Friday, December 28, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Liberty

One of the benefits to living in Seattle is that come the most wonderful time of the year, there’s no need to fool around with holiday cocktails. Not when plenty of bars in town are making drinks suitable to the season. Rob Roy does a full Advent calendar, offering a different concoction every night in December closing with a Blue Blazer – Scotch set afire and poured between metal mugs – on Christmas Eve. (This year’s variation featured chartreuse. I missed it.) Sun Liquor serves up superlative egg nog. Earlier this week at Vito’s I savored the warm rum variation known as a Tom & Jerry, presented in the traditional mug. Says Tom & Jerry right on it.

Still, on occasion the Christmas spirit moves me to fix an appropriate yet simple cocktail. The weather demands crispness, which sends me straight to the applejack. But around the corner is the start of the new year, with its hope of sunnier times and balmier climes. Why not acknowledge that promise with some rum?

The Liberty brings both tastes together to smashing effect. The drink is often served over crushed ice as a summer cooler. But I find that its smooth blend of introspection and anticipation, up in a cocktail glass, plays every bit as well at the holidays. (Who am I kidding? The Liberty is pure alcohol, so whatever the calendar says it packs a wallop.)

The original recipe, as it appears in The Savoy Cocktail Book and Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual, is as basic as can be: applejack, a smaller quantity of rum, sugar. Later iterations called for a dash of lime juice, which makes a nice addition. The Liberty may not be an obvious Yuletide option, but it’s one guaranteed to make the season bright.

The Liberty

2 oz. applejack
1 oz. rum
¼ oz. simple syrup
splash of fresh lime juice

Stir. Strain. No garnish.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Book: To Have and Have Another, by Philip Greene (2012) / Cocktail of the Week: The White Lady

Few authors drank like Ernest Hemingway. Even fewer wrote about drinking like him. Alcohol was no mere prop to Papa or his characters; it frequently provided an additional level of insight into where they were, both geographically and emotionally. “Don’t bother with churches, government buildings or city squares,” Hemingway once said. “If you want to know a culture, spend a night in its bars.”

Philip Greene gives himself a tall order, then, using cocktails as a prism through which to view Hemingway’s life and work. But he’s clearly the man for the job: a lifelong admirer of Papa’s prose, Greene is not just one of the founders of the Museum of the American Cocktail but a descendant of Antoine Peychaud, creator of the legendary bitters.

To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion features meticulous scholarship. Greene ably debunks the legend of Hemingway’s supposed affection for the mojito; suggests that the Jack Rose the author drank in Paris was a far more complex drink bearing a resemblance to the Bronx cocktail; and even unearths a Hemingway original from Papa’s medical files, complete with diagram. Hemingway often comes across as more a stubborn drinker than an accomplished one, insisting on his own idiosyncratic preparation of the martini and bringing his own personal barman to parties.

Greene’s approach allows him to sketch out large swaths of biography economically. The book is arranged alphabetically by cocktail, a structure that occasionally forces Greene to be repetitive; mighty quantities of alcohol are consumed in the posthumously published Islands in the Stream, so each new drink requires a rehashing of the novel’s plot. But Greene also provides some shrewd literary analysis, as in the section on the most frequently referenced drink in the Hemingway canon, the whiskey and soda. (Greene convincingly argues it’s most likely ‘whisky’ in Hemingway’s case.) Recounting a scene in Islands, Greene notes that the protagonist “learns the painful lesson that hell isn’t necessarily as it has been described to us by Dante and other authors. Indeed, it could be a nice, comfortable stateroom on a favorite liner, taking you to a place you’d always loved.”

Inspired, I made the last drink featured in Greene’s book. “The White Lady is a delightful cocktail that, I boldly predict, will soon enjoy a renaissance,” he writes, and I hope he’s correct. The drink can be traced back to both the famous cocktail Harrys, McElhone of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris and Craddock of London’s Savoy; Greene astutely draws a parallel between the exodus of artists and craft bartenders to Europe in the 1920s. I didn’t use Greene’s recipe, but a modified one from The PDT Cocktail Book by Jim Meehan. Hemingway wouldn’t have cared for this version because it includes simple syrup, and he didn’t take sugar as his favorite daiquiri would indicate. I opted to include the egg white, which gives the drink a beguiling silky texture. Feel free to omit it.

The White Lady

2 oz. gin
¾ oz. Cointreau
¾ oz. lemon juice
¼ oz. simple syrup
1 egg white

Shake ingredients without ice if using egg white, then with ice. Strain. No garnish.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Movie: The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947)

Here’s ten minutes that saved my weekend.

The knock on Preston Sturges is that, after a staggering run of comic masterpieces (including The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) that remains the benchmark for a single person’s productivity in Hollywood, his work tails off. He left Paramount, where he cranked out movies so quickly that some were released two years after they were shot, and threw in with Howard Hughes in 1944. The deal gave Sturges his creative freedom, the legend goes, but sapped his talents.

I don’t buy it. Mainly because Unfaithfully Yours (1948), which Sturges made for Fox after his partnership with Hughes collapsed, contains some of the funniest material of his career. Of course, that’s the only film from the post-1944 period I’d seen.

But on Friday night I desperately needed to watch something funny, so I turned to the one movie Sturges and Hughes made together. The Sin of Harold Diddlebock stars Harold Lloyd in a quasi-follow-up to his silent classic The Freshman (1925); Sturges’ movie opens with an extended sequence from the earlier film showing Lloyd’s gung-ho college football waterboy getting on the gridiron and winning the big game. Diddlebock begins immediately after, with Lloyd’s go-getter being offered a job by a grateful alum. He stays there for twenty-two years and accomplishes nothing other than being fired. It’s only then that his life truly starts.

Diddlebock was neither a critical nor commercial triumph. Hughes edited his own version of the film and released it in 1950 as Mad Wednesday. It fared even worse. Diddlebock can charitably be described as uneven. It gets sillier as it goes along, ending with the kind of physical comedy set piece that made Lloyd’s reputation but for which Sturges has little feeling. (The two comic titans respected each other but had differing views of their craft, which led to tension during the production.) But there are flashes of Sturges’ crackpot wit throughout. He could write certain types of characters better than anyone else: rich people, people who have suddenly become rich, and people whose jobs require them to cater to the rich. All three groups are present here.

But the film’s high point is the scene in which Diddlebock, his services just terminated, is coerced by new pal Wormy into having a drink with him at eleven in the morning. The cocktail will be Diddlebock’s first, and bartender Edgar Kennedy is determined to rise to the occasion. What follows is liberation via libation and Sturges at his unhinged best. It’s now my favorite scene set in a bar.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Scofflaw

And now, a story with a simple moral: Don’t mess with serious drinkers. They have sharp senses of humor, and they will always get you back.

In 1923, a prominent Massachusetts member of the Anti-Saloon League, which had gotten Prohibition passed in the United States, announced a contest. The princely sum of two hundred dollars would be awarded to whoever coined the best word to describe “a lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor.” More than one person came up with ‘scofflaw,’ although if you ask me they weren’t trying all that hard. “One who scoffs at the law”? That’s the best you’ve got? This is what happens when brainstorming sessions are fueled only by sarsaparilla and sanctimony.

But the name that was meant to shame tipplers onto the path to righteousness had the opposite effect. Two weeks after the contest’s winners were named, the Scofflaw cocktail was being poured in Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. Take that, moralists! The word is now broadly applied to anyone who contemptuously violates social edicts by, say, amassing an ungodly number of parking tickets. The Scofflaw is on the extremely short list of cocktails born of Prohibition. Ironically, it wasn’t created in some dark speakeasy but in France.

For once the origin of a drink’s name is a matter of public record. It’s the recipe that’s in question. Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual (1934) suggests the following for a ‘Scoff-Law’: ⅓ rye, ⅓ dry vermouth, ⅙ lemon juice, ⅙ grenadine, dash of orange bitters. At some point the balance between rye and vermouth shifted in rye’s favor, which I am all in favor of. A few versions began specifying Canadian whiskey, wholly unnecessary now that a host of quality ryes are again on the market. Along the way the orange bitters were left off many formulas, a regrettable oversight as the citrus pulls the whiskey and vermouth together nicely. And there are those who suggest using chartreuse in place of grenadine, which I appreciate in theory; chartreuse improves many, many things. But in this case, I stick with the tried and true.

Consider the recipe below a work in progress. I stepped down the grenadine because, philistine that I am, I use a store-bought variety instead of making my own and a little of it goes a long way. And increasing the base spirit to two full ounces as many recommend is not a bad idea in the least. What follows is where I started. It isn’t necessarily where you’ll finish.

The Scofflaw

1 ½ oz. rye
1 oz. dry vermouth
¾ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. grenadine
dash of orange bitters

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Keenan's Klassics: It's a Shane Black Christmas

The question is, will IRON MAN 3 take place at Christmas? From December 2009.

There I am at my favorite watering hole, talking with the staff, when the subject of Christmas movies is raised.

First suggestion, not made by me: the traditional double-bill of Die Hard and Die Hard II: Die Harder.

Thus giving me the tenor of the conversation. This is not the time, perhaps, to mention Remember the Night and Holiday Affair, two overlooked films (with noir connections!) that Turner Classic Movies has labored to turn into Yuletide staples. Although a mention of Blast of Silence, full of Wenceslas wetwork, might not be out of the question.

So I lobby for my own Christmas favorite, The Ref. And then observe, not for the first time, that the entire oeuvre of Shane Black – Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – is set at the most wonderful time of the year.

Therefore, as you venture out for that last round of shopping, I offer, by popular demand, what has become a VKDC tradition. (“By popular demand” meaning Rosemarie asked, “Why haven’t you posted this yet?” And she did write most of it.) Here, once again, is Shane Black’s 12 Days of Christmas. Record your church group performing this and we’ll post the video here!

Twelve cars exploding
Eleven extras running
Ten tankers skidding
Nine strippers pole-ing
Eight Uzis firing
Seven henchmen scowling
Six choppers crashing

Five silver Glocks

Four ticking bombs
Three hand grenades
Two mortar shells
And a suitcase full of C-4

God bless us, everyone. Or else.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Aviation

First thing you need to know about this drink: it’s a Rosemarie favorite and tomorrow is her birthday, meaning several of them will be consumed over the course of the gala weekend.

Second thing you need to know: The Aviation’s name can seem like something of a mystery – at least it did to me – because one ingredient may be lacking. The drink was first cited in Hugo Ensslin’s Recipes for Mixed Drinks (1916), when those daring young men in their flying machines stirred many a heart. Ensslin called for four components: gin, lemon juice, maraschino, and the violet-hued French liqueur crème de violette. The last element was said to give the drink a bluish color reminiscent of the sky, hence the handle. The first few times I ordered the cocktail, bartenders would apologize for not having violette on hand as they served up a pale but crisply refreshing beverage. Crème de violette became available in the United States again about five years ago but can still be difficult to come by. I’ve sampled Aviations with all four ingredients present and accounted for and can say that violette’s addition gives the drink only a faint purplish tinge, along with an appealing floral scent. The Aviation is just fine sans the supplement, but it’s worth noting that the same three ingredients in slightly different ratios will result in the Allen Cocktail or Allen Special.

Third thing: The Aviation’s revival was not without controversy. A panel at the May 2012 Manhattan Cocktail Classic called “Do Not Resuscitate” targeted once-and-currently-popular drinks that perhaps should have been left in blind pigs shrouded by the mists of time. Éminence grise Dale DeGroff nominated the Aviation, saying “It tastes like hand soap” unless you added crème de violette, in which case “it’s more like hand soap.” The objection didn’t prevent DeGroff from including the drink in his books The Craft of the Cocktail and The Essential Cocktail, although to be fair he never sounds all that enthused about it; his comments in the earlier book are limited to “The Internet cocktail crowd has breathed new life into this chestnut.” Still, almost a century after Ensslin the Aviation has its partisans, among them William Grimes of the New York Times, who called it his favorite forgotten cocktail, and my wife Rosemarie. Did I mention tomorrow is her birthday?

The Aviation

2 oz. gin
¾ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. maraschino liqueur
¼ oz. crème de violette (you probably don’t have any, and that’s OK; you should make the drink anyway)

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a cherry.