Friday, April 27, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Jasmine Variation

To begin, let me clarify that this is not about an episode of The Big Bang Theory or a lost novel by Robert Ludlum. This is about me monkeying with a cocktail invented by someone who actually knows what he’s doing.

The Italian aperitif Aperol has been around for almost a century, but it’s only made a splash in the United States in the last five years or so. It’s often branded – and occasionally dismissed – as Campari light, only fitting considering that it’s now produced by the Campari company. I prefer to think of Aperol as the ideal introduction to bitters. Both beverages look somewhat alike, dwelling as they do in the redder stretch of the spectrum, but there the similarities end. Aperol is lighter, sweeter, and smoother. It possesses a more floral scent and flavor, with prominent notes of orange. More importantly, it has only half of Campari’s alcohol content. While it doesn’t match Campari in the bitterness department – Campari’s taste can never be completely tamed, which is why I love it in cocktails like the Negroni (gin) and the Old Pal (rye) – Aperol is no slouch. It may be a step down from Campari, but it’s definitely a step up from the norm.

My intro to Aperol was, well, the Intro to Aperol, a drink fashioned by Audrey Saunders of the Pegu Club in New York to spotlight the aperitif’s unique charms. A few months ago I had it in a brunch cocktail alongside the Brazilian sugarcane spirit cachaça and an assortment of fruit juices. Aperol’s most prominent use, though, is the simplest. Mix it with Prosecco and a splash of soda water and you have the Aperol Spritz, a summertime staple on the streets of Venice.

I’ve gone to the trouble of explaining how Aperol isn’t Campari’s sensitive little brother. So when it came time to experiment, what did I do? Substitute it in one of Rosemarie’s favorite Campari drinks. To, if I do say so myself, excellent effect.

The Jasmine, created by bartender Paul Harrington in the mid-1990s, has quickly become a popular member of the cocktail canon. In the standard recipe, the drink yields a phantom hint of grapefruit, abetted by that Campari astringency that I find so appealing. Switch in Aperol’s more subtle taste and you alter the cocktail’s complexion, getting a softer flavor that maintains a pleasing citrusy fullness. Fans of the original may want to try this alternative as a change of pace. Newcomers to bitters might prefer to start here, then work up to the heavy lifting of Campari.

The Jasmine Variation

1 ½ oz. gin
1 oz. Cointreau
¾ oz. Aperol (Campari in the original)
½ oz. lemon juice

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Movies: Two-Fisted Action Times Two

Two hugely entertaining films are out right now. Both are foreign and set to be remade, so why not be the cool kid on your block and talk about how much you enjoyed the originals? I know I will.

The Raid: Redemption. Before you say, “Not another Indonesian martial arts epic directed by a Welshman,” hear me out. The tagline on the poster lays out all you need to know: 1 ruthless crime lord, 20 elite cops, 30 floors of chaos. A SWAT team plans to pry a kingpin out of the Jakarta apartment building that serves as his stronghold. But some of the cops are bad, some of the henchmen may be good, and even the raid itself may not be what it appears. Never has an action film been so stabby – every blade imaginable is put to use – and it’s been years since one has been this relentless. 100 minutes of bone-crunching, high-tension joy. In theaters now.

Sleepless Night, aka Nuit Blanche. Regular readers may recall my delight last year at having filmmaker Nicolas Saada say mise-en-scène to me over cocktails in a Paris bar. Nicolas is the co-writer of this propulsive policier that again establishes its stakes with admirable simplicity. Crooked cop Tomer Sisley and his partner boost a cocaine stash. The local Corsican gangsters snatch divorced dad Sisley’s son in response and demand an exchange at their sprawling nightclub on the outskirts of Paris. Appropriately called Le Tarmac, it’s the size of an airplane hangar, kitted out with a first-class restaurant, a pool hall, and multiple bars, discos and karaoke lounges. Inventive use of all of them will be made as Sisley dervishes through the club once the hand-off goes awry, ducking well-meaning Internal Affairs cops, other bent gendarmes, the drugs’ owners and their bloodthirsty competition. Some dynamite script construction is on display as every casual bit of information pays off in unexpected ways. Available via on demand through the Tribeca Film Festival. Here’s the trailer.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Meyer Lemon Whiskey Sour

If I were magically transported to California while I slept, it wouldn’t take me long to figure out where I was. The state has some tells. The light, to begin with. Golden, abundant, all too aware of how attractive it is. The air doesn’t smell the same there. And sooner rather than later, I’d encounter a Meyer lemon.

Every Californian I know has a Meyer lemon tree in their yard. They overturn bowls of them as they reach to shut off their alarm clocks in the morning, knock dozens of the little jewels off the branches as they walk to their cars. The place is lousy with them. A cross between a lemon and a sweet orange, the fruit was imported to the United States from China roughly a century ago. Their skins are thin and almost garishly colored, like many Californians. Zing! (I kid because I love. And am deeply jealous. And from New York.) They also possess a delicate floral fragrance and a taste sweeter than that of normal lemons, making them astonishingly versatile. To quote my friend David Corbett, Meyer lemons are God’s way of saying, “I’m sorry.”

Naturally now that they’re more readily available nationwide, I wanted to use them in a cocktail.

My choice was the humble whiskey sour. And by humble, I overstate the case. When you’re in the mood for a classic whiskey cocktail, you’re going to ask for a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned, with this one-time staple being the choice of last resort. I only order them in places where the drink list is suspect, the simplicity of the recipe rendering it foolproof. David A. Embury, in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, rightly notes that “the overwhelming majority of our cocktails are of the Sour type,” consisting of a base spirit, some combination of lemon and/or lime juice, and sugar or a sweetening agent. But he also views the entire Whiskey Sour clan askance because “whisky ... is a grouchy old bachelor that stubbornly insists on maintaining its own independence and is seldom to be found in marrying mood.”

Drinks historian David Wondrich is even more dismissive. The Whiskey Sour, he wrote, is “the cocktail in its undershirt.”

Enter the Meyer lemon. The natural buoyancy of its flavor blends perfectly with a good bourbon, and the fruit’s inherent sweetness means you can scale back the amount of simple syrup involved while still enjoying its tang. It revitalizes the drink, now no longer staid but refreshing, the stand-by transformed into a swinger. Turns out Old Man Whiskey just needs the right comely stranger to blow in his ear. Or, to put it another way, it’s a reminder that you need only change one element of a cocktail – not even the main one – to generate a pleasing variation.

The Meyer Lemon Whiskey Sour 

2 oz. bourbon
1 oz. Meyer lemon juice
¼ to ½ oz. simple syrup, depending on taste

Shake. Strain into a sour or cocktail glass, but know that everything looks better in the latter. Garnish with a cherry.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book: Wolf Tickets, by Ray Banks (2010/e2012)

Like that ‘e’ thing I did up there? So you lot know it’s a new eBook? Clever, innit? Let’s just say I invented that and move on. Right, the checklist ...

Title based on a suspect interpretation of prison slang by noir maestro Tom Waits? Check.

Compelling situation set up sharpish? Guy gets shafted by his girl – she even took his one of a kind Italian leather jacket, for Christ’s sake – so he sets out to track her down with the help of his old Army buddy before she gets in even worse trouble. Check.

Surprising characters leading you down, down, down? You’ve got Sean Farrell, Irishman formerly in Her Majesty’s service turned petty criminal who can’t admit how much he loves the woman who ripped him off. You’ve got his mate Jimmy Cobb, pettier criminal with dodgy musical tastes and a stubborn streak that verges on vicious. You’ve got alternating viewpoints with each thinking he’s the smart one. Check.

Scabrously funny writing? “Whoever had been in charge of The Claddagh’s interior design must’ve detonated a bag of leprechauns and called it a fucking day.” Double fucking check.

Gut-churning violence? ... hoo ... You bet your ass that’s a check.

Whiplash twists you don’t see coming and heart where you least expect it? Check.

Yep. It’s another Banks book.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Miscellaneous: Words of Wisdom

(Sam) Peckinpah was a good writer, but he only had one voice. He could just write his kind of thing: Westerns, hard guys, bitter-enders. But he wrote them quite well. He was good at structure and good at finding the ironic moment. On dialogue, it’s a little harder to be completely generous. He was good at finding short catchphrases for characters that described their inner workings, but I always thought he was way too explicit in having characters baldly state thematic ideas.

The contrast with John Huston I think is interesting. Huston, like the more traditional screenwriters, could write in many voices. For instance, it’s impossible to imagine Sam writing Dr. Erlich’s Magic Bullet, Jezebel, or Wuthering Heights. But one can certainly see him doing Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This sounds like a criticism of Peckinpah but isn’t meant to be. I actually think you are much better off writing in as narrow a voice as possible (produces higher quality work and a more personal statement), but the other side of that coin (and Sam is illustrative of this), you probably burn out faster.

Walter Hill, in an interview in Backstory 4. For Ray Banks.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Martinez

During a conversation with a friend about cocktails – I have these conversations a lot – I relayed a theory put forth by Washington Post spirits columnist Jason Wilson. Namely, that “many Americans end up drinking what they enjoyed in high school or college” because of “the visceral experience of memory,” the familiar flavor conjuring up the good old days. I’ve found that the opposite is also true; people will avoid a beverage with negative connotations from their past, be it poor quality or, ahem, youthful excess.

“That’s why I can’t drink gin,” my friend said. “I never got over thinking it tasted like Scotch tape.” I love gin, and even I have to admit I see what my friend’s talking about.

For decades, gin didn’t taste like Scotch tape at all. What’s consumed now under the name would have been unrecognizable to pre-Prohibition tipplers. Gin then came in two styles: the lightly sweetened Old Tom and the richer Dutch genever. In cocktail historian David Wondrich’s essential 2007 book Imbibe!, he lamented the latter’s absence from the American marketplace and the fact that Old Tom’s taste could only be approximated by adding gum syrup to Tanqueray.

A mere five years later, genever is again available Stateside and several enterprising distillers have painstakingly recreated Old Tom gin. Ransom Spirits in Oregon even had Wondrich serve as a consultant. Rosemarie and I had a chance to sample it a while back and finally splurged on a bottle.

It took a while to crack the wax seal; ultimately I put the bottle in an apple crate with a rabid wolverine and stood guard. But the reward was worth the effort. Ransom Old Tom gin is slightly aged and made with malted barley as its base, giving it a dense taste and viscosity more akin to whiskey than contemporary London dry gins. Several bartenders suggested using it in traditional bourbon cocktails, with no less an authority than Murray Stenson telling me it makes a killer Old Fashioned. But the liquor also retains the becoming splash of botanicals that gin drinkers expect. It’s still a guess as to whether gin really tasted like this in 1885; in those days gin would have tasted completely different in saloons one block apart. But this replication is deeply satisfying.

My first experiment with the Old Tom was the Martinez. This predecessor of the Martini has a convoluted history and a host of more current variations that I’ve never tried. I held out for the original, cited in both O. H. Byron’s 1884 Modern Bartenders Guide and “Professor” Jerry Thomas’ Bar-Tenders’ Guide (1887): Old Tom gin, Italian vermouth, maraschino and bitters. (OK, it’s not the original original. That recipe calls for Boker’s Bitters, which like Old Tom vanished from the earth to be reconstituted a century or so later, but only in the U.K. And I didn’t go with equal parts gin and vermouth – or even with the alternate suggestion of a 2:1 ratio of vermouth to gin, because I had Old Tom. If I can taste history, I want it front and center.)

The resulting cocktail doesn’t just have a big, bold flavor. It has the kind of flavor that pulls a leather wing chair closer to the fire and settles in for a long evening. And it packs a punch like a lead weight in a feather pillow. The use of sweet vermouth and bitters makes it a kissing cousin to the Manhattan; in truth, despite its history it would appeal more to partisans of that drink than the Martini. I prefer to think of it as a bridge between those twin titans of the cocktail world. It may not be for everyone, but it’s certainly for me.

The Martinez (variation)

2 oz. Ransom Old Tom gin
1 oz. sweet vermouth
¼ oz. maraschino
2 dashes Fee Brothers old fashion aromatic bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Book: Hell & Gone, by Duane Swierczynski (2011)

The second installment in any series – and especially a trilogy – is the bear. It’s the one that proves you’ve got a series, after all. At the same time, it is destined to be overshadowed by its brethren. The flashy, love-at-first-sight introduction. The satisfying denouement. But those misfit middle children are often my favorites. They tend to be darker, thornier, more interested in complication than resolution, all sharp corners and no smooth edges. For A Few Dollars More. The Godfather, Part II. The Road Warrior. Back to the Future Part II. Spider-Man 2. Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment. (Watch it again. There are nuances, people.)

Hell & Gone by Duane Swierczynski admirably carries on the tradition. It picks up the action exactly where Fun & Games breathlessly left off. Cop-turned-housesitter Charlie Hardie has run afoul of The Accident People, a consortium of killers who ply their trade in plain sight. He’s foiled one of their schemes but fallen into their clutches – which means coming to in a high-tech prison. Only Charlie’s not an inmate. He’s the warden, unable to trust either the guards or his charges.

Duane is his usual fiendishly inventive self. If anything the contained setting forces him to step up his game, the twists in abundance but still managing to catch you off-guard. The background of The Accident People is fleshed out and even more disturbing than what F&G hinted at. And the ending manages to be strangely moving while setting up what promises to be an utterly demented conclusion in Point & Shoot. (Duane recently announced that publication of P&S has been pushed to April 2013.) It’s another ferocious thrill ride that, more importantly, avoids being the literary equivalent of Highlander 2: The Quickening. Which is something none of us wanted.

Full disclosure: I’m thanked in the acknowledgements of H&G, one of several people on a list that includes Duran Duran front man Simon LeBon. Nothing I have accomplished personally impresses Rosemarie as much as that fact. Understandably so.

Here’s a Q&A on the Hardie books Duane was gracious enough to do with me.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Clover Club

I can’t in all honesty say that I’ve ever gone into a cocktail bar seeking a drink with egg in it. (Leaving aside, obviously, the prime nog season of the holidays.) But whenever I have one – or watch a skilled professional build a Ramos Gin Fizz – I’m reminded of what this ingredient brings to the party. The addition of egg white gives a cocktail a silken texture, a fullness on the tongue. I may not always remember the taste, but I’ve never forgotten it.

In my home experimentation, I’ve never worked with eggs. What better time than the run-up to Easter to start?

Not wanting my maiden voyage to be scuttled, I opted for simplicity. The Clover Club was born at a regular gathering of journalists at a Philadelphia hotel around the turn of the last century, but like many a stage musical or TV weatherman the drink didn’t hit the big time until it made it in New York. There’s even a namesake bar in Brooklyn. I had the ingredients. I also had a question. How, exactly, did one work with eggs?

Apparently with the vigorous application of elbow grease. David Wondrich’s Imbibe! gets right to the point: “Like all drinks using eggs, this one will have to be shaken extra hard.” A 1989 bartender’s guide even made mention of a blender. The PDT Cocktail Book suggested another option: dry shaking. Prompting another question. What, exactly, was dry shaking?

A misnomer, for starters. Explain to me how combining liquid ingredients without ice can be considered dry shaking. But the process allows the egg proteins to emulsify. It’s a scientific innovation that, as cocktail guru Gary Regan discovered last year, is actually decades old; a 1951 book by the former publicist of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel – coincidentally the same establishment that helped put the Clover Club on the map – suggested this step because it gave the finished product “a nice ‘top.’”

So I dry-shook (?) my Clover Club, assembling the ingredients, shaking sans ice for several seconds, then avec ice for twice as long. The resulting drink did indeed sport “a nice ‘top’,” crowned with a gossamer froth that admirably maintained its consistency to the last drop. First time out of the gate and I already know that wet-shaking (??) isn’t for me.

But there are still other methods. Earlier this week I watched Ben Perri, one of the resident wizards at the Zig Zag Café, make a pair of Ramos Gin Fizzes. After depositing the egg white in the bottom of a Collins glass he used a thin whisk to aerate it before adding the drink’s other elements. “Does the same thing as a dry-shake,” he said, “but with a lot less work.” Lesson learned. Whisk to be ordered.

The Clover Club

2 oz. gin
¾ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. simple syrup
1 barspoon grenadine
1 egg white

Shake the ingredients without ice, then with. Strain. No garnish.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Miscellaneous: Words of Wisdom

Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman – not an artist. There’s nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen – though not designed by them. Practicing your craft in expert fashion is noble, honorable and satisfying. And I’ll generally take a standup mercenary who takes pride in his professionalism over an artist any day. When I hear ‘artist,’ I think of someone who doesn’t think it necessary to show up at work on time. More often than not their efforts, convinced as they are of their own genius, are geared more to giving themselves a hard-on than satisfying the great majority of dinner customers. Personally, I’d prefer to eat food that tastes good and is an honest reflection of its ingredients, than a 3-foot-tall caprice constructed from lemon grass, lawn trimmings, coconuts and red curry. You could lose an eye trying to eat that. When a job applicant starts telling me how Pacific Rim-job cuisine turns him on and inspires him, I see trouble coming. Send me another Mexican dishwasher anytime. I can teach him to cook. I can’t teach character. Show up at work on time six months in a row and we’ll talk about red curry paste and lemon grass. Until then, I have four words for you: ‘Shut the fuck up.’

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Movie: Goon (2012)

The hockey wing is the loneliest in the Sports Movie Hall of Fame, located in scenic Canoga Park, California. But what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality, because sports movies and comedies don’t come any better than Slap Shot. (HOF write-in campaigns on behalf of Youngblood and Mystery, Alaska have been met with open scorn.) At long last, though, Slap Shot will have some company, thanks to the inspired-by-a-true-story Goon.

Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) is good of heart, dim of wit, and short of temper. The self-described “stupid” son in a family of doctors, he doesn’t have “a thing” – until a brawl in the stands at a minor league hockey game lands him on the team as an enforcer. Before long Doug the Thug is called up to protect a highly-regarded prospect who’s never been the same since a run-in with the most fearsome goon of all, Ross “The Boss” Rhea (Liev Schreiber, never better and absolutely terrifying).

Goon is made by Canadians (including several Judd Apatow veterans), so it treats hockey like the foul-mouthed orgy of violence it is. While it acknowledges the consequences of fighting, it baldly states that brutality is an essential part of the sport and a big reason why people watch. It also wields a truly profane sense of humor, buttressed by antic announcers, near-indecipherable Quebecois and Russian accents, multiple nods to Slap Shot, and the greatest rallying cry ever (“Gay porn hard!”). You’ve got to love any movie that stages the first encounter between The Thug and The Boss as a greasy spoon tribute to the DeNiro/Pacino coffee shop face-off in Heat. Goon is getting a small theatrical release, but it’s also available via On Demand right now.

Here’s a Grantland interview with Doug Smith, the film’s inspiration. That’s some career line: over four hundred penalty minutes, and zero goals scored.