Friday, August 31, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Deshler

Dubonnet. Blue M&Ms. Taylor Hicks. What do they have in common?

Each of them won their coveted place in history as the result of a competition. Dubonnet’s, at least, wasn’t rigged. (Purple M&Ms and Katherine McPhee forever!)

Quinine, an essential defense against malaria in the era of empire building, is an extract from the bark of cinchona trees. It’s also impossibly bitter. The English took theirs by adding it to tonic water, which in turn they doused liberally with gin. The French, as is their way, proved a fussier lot, to the extent that in 1846 the government ran a contest: help our Legionnaires choke their medicine down! Parisian chemist Joseph Dubonnet took the prize, masking the quinine with fortified wine and a potpourri of flavors including cinnamon and orange peel. The aperitif quickly outgrew its therapeutic and Gallic origins; it’s Queen Elizabeth II’s preferred tipple.

Dubonnet is frequently blended with gin, but it works astonishingly well alongside rye in the Deshler, a World War I-era variation on the Manhattan capped with additional orange notes. It first appears in Hugo Ensslin’s pre-Prohibition landmark Recipes for Mixed Drinks (1917). Note that Ensslin’s original recipe calls for equal parts rye and Dubonnet.

But what of the cocktail’s namesake? Dave Deshler was a lightweight boxer who in a fourteen year career amassed a remarkably even-keeled record of 27 wins, 25 losses and 24 draws. The New Jersey-born, Boston-based battler’s non-alcoholic claim to fame is an ignominious one. During Deshler’s bout against Young Nitchie at the Brooklyn Beach Athletic Club on August 7, 1911, referee Johnny McEvoy left the ring in the seventh round, refusing to officiate. According to reports, “McEvoy stated to the crowd that Deshler was stalling and not trying to box his opponent.” Both Deshler and Nitchie begged to differ. The crowd sided with them, raising a ruckus while the pugilists’ managers recruited a volunteer to referee the final three rounds. But officials backed McEvoy, the fight ending in a no contest. Deshler would defeat Nitchie on points a year later.

Here’s hoping that isolated incident is not why Dogged Dave had a cocktail named after him. A century later, this Deshler still packs a punch.

The Deshler

Hugo Ensslin, Recipes for Mixed Drinks (modified)

1 ½ oz. rye
1 oz. Dubonnet
¼ oz. Cointreau
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Book: Hitless Wonder, by Joe Oestreich (2012)

Watershed doesn’t get much radio airplay outside the Midwest, as if radio airplay matters anymore. On Rhapsody they’re under “noise pop,” which I didn’t even realize was a category of music. Give a listen to “Anniversary,” a brittle little gem that will introduce you to the memorable phrase “shotgun divorce.” The song’s potency comes from the fact that it’s about a long-term relationship running out of gas; only someone who’s been around can tell that story.

The band built up a following in the Heartland, centered around their hometown of Columbus, Ohio. They were poised to break out in the mid-1990s when they were discovered by rock god Jim Steinman and landed a major label deal. Then the worst of all possible fates befell them: no fate at all. This “surefire Next Big Thing” discovers “it’s damn near impossible to shed Next and Thing and become simply big.”

They’re still around after 20 years, a bunch of guys pushing 40 and in some cases tumbling over it, vacating their day jobs to pile into a rental van and play their hearts out for dozens of people on a good night. Joe Oestreich, the bass guitarist and one of two lead singers – that arrangement may be part of the problem, but hey, the band is the band – explains why they do it in a dazzling memoir. His book is like one of those perfect pop songs that lays bare the meaning of life in a tight 2:20. At its core, Hitless Wonder asks questions that don’t only apply to aging jukebox heroes. When do you give up on the dream? How do you measure your worth when every standard is in flux? What if you’ve got the talent and the drive but none of the luck? What takes more pride, walking away or rocking on?

Oestreich alternates between documenting Watershed’s checkered history and its most recent tour, in support of an album few clamored for and even fewer have purchased. The departure puts strain on his marriage; his wife leaves him at the airport with the words, “No one gives a shit about a Watershed tour except the guys in Watershed.” Oestreich’s chronicle essentially bears that out while observing that it doesn’t matter. His band “would forever play in the minor leagues. But that was okay: a win in the minors was still a win.” Or as the friend of a friend puts it, “That’s the key. Having something to aim at. Whether or not you hit it is immaterial.”

Oestreich is a terrific writer; it will be hard to forget the revelation that singing into the ancient microphones at CBGB is “like licking the screen door at a VFW hall.” He’s particularly strong when detailing changes in the business, like the tyrannical crooked math behind New Band Nites: “This is how rich capitalists convince poor folks to vote Republican. We’re not fucking you; we’re giving you the power to sink or swim on your own – in a system that’s designed to fuck you.” This “generational divide” has affected the music itself. “Watershed belongs to the last wave of bands that dreamed big,” their fantasy futures defined by big label deals and arena gigs. Oestreich contrasts this with one of their opening acts, a duo influenced by Radiohead “but even more experimental and ponderous – all bleeps and bloops and self-indulgent passages that are so damn long, I swear I can see the singer’s beard growing.” Coming of age at a time when artists break on YouTube and roller derby has claimed the arenas, it makes sense for bands to become “uneasy with big.”

But for all his rhapsodizing about the allure of the road – you’ve got to love any band with a philosophy inspired by “John D. MacDonald’s literary hero Travis McGee, the self-proclaimed ‘salvage expert’ who works when he wants, thereby taking his retirement in installments” – Oestreich keeps the focus on hard choices. He and his bandmates are good enough to be paid to do what they love but can’t earn a living at it. When you claim a seat at the table but somehow don’t get anything to eat, you’ve got to find other ways of sustaining yourself. Oestreich details one way that’s possible in a moving book about marriage, friendship, and how Cheap Trick fucking rules.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Block and Fall

As bartender at New York’s Ashland House hotel, Patrick Gavin Duffy served men of letters like Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde. But Duffy’s contribution to world literature warrants praise of its own. The Official Mixer’s Manual (1934) provides an invaluable record of pre-Prohibition cocktails and cocktail culture. Duffy’s book was “revised and enlarged” by the food writer James Beard several times, with the later iterations losing some of the original’s sterner sentiment. My 1956 copy doesn’t include Duffy’s cranky counsel on how to practice the trade of bartending, which includes the admonition to keep interaction with the customer to a minimum. Ben Perri of the Zig Zag CafĂ© tells me that in earlier editions of the Manual, drinks that Duffy deems no longer worthy of being prepared are marked with an asterisk. My friend Eddie Muller sums up the book’s old school appeal by noting that his copy highlights “exactly TWO (2) cocktails with a vodka base.” By 1956, the number had swollen grotesquely to a tumescent twelve.

Duffy remains a tremendous resource, full of drinks that have unfairly fallen out of favor. Consider the Block and Fall. Much as I’d like to believe the stories that the drink’s name is a warning of its potency – have one, walk a block, and you’ll fall – the handle is simply a variation on block and tackle.

That said, this cocktail is strong. It’s also astonishingly complex, growing more nuanced as it settles. Cognac and Cointreau may not at first glance seem like a natural pairing but they complement each other nicely, with applejack providing a welcome bite and the Pernod floating pleasantly above it all. It tastes like a vintage cocktail, something Duffy might have poured for J. P. Morgan (another of his customers), meant to be sipped while sitting in a leather chair and conspiring to knot the unruly republic together with railroads. It’s one I’m launching a campaign to bring back.

The Block and Fall

Patrick Gavin Duffy, The Official Mixer’s Manual

1 oz. Cognac (or brandy)
1 oz. Cointreau
½ oz. applejack (or Calvados)
½ oz. Pernod

Stir. Strain. No garnish.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Book: My Life as a Mankiewicz, by Tom Mankiewicz and Robert Crane

A rave review from Leonard Maltin – we’re close personal friends, as you may know – convinced me to pick up this memoir. Reading it made me realize exactly how much Tom Mankiewicz shaped my adolescence.

Sure, it’d make me look better to say I was influenced by others in the clan Mankiewicz. Like Tom’s father Joseph L., who won consecutive writing and directing Academy Awards for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve. Or his uncle Herman, who co-wrote Citizen Kane.

Nope. I’m a Tom Mankiewicz man. He wrote a trio of James Bond movies including Diamonds Are Forever, which served as a young boy’s introduction to kink. I watched Superman and Superman II (on which Mankiewicz is credited, for reasons detailed in the book, as “creative consultant” even though he’s responsible for damn near every line of dialogue) more times than I could count. He did a page-one rewrite on War Games. His first directing gig was Dragnet with Dan Aykroyd, a movie I committed to memory before ever seeing a single episode of the Jack Webb series. (“They ought to transfer you to Missing Persons, Streebek. You know everybody.”) Even his TV work made an impact; Mankiewicz essentially created Hart to Hart, which he cheerfully describes as a Nick and Nora knockoff.

Given his impressive Hollywood pedigree, it’s no surprise that Tom Mankiewicz led a charmed life. Humphrey Bogart gave him his first drink, and he grew up on the set of his father’s film Cleopatra. (In an odd quirk of timing, I read this book right after Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins.) His ultimate insider status provided Mankiewicz with a unique perspective on show business. Every luminary he meets is a wonderful, decent person – well, except for Robert Redford – and the perpetual bachelor had “a nice little thing” with seemingly every actress he encountered. But Mankiewicz also had a hometown boy’s sharp eye for industry absurdity, put to particularly good use during his stint with Superman. Producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind were funding the first two movies as they went, meaning they “couldn’t show (the director) a budget because they couldn’t tell him how much money they actually didn’t have.”

The book, assembled by longtime friend Robert Crane after Mankiewicz’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2010, is ragged and grows progressively sour as the business Mankiewicz was born into becomes more corporate. But it’s filled with stories you haven’t heard before and wisdom worth remembering. Think of it as a long, boozy afternoon at Musso & Frank with a peerless raconteur.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Alaska

This will be the second consecutive cocktail of the week featuring yellow chartreuse. It’s my way of helping out the liqueur that I think of as a neglected little brother. You know, like Eli Manning or Bobby Kennedy.

Green chartreuse gets the lion’s share of attention in the current cocktail renaissance. Both varieties are made in France from a combination of 130 spices, herbs and flowers according to a recipe known only to two Carthusian monks, and they ain’t talking. Green is stronger both in alcoholic content (110 proof) and in taste, and as such is called for more often these days in drinks like the Last Word. 80-proof yellow is nowhere near as intense in flavor. It’s lighter, more herbaceous, almost honeyed. This pronounced difference in tone and texture is why yellow chartreuse does not make an adequate substitute for green; it has more in common with Strega than its own sibling.

Still, the yellow has charms of its own, not the least of which is a long, mellow finish. The best way to appreciate it is in a cocktail that puts it in the spotlight. The Alaska has been around at least since 1930, when it appeared in The Savoy Cocktail Book, but no one seems to know where its name came from; odds are, then, that the drink didn’t originate in the Last Frontier. Maybe its color prompted a midnight sun reference. The Alaska is essentially a more herbal martini, with chartreuse instead of dry vermouth. (As for the bitters, remember that’s how they used to make martinis, and it’s how I still prefer ‘em.) A bold gin is a good choice here. Yellow chartreuse may not be as boisterous as green but it still takes over a room, and you’ll want a gin that can go toe-to-toe with it.

The Alaska

2 oz. gin
¾ oz. yellow chartreuse
2 dashes orange bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Miscellaneous: Words of Wisdom

Listen to me. In your life you’re going to have a lot of successes and you’re going to have some failures. You’re going to have wonderful things happen to you and a couple of disasters. It’s gonna go up and down. But you know what? First, you’ve got to be a gent.

Producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli in MY LIFE AS A MANKIEWICZ, by Tom Mankiewicz and Robert Crane

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Book: Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter (2012)

Porto Vergogna is the ugly step-sister of a series of picturesque Italian cliff towns, a backwater no tourist visits on purpose. So the arrival of a beautiful American woman in April 1962 is naturally assumed to be a mistake. When the woman reveals that she is an actress filming Cleopatra in Rome, that she was sent to the town, and that she is dying, she becomes an obsession for Pasquale Tursi, proprietor of the aptly named Hotel Adequate View.

The novel that flows from this dreamy beginning, the sixth by Edgar Award winner and National Book Award finalist Jess Walter, moves back and forth in time and across intersecting lives. We venture from Italy of the 1960s to contemporary Hollywood, stopping in Edinburgh and Seattle. We meet a host of striving and discontented souls, including a reptilian Hollywood veteran whose many cosmetic procedures have given him “the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl,” his long-suffering associate (the other job she’s considering is one of Walter’s finest jokes), writers with varying degrees of ability and ambition, and Richard Burton.

As usual, Walter tosses off gorgeous bits of description effortlessly. A commuter flight is “a toothpaste tube of returning college freshmen and regional sales associates.” Pasquale, upon encountering Burton for the first time, takes note of the actor’s enormous head as well as his other attributes. “He had the sharpest features Pasquale had ever seen, as if his face had been sculpted in separate pieces and then assembled on-site … one look and there could be no doubt: this man was a cinema star.” Walter braids his story together from a host of sources – movie pitches, unpublished manuscripts, scarcely produced plays – the approach highlighting the author’s boundless invention.

But the flash isn’t for its own sake. As the novel progresses and supporting players take star turns, Walter unveils the craft beneath, his careful construction illustrating how individual actions can ripple through the years and buffet other people, many of whom will never know the cause of the disturbance. Walter Pater famously observed that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” Beautiful Ruins comes tantalizingly close to achieving that exalted state, uniting form and content; the closing chapter has the effect of an unexpected symphony, as narratives we didn’t even realize we were following are wrapped up in a crescendo of conclusions. (A late cameo will please fans of Walter’s crime novels. At least it made me happy.) This moving, masterful book is further proof that any conversation about America’s best current novelist has to include Jess Walter.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Greenpoint

This will be a fairly short post about another rye-based cocktail named after a neighborhood in Brooklyn. That’s because today is my birthday and I have other plans that include drinking rye-based cocktails named after neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

The first such drink, the Red Hook, was spawned at New York’s Milk & Honey. Another bartender at the same establishment, Michael McIlroy, carried on the tradition with the Greenpoint. (Fun facts about the neighborhood: sometimes called “Little Poland,” Mickey Rooney’s birthplace is currently featured on HBO’s Girls!) Like the Red Hook, the Greenpoint uses Punt e Mes. Here the somewhat bitter vermouth is complemented by yellow chartreuse, with its herbal, almost buoyant flavor. Two types of bitters bookend the taste to excellent effect. The Greenpoint is both lighter than the Red Hook and more layered. Another reason why it never hurts to drink around the borough of Kings.

The Greenpoint

Michael McIlroy, Milk & Honey, New York City

2 oz. rye
½ oz. Punt e Mes
½ oz. yellow chartreuse
dash of Angostura bitters
dash of orange bitters

Shake. Strain. No garnish.


Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.