin
    2 parts (1/2 oz.) Noilly Prat dry vermouth
    Twist of lemon

    Drink No. 2 in the rundown of Embury’s basic/classic cocktails is the Martini. If the Manhattan is the most accessible, the Martini is probably the least. Most people who drink “Martinis” or [word]-tinis would balk at the big glass of gin that is an actual Martini. The Herzog Cocktail School offers counter-instruction.

    There are many kinds of gin, with different production processes and resulting flavor palates. For the purposes of cocktail mixing, I find it useful to describe three types: dry, herbal, and neutral. Dryness is a flavor you become accustomed to when you drink a lot of gin. If you haven’t experienced it, “un-sweet” is probably the best footing to put you on. It tends to feel boozy, and heavy, relative to other gins.

    Herbal gins are your Botanists and Hendrick’ses. They have a really powerful flavor of herbs and spices. “Botanical” is the more prevalent term among aficionadoes, but calling Botanist gin “botanical” doesn’t seem particularly helpful. Neutral gins don’t jump out either way. They may be slightly citric, a little sweet, or a little more juniper-y. They’re your most versatile base for gin cocktails.

    Booths is not a neutral gin. It is a very dry gin, as will be anything labelled “London dry.” In a dry-gin Martini, you want to be very careful there’s enough vermouth to offer a counterpoint. In general, between 3:1 and 7:1 gin:vermouth is a reasonable proportion for the Martini, making our 5:2 a little off the vermouthy side. Trust me when I say the gin needed it. Cocktails are a game of balances.

    The classic Martini question is not, in fact, “Vodka or gin?” but, “Olive or twist?” Another way to put this is, “Savory or sour?” Which direction to bring the drink in? The Martini has many cousins which wrestle with the same issue. I opted for the twist of lemon, chiefly because I had lemons but no cocktail olives. Both are valid. The lemon version is a crisper drink, the olive one heavier. Dirty Martinis, which incorporate the olive juice, are heaviest of all.

    Incidental note: I haven’t got a citrus zester, unlike our friends at Don’t Blame the Gin. I improvised the twist you see there, by cutting a lemon in half, and shaving off the rind around the edge with the knife, cutting away any fruity bits when I was done. Not too shabby a job, if I say so myself.

    What happened to the rest of the lemon, you ask? Check the next update to find out…