Friday, May 25, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Red Hook

They say you never forget your first love. Here’s mine. The cocktail that swept me off my feet and made me, for good or ill, the man I am today.

The first time Rosemarie and I walked into The Zig Zag Café, I didn’t deserve the sobriquet cocktail enthusiast. I made the staples – Martinis, Manhattans, gin and tonics – at home in simple fashion. There was a world out there that I knew nothing about. But at least I knew that I knew nothing about it. Secure in my ignorance I ventured into the one place in Seattle where I could acquire an education with dispatch, the cocktail bar consistently acknowledged as one of America’s finest.

Ben Dougherty, the Zig Zag’s co-owner, took excellent care of us on the first of what would be many, many visits. I told him I was interested in learning about rye whiskey, then beginning its resurgence. He asked me what I knew about it, and I told him with complete honesty: “Nothing.” Ben inquired about my tastes – How did I feel about sweetness? How bitter did I want to go? – and in short order served me a cocktail that he said would show me what rye could do.

The Red Hook is a variation on the Brooklyn, a pre-Prohibition twist on the Manhattan that remains something of a rarity because one key ingredient, the French liqueur Amer Picon, is not sold in the United States. (It can be difficult to acquire even in France. Trust me, I’ve tried.) Consequently, a host of American bartenders have crafted tributes to it, naming them after the borough’s neighborhoods. The Red Hook was the first of these, created by Enzo Errico of New York’s Milk & Honey in 2004.

The distinctive taste comes courtesy of the Italian vermouth Punt e Mes. Its name means “point and a half” in Piedmontese, the legend being that in 1870 a stockbroker in Antonio Carpano’s bar ordered his custom vermouth with a point and a half of bitterness on the same day that certain stocks under discussion had fallen by that very amount. To mark this moment of serendipity, a new brand was created. The flavor of Punt e Mes lies somewhere between standard rosso vermouth and Campari, its bitterness pronounced but not overwhelming. This sharp quality makes it a welcome addition to cocktails, foremost among them Errico’s masterpiece. Punt e Mes’ edge is tamed by the sweetness of the maraschino, allowing the base liquor to take the spotlight gracefully. The Red Hook does indeed show what rye is capable of.

Since enjoying my first Red Hook I’ve toured the spiritual Brooklyn thoroughly, sampling most if not all of that cocktail’s descendants. I’ve even had a Red Hook in its birthplace at Milk & Honey. For emotional reasons it will always be my default drink of choice, the one that indoctrinated me into the cocktail world. It also tastes sublime.

The Red Hook

Enzo Errico, Milk & Honey, New York City

2 oz. rye whiskey (I recommend Rittenhouse 100)
½ oz. Punt e Mes
½ oz. maraschino

Stir. Strain. No garnish.