Friday, December 28, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Liberty

One of the benefits to living in Seattle is that come the most wonderful time of the year, there’s no need to fool around with holiday cocktails. Not when plenty of bars in town are making drinks suitable to the season. Rob Roy does a full Advent calendar, offering a different concoction every night in December closing with a Blue Blazer – Scotch set afire and poured between metal mugs – on Christmas Eve. (This year’s variation featured chartreuse. I missed it.) Sun Liquor serves up superlative egg nog. Earlier this week at Vito’s I savored the warm rum variation known as a Tom & Jerry, presented in the traditional mug. Says Tom & Jerry right on it.

Still, on occasion the Christmas spirit moves me to fix an appropriate yet simple cocktail. The weather demands crispness, which sends me straight to the applejack. But around the corner is the start of the new year, with its hope of sunnier times and balmier climes. Why not acknowledge that promise with some rum?

The Liberty brings both tastes together to smashing effect. The drink is often served over crushed ice as a summer cooler. But I find that its smooth blend of introspection and anticipation, up in a cocktail glass, plays every bit as well at the holidays. (Who am I kidding? The Liberty is pure alcohol, so whatever the calendar says it packs a wallop.)

The original recipe, as it appears in The Savoy Cocktail Book and Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual, is as basic as can be: applejack, a smaller quantity of rum, sugar. Later iterations called for a dash of lime juice, which makes a nice addition. The Liberty may not be an obvious Yuletide option, but it’s one guaranteed to make the season bright.

The Liberty

2 oz. applejack
1 oz. rum
¼ oz. simple syrup
splash of fresh lime juice

Stir. Strain. No garnish.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Book: To Have and Have Another, by Philip Greene (2012) / Cocktail of the Week: The White Lady

Few authors drank like Ernest Hemingway. Even fewer wrote about drinking like him. Alcohol was no mere prop to Papa or his characters; it frequently provided an additional level of insight into where they were, both geographically and emotionally. “Don’t bother with churches, government buildings or city squares,” Hemingway once said. “If you want to know a culture, spend a night in its bars.”

Philip Greene gives himself a tall order, then, using cocktails as a prism through which to view Hemingway’s life and work. But he’s clearly the man for the job: a lifelong admirer of Papa’s prose, Greene is not just one of the founders of the Museum of the American Cocktail but a descendant of Antoine Peychaud, creator of the legendary bitters.

To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion features meticulous scholarship. Greene ably debunks the legend of Hemingway’s supposed affection for the mojito; suggests that the Jack Rose the author drank in Paris was a far more complex drink bearing a resemblance to the Bronx cocktail; and even unearths a Hemingway original from Papa’s medical files, complete with diagram. Hemingway often comes across as more a stubborn drinker than an accomplished one, insisting on his own idiosyncratic preparation of the martini and bringing his own personal barman to parties.

Greene’s approach allows him to sketch out large swaths of biography economically. The book is arranged alphabetically by cocktail, a structure that occasionally forces Greene to be repetitive; mighty quantities of alcohol are consumed in the posthumously published Islands in the Stream, so each new drink requires a rehashing of the novel’s plot. But Greene also provides some shrewd literary analysis, as in the section on the most frequently referenced drink in the Hemingway canon, the whiskey and soda. (Greene convincingly argues it’s most likely ‘whisky’ in Hemingway’s case.) Recounting a scene in Islands, Greene notes that the protagonist “learns the painful lesson that hell isn’t necessarily as it has been described to us by Dante and other authors. Indeed, it could be a nice, comfortable stateroom on a favorite liner, taking you to a place you’d always loved.”

Inspired, I made the last drink featured in Greene’s book. “The White Lady is a delightful cocktail that, I boldly predict, will soon enjoy a renaissance,” he writes, and I hope he’s correct. The drink can be traced back to both the famous cocktail Harrys, McElhone of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris and Craddock of London’s Savoy; Greene astutely draws a parallel between the exodus of artists and craft bartenders to Europe in the 1920s. I didn’t use Greene’s recipe, but a modified one from The PDT Cocktail Book by Jim Meehan. Hemingway wouldn’t have cared for this version because it includes simple syrup, and he didn’t take sugar as his favorite daiquiri would indicate. I opted to include the egg white, which gives the drink a beguiling silky texture. Feel free to omit it.

The White Lady

2 oz. gin
¾ oz. Cointreau
¾ oz. lemon juice
¼ oz. simple syrup
1 egg white

Shake ingredients without ice if using egg white, then with ice. Strain. No garnish.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Movie: The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947)

Here’s ten minutes that saved my weekend.

The knock on Preston Sturges is that, after a staggering run of comic masterpieces (including The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) that remains the benchmark for a single person’s productivity in Hollywood, his work tails off. He left Paramount, where he cranked out movies so quickly that some were released two years after they were shot, and threw in with Howard Hughes in 1944. The deal gave Sturges his creative freedom, the legend goes, but sapped his talents.

I don’t buy it. Mainly because Unfaithfully Yours (1948), which Sturges made for Fox after his partnership with Hughes collapsed, contains some of the funniest material of his career. Of course, that’s the only film from the post-1944 period I’d seen.

But on Friday night I desperately needed to watch something funny, so I turned to the one movie Sturges and Hughes made together. The Sin of Harold Diddlebock stars Harold Lloyd in a quasi-follow-up to his silent classic The Freshman (1925); Sturges’ movie opens with an extended sequence from the earlier film showing Lloyd’s gung-ho college football waterboy getting on the gridiron and winning the big game. Diddlebock begins immediately after, with Lloyd’s go-getter being offered a job by a grateful alum. He stays there for twenty-two years and accomplishes nothing other than being fired. It’s only then that his life truly starts.

Diddlebock was neither a critical nor commercial triumph. Hughes edited his own version of the film and released it in 1950 as Mad Wednesday. It fared even worse. Diddlebock can charitably be described as uneven. It gets sillier as it goes along, ending with the kind of physical comedy set piece that made Lloyd’s reputation but for which Sturges has little feeling. (The two comic titans respected each other but had differing views of their craft, which led to tension during the production.) But there are flashes of Sturges’ crackpot wit throughout. He could write certain types of characters better than anyone else: rich people, people who have suddenly become rich, and people whose jobs require them to cater to the rich. All three groups are present here.

But the film’s high point is the scene in which Diddlebock, his services just terminated, is coerced by new pal Wormy into having a drink with him at eleven in the morning. The cocktail will be Diddlebock’s first, and bartender Edgar Kennedy is determined to rise to the occasion. What follows is liberation via libation and Sturges at his unhinged best. It’s now my favorite scene set in a bar.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Scofflaw

And now, a story with a simple moral: Don’t mess with serious drinkers. They have sharp senses of humor, and they will always get you back.

In 1923, a prominent Massachusetts member of the Anti-Saloon League, which had gotten Prohibition passed in the United States, announced a contest. The princely sum of two hundred dollars would be awarded to whoever coined the best word to describe “a lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor.” More than one person came up with ‘scofflaw,’ although if you ask me they weren’t trying all that hard. “One who scoffs at the law”? That’s the best you’ve got? This is what happens when brainstorming sessions are fueled only by sarsaparilla and sanctimony.

But the name that was meant to shame tipplers onto the path to righteousness had the opposite effect. Two weeks after the contest’s winners were named, the Scofflaw cocktail was being poured in Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. Take that, moralists! The word is now broadly applied to anyone who contemptuously violates social edicts by, say, amassing an ungodly number of parking tickets. The Scofflaw is on the extremely short list of cocktails born of Prohibition. Ironically, it wasn’t created in some dark speakeasy but in France.

For once the origin of a drink’s name is a matter of public record. It’s the recipe that’s in question. Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual (1934) suggests the following for a ‘Scoff-Law’: ⅓ rye, ⅓ dry vermouth, ⅙ lemon juice, ⅙ grenadine, dash of orange bitters. At some point the balance between rye and vermouth shifted in rye’s favor, which I am all in favor of. A few versions began specifying Canadian whiskey, wholly unnecessary now that a host of quality ryes are again on the market. Along the way the orange bitters were left off many formulas, a regrettable oversight as the citrus pulls the whiskey and vermouth together nicely. And there are those who suggest using chartreuse in place of grenadine, which I appreciate in theory; chartreuse improves many, many things. But in this case, I stick with the tried and true.

Consider the recipe below a work in progress. I stepped down the grenadine because, philistine that I am, I use a store-bought variety instead of making my own and a little of it goes a long way. And increasing the base spirit to two full ounces as many recommend is not a bad idea in the least. What follows is where I started. It isn’t necessarily where you’ll finish.

The Scofflaw

1 ½ oz. rye
1 oz. dry vermouth
¾ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. grenadine
dash of orange bitters

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Keenan's Klassics: It's a Shane Black Christmas

The question is, will IRON MAN 3 take place at Christmas? From December 2009.

There I am at my favorite watering hole, talking with the staff, when the subject of Christmas movies is raised.

First suggestion, not made by me: the traditional double-bill of Die Hard and Die Hard II: Die Harder.

Thus giving me the tenor of the conversation. This is not the time, perhaps, to mention Remember the Night and Holiday Affair, two overlooked films (with noir connections!) that Turner Classic Movies has labored to turn into Yuletide staples. Although a mention of Blast of Silence, full of Wenceslas wetwork, might not be out of the question.

So I lobby for my own Christmas favorite, The Ref. And then observe, not for the first time, that the entire oeuvre of Shane Black – Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – is set at the most wonderful time of the year.

Therefore, as you venture out for that last round of shopping, I offer, by popular demand, what has become a VKDC tradition. (“By popular demand” meaning Rosemarie asked, “Why haven’t you posted this yet?” And she did write most of it.) Here, once again, is Shane Black’s 12 Days of Christmas. Record your church group performing this and we’ll post the video here!

Twelve cars exploding
Eleven extras running
Ten tankers skidding
Nine strippers pole-ing
Eight Uzis firing
Seven henchmen scowling
Six choppers crashing

Five silver Glocks

Four ticking bombs
Three hand grenades
Two mortar shells
And a suitcase full of C-4

God bless us, everyone. Or else.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Aviation

First thing you need to know about this drink: it’s a Rosemarie favorite and tomorrow is her birthday, meaning several of them will be consumed over the course of the gala weekend.

Second thing you need to know: The Aviation’s name can seem like something of a mystery – at least it did to me – because one ingredient may be lacking. The drink was first cited in Hugo Ensslin’s Recipes for Mixed Drinks (1916), when those daring young men in their flying machines stirred many a heart. Ensslin called for four components: gin, lemon juice, maraschino, and the violet-hued French liqueur crème de violette. The last element was said to give the drink a bluish color reminiscent of the sky, hence the handle. The first few times I ordered the cocktail, bartenders would apologize for not having violette on hand as they served up a pale but crisply refreshing beverage. Crème de violette became available in the United States again about five years ago but can still be difficult to come by. I’ve sampled Aviations with all four ingredients present and accounted for and can say that violette’s addition gives the drink only a faint purplish tinge, along with an appealing floral scent. The Aviation is just fine sans the supplement, but it’s worth noting that the same three ingredients in slightly different ratios will result in the Allen Cocktail or Allen Special.

Third thing: The Aviation’s revival was not without controversy. A panel at the May 2012 Manhattan Cocktail Classic called “Do Not Resuscitate” targeted once-and-currently-popular drinks that perhaps should have been left in blind pigs shrouded by the mists of time. Éminence grise Dale DeGroff nominated the Aviation, saying “It tastes like hand soap” unless you added crème de violette, in which case “it’s more like hand soap.” The objection didn’t prevent DeGroff from including the drink in his books The Craft of the Cocktail and The Essential Cocktail, although to be fair he never sounds all that enthused about it; his comments in the earlier book are limited to “The Internet cocktail crowd has breathed new life into this chestnut.” Still, almost a century after Ensslin the Aviation has its partisans, among them William Grimes of the New York Times, who called it his favorite forgotten cocktail, and my wife Rosemarie. Did I mention tomorrow is her birthday?

The Aviation

2 oz. gin
¾ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. maraschino liqueur
¼ oz. crème de violette (you probably don’t have any, and that’s OK; you should make the drink anyway)

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a cherry.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Stork Club

Swells of all stripes, denizens from every destination demimonde, regularly assembled at the Stork Club. Columnist Walter Winchell, who had his own table there, dubbed the East 53rd Street nightspot “New York’s New Yorkiest place.” The club was the domain of former bootlegger Sherman Billingsley, who started the joint with the not-entirely-secret backing of organized crime figures and bought them out after some minor difficulties including his being kidnapped by their rival Mad Dog Coll. In his history Gangsters & Gold Diggers, Jerome Charyn brands Billingsley “a nebbish from Enid, Oklahoma” and “a snob” who cribbed everything he knew about the nightlife business from legendary hostess Texas Guinan – except for her democratic attitude toward her guests. Billingsley could only abide the rubbing of A-list elbows, and his velvet rope mindset helped to make him a celebrity in his own right; he turns up as a character in the Betty Hutton comedy set in his club as well as the novel The Murder in the Stork Club written by Laura author Vera Caspary, and hosted a TV show in the 1950s.

1946 saw the publication of The Stork Club Bar Book, penned by society journalist, clotheshorse and gourmand Lucius Beebe, who coined the term “café society.” I don’t have a copy of Beebe’s book, but reports indicate it includes the recipe for the club’s namesake cocktail and credits it to the Stork’s service captain Eddie Whittmer. I do have Dale DeGroff’s The Craft of the Cocktail, in which he hails chief barman Nathaniel Cook as the drink’s champion.

There’s a hint of the speakeasy about this drink owing simply to the amount of orange juice; during Prohibition, many a bad batch of gin was made palatable with an abundance of citrus. Then again the Bronx cocktail, also heavy on the OJ, predates the Stork Club and Prohibition by many years. There’s also some similarity in terms of ingredients to the Pegu Club.

That big jolt of juice pushes the Stork Club into its own spotlight. It’s a show biz level of excess, the kind of flash Billingsley himself no doubt appreciated. It gives the cocktail a bouncy buoyancy that would play well at brunch. The original recipe called for the juice of half an orange, which is typically read as one ounce. The same recipe also uses gin but I substituted the sweeter and more substantial Old Tom variety, which matched up better with the citrus. Sip this cocktail and you can pretend you’re a Stork Club regular like J. Edgar Hoover, who probably never drank one of these.

The Stork Club

1 ½ oz. gin (Old Tom if it’s available)
1 oz. orange juice
½ oz. Cointreau
¼ oz. lime juice
dash of Angostura bitters

Shake. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

It’s that time again, kids. The Winter 2012 issue of Noir City, the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation, is out as of yesterday, and you could be reading it right now instead of this. Included for your delectation:

An extended section on the lingering shadows of Edgar G. Ulmer’s quintessential film noir Detour, featuring Steve Kronenberg on Ulmer’s planned but never shot psychedelic ‘60s remake; his interview with actress Lea Lavish, who made her only screen appearance in the misbegotten 1992 remake; and Jake Hinkson on the sad life of the original film’s doomed star Tom Neal.

A second section on race and ethnicity in noir, anchored by Hinkson’s article on the once-lost Argentine-shot 1951 film of Native Son starring author Richard Wright as his own creation Bigger Thomas. (The restored movie will be screening at the Noir City film festivals in 2013.)

FNF honcho Eddie Muller on Josef von Sternberg’s Docks of New York.

A long overdue profile of bargain basement auteur Hugo Haas.

And another edition of my crime fiction’n’cocktail column Keenan’s Korner, this time spotlighting Dashiell Hammett’s Return of the Thin Man, the latest from Don Winslow, and a pre-Prohibition tipple you’re sure to enjoy.

You know the drill. To receive the magazine, swing by the Film Noir Foundation and make a donation at this, the most wonderful time of the year. The warm feeling in your heart will not be from the cocktail. Well, not entirely.

Today happens to be the birthday of one of noir’s greatest performers, Gloria Grahame. As a reward for reading this sales pitch, here’s Gloria in her glory with an able assist from vocalist Jo Ann Greer in 1954’s Naked Alibi. Want to read more about noir chanteuses? Then go buy Noir City Annual #4, with my article on the subject. (OK, sales pitch over. For reals this time.)

Friday, November 16, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Arnaud’s Special

It’s unfortunate that Scotch cocktails are such scarce beasts, because I’ve enjoyed the few I’ve tried. The Rob Roy, essentially a Scotch Manhattan, is the best known. I’m hugely partial to the Blood and Sand, and when I finally pony up for a bottle of Cherry Heering I will attempt to write the rapturous post that drink deserves.

Recently I found myself in Macleod’s Scottish Pub, a homey Seattle drinking house kitted out in full Celtic regalia and featuring an extensive menu of fine Scotch whiskies – along with several cocktails that made use of them. I was spoiled for choice, so naturally I ordered a beer. (I had a MurrayAid event to attend later that evening and needed to pace myself.) A return trip is most definitely in order, but in the meantime the visit put me in the mood for a drink featuring the smoky spirit. As luck would have it, I’d just come across one.

The Arnaud’s Special is highlighted in Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh’s excellent work of scholarship Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. What truly sold me on the drink was its inclusion in Ted Saucier’s Bottoms Up!, the same 1951 book from which Murray Stenson had unearthed the Last Word. That serendipitous fact alone demanded that I sample it.

According to Haigh, in the 1940s and ‘50s this drink was a staple at the still-in-business namesake New Orleans restaurant, opened in 1918 by a bogus nobleman. If the Rob Roy brings the Manhattan to the Highlands, the Arnaud’s Special drags it further afield. In place of sweet vermouth it uses Dubonnet, its more piquant sweetness pairing with the Scotch to salutary effect. Orange bitters and a twist unify the drink with additional sharp notes of citrus. Per Haigh’s suggestion I used Johnny Walker Red; there’s no point in hiding the Scotch in this cocktail. Embrace its bold, solid flavor instead.

The Arnaud’s Special

2 oz. Scotch
1 oz. Dubonnet
3 dashes orange bitters

Shake. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Movie: Mike’s Murder (1984)

For years I knew three things about Mike’s Murder, all of them making the film nigh on irresistible to me.

1. It had a test screening so legendarily disastrous that any mention of it to certain key participants turns them green to this day.

2. The compromised version that was tossed into a handful of theaters in 1984 after two years of studio tinkering still gained a fervent cult following. Leonard Maltin, in his always-within-reach Movie Guide, gives the film one-and-a-half stars out of four, calling it “One of the worst movies ever made by a filmmaker of (James) Bridges’ stature ... Escapes BOMB rating only because several critics thought highly of it.”

3. It was impossible to see. Usually movies with flawed reputations surface on cable in the wee hours of the morning, but not Mike’s Murder. It essentially vanished without a trace.

The on-demand Warner Archive made Mike’s Murder one of its early titles. I finally bought a copy and sated my curiosity.

Bridges’ original cut was longer, featuring a fractured narrative, a brutal murder sequence, and a lot more of Joe Jackson’s music. The film that was released was straitjacketed into a more conventional structure with lush John Barry accompaniment. But no amount of second-guessing was going to transform Mike’s Murder into a box office sensation. Not because it’s a dark, downbeat story, but because it tells the tale of losers in a city of winners. Mike’s Murder is not a great movie. But I’d lobby for it to be considered one of the great Los Angeles films, with a seductive, doomy vision all its own. (I’d wager that one person who has seen it is Paul Thomas Anderson; the ‘80s section of Boogie Nights has a similar feel, and Thomas Jane’s character in that film is a doppelganger for one here.)

The critics who loved the movie did so largely because of Debra Winger’s lead performance. She’s sensational as Betty Parrish, a woman who moved to L.A. for sunshine not stardom, a bank teller who still calls her parents when she lands a promotion. Part of the easy SoCal vibe means a hook-up with her tennis instructor Mike (Mark Keyloun). Mike is a looker of modest charm, a happy hustler who does what he can and who he can to get by. Sometimes that means crashing proto-Kato Kaelin-style at the guest house of a minor show biz luminary. Sometimes that means selling small quantities of drugs. Anything to keep alive the dream of flying high in the City of Angels. Mike is a telling gender reversal of a character common in L.A. lore, the young woman who uses sex to get ahead and soon finds herself lost.

Some of the digressive style Bridges intended lingers in the film’s first act. It unfolds hazily, spanning several months without making the passage of time immediately apparent. Bridges’ Los Angeles is a metropolis of low-slung ugly buildings and manicured medians, where life is lived in transit. Betty and Mike cross paths, mix signals, then drift apart for weeks at a time. Until Mike gets murdered following a drug deal.

The particulars aren’t that clear or even that interesting. What matters is that Betty suddenly feels a void where she didn’t even realize there was a presence. It’s here that Winger’s performance occasionally touches the transcendent. She’s not mourning Mike as a person but as a possibility; she’s grieving over the prospect that at some point they might have drifted together for good. She tells another of Mike’s paramours, a record executive played by Paul Winfield, that she loved Mike, but she’s only trying the sentiment on for size. Casting the little-known Keyloun pays dividends. He would leave acting a few years after this movie to work in I.T. Mike’s Murder is his sole cinematic legacy, a quirk that only intensifies the haunted feeling surrounding his character.

Betty doesn’t investigate Mike’s death. She simply wants to know more about the man who’s never going to come back into her life, and that interest puts her in harm’s way. The tense ending includes an only-in-California gambit at once completely ludicrous and wholly plausible. The movie leaves Betty and the audience in an in-between place, where the ground beneath your feet can’t be trusted and there are plenty of clear skies but no clear answers. A place an awful lot like Los Angeles.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Bartender’s Choice

One of life’s great pleasures is having a drink made by a skilled bartender who knows you and your tastes, someone who has served as a spirit guide in every sense. On these occasions I am likely to trust myself to them completely, providing minimal direction – “I’m thinking rye” – or simply asking “What do you have that’s different?” and letting them work their magic. I am never disappointed, and often encounter something unexpected that opens up whole new levels of exploration and appreciation.

Such a bartender is Murray Stenson. I wrote about Murray’s recently diagnosed health issues last week. The call has been taken up by the world cocktail community, as this AP article illustrates. Tens of thousands of dollars have already been raised – and that was before the benefits. The one held the night before Halloween at Canon, where Murray works, was a massive success.

And the biggest is about to happen. I met Murray at the Zig Zag Café, the place where he made his deserved global reputation. Sunday night, the Zig Zag is giving back, donating the evening’s proceeds to MurrayAid. There are other Seattle benefits lined up in the coming days, plus events in New York, Washington and elsewhere listed at the MurrayAid site.

If you’ve enjoyed these posts, please consider making a contribution. The cost of a single cocktail would be a lovely gesture.

If you’re one of the many people I’ve taken for cocktails at the Zig Zag or Canon, I will be blunt: you owe me. So come down to the Zig Zag on Sunday and drink to Murray’s health. Rosemarie and I will be there – although to be honest, we probably would have been there anyway. If you can’t make it, try one of the other upcoming benefits. Odds are we’ll be at Bastille for the November 7 event. If you’re in one of the other cities where a MurrayAid benefit is happening, swing by. (New York people, I don’t know if the events scheduled for Monday, November 5 are still on. Even if they’re not, you should stop in. The bars could use your money, and you could probably use a drink.) If you can’t make a benefit, please make a donation. The best cocktails begin with the best bartenders. Murray is in that company.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Q&A: Eric Beetner

Eric Beetner’s latest novel The Devil Doesn’t Want Me was released last week. I preyed on our mutual affection for film noir and got him to do a VKDCQ&A.

Q. What can you tell us about THE DEVIL DOESN’T WANT ME?

Well, I’ll let others tell you if it’s any good or not, but I can say it is about a hit man named Lars who is starting to realize he’s past his prime. He’s been on the hunt for the same man for the past 17 years, a guy in witness protection, and he is starting to doubt if he wants to kill the guy anyway. When Lars is replaced by the crime family he works for by a young gun, things come to a head and Lars has to go on the run with an innocent girl. That covers the first 40 pages or so. From there it’s part action thriller, part father-daughter road movie, part generational drama, and part blood bath.

The one thing I’ve heard a lot, and it is very gratifying to me, is that amid all the mayhem and bursts of violence there is a strong heart at the center of the story and the characters are sympathetic and people you end up caring about. That was important to me and I’m glad to know I pulled it off. I never want to write only chaos. The best chaos is grounded in real emotions.

Q. Lars, your hit man character, is on the verge of finally catching up with one target he’s been after for almost two decades. Any parallels with your own life? Something you’ve been chasing for a good long while now?

Hmm, deep question. I’ve never thought about it and I’m tempted to say no, but I’m realizing that when I started writing the book it was 17 years since I’d moved to L.A., so maybe my subconscious was pushing things forward a bit. I’m someone who is rarely satisfied with my accomplishments. I’m not a sad sack about it and I love to appreciate the things I’ve done and I’m grateful for everything. And I have done quite a lot, more than most people only because I’ll try anything or at least pursue anything I’m interested in. I went to film school so I work in the TV/film biz. I’ve made films, done the festival circuit, won awards. I was a musician for a long time and did that whole thing. I’ve painted and sold paintings. Been a paid screenwriter. A ton of other things I’m proud to say I’ve made happen by myself, but of course none of them have made me rich and famous. I’m definitely a jack of all trades, master of none kind of guy. But part of life for me is chasing down dreams and just plain old doing what makes me happy and creatively fulfilled.

So I’ve been chasing a lot of things, and will continue to do so.

Q. DEVIL is part of the relaunch of the storied Dutton Guilt Edged Mystery line. How does it feel to be part of that history? Did you have any of the original books in your own vast library?
Oh, man, it is so damn cool to be with Guilt Edged. For my book launch I bought myself a present of an original Guilt Edged title from 1955 called The Big Steal (not the basis for the Robert Mitchum movie, however) I wish I could collect up all the Guilt Edged titles but they are either long gone or prohibitively expensive.

One thing I’ve said before about my own ambitions in publishing is that I just want to be a part of the conversation. To be mentioned alongside other writers and taken seriously. To be a part of the history of pulp/crime fiction that is Guilt Edged is beyond cool for me. I think I’m more jazzed about it than anyone who even works over there since the original lineup of Guilt Edged books is so much what I love about crime fiction.

My dream job, that I’m sure you can relate to, is to work as an archivist for a film studio and get to browse the archives and collections of Hollywood history. Maybe Dutton will let me start a side job as curator of Guilt Edged history and I can set about finding copies of all the old titles so they can have them on display in the offices. Hmmm, I’m going to get a cover letter started ...

Q. You’ve also written several installments in the FIGHT CARD series, and your books with JB Kohl have a sweet science backdrop. Where did your interest in boxing come from? How closely do you follow the sport now?

My interest is from my family. My fraternal grandfather was a professional fighter in the 1930s and was even state champion of Iowa in 1935. So I grew up learning all about that, sneaking looks at Grandpa’s cauliflower ear and occasionally sitting in the living room with him and my dad to watch a fight. Writing about boxing has been fun. I’m setting it aside for a while so I don’t get pigeonholed as the boxing guy, but the four books I’ve written with a link to boxing have been tons of fun. The whole Fight Card series is one I encourage people to look into. My two books (Split Decision and A Mouth Full Of Blood) are a good place to start, and from there you’ll be hooked and want to read them all.

I don’t watch much boxing these days. If I do, it’s not the heavyweights. The best fights are always the smaller, scrappier guys. More punches, they have more energy and last into later rounds, and they seem to want it more.

Q. You’re a huge film noir fan. What about those movies continues to speak to you?

I like stories with morally challenged characters and so many noirs have those type of guys (and gals) at their center. Many of the straight up detective films I like, but my favorites are usually the stories with average Joes falling into a web of their own making. Think something like Side Street or Guilty Bystander or Too Late For Tears. Then there are films that are just tough as nails like The Narrow Margin and T-Men and Raw Deal that keep you guessing.

I’m a romantic about the era, too. One of the primary functions of film is to transport you and I love being taken to a different time and place through older films. You’ve heard me rail before against people laughing at film noirs because I like to try to put myself in that headspace of the era. Those writers and directors were not making comedies. Some of those films are bleak. But in something like Armored Car Robbery when Charles McGraw is so gruff that his only response to his dead partner’s wife is, “Tough break, Marsha.” it always gets a laugh.

Okay, before I get off on a tangent ... But the classic style is also one I love as a student of cinema. I’m not precious about it. Film should evolve, should change in style for each generation. You don’t have to like it, but I guarantee in fifty years there will be film festivals showing the Matrix trilogy and people will sit and say, “Gee, they sure don’t make ‘em like they used to!”

I’m nearing the end of my quest to see everything considered noir from that era (working from Spencer Selby’s nearly comprehensive list, though how films like Smart Girls Don’t Talk aren’t in there is beyond me) and even now when I’ve been so saturated with film noir I can run across something like Kiss The Blood Off My Hands which I saw fairly recently and be blown away by a great story about a desperate man digging his own grave deeper and deeper even as he risks everything for a human connection.

I’m down to mostly the dregs of crime cinema of the era and there are some bad, bad movies there, so when I see something like that one I am reenergized again and reminded why I love these films.

Q. A regular feature on your blog is “Writers With Day Jobs.” Your own paying gig is as an editor, often on reality shows. Ever see something in the raw footage that inspired a story?

The whole reason I started that topic on the blog, beyond giving writers I admire a little exposure, was that I was curious if anyone else felt like me. I happen to love my day job and am very creatively fulfilled by it. I got the impression I was in the minority and I’ve found I was right.

But I don’t think I’ve ever used anything I’ve ever cut as a jumping off point for a story. Certainly it is all about the content I cut. Not really inspiring to a crime writer. I did use a little inspiration, and a lot of locations, for the film I wrote and directed, but that’s not a crime story. It would be easy to work my day job into a novel and I might get some publicity out of it too, but I’d rather leave work in the edit bay and let my imagination take me to new places when I write.

Movie Q. What’s an underrated hit man film?

Okay, let’s start with the great ones people know about. My mind immediately went to several foreign films, interestingly enough. Leon: The Professional, La Femme Nikita, John Woo’s The Killer. There are tons of underrated or at least unknown films from other countries. How about the Hong King film Naked Killer?

Then there is Road To Perdition, which I do think is kinda underrated. I really liked Collateral but I think it got unjustly tarred with the Tom Cruise backlash. I love Grosse Point Blank, that might be a contender.

Since it’s you and me, Vince, let’s get back to film noir, though. I guess Woman on the Run would count, right? I adore that film. Recently given some love from the Film Noir Foundation * plug, plug* - every one should be a member.

How about one few people know outside of noirhead circles: The Lineup. A great portrait of a contract killer and made extra special by Eli Wallach’s performance and the weird codependent relationship he has with Robert Keith.

Baseball Q. I seem to recall your saying once that your favorite time of year was when your co-workers stopped talking about baseball. What’s your problem?

Oh, boy. You remember that do you? Look, I’m glad you like baseball. My brother-in-law is a huge baseball fan. Do I think any less of him? Not really. Then again he is a Cubs fan so I mostly have pity.

I don’t hope to change your mind so I won’t go into why I think baseball is so pointless and dull, I’ll chalk it up to the fact that I wasn’t exposed to baseball at a young age. I have no nostalgia for the game. That said, I do love a good baseball film.

Eight Men Out? Love it. The Natural? Love it. Field of Dreams? Made me weepy. But the live game is like any of those movies being directed instead by Ken Burns. Yeah, that slow.

So, what’s wrong with me? Let’s just say I’m un-American and have no soul and leave it at that.

Cocktail Q. You’re in a well-stocked bar. What do you order?

Sheesh, you’re gonna end up hating me. Um, I don’t drink so my experience with cocktails is less than limited. But despite that, you’ll be shocked to know I have an answer for this. My wife is more of a red wine kinda gal but she had a cocktail not too long ago that she really enjoyed called a Bourbon Cherry Sour. Have you had that one? If I was in a bar I’d order that for her.

My favorite cocktail by reputation only since I’ve never had one, is the Gibson. I love that you can change a whole drink like a Martini by only changing the weird little accent that comes with it from an olive to an onion. And I love the idea that someone put an onion in a drink. And yet, a Martini is still a Martini when you make it with vodka or gin. Why isn’t that a whole different drink? And what’s with the dirty Martini? Salt water? Who the hell thinks of these things?

Probably someone with a lot of time on their hands. Like someone in the middle of watching a baseball game.

Just kidding - GO GIANTS!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Seelbach

Still have champagne left over from last week? Get rid of it. It’s flat by now. But here’s a second champagne cocktail. The holidays are closing in, and it’s always helpful to have some alternate uses for that extra bubbly.

The Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky is now part of the Hilton chain. In its glory days F. Scott Fitzgerald frequented it – and was bodily escorted from its premises at least once – while in basic training at Camp Zachary Taylor. He retained enough residual affection for the place to immortalize it as the site of Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s wedding in The Great Gatsby. Some say Fitzgerald met the inspiration for Gatsby himself at the hotel bar, but that may be too much wish-fulfillment.

The Seelbach’s other principal claim to fame is its own cocktail, created in 1917. The apocryphal story relayed by Brad Thomas Parsons in his James Beard Award-winning book Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All (believe me, we’ll get to bitters momentarily) says that the drink was devised when a bartender used a Manhattan to catch the spillover from a newly-popped bottle of champagne. The exact formula was lost during Prohibition, then rediscovered by hotel manager Adam Seger in 1995. He restored the signature libation to the house bar’s menu, and later consented to let cocktail cognoscente Gary Regan include it in New Classic Cocktails (1997). (Update, November 1, 2016: Unless of course, the whole story turns out to be a sham. Give me some credit for at least referring to it as apocryphal.)

What leaps out from this recipe are the great lashings of bitters required. A whopping seven dashes of aromatic Angostura, and an equivalent amount of the sweeter Peychaud’s. As I’ve stated before, I am a fan of bitters, but fourteen dashes initially gave even me pause; something about the excessive number smacks of experimentation, or possibly a Derby Day dare. Still, there’s no denying that the drink works in its original configuration. I was intrigued to see a more tempered variation in Jim Meehan’s The PDT Cocktail Book: three dashes of Peychaud’s, two of Angostura. Meehan’s take is more sedate, giving additional purchase to the bourbon, and I liked it just fine. I’m tempted to reverse his modification and use more Angostura, its pungency my preferred match with dark liquor. Maybe a project for my traditional Day of the Dead bottle of champagne.

The Seelbach

1 oz. bourbon
½ oz. Cointreau
7 dashes of Angostura bitters
7 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
several ozs. champagne

Combine the first four ingredients. Stir. Pour into a champagne flute. Top with champagne. Garnish with an orange twist.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Movies: Double Your Pleasure

First, permit me to recommend Rumba, the rum-centric watering hole Seattle has long deserved. Rosemarie and I closed our Saturday night there to toast the terrific double-bill we’d programmed ourselves.

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel is the latest in the recent strong crop of fashion documentaries. Vreeland’s granddaughter-in-law Lisa Immordino Vreeland has assembled this hugely affectionate portrait largely from vintage interviews with the Harper’s Bazaar/Vogue editor and mastermind behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, linking them with recreated conversations between Vreeland and George Plimpton, collaborator on her autobiography D.V. The Empress Vreeland remains an active, very much alive presence in these clips, brimming over with enthusiasm for, well, damn near everything. There are so many bon mots and worthwhile bits of advice about life and work that the entire film is an inspiration. Vreeland waxing rhapsodic about surfers and skateboarders convinced me that she would be in the same company as Rosemarie: chic, intelligent, professional women with an inexplicable love for the Jackass movies.

The Connection (1961) is better known for its legal history than its box office. Shirley Clarke’s adaptation of Jack Gelber’s Obie Award-winning play had two New York matinee screenings in October 1962 before the police arrested the projectionist and seized the print on the grounds that the movie was obscene. The filmmakers sued and ultimately won, but the damage to the film’s American reception was done.

The premise is years ahead of its time: a documentary crew sets out to record a day in the life of some heroin addict jazz musicians, which naturally means springing for the junk. Still, I went in with some apprehension, expecting a lot of hipster posing and patois. Instead, I was knocked on my ass. The lingo is there all right, much of it spouted by the deeply square director of the film-within-the-film who finds himself on camera a lot more than he wishes protesting that he wants to make “a real, human document.” Clarke wastes no time diving into the thorny issues of performance versus reality – including whether that “versus” is even necessary – and she’s abetted by her company of not-yet-known actors like William Redfield, Carl Lee and Roscoe Lee Browne. Also hugely impressive is the music, provided by the Freddie Redd Quartet with Jackie McLean, all of whom appear on camera as the junkies. In one amazing sequence when the titular connection arrives, the band’s members go off one by one to cop in the bathroom while the other musicians keep playing, each instrument dropping out for a few moments only to return with, shall we say, renewed intensity. A new 35mm print of The Connection is showing for a few more days at the Northwest Film Forum in conjunction with the Earshot Jazz Festival. Here’s the trailer.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Help Murray Stenson

If you drink cocktails in Seattle, you know Murray Stenson. Murray has tended this city’s bars for thirty-plus years, spending over a decade behind the stick at Il Bistro, another ten years at the landmark Zig Zag Café, and lately working at Canon. He’s almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the classic cocktail movement to this part of the world, and countless Pacific Northwest bartenders have learned from and been inspired by him. Even if you’ve never set foot here, you may have felt Murray’s influence. He rediscovered the Last Word, which now appears on menus around the globe and was dubbed “the Official Drink of the Classic Cocktail Renaissance” by the Washington Post’s Jason Wilson.

Murray is not just a crafter of perfect cocktails. More importantly, he is a master of hospitality. Wherever he’s working, you can count on finding a convivial atmosphere in addition to splendid drinks. His peers paid him the highest compliment at the 2010 Tales of the Cocktail, where he was named “Best Bartender in America.” Look him up and you’ll find the same two words used to describe him: beloved and legendary.

Much of what little I know about cocktails I’ve learned from Murray. I’m also proud to say that over those years he’s become a friend. Murray’s a serious film buff and a crime fiction fan; I still remember my amazement when he asked me one day, “Ever hear of a writer named Jim Crumley?,” then revealed that the author of The Last Good Kiss would regularly drive in from Montana and do his drinking at Il Bistro.

And now, Murray needs our help.

He was recently diagnosed with a heart ailment that may require surgery. Worse, he is currently unable to work, meaning he can’t do what he was put here to do, make outstanding drinks and strangers feel welcome. Like many an accomplished tradesman, he doesn’t have health insurance.

One of Murray’s longtime friends has set up MurrayAid, where you can make donations to help defray his medical expenses. The Zig Zag Café will be hosting a benefit for Murray on Sunday, November 4 from 5pm to close, where you can literally drink to Murray’s health. Other events will be announced in the coming weeks. I’ll be at as many as possible.

Over at the Cocktail Chronicles, Paul Clarke writes a lovely tribute to Murray. If Murray has ever poured you a cocktail, give a few dollars. If you’ve ever found a home away from home at a cocktail bar, chip in as well. Help out a good man in need.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The French 75

I’ve told this story before. I’m telling it again. It’s not like you’re paying for this.

Scene: Prescription Cocktail Club, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, July 2011

Dramatis Personae: Vince, a dashing American abroad
                                 Rosemarie, his lovely wife
                                 Sullivan, a far more dashing French bartender

Vince: Didn’t you want to have a glass of champagne or a champagne cocktail? This would be the place.

Rosemarie: I want to order a French 75. But do they call it that here? Maybe it’s just a 75.

Me: Huh. I never thought of that.

Sullivan: What else can I get you?

Rosemarie: Could you recommend a champagne cocktail?

Sullivan: Of course. A French 75?

Rosemarie: That would be perfect.

The French 75’s name is derived from the Canon de 75 modèle 1897 (or M1897) 75-mm light field artillery gun. A lethal piece of weaponry that could, with the right personnel, briefly fire up to 30 rounds per minute, it was used by the French army and the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. Called the “Soixante Quinze” (“75”) en Français, the gun loaned its name to the cocktail because that’s how hard the drink hits you.

This much we know is true. The rest is what that French call une zone grise.

Histoire. We know that Harry’s New York Bar, Paris put the French 75 on the map, and that the Stork Club in New York made its name Stateside. But where did the drink come from before Harry’s? In Classic Cocktails, legendary London bartender Salvatore Calabrese says that Harry MacElhone took the “75 Cocktail” made with gin and lemon served at Henry’s Bar, Paris and augmented it with champagne. Other experts note that the 1919 edition of Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails credits an English bartender with the recipe. Insert Gallic shrug here.

Ingrédients. The champagne’s not the question. It’s the other spirit. The early recipes all say gin. But along comes David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks first insisting on cognac, then uncorking this whopper: “Gin is sometimes used in place of cognac in this drink, but then, of course, it no longer should be called French.” The estimable Gary ‘Gaz’ Regan ventures that no one had heard of a brandy version until Embury suggested one, leading to great confusion in the land. Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual achieves détente by offering a range of options. A French 75 is made with gin, a French 95 with bourbon (and orange juice, according to Dale DeGroff), a French 125 with brandy. I say stick with the original: gin, lemon juice, sugar, champers.

Verrerie. You’d think glassware would be the easy part, but no, that’s got to be a bone of contention, too. Many recipes call for the French 75 to be served in a Collins glass with ice. Some, God help us, even call for straws. Maybe it’s how I was raised, but I refuse to drink champagne with a straw. I’ve also seen the drink poured into a standard cocktail coupe. My rule is simple: if there’s bubbly involved, it goes in a flute. More beverages should be drunk from flutes. Perhaps this choice might result in less champagne, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You want the gin’s presence to be felt, after all.

The French 75 

1 oz. gin
 ½ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. simple syrup
several ozs. champagne

Combine the first three ingredients. Shake. Pour into a champagne flute. Top with champagne. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Fourth Regiment

Earlier this week, New York Times spirits writer Rosie Schaap offered a moving, very personal appreciation of the Manhattan. My mantra is life is a simple one – DON’T READ THE COMMENTS – but when cocktails are involved, I make an exception. I was amazed by the number of people who volunteered that when preparing Manhattans, they don’t bother with bitters. Like Ms. Schaap, I pride myself on flexibility when it comes to the king of whiskey drinks. Rye or bourbon, up or on the rocks, traditional or perfect (half sweet vermouth, half dry). I enjoy them all. But always, always with bitters.

Aside on the comments: Reading them did allow to me see that a Hong Kong resident sang the praises of my favorite bar, saying that the Zig Zag Café was worth a trip to Seattle and “is just what a bar should be: a dark hole in the wall with a great bartender.” Aside on the aside: the Zig Zag Café has a brand new website!

I’m convinced that some of the aversion to bitters stems from their name. Of the five basic tastes (the others being sour, sweet, salty and savory), bitterness is by far the most sensitive. Blame self-preservation; many naturally occurring toxic substances have a bitter taste. It’s worth remembering that coffee and chocolate do, too.

Sampled on their own, yes, bitters can taste bitter. But when employed judiciously they provide a unifying element around which a cocktail can coalesce. They’re particularly useful in tempering sweetness, their concentrated burst of flavor adding another level to a drink’s overall profile.

One of my favorite ways of demonstrating what bitters bring to a cocktail party is the Fourth Regiment. Robert Hess of DrinkBoy notes that the recipe appears in the little known 1889 book 282 Mixed Drinks from the Private Records of a Bartender of the Olden Days. But like many a cocktail it owes what reputation it has to Charles H. Baker, Jr. and his Gentleman’s Companion. Baker observes, in his own inimitable fashion, that the Fourth Regiment was “Brought to Our Amazed Attention by One Commander Livesey, in Command of One of His Majesty’s Dapper Little Sloops of War, out in Bombay, A.D. 1931.” He calls it “merely a Manhattan Cocktail in 4 oz. size” with Angostura, celery, and orange bitters, “but why the last was included we never have understood as the Angostura dominates.”

The modern version isn’t close to four ounces in size, and the Angostura doesn’t bully its compatriots at all. In fact, a different flavor takes its turn on the floor with each sip. By the time you’ve drained your glass, you’ll have a very clear sense of how essential bitters are to the cocktail experience. Soon enough, you’ll have a full shelf of them like I have.

The Fourth Regiment 

1 oz. rye
1 oz. sweet vermouth
dash of Angostura bitters
dash of celery bitters
dash of orange bitters

Stir. Strain. No garnish.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Miscellaneous: Assorted Recommendations

Buy this album. This one right here, Made Possible by The Bad Plus. Listen to it regularly. It’s one brilliant song after another. Then see them live at your earliest opportunity. You can thank me later.

Here’s a plot: hard-working family man Wade Benson falls asleep at the wheel one night and accidentally kills a young woman. He’s sentenced to several years’ probation, but must serve two days of each of those years in jail. A friend of the victim’s family feels Wade hasn’t suffered enough for his crime and picks one of those days to kidnap Wade’s college-age daughter.

Odds are you’re picturing a white-knuckle ride about a decent individual desperate to atone for a horrible mistake, pitted against a hardened criminal. Perfect airplane reading. That’s not Lake Country. Sean Doolittle, a cagey writer who sidles up on his narratives, has something more interesting in mind. After a brief introduction putative villain Darryl Potter, back from Iraq and battling a host of post-war demons, disappears until the halfway point. We never even meet Wade Benson, an authorial decision that practically renders the book experimental. Instead Doolittle adopts an outside-in approach, letting characters on the periphery work their way to the center of the drama. A TV reporter having second thoughts about her career. A bounty hunter who has mastered his own form of destructive Zen. And Darryl’s only friend Mike, a fellow veteran who “came home from the Marine Corps with a plastic knee, 63 percent hearing loss in his left ear, and a bunch of grisly sludge where his nighttime dreams used to be.” The result is a portrait of a Minnesota community and a subtle, moving thriller about the unexpected repercussions of tragedy.

Leo Waterman is back after a too-lengthy hiatus in G. M. Ford’s Thicker Than Water. The irascible shamus has finally cashed in the trust fund his deeply crooked politico old man left him. He’s still got the boys – the motley assortment of indigent misfits who work as his “operatives” – to spend his newfound gain on, but he’s lost Rebecca, the woman he loves, to another man. When Rebecca vanishes without a trace, Leo slips out of semi-retirement and back onto the mean streets of the Pacific Northwest. Thicker Than Water is a solid old-school detective novel shot through with Leo’s trademark grumpy humor and rich Seattle atmosphere. I may be biased because Rosemarie’s workplace and several watering holes I frequent are name-checked, but nobody captures the spirit of my adopted hometown like Ford.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Bijou

Bijou is French for jewel, and the if-it-ain’t-true-it-oughta-be story is that this elegant drink’s name stems from the fact that each of its ingredients bears the color of a precious stone: diamond (gin), ruby (sweet vermouth), emerald (green chartreuse). One variation of the cocktail is served as a pousse-café or a layered drink, with all three elements presented parfait-style. This is a complete waste of time. Stir them up and render the Bijou a magnificent amber hue greater than the sum of its parts.

The recipe was spotlighted in the Modern Bartender’s Manual (1900) by Harry Johnson. Cocktail historian David Wondrich offers a brief biographical sketch of Harry in his book Imbibe! and makes it plain that Johnson was a bullshit artist of the first rank as well as an enthusiastic if misguided self-aggrandizer. You might score points boasting about working the stick at a bar on the Bowery in New York now, but not in the 1880s as Harry had it on his résumé.

I’ve seen the cocktail compared to the martini, which makes sense in theory as they’re both gin-based. But the Bijou is far sweeter and richer, the latter owing to green chartreuse’s herbal pyrotechnics. And the flavor only grows more dense as it settles. A dash of orange bitters, another tie to the martini, anchors the mixture nicely. Use a trace of Campari instead and you have a Tailspin. I like both versions but prefer the subtle citrus note of the original; there’s enough going on here without Campari’s bitterness stirring up trouble. Save that raucousness for the Bowery.

The Bijou

1 oz. gin
1 oz. sweet vermouth
1 oz. green chartreuse
dash of orange bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Cuba Libre

We’re not talking about a simple rum and Coke here. It’s called a Cuba Libre. If you want to sound knowledgeable, pronounce it Kooba Lee-Bray. If you really want to sound knowledgeable, guzzle them while grousing about goddamn Kennedy calling off the additional air cover back in ’61. This will ensure that the seats on either side of you at the bar remain unoccupied.

True confession time: I never had respect for the rum’n’Coke. And I wasn’t alone. Spirits writer Jason Wilson dubs it “a lazy person’s drink.” The venerable Kingsley Amis took issue with the Coca-Cola half of the equation, feeling that rum was “quite wasted in my view when teamed with that horrible stuff. I love America, but any nation that produces drive-in churches, Woody Allen and cola drinks can’t be all good.”

The story goes that the Rough Riders brought the then now-in-bottles! soda to Cuba when they went to liberate the island nation in 1898, mixed it with the native flavoring rum, and drank to their inevitable success with the battle cry of “Free Cuba!” Too bad the timeline doesn’t quite work out; the drink didn’t catch on until after the Spanish-American War. I have visions of servicemen stationed in Havana once hostilities had ended offering the toast ironically but that too is wrong, irony not being invented by Madison Avenue advertising men until the mid-1960s.

Order a rum and Coke in many bars and you’ll receive a bonus lime wedge if you’re lucky. It’s here that the problem begins; no mere garnish, lime was originally an essential ingredient in the Cuba Libre. In The Gentleman’s Companion, Charles H. Baker, Jr. lamented the cocktail’s popularity in the 1930s. “The only trouble with the drink is that it started by accident and without imagination, has been carried along by the ease of its supply. Under any condition it is too sweet. What’s to do?” Baker, engaging in “clinical experimenting for which our insurance carriers heartily dislike us,” determined that the juice of one small lime was necessary. He also suggested muddling lime peel in the glass before building the drink. The Joy of Mixology author Gary Regan finds that step excessive, but observes that lime juice is necessary “to balance out the sweetness of the cola.”

Another statement from Gaz worth noting: “This drink is seldom held in high regard, but when made properly it can be a heavenly potion.” Which explains why the Cuba Libre and its variations turn up with regularity in craft cocktail bars.

Many such establishments make their own cola. I don’t. What got me to take a fresh look at the Cuba Libre was the abundance of cane colas now commonly available, including Mexican Coca Cola and my default choice, Trader Joe’s Vintage Cola. These are truer to the cocktail’s history and easier on the teeth. Turns out the experts are right; the addition of an ounce of lime juice turns a frat boy’s stalwart into something worth lingering over. Provided you brush afterwards. (This message brought to you by the American Dental Association.)

Jason Wilson suggests other changes that push the drink toward its tropical origins. (Good luck getting authentic Cuban rum – or authentic circa 1900 Coca-Cola with that extra snap of cocaine, for that matter.) Meyer lemon or key lime juice instead of regular lime, a few dashes of Angostura bitters, even – madre de Dios – adding some gin. I’ve laid on more soda, prepared to indulge in some clinical experimenting of my own.

The Cuba Libre 

2 oz. rum
1 oz. lime juice
approximately 3 oz. chilled cane cola

Build in the order given in an ice-filled Tom Collins glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Movies: Day and Date Theater

Once more into darkest cable box, armed only with blog and remote, to spotlight a pair of movies released to theaters and on demand simultaneously.

Arbitrage. There are heroes, and then there are protagonists. Richard Gere clearly plays the latter here. His Robert Miller is a respected financier, an oracle of Wall Street. Only he’s shorted himself on magic. Having taken a multimillion dollar bath on Russian copper, he’s borrowed a fortune to make his firm seem solvent in order to hoodwink a competitor into buying it. The papers haven’t been signed yet, and his CIO daughter is on the trail of his skullduggery. What he needs is a relaxing night upstate with his French mistress. But Miller dozes off behind the wheel, wrecking the car and killing her. He flees the scene with the aid of his late driver’s son, unintentionally putting the young man’s future in jeopardy.

Astonishingly, you end up rooting for Gere’s master of the universe to get away with, if not murder, then massive fraud and manslaughter. As writer/director Nicholas Jarecki provides a behind-the-velvet-ropes-and-curtains tour of Manhattan’s tonier precincts, the film plays like a particularly luxe episode of Law & Order with no order and precious little law. (You do get Tim Roth as an outer borough Columbo who knows Miller is guilty and will cut corners to prove it.) A terrific Gere is ably supported by several actors portraying the celestial objects drawn into Miller’s orbit, like Susan Sarandon as the wife who has learned a thing or two about negotiating and Stuart Margolin as his cagey attorney. A sleek, suspenseful look at how the other 53% lives.
Knuckleball! In some sense, this engaging documentary came out a year early. It focuses on the 2011 baseball season as Tim Wakefield prepares to close out a lengthy career based on the fluttery pitch of the title, leaving the Mets’ R.A. Dickey as the game’s last such hurler. One season later, Dickey is an All-Star and a factor in the Cy Young conversation, having notched 19 wins and counting, leading the league in ERA and innings pitched, and ranked second in strikeouts. In perfecting an 80 mph version of the knuckler, Dickey has come as close as anyone to doing the unthinkable: inventing a new pitch. A brief primer on mechanics would have been welcome, but otherwise the film does an admirable job explaining the commitment required to master a pitch that, in the words of Jim Bouton, demands “the fingertips of a safecracker and the heart of a Zen Buddhist,” as well as profiling the handful of members of the brotherhood.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

First, some housekeeping. No, this has not become a cocktail-only blog. It just seems that way. I’ve wanted to post, honest and for true. But work commitments have kept me busy. This plethora of projects has alas forced me to skip this year’s Bouchercon in Cleveland.

At least some of that work is now available for your delectation. The latest issue of Noir City, the e-magazine of the Film Noir Foundation, went out to subscribers over the weekend and it’s a dazzler. Featuring gorgeous design work by Michael Kronenberg and fully optimized for the iPad, it’s got more rich content than ever. Included in this edition are Eddie Muller’s interview with Hurricane Billy himself, William Friedkin, whose latest film Killer Joe is a hell-bent hoot and a half. Imogen Sara Smith’s cover story on noir’s glorious golden bad girl Jan Sterling. A pair of pieces by my comrade in arms Jake Hinkson on pregnancy and children in film noir. Plus lots more.

As for me, I’ve got two-part salute to noir in miniature. I interview artist and photographer Jonah Samson, who recreates the landscape of film noir in gorgeously detailed dioramas. And I talk to documentarian Susan Marks about her film Of Dolls & Murder, which profiles forensic science pioneer Frances Glessner Lee and her singular Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, gruesome dollhouse-sized crime scenes that have been used to train detectives for decades. Susan’s film is available on Netflix Instant and iTunes, and is well worth watching. Plus Lee’s work will serve as the inspiration for a new HBO series from huge talents Guillermo del Toro and Sara Gran, so read my article to get up to speed.

Most exciting is the debut of my crime fiction and cocktail column, Keenan’s Korner. It’s named in tribute to Kiner’s Korner, which for many years was the New York Mets’ post-game show. Meaning that I have managed to combine baseball, cocktails and crime fiction in a single enterprise, thereby making this column my life’s work. In this opening installment I review a trio of books from Hard Case Crime including, appropriately enough, The Cocktail Waitress, the newly-discovered lost novel by hardboiled master James M. Cain.

Head over to the Film Noir Foundation, make a donation to support the restoration of classic film noir, and the issue is yours. In it, Eddie details the next three films the FNF will have an active hand in salvaging and screening across the country in the coming year. Go ahead. You know you want to.

More posts are coming, I promise. In the meantime, go see The Master, in 70mm if you can. It’s as good as advertised.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Cocktails of the Week: The Boulevardier/The Old Pal

I promised a favorite variation on the Negroni last time, didn’t I? I lied. I’m spotlighting two of them. I’m just that generous.

For an object lesson in how changing a single ingredient can transform a cocktail completely, look no further than the Boulevardier (pictured). In last week’s Negroni, I merely altered the kind of Italian vermouth used to give the drink a different complexion. Child’s play. The Boulevardier keeps the rosso and the Campari and jettisons the gin for whiskey.

The drink was first publicized by Harry McElhone, the one-time bartender at New York’s Plaza Hotel who hied himself to points continental in the wake of the Volstead Act and eventually opened Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. Harry also penned a pair of manuals, Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails (1922) and the admirably titled Barflies and Cocktails (1927). The Boulevardier is cited in both. It was the regular drink of Erskine Gwynne, a wealthy young American – one of the Vanderbilts, don’t you know – who came to Paris to publish a literary magazine called, you guessed it, The Boulevardier. Gwynne, according to some accounts, may even have invented the cocktail. We do know that Harry set the formula in print decades before the Negroni, the drink that clearly inspired it, was introduced to Americans.

So you’ve changed one element of the Negroni. Once again I quote the immortal wisdom of Homer Simpson: you can’t go this far and not go further. Change another element and see where that lands you.

Harry McElhone did. In Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails he also includes the Old Pal. This drink, named by “Sparrow” Robertson, then sporting editor of the New York Herald in Paris, switches from sweet to dry vermouth to produce a wholly distinct experience. Of the two I prefer the Boulevardier, which is sweeter, fuller, and akin to a slightly bitter Manhattan. But there are times when the resolute sharpness of the Old Pal is what the doctor ordered.

Some notes on preparation: Both original recipes, like that of the Negroni, called for equal parts. They’re still quite good that way but contemporary versions tend to be spirit forward, which is reflected below. The Boulevardier can be made with either bourbon or rye; I prefer the latter for many reasons, but in this instance it’s because it stands up to the Campari better.

The Boulevardier 

1 ½ oz. rye or bourbon
1 oz. sweet vermouth
1 oz. Campari

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a cherry or a lemon twist. But choose the cherry. And the rye.

The Old Pal 

1 ½ oz. rye
¾ oz. dry vermouth
¾ oz. Campari

Stir. Strain. No garnish.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Negroni

The Negroni is such a classic that it didn’t take long to round up a few choice quotes praising it from some estimable spirits writers. Like David Wondrich, who called it “one of the world’s indispensable cocktails.” Or Jason Wilson: “just about the perfect cocktail ... so simple even the worst bartender can’t mess it up too badly.”

But my favorite comes courtesy of that heroic appreciator of alcohol Kingsley Amis, who said of this simple combination of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari: “This is a really fine invention. It has the power, rare with drinks and indeed with anything else, of cheering you up.” Truer words never spoken.

The drink’s origin story smacks of apocrypha. The legend goeth that in 1919, Count Camillo Negroni – yes, you’re expected to believe there was a Count Negroni – requested that his Florentine bartender liven up his customary Americano by replacing the soda water with gin. The barman, a sterling specimen of his trade, did as he was asked, adding an orange twist instead of the Americano’s usual lemon to tell the beverages apart.

Here’s the thing. Not only was there a Count Negroni, and not only did the story happen as told, but the Count ended up in America working as a rodeo cowboy, sending a great story into the stratosphere. One hopes he brought enough Campari for the rest of the riders. European bar manuals, according to Jim Meehan’s The PDT Cocktail Book, featured drinks made with the same three ingredients called the Camparinette and the Campari Cardinal. But it was always the Negroni in Italy, where it found favor with visitors from abroad like Orson Welles, who discovered the cocktail while filming Black Magic in Rome in 1947. Said Welles: “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.”

Balance has always been key with the Negroni, an equal parts drink. Some contemporary bartenders ratchet up the amount of gin considerably, noting that the original ratio is a relic from an era when spirits were of poorer quality. But I’m a traditionalist. There are also versions made with vodka, prosecco, even tequila. I’m sure they’re swell. (OK, fine. I’ll highlight a favorite variation next time.)

Not to say I don’t experiment. I simply prefer to do so within proscribed parameters. The Negroni I’ve been making lately uses Bombay Sapphire, a softer gin, along with Punt e Mes, a sharper vermouth that pairs up nicely with the bitterness of Campari. I also switched back to a lemon twist and found that it tied the flavors together beautifully.

Negronis can be served on the rocks, which makes for near-ideal summer drinking. Enjoy them for the next few months up in a cocktail glass as a lively reminder of the season fast fading.

The Negroni

The Summer of 2012 Variation

1 oz. gin
1 oz. Punt e Mes (in place of sweet vermouth)
1 oz. Campari

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist out of a sense of adventure.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Opera

Still have that bottle of Dubonnet Rouge from last week? You’re refrigerating it, aren’t you? Because it’s an aromatized wine, you know.

No sense letting it go to waste. There are any number of simple cocktails that exploit Dubonnet’s unique charms. The Bentley, for instance, pairs it with equal parts applejack and makes a solid after-dinner selection. Go with equal parts light rum instead, add Angostura bitters, and you have the Bushranger.

Gin, as mentioned, is the favored mixer with Dubonnet. The simplest combination is the aptly named Dubonnet cocktail (or, in some circles, the Zaza). Equal parts gin and Dubonnet. Lemon twist. Done. Add a dash of Pernod and it’s the Apparent. The variations are practically limitless.

A more complex drink that allows Dubonnet to take the spotlight is the Opera. Its origins, as is so often the case, remain murky. In David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, it doesn’t even contain gin but equal parts Dubonnet and white label rum, plus a dash of lime juice and an orange twist. His alternate, with gin instead of rum and maraschino in place of lime juice, is closer to the version served today. According to Jim Meehan’s The PDT Cocktail Book, the recipe as it originally appeared in Jacques Straub’s 1914 Drinks called for equal parts gin and Dubonnet plus “a splash of Crème de Mandarine;” Meehan’s contemporary variation goes heavier on the gin and replaces the last ingredient with Mandarin Napoleon and orange bitters.

I turned to the redoubtable Patrick Gavin Duffy and his Official Mixer’s Manual. He, too, tips the balance in favor of gin. Bear in mind that many bartenders will use half as much maraschino as Duffy suggests to reduce the sweetness, but I like the foundation it provides. Duffy also doesn’t use bitters, but that final element of citrus proves a lovely addition to the notes provided by the Dubonnet and the twist. The Opera has the kind of sophisticated flavor that may not rattle the rafters when it steps up for its aria, but it will ring down the curtain nicely.

The Opera

2 oz. gin
½ oz. Dubonnet
½ oz. maraschino
dash of orange bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist.