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.