Friday, April 26, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Corpse Reviver #2

In which a fire that had not lost its spark is nonetheless rekindled.

Tackling the obvious question first: what happened to the Corpse Reviver #1? It was hushed up by a covert government agency in the wake of an unpleasant incident at a suburban Pittsburgh shopping mall in 1978. Obviously.

In truth there’s an entire brood of Corpse Revivers, all part of an unruly genus of cocktails. Call them what you like: the bracer, the eye-opener, the hair of the dog. Drinks meant to get you up and out following a night of being down and dirty. Corpse Reviver #1 (now declassified thanks to my Freedom of Information Act request) calls for Cognac, apple brandy and sweet vermouth, and there are a host of other formulae. But #2 has become the standard, to the extent that the number is often omitted. In the Savoy Cocktail Book (1930), Harry Craddock famously warned that “four of them taken in swift succession will unrevive the corpse again.”

It’s a simple recipe, originally consisting of equal parts gin, Cointreau, lemon juice, and Lillet. Which brings us to our problem.

In 1986, Kina Lillet became Lillet Blanc. The new formulation of this French aperitif wine resulted in a product that was both less alcoholic and less bitter, the latter due in large part to the reduction of cinchona bark, a source of quinine. (This recalibration also necessitated a name change, Kina being a diminutive of quinquina.) It’s an all too common story in the cocktail kingdom, one I encountered firsthand while searching every arrondisement in Paris for a bottle of Amer Picon. When I finally scared up a bottle, I was told it was nothing compared to the old version; deep down, hardcore cocktail fanatics are like the eternally wistful Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City, saying the ocean was better in his day. Lillet Blanc was regularly used in place of its progenitor even though it tasted different, meaning that if you’ve been knocking back Vespers since Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale you have not experienced the cocktail Ian Fleming described.

Deliverance came from Italy in the form of Cocchi (pronounced co-key) Americano. This aperitivo, from the same people responsible for the Vermouth di Torino that has of late been elevating my Manhattans, reasonably approximates Kina Lillet. It’s as close as we’re going to get to recapturing lightning in a bottle. I’d always enjoyed a Corpse Reviver #2 made with Lillet Blanc. But substituting Cocchi Americano gives it a structure I’d never noticed it was lacking, the additional bitterness only augmenting the drink’s ebullience. It’s like meeting the cocktail again for the first time, and falling even harder for it.

This discovery will pay immediate dividends. The Corpse Reviver #2 is my go-to selection whenever I’m asked to play bartender at a summer party, to the extent that I even bought a mister. The strong citrus presence means it’s refreshing. Because it’s an equal parts drink you can prepare them by the pitcher, with one in the refrigerator in advance of your guests. When you have to make refills – and you will – everybody gets into the act, one partygoer juicing lemons while another prepares the glasses with absinthe (or Pernod). Try it yourself and tell me I’m wrong. The name may say Walking Dead, but for Mad Men season there’s nothing better.

The Corpse Reviver #2

¾ oz. gin
¾ oz. Cointreau
¾ oz. Cocchi Americano
¾ oz. lemon juice
dash of absinthe (or Pernod)

Shake. Strain into a glass rinsed or misted with absinthe (or Pernod). Garnish with a cherry.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Books: Double Down

Quick takes on new titles from veteran hands.

Thomas Perry’s The Boyfriend (2013) kicks off with a strong chapter depicting an awkward lunch between a trio of former sorority sisters, the most content of whom is lying about her livelihood as a high-priced call girl. When she’s brutally killed, the woman’s heartbroken parents hire private eye Jack Till. Till expects to come up as empty as the LAPD did, but instead stumbles onto several other murders of similar looking escorts across the United States. Till’s attempt to outthink the killer sets up a twist that startles even as it anchors the book firmly in Perry’s wheelhouse. The pattern Till unearths stretches credulity considerably, but Perry commands attention with his otherwise compact plotting, the all-too-plausible history of his villain, and a thorough exploration of how technology has altered the business of prostitution.

The great joy of Loren D. Estleman’s mysteries featuring “film detective” Valentino is learning which piece of obscure cinema history sets the story in motion. In Alive! (2013) it’s a screen test for the role of the monster in Frankenstein. Not Boris Karloff’s, but Bela Lugosi’s disastrous, long-thought-destroyed one. The resurrection of the recovered reels has already claimed the life of Valentino’s fading B-list actor buddy, and puts the archivist on a collision course with a Hollywood heavy who’s not playing a role. The set-up is primarily an excuse to spend time with Valentino and his academic colleague Kyle Broadhead as they revel in the pleasures of yesteryear while navigating the world of today, including an excursion into steampunk subculture. Breezy, inconsequential fun.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Manhattan

In a serendipitous convergence, the ninth anniversary of this blog coincides with the fiftieth – the fiftieth! – Cocktail of the Week installment. I’m going to celebrate the occasion by paying tribute to the mixed drink you are most likely to find in my glass. And why are you nosing around my glass, anyway? Get yer own. Bar’s over there.

Along with the Martini, the Manhattan is one of the twin titans of the cocktail kingdom. It is enshrined as one of David Embury’s six basic cocktails in his The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. Kingsley Amis declared it “an excellent drink,” even though it “is in practice the not very energetic man’s Old-Fashioned.” Greater scholars than I have plumbed its history, with many debunking the print-the-legend tale that it was born in New York’s Manhattan Club at an 1874 party thrown by Winston Churchill’s mother in honor of newly-elected governor Samuel Tilden. There is a good chance, though, that the Manhattan Club is indeed where it was first poured.

Quoting the estimable bartender/historian Gary Regan: “(T)he Manhattan is the best cocktail on earth. It’s so simple, but so darn complicated.” Of course, in Chinese the word for complication is also the word for opportunity. (OK, I know it’s actually “crisis” and “opportunity,” and I’m also aware that that saying isn’t technically true. But work with me here. I’ve cranked out fifty of these things.) The Manhattan consists of three ingredients – whiskey, vermouth and bitters – and altering any one of those elements transforms the entire drink. My golden ratio is below, but you owe it to yourself to find the balance of ingredients that works best for you. All cocktails are matters of personal preference, none more than the oh-so-malleable Manhattan.

Whiskey. The Manhattan began as a rye cocktail. For decades, though, it was made with bourbon. It’s only with the recent rye revival that the pendulum has swung back. I still enjoy bourbon Manhattans, but the original will always be my first choice.

Vermouth. “Perfect” Manhattans, featuring equal amounts of rosso and dry vermouth, are now popular, but I have to confess I’m not a fan. Dry vermouth tends to flatten the whiskey’s taste. Plus sweet vermouths offer a great avenue for experimentation. Lately I’ve been making Manhattans with Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, based on a recipe from 1891 and boasting strong notes of cocoa that you won’t find in any other members of its family.

Bitters. I ordered a Manhattan at a bar in Los Angeles once and the chagrinned bartender told me he didn’t have bitters. Any bitters. At all. I did not immediately cancel the order and walk out, mainly because a) I was young and didn’t know any better; b) there were no other bars close by; and c) the place had been a regular haunt of the Rat Pack and I couldn’t bring myself to take my foot off the same rail where Dean Martin had once rested a loafer. (Later, I stood up to use the restroom and literally walked into William L. Petersen, who could not have been nicer. Here ends my best Hollywood story.)

Learn from my rookie mistake, people: it ain’t a Manhattan if it ain’t got bitters. Angostura is the standard in this drink with orange running second, although nowadays you’re spoiled for choice. I often reach for Berg & Hauck’s Jerry Thomas Bitters, a modified version of the formula created by the dean of American bartending. I’ve paired the Cocchi Vermouth di Torino with Fee Brothers Old Fashion Aromatic Bitters. Their savory blend of flavors runs the aforementioned hints of chocolate up the flagpole so high you can’t help but salute. The resulting Manhattan has an extraordinarily dense taste unlike any I’ve encountered, so rich I’d never make it for a neophyte – and yet it’s simply another combination of whiskey, vermouth, and bitters.

Oh, and a cherry. I should probably say a word about the garnish. Man up and get the cherry, just make sure it’s the right cherry. Not one of those sickly sweet maraschino jobs out of a bottle; veteran bartenders have told me that in the bad old days of the 1970s, Manhattans were not only served with these gaudy neon ringers but with some of the juice from the jar slopped in for good measure. You can make your own by steeping sour cherries in maraschino liqueur or you can go to the source – Luxardo, primary producers of the liqueur – and buy a jar. One you sample the genuine article, you won’t be satisfied with anything else. Cheers.

The Manhattan

2 oz. rye (or bourbon) (but ideally rye)
¾ oz. sweet vermouth
2 – 3 dashes of bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with an authentic maraschino cherry.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Income Tax

It’s too easy, spotlighting the Income Tax around April 15. I should have thought outside the box and featured the Millionaire instead. But I don’t have any apricot brandy on hand. There’s always next year.

Plus, the drink deserves to be remembered, and not just during the IRS’s busy season. That’s because its foundation is a classic that once stood astride the cocktail world like a colossus. In the 1930s, the Bronx was mentioned in the same breath as the Martini and the Manhattan. In the film version of The Thin Man, William Powell’s Nick Charles counsels bartenders to shake the drink in two-step time.

The Bronx is a perfect Martini – gin plus equal parts sweet and dry vermouth – tarted up with orange juice. (I don’t have to tell you fresh orange juice, right? I assume you bon vivants know to treat yourselves well.) Popular lore has it that the drink was created by Johnnie Solan, fabled barman at the then-Waldorf Hotel, and is named not after the borough but the zoo. Johnnie visited it soon after the gates opened and said that it and his domain were virtually indistinguishable.

The Income Tax takes the Bronx and simply adds bitters, an act I am wholeheartedly in favor of. I put bitters in my breakfast cereal. Well-chosen bitters add complexity to any drink and, lest we forget, were an original ingredient in the Martini. Angostura and OJ work particularly well together. The thinking is that the presence of bitters is how the Income Tax got its name. No one’s exactly happy about kicking in their fair share to the government.

Where it gets confusing is that a drink called the Maurice turns up in several older cocktail books including my trusty Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual with the identical recipe. Where it gets more confusing is that there are alternate versions of the Maurice where the only difference is the presence of absinthe instead of bitters.

So think of it this way: you just got three cocktail recipes for the price of one. The Bronx, The Income Tax, and The Maurice. Good luck getting that kind of return from Uncle Sucker come Monday.

The Income Tax

1 ½ oz. gin
¾ oz. dry vermouth
¾ oz. sweet vermouth
juice from ¼ of an orange
2 dashes of Angostura bitters

Shake in two-step time, just like William Powell advises. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Movies: Paul Williams Still Alive (2011)/Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Alarm bells go off at the very start of Paul Williams Still Alive. Director Stephen Kessler describes his childhood affection for the once-ubiquitous singer/songwriter/actor Paul Williams only to confess his amazement at discovering Williams is – SPOILER ALERT – not dead. You’re taking a mighty risk building your entire movie on a premise that at best is disingenuous and at worst makes you look like a putz.

Consider it part of an entirely new genre: the cinema of the oblivious. Documentaries in which the filmmakers insist on inserting themselves into the proceedings in order to demonstrate their love of their subject only to reveal their ignorance of its essentials. My favorite example of the form is Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, which is more about director Whitney Smith’s vintage wardrobe and affinity for period hairstyles than the fashion designer.

Kessler tracks down his one-time idol, now twenty years sober and still possessed of a heroic work ethic, and goes on the road with him. Kessler is at times spectacularly irritating, wondering why he and Williams aren’t hitting it off, grousing about the performer’s wife ruining their time together, interrupting Williams mid-story to focus on the narrative he wants to tell.

What stymies him is Williams’ genial refusal to play along. Like Kessler, I remember Williams as a pop culture staple. A talk show fixture who’d guest on any crime drama, Williams would win an Academy Award one night then parachute out of a plane on Circus of the Stars the next. He’s also genuinely talented, writing terrific songs (“The Rainbow Connection”!) and some brilliant, deliberately bad ones for Ishtar. He’s got a hard-won understanding of what fame has cost him and given him, and he won’t allow Kessler to put him in a convenient box. When the director asks if all those game show appearances harmed his career, Williams essentially says sure, but: “Some part of Paul Simon wishes he’d done more Hollywood Squares, and I wish I’d written ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’” Williams’ only regrets stem from his behavior when he was an addict. His dogged refusal to view himself as a has-been or a failure means that Kessler can’t see him that way, either. Williams pointedly tells Kessler that the fact that his life in the last few years has been interesting “fucks up your movie – and I love that.” By the time it’s over, Kessler has grown to love it, too, and the curious bond that develops between putative chronicler and alleged subject makes the film a compelling investigation of celebrity. Here’s Williams appearing, shall we say, in character with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.

I followed up the documentary with a project from the height of Williams’ fame. Phantom of the Paradise is Brian DePalma’s rock opera take on The Phantom of the Opera. You’d think that Williams, with his diminutive size and his songs’ facility for tapping into isolation, would make a haunting phantom. Instead he’s cast as the villain, and he offers a game performance. An antic William Finley plays the title role without a hint of tragedy – and, bizarrely, with Williams’ singing voice. Childhood crush Jessica Harper is a rock goddess equal parts Stevie Nicks and Debbie Harry. Only Brian DePalma would end a musical with a split-screen assassination attempt. It’s like the man can’t help himself. Enjoy the trailer.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

The Spring 2013 issue of Noir City was heaved off the trucks and hawked by our upstanding crew of clean-cut young newsboys on Friday. No doubt you heard their melodious, church-trained voices at appropriate hours throughout your weekend as they enticed you with the wonders contained within the pages of this fine e-lectronic periodical, the house rag of the Film Noir Foundation.

If perchance our adorable cadre of industrious ragamuffins left this tidbit out, permit me to inform you that yours truly took pen in hand to write the cover story on remakes of classic films noir. In the article I go through the decades, trying to figure out what each generation took from the past, and what these return trips to the shadows tell us about the times during which they were made. Don’t expect me to trash all the newer films. While many of the remakes are abysmal, several can stand alongside the films that inspired them – while one or two improve upon the originals. But which ones are the winners? The blaxploitation Asphalt Jungle? The Postman Always Rings Twice that includes the sex scenes? The shitty retread of D.O.A.?*

Also on hand is the latest installment of Keenan’s Korner, featuring crime fiction and cocktails. This outing includes reviews of the latest books by Dennis Lehane, Max Allan Collins and Lawrence Block. Plus a host of other terrific articles like Jake Hinkson on Frank Lovejoy, Imogen Smith’s profile of Jean Gabin, Carl Steward’s tribute to smoky songstress Julie London, Dan Akira Nishimura’s interview with director Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop), and Philippe Garnier on the dirty little secret of France’s fabled noir publisher. All of it gloriously interactive and impeccably designed by Michael Kronenberg. Seriously, just look at Michael’s amazing cover, inspired by the work of the late comics artist and publisher Carmine Infantino.

All this goodness sent to your inbox with the contribution of twenty dollars or more to the FNF. Help support the restoration of classic films and provide nutritious gruel for our corps of orphaned urchins. Go on, you know you want to.

*I can’t lie to you. The shitty retread of D.O.A. is not one of the winners.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Dandy

What we have here is a tale of two mixed drinks. Both with the same basic ingredients Рrye whiskey, Dubonnet Rouge, triple sec and bitters. The first, the Deshler, is named after a boxer, the second for a fop. The difference is one of balance and attitude. Or in a word: élan.

Don’t let the handle or the peacock tendencies fool you. Dandies are not to be trifled with. In a recent profile, Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said, “Beau Brummell, the original dandy, was defying previous sartorial codes, all that male plumage. He was the grandfather of punk, although he insisted that he wanted to be invisible.” Bolton also cites the Incroyables, the clotheshorses who dressed ostentatiously as a political gesture in response to the Reign of Terror. Albert Camus was even more direct: “The dandy is, by occupation, always in opposition. He can only exist by defiance.” Underneath all that flamboyance there’s a backbone.

I first came across the Dandy in Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual then rediscovered it thanks to the new cocktail edition of Lesley M.M. Blume’s Let’s Bring Back series. The Deshler is the more spirit forward of the two drinks, with the Dandy using rye and Dubonnet in equal parts, making for a more mellow taste. The Dandy also incorporates the densely flavored Angostura bitters instead of the more floral Peychaud’s. These variations may appear subtle, even superficial, but they have a definite impact. I wouldn’t immediately associate these cocktails with one other despite their reliance on identical core elements. It only goes to show what a little style will do.

And let’s not forget the garnish. The Dandy demands both lemon and orange twists. I tried intertwining them. Why two twists? They don’t call it the Dandy for nothing.

The Dandy

1 oz. rye
1 oz. Dubonnet
1 tsp. Cointreau
1 dash of Angostura bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a lemon and an orange twist.