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:

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.

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.

Day 7: Trina's Starlite Lounge

Apologies for the lack of visual for this post - I have no idea what happened to the relevant photograph, but it's time to put this series to bed either way. The final bar on my Negroni Week list was Trina's Starlite Lounge in Inman Square. I went there Sunday evening for dinner and the completion of my quest.

Trina's is a homey place, cool and dark on the inside. They advertise "drinks and air conditioning" on a sign above the entrance.

Their service station looks like a house kitchen, with mid-century powder-blue cabinets and a squat white fridge of similar vintage, covered in magnets. The whole place is decorated with Americana, most especially advertising signage and old cocktail shakers. Dark wood paneling suggests a pub or tavern past.

It's clearly a regulars' bar; the bartender was bidding a patron farewell by name as I sidled up. On Mondays, they have an industry brunch, to cater to folks for whom Monday is the weekend. There's surprisingly little of this type for Boston's barkeeps and restauranteurs, and Trina's is well-known and respected for it.

As for the cocktail, it was the most classic, archetypical Negroni I'd had all week. It tasted like a bitter orange peel with a burst of sweetness. A good ruminating drink. It was the right way to finish the experiment.

This week forced me to give more consideration than I ever had to the Negroni, naturally, and to its role in the wider cocktail world. In the end, I come back around to the bold and bitter classic recipe as the proper standard version of the cocktail - although if many are to be consumed in a fairly short period, a lighter variation is definitely preferable.

I do come down more harshly on the game of ingredient substitution than I did before we started all this. The Negroni is a recipe, not a category heading. Not everything containing potable bitters qualifies. The formula, though standard, is not fixed. It can be tweaked, stretched, and twirled around a spoon, if you like, but the end result should bear some resemblance to what was started with, if you're going to use the name.

Well done on that front at Trina's. It's also worth noting that their food is delicious (I'm assuming my experience is representative). I had a baked haddock to follow my Negroni, on a bed of sauteed spinach and sweet potato bacon hash. Yes, it was as good as it sounds. I highly recommend it.

Money from my Negroni went to the Sean A. Collier Memorial Fund. I expect Boston-area readers will recognize that name; the Fund will provide annual scholarships in his name at both MIT and the Boston Police Academy, and maintain a permanent memorial to him in Cambridge. The Globe has more detailed coverage, for those who are interested, but you don't have to read the article in order to donate.

This was a fascinating undertaking, from both the mixological and the philanthropic sides. My compliments to Imbibe and Campari for making Negroni Week a major, annual event; and to the 1,325 (at last count) participating bars around the world.

And if you missed out on the fun, don't worry: with numbers like that, they'll be back in 2015.

Day 6: Barracuda

My thanks to the operator of the 43 bus, for driving right on by on night six of Negroni Week. It was supposed to be a trip to Wink and Nod, the South End's (relatively) new '20s-inspired bar, but sometimes plans change.

Rather than wait around for the next bus, I walked about a hundred steps from Park Street to local standby Barracuda. I ordered a beer.

Barracuda is the sort of place that feels like it's always been there, exactly as it is, even though you can tell that isn't true. It's a second-floor bar, which is a quirk on its own, and features like the Jack Daniels Honey dispenser and the cheery blue walls remind you that this is no old ward boss haunt. It's only been around for a few years.

The proprietor is a fellow named Luka, who spends a lot of time behind the bar personally. He, along with the people he hires, is unusually good at remembering names, faces, and details from visit to visit. Barracuda, unsurprisingly, has a lot of regulars.

It also has a little curiosity of Massachusetts law, namely a cordials license. I'd always assumed it was an old, outdated regulation, but apparently it only turns twenty this year. The good people at DrinkBoston tell me that it started with North End restaurants that wanted to serve digestifs, and then found wider application around the city.

Bars with this permit can serve liqueurs and cordials along with beer and wine, although the definition of a liqueur is generally left up to the people who make it. This is my long-winded way of telling you that they have Diep9 Genever on the menu at Barracuda.

Genever (juh NEE ver) is a spirit similar to gin, in many respects the parent of gin, and it remains very popular in Holland and Belgium. It was also very popular in the United States, back before the twentieth century came along. Many old cocktail recipes call specifically for "Hollands gin," by which they mean genever.

Genever is less piney and more malty than gin. Some varieties are aged; others are practically vodka. Serious Eats has a good run-down. In any event, the premise of a grain distillate flavored with juniper and spices is something both have in common.

And so, when it occurred to me that Barracuda had both sweet vermouth and Campari, and I asked Kaitlyn to make me her best approximation of a Negroni within the constraints of a cordials license, I ended up with a Genever Negroni.

The result? Not bad. Surprisingly Negronilike. But again, the base spirits are very similar - particularly given that the genever in question was jonge genever, which tilts more to the vodka than to the Scotch end of the genver spectrum. (Genever is often described as a cross between Scotch and gin. I know, it sounded weird to me, too.)

Barracuda was a nonparticipant in Negroni Week - I wouldn't be surprised if I was the first guy who ever asked them for one - but Wink and Nod's Campari drinks supported Community Boating, the oldest public sailing center in the country. If you like seeing sailboats on the Charles, and don't think that should be limited to people with the money to buy one, you like Community Boating, and you can give them a hand here.

Epilogue: I've since been to Wink and Nod, and have some very complimentary things to say. I expect I'll say them later. Perhaps on this very blog.

AccesSport Young Professionals' Event (Also, Day 3)

Here are some shots from the AccesSportAmerica young professionals' networking event! We had a great showing, and raised a bunch of money for an awesome organization.

It was a two-drink menu, consisting of the Negroni and the Frisco Sour - the theme was "herbal cocktails for the summer." We had 3-oz. paper cups instead of 1-oz. ones, so our pouring was...generous. We ended up needing six shakers' worth of each drink, but nobody was complaining.

These were the recipes we used:

1 part Beefeater gin
1 part sweet vermouth
1 part Campari
Stir with ice. Strain into cups. Garnish with a tiny orange peel.

Frisco Sour
4 parts Michter's rye
1 part Bénédictine
1/2ish part lemon juice*
Shake with ice and strain into cups. Garnish with a tiny wedge of lemon.

The asterisk in the Frisco Sour indicates a deviation from my standard recipe of 4:1:1, because that preparation assumes fresh lemon juice. We had the more concentrated, bottled variety, which called for a (roughly) 50% reduction in volume. 

The Negroni got a fair bit of it's-just-not-for-me, which makes sense, because both Campari and gin are love-it-or-hate-it spirits for a lot of people. I found myself explaining that Campari is a "potable bitters" a lot that night. I also couldn't resist the (perhaps apocryphal) story that Campari was legal during Prohibition, because the regulators couldn't believe anyone would drink it who wasn't taking it medicinally. It's easy for cocktail enthusiasts to forget, given how much we all love the Negroni, but it really isn't for everyone.

The Frisco Sour, on the other hand, was almost comically popular. The nice thing about events like this is that it's really easy to judge your success - the Frisco Sour was the only thing going around in cocktail glasses, and there were a lot of those to be seen. I owe a debt of gratitude to Frank Bruni of the New York Times, for first introducing me to the drink in this article.

Thanks also to North 26, for donating the space and the liquor, and to everyone who came out for AccesSportAmerica - this is the second year in a row they've asked HCS to play this event, and I feel good about our odds of a third performance.

For more pictures, check out our facebook page. You should also feel free to like us, along with North 26 and AccesSportAmerica!



3 parts (1.5 oz.) Old Overholt rye whiskey
2 parts (1 oz.) Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth
3-4 dashes Angostura aromatic bitters

Yesterday was a snow day for me, so I decided to whip up examples of David Embury’s major classic cocktails. There are six he says everybody ought to be able to make, as a basis for cocktail knowledge, and for further experimentation. I realize I’ve put up plenty of innovations and outlandish drinks, but the really essential standby cocktails haven’t gotten much airtime. That changes now.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t make all of them. A trot out to the corner store (good on them, being open) got me the citrus I needed, but I was still short the Daiquiri’s light rum and applejack for the Jack Rose. The others will show up as I load them in, all tagged appropriately.

I started with the Manhattan, one of the most famous and most accessible classic cocktails. The Manhattan is that rare drink that is not merely more, but something else entirely than the sum of its parts. A well-mixed Manhattan does not taste like whiskey or vermouth. It tastes like a Manhattan.

The recipe you see here is a bit of a poor-man’s Manhattan. Old Overholt is perfectly serviceable, but it is bottom-shelf, by rye standards. Now, fortunately, rye whiskey is like applejack, brandy, gin, and dark rum, in that the cheapest stuff you can possibly find will be miles ahead of the glorified ethanol that comes packaged as bottom-shelf vodka, light rum, or nonspecific “whiskey.” I’ll indicate in later posts on the Manhattan what price point we’re talking about. The Manhattan, like many of the classics, falls into the “easy to learn, hard to master” category. It can be varied greatly.

For now, though, let’s talk about the poor-man’s Manhattan. Old Overholt and Jim Beam are the two cheapest ryes on the market. Expect to pay $15 for a fifth. I’ve seen them anywhere from $11 to $22, but $15 is a good estimate. I happened to have Old Overholt, although I tend to prefer the Jim Beam, which is slightly more complex. A tenth-size bottle of Martini & Rossi will hit around $7 or $8 at the most. It is the cheapest vermouth on the market, but as with rye, cheap vermouth is still plenty drinkable.

Never be stingy with the non-whiskey ingredients in a Manhattan, but especially when you’re using bargain ingredients. I say 3-4 dashes here. The bourgeois Manhattan would call for 2-3. The royal Manhattan uses such good stuff the bitters falls to one dash. The vermouth percentage also falls as the whiskey gets better - but I reiterate, don’t be stingy. If your Manhattan is drier than about a 3:1 whiskey:vermouth ratio, you’d be better off with an Old Fashioned.

The end result is extremely drinkable, and a good example of how to do cocktails on a budget. If you (and your guests) are used to drinking nothing but highballs, the Manhattan is a great transition drink. Just be careful with your vermouth, which will eventually spoil if left out. Keep it in the fridge, and you should be fine.