Friday, July 20, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Beachcomber

Sometimes you can go to the source and still come back unsatisfied.

The 1934 opening of Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood, U.S.A. is usually regarded as the birthplace of tiki culture and its many attendant cocktails. But “Trader Vic” Bergeron turned it into a movement with his chain of restaurants, the first in Oakland, California. Seattle was next. I never visited the Westin Hotel location, which closed over 20 years ago. At approximately the same time Trader Vic’s made the news when Donald Trump shuttered the outpost in New York’s Plaza Hotel. Trump said he found the place “tacky.” (I’ll pause to let you think about that for a minute.) There’s still a Trader Vic’s franchise in Portland among other cities, with a slew of them in the Middle East.

I’ve got a copy of the 1972 revised edition of Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide. The original was published in 1947. The illustrations feature what look like gremlins monkeying around the bar, no doubt the consequence of a Mai Tai or twelve. The book is written in a pleasingly gruff style, with Vic grousing about the recent crop of newer libations (“Some of those inventions are good, but some of them are terrible; I think that most of them would blind you if you drank them.”) and declaring that his “redo” of the guide would omit “nonsense” recipes for “outdated stuff that you’ll never use” such as “Cobblers, Crustas, Fixes, Sangarees, Scaffas and Shrubs” – all of which still appear in cocktail books, with many back in vogue. A section on annoying customers has a sentence that begins: “Another wiseacre who burns me to a crisp ...”

Paging through the book, I selected a relatively simple cocktail, the Beachcomber. Vic’s version is made with shaved ice in an electric blender. Aside from opting for a low-tech preparation – a Boston shaker, sans shaved ice – I followed his instructions to the letter. Two ounces of light Puerto Rican rum, half an ounce of Cointreau, the juice of half a lime, two dashes of maraschino.

The result was distinctly ... unmemorable. The Cointreau barely got any purchase, and the maraschino didn’t register at all. I’d essentially muddied a decent rum.

A few weeks later I came across the drink in Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology. He “reformulated” Vic’s original recipe, doubling the amount of triple sec while simultaneously stepping up the maraschino. Regan’s version has a lovely balance, which you can further adjust by altering the amounts of triple sec and maraschino to taste. The Beachcomber really doesn’t qualify as a tiki drink. The recipe is too basic; hell, it features only one kind of rum. But pop a cocktail umbrella in the glass, and no one will care.

The Beachcomber

Gary Regan variation on the original “Trader Vic” Bergeron recipe

2 oz. light rum
1 oz. triple sec
¼ oz. maraschino
½ oz. fresh lime juice

Shake. Strain. No garnish.