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.