Friday, May 31, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Moscow Mule

An anniversary is a time to step back and reappraise. To break with tradition. To venture into new terrain. To listen, finally, to all those requests and complaints.

That’s right. In this, the second year of Cocktail of the Week posts, I am at long last featuring a vodka drink. Stop sending me your emails.

Understand, I’m not one of these people who hates vodka. Like Kingsley Amis, who wrote in Everyday Drinking that the role of vodka “is to replace gin in established gin drinks for the benefit of those rather second-rate persons who don’t like the taste of gin, or indeed that of drink in general.” He said it, folks, I didn’t.

I have no strong feelings about vodka, which is why I seldom drink it. It brings nothing to the party in the terms of taste. (Do not start in about flavored vodkas, I beg of you. You do not want to go down that road with me.) When people ask me to suggest a vodka cocktail, I’ll usually opt for something like the Jasmine, which has a few other elements to do the heavy lifting.

There is one vodka cocktail that I enjoy, because it asks the spirit to provide the kick and lets the remaining ingredients, specifically one, shoulder the burden. That the drink was concocted by a major corporation solely to sell booze doesn’t bother me in the least.

In 1939, the food and beverage giant Heublein purchased the North American rights to Smirnoff vodka for next to nothing. This was at this insistence of company president John Martin and over the objections of Heublein’s board of directors. (Heublein may have scored with brands as varied as A1 Steak Sauce, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Grey Poupon, but they also sold a line of pre-made cocktails like Manhattans and sidecars in cans, so it’s not like the outfit had the Midas touch.) Vodka had always struggled in the U.S., and initially Heublein had difficulty marketing it as well. Ultimately they chose to play to the familiar by rebranding it “white whiskey” and in an ad campaign touted the fact that it had no taste or smell by saying Smirnoff left you breathless. Focus groups deemed this approach more subtle that the original slogan, “Ah, Screw It, Get Hammered At Lunch.”

Success was still some distance off in 1946 when Martin found himself in Los Angeles dining with Jack Morgan, proprietor of the Cock ‘n Bull, the faux-British pub to the stars on the Sunset Strip. (The bar lasted until 1987, making it one of the last of the ‘40s Hollywood hot spots to close its doors.) Martin was saddled with Communist hooch nobody wanted, while Morgan made a strong ginger beer few customers could stomach. What to do, what to do?

Their answer, of course, was to combine them. A buck or a mule is a category of cocktail made with a base spirit, ginger ale or beer, and citrus. Given the Cock ‘n Bull’s Tinseltown ties the vodka buck, rechristened the Moscow Mule, became a hit with movie folk and was consequently written up in fan magazines, which fueled its popularity nationwide. So if you ever wondered who to blame for the ascension of vodka in this country, there’s your answer: Hollywood liberals.

The Martin/Morgan origin story sounds too good to be true. Drink historian Eric Felten says credit for the drink’s creation actually belongs to Cock ‘n Bull bartender Wes Price. His inspiration, according to Felten? “I just wanted to clean out the basement.” Price also claims that the first Moscow Mule ever made was sold to film noir favorite Broderick Crawford, so I’m buying his version of events.

Whenever possible, the Moscow Mule is served in a small copper mug. Why, you may ask? This is my favorite part of the story: because Jack Morgan’s girlfriend had inherited a factory that made them, and she couldn’t unload the things. Why shouldn’t she get well along with Morgan and Martin? Many bars maintain this unnecessary tradition and here in Seattle of late, the mugs have been the cause of a crime wave. I would like my parole officer to note that one of them is not pictured.

Key to this drink is a potent ginger beer. In The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, David A. Embury pushes for Schweppes, an English brand. I’m honoring that request by making mine with Crabbie’s Alcoholic Ginger Beer, a U.K. product with a terrific sharp flavor and a punch of its own. Add a little lime and you have a perfect summer cooler.

The Moscow Mule

2 oz. vodka
4 – 6 oz. ginger beer
½ oz. lime juice

Pour lime juice over ice in a Collins glass or a small copper mug that you probably stole from a reputable bar, in which case you should just turn yourself in to the authorities. Add vodka. Top with ginger beer. Stir. Garnish with a lime wedge.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Old Tom Old Fashioned

You don’t need me to tell you that the Old Fashioned has made a roaring comeback. You’ve got lifestyle blogs and magazines illustrated with Mad Men stills for that.

You don’t need me to tell you that the simpler the preparation of your Old Fashioned, the better off you are. You’ve got Old Fashioned 101 for that.

I will say this of the “fruit salad” that used to litter this cocktail: I bought a muddler solely for the purpose of making Old Fashioneds, and I never use it anymore. What a waste of money. On an unrelated note, be sure to pick up my new children’s book Morty The Mournful Muddler, the heartwarming tale of a lonely discarded bar tool that finds redemption through bird watching and community service.

What do you need me to tell you about a drink that’s been analyzed to death? Let me check my notes ... one of David A. Embury’s six basic cocktails ... born in Louisville, Kentucky’s Pendennis Club in the 1880s ... toss in an authentic maraschino cherry if you feel like it ... rye’s really your better option, but you knew that ...

Oh, here you go. Have one with gin. Specifically Old Tom gin.

I’ve raved before about the return of this sweeter variety of gin, closer to the pre-Prohibition incarnation of the spirit. Ransom Old Tom is barrel-aged, resulting in a highly distinctive taste that’s a bit like gin, a bit like whiskey, and very much its own. It makes for a satisfying Old Fashioned, lighter than one made with brown liquor.

A rare warm day put me in the mood for one, so I stopped by the Zig Zag Café. I asked stalwart bartender Ben Perri for an Old Tom Old Fashioned, and he stalwartly asked which brand I preferred, Ransom or Hayman’s. I was poised to reply Ransom, but hesitated. Hayman’s, a U.K. product based on an archival recipe, has become a Chez K staple, my go-to for a Tom Collins. But I’d never considered it in an Old Fashioned. It’s closer to London dry gin, and far sweeter. I was torn, and did what I always do when faced with such conundrums: I asked my bartender for his opinion.

Ben said both make excellent, very different Old Fashioneds. His default choice for Old Tom was Hayman’s, because it was a) English, where Old Tom came from, and b) more gin-like in flavor.

I was torn. Ransom seemed a better fit for an Old Fashioned, but it always tasted like Ransom. The prospect of Hayman’s intrigued, but it was already fairly sweet. What’s a smart man to do?

I have no idea. I only know what I would do, and that’s have Ben make both versions so I could subject them to an on-the-spot taste test.

During this preparatory phase, a dark horse came onto the track. Ben pointed out that Dutch genever, the rich juniper liquor that was an original Old Tom contemporary, is available again from Bols – and is also well-suited to the Old Fashioned. What the hell, said I, let’s have one of those, too. I’m nothing if not thorough. Thus, when Rosemarie arrived at the bar to find multiple cocktails, pony glasses and bottles before me, I got to utter the three words that have been a refrain throughout our marriage: “I can explain.” At least she got to participate in the experiment as well.

The result was a three-way photo finish. There were no losers that night, only winners, with me the biggest winner of all. Ben was right about Hayman’s. Its sweetness was no impediment, Ben’s rendition of the drink beautifully balanced. It took the title by a nose over the Bols genever, which held the middle ground between a more classic gin style and the robust iconoclasm of Ransom. I’ve made Old Fashioneds with Hayman’s since, but still find myself craving the idiosyncratic notes present only with Ransom. I’m not worried, though. I’ve got all summer to wrestle with the problem.

Old Tom Old Fashioned

2 oz. Old Tom gin
¼ oz. simple syrup
3 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass over ice. Garnish with a nice, thick lemon peel and a cherry for old times’ sake. Don’t let your muddler see what you’re doing. You’ll hurt its feelings.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Toronto

Pure happenstance. I swear to you. These things aren’t planned in advance. It’s a complete coincidence that I’m highlighting a cocktail called the Toronto right as the mayor of that metropolis apparently turns up in a video speaking way, way, WAY off the record while smoking crack cocaine. We all of us have our vices.

The Toronto is another drink exploiting the peculiar charms of Fernet Branca. For more on Fernet’s history and its idiosyncratic scent and taste, please to consult last week’s post on the Hanky Panky. Further Fernet factoids:

I was desperately hoping there would be a spike in sales of this abrasive amaro following its cameo appearance in The Dark Knight Rises as Alfred’s aperitif of choice. Presumably Bruce Wayne also drinks it; that would account for the Batman voice.

Costume designer Edith Head, of whom Rosemarie and I are inordinately fond, was introduced to Fernet by the English actress Madeleine Carroll. Edith’s take on the Italian liqueur? It’s “guaranteed to save you on the day you want to kill yourself.”

My favorite, oft-repeated Fernet story took place in 1960. Betsy von Furstenberg, the actress born a baroness, was suspended from Actors’ Equity because of a prank she played on her co-star Tony Randall. She playfully poured Fernet into the glass Randall had to drink from onstage. Randall took one sip – and immediately assumed he had been poisoned.

Knowing that, you’re even more keen to use some in a cocktail, right?

The Toronto was originally created to showcase Canadian whiskey. (Irony #1: It’s never made with Canadian whiskey anymore, thanks to the boom in quality American ryes.) The drink was created in the early 1900s, and survived because its recipe was enshrined in David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. (Irony #2: In Embury’s opinion, “a brief word about Canadian whiskey” was “all it deserves.” His brief word(s) on the subject: “I don’t like it.”) The drink is a variation on the Manhattan – although the presence of simple syrup means it also owes a debt to the Old Fashioned – so naturally it was named after Canada’s first city. (Irony #3: Early in the classic cocktail revival the Toronto was hard to come by in much of Canada because of a scarcity of Fernet Branca there.)

There’s no mistaking Fernet’s presence in a glass, but for all its assertive flavor it complements the base spirit it’s paired with. While it adds a playful edge to gin in the Hanky Panky, in the Toronto – or the T’ronta, as I’ve heard locals pronounce it – it lights a fire under the rye. Strange how a taste so distinctive can be so versatile.

The Toronto

2 oz. rye
¼ oz. Fernet Branca
¼ oz. simple syrup
2 dashes of Angostura bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Hanky Panky

I have reached another milestone on this path I tread. I have at long last purchased my own bottle of Fernet (pronounce the T) Branca. I have joined the ranks of the hardcore cocktail fanatics.

Fernet Branca is the most bitter member of the amaro family. I’ve heard it called Jägermeister for grown-ups but that’s not at all fair – not to Fernet, or Jägermeister, or grown-ups. Fernet’s taste is so, ahem, bracing that most people first drink it as a dare. Before that distinctive taste you’ll notice its aroma, which contains notes of eucalyptus, menthol, roofing tar and regret. (I kid. It’s only two of the four. And maybe not the two you think.) Like many liqueurs it consists of a hodgepodge of ingredients, the exact formula held in secret. Known elements include myrrh, assorted fungi and gargantuan amounts of saffron, with some speculating that production of Fernet Branca consumes the bulk of the world’s supply of the spice. Almost since its genesis in 1845 it’s been bruited as a potent digestif, capable of preventing hangovers and the pains of gustatory excess before they start.

Despite being the working definition of an acquired taste, Fernet has found devotees beyond its birthplace in Italy. How it’s consumed will tell you something about the person who ordered it. Odds are anyone asking for Fernet and Coke is from Argentina. Fernet and ginger ale = San Francisco. And if someone seated next to you orders it straight, turn to them and ask is-THIS-your-card? style, “What bar do you work at?” It never fails. Love of Fernet is a badge of honor in the service industry.

A small amount of this pungent potable makes a noteworthy addition to a handful of cocktails. One of the best known is the Hanky Panky, a variation on the sweet Martini with a history that sets a world record for sheer bloody Englishness. It was created by Ada Coleman, the former bar mistress at Claridge’s who was installed at the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel by her benefactor Rupert d’Oyly Carte, scion of the family famed for producing the work of Gilbert and Sullivan. (See what I mean? And I’m not done yet.) Coley, as she was known, devised the drink at the behest of Sir Charles Hawtrey, the lion of the British stage who appeared in several silent films. More importantly, he taught a young Noël Coward everything he knew about the theater. When Sir Charles sipped Coley’s creation he is said to have thundered in true Wodehousian fashion, “By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky!,” the term then meaning witchcraft as opposed to serving as a Match Game euphemism for, you know, whoopee.

Hawtrey’s remark was an apt one. Some sort of trickery is involved for the miniscule amount of Fernet to become a dominant but never overwhelming taste amidst the gin and sweet vermouth. There are worse ways to be introduced to this most intriguing of flavors.

The Hanky Panky

2 oz. gin
1 ½ oz. sweet vermouth
¼ oz. Fernet Branca

Stir. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Me Elsewhere: Memories of Malice

First, an apology: there will be no photographs. I didn’t take many. I was too busy being flabbergasted. Also, eating.

Rosemarie and I are back from our first-ever Malice Domestic conference. It won’t be our last. We’ll enjoy them all, but I daresay that future installments of this convention devoted to the traditional mystery novel won’t quite match this one, and not only because it was Malice’s silver anniversary edition.

As explained earlier, we ventured to deepest Bethesda, Maryland in order to receive this year’s William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers. We’d won the honor for our novel Design For Dying: An Edith Head Mystery. We were eager to meet our fellow recipient Ellen Byron, whose book Reality Checked is set in that most murderous of environments, the private school world of L.A.

The grants committee members gathered us up early and took fantastic care of us. Among the first things that we learned was the incredible number of previous winners who had returned to Malice as published novelists and nominees for the Agatha Awards. More impressive was the willingness of these writers to share their wisdom with us.

This year’s convention featured quite the array of special guests, with Laurie R. King, Aaron Elkins, Carolyn Hart and Peter Robinson receiving honors. There was also a stellar array of panels covering a host of crime fiction topics.

Saturday night was the Agatha Awards banquet, where the missus and I got our moment in the sun. It’s not a moment either of us is likely to forget. When grants committee chair and unofficial guardian angel Harriette Sackler announced the premise of our book – that Hollywood’s most famous costume designer must turn detective to solve a young actress’s murder – an encouraging buzz rolled through the ballroom. In the bar after dinner, newly-minted Mary Higgins Clark Award winner Hank Phillippi Ryan told us, “That was the sound of a roomful of writers saying, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’” We received congratulations and advice from plenty of attendees including Agatha winners Louise Penny and Catriona McPherson and toastmaster Laura Lippman, who closed the event on Sunday with an inspirational Q&A. (The full round-up of Agatha nominees and winners is here.) And we had several conversations with agents and editors that were, in a word, extremely promising. (OK, that’s two words. Clearly, I need an editor.) I cannot stress this enough: if you have ever harbored any interest in writing a mystery novel, you owe it to yourself to look into this grants program. It is a transformative experience.

But what had the greatest impact was easily the sheer number of mystery readers – Rosemarie and I lost count at two dozen – who walked up to one or both of us to say how much Edith Head meant to them. Not only as a style icon, but as a professional woman who blazed a trail that is still being followed. Writer Carole Nelson Douglas told us about reading an interview in Parade magazine in which Edith described essentially conning her way into a job at Paramount Pictures despite having no training as a sketch artist. “Edith taught me to say yes to things,” Carole said. It’s an invaluable life lesson, and one our Malice whirlwind has made us take to heart anew. We are saying yes to all of this.

Random notes: if you want cocktails in the District of Columbia, I heartily second all the recommendations I heard for The Passenger. The bartender there made me a whiskey smash with pear liqueur that I can taste even now. And I have to commend the staff at the Hyatt Regency in Bethesda, who truly got into the spirit of the occasion including a doorman dressed as Sherlock Holmes and nightly themed drinks at the hotel bar. One was called the Who Done It?, which meant I had Tavares in my head all weekend. Here’s the song. Maybe it will make up for the lack of photographs.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Book: The Disaster Diaries, by Sam Sheridan (2013)

Sam Sheridan is an MMA veteran as well as a former EMT and wilderness firefighter – and he feels unprepared for catastrophe. If he’s not ready for The End of the World as We Know It (or TEOTWAWKI, as he helpfully abbreviates it), then yours truly is even worse off. No cocktail ice or Major League Baseball? I might as well lie down and wait for the rampaging hordes to come to me.

In his book subtitled How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse, Sheridan asks what you can actually do to prime yourself for The End. He visits with experts and undergoes training on a host of skills that will come in handy in the wake of society’s downfall. Battlefield medicine, hunting, rudimentary auto theft, knife fighting 101 – everything you’ve seen in the movies. His focus always returns to what individuals can do to brace themselves physically and especially psychologically for high-pressure situations. The best material surveys the existing science, much of it conducted by the U.S. military, on how the brain responds to stress.

In addition to the scrupulous research and a surprisingly clear-eyed and optimistic closing chapter, Sheridan frames all of this information in terms of an epic and ongoing calamity. It starts with The Big One striking the West Coast, followed by a mysterious viral outbreak, zombies, an alien invasion, bad weather and cannibalism. Any two of these things in combination would break lesser men yet Sheridan is resolute, curing his own clothes and wood-smoking gunshot wounds. Seriously, I will be of no use to you when shit goes bughouse.

Actually, scratch that. There is one thing I can do. I can lead a ragtag band of survivors to the ruins of a library and point them toward this entertaining, useful book. With any luck, they’ll eat me last.