Friday, July 26, 2013

Cocktails of the Week: The Tuxedo/The Imperial

This started out as a post about one drink, but events quickly overtook me.

About the only thing that can be said with reasonable certainty regarding the Tuxedo cocktail is that it was spawned at the swellegant Tuxedo Park Club in New York’s Ramapo Mountains, the selfsame establishment where the namesake menswear was introduced Stateside in 1886. The drink’s recipe is featured in many early bartending books, with every Harry (Craddock, Johnson, and McElhone) getting into the act. The formula evolved with each appearance, leading to great confusion in the land. The original Tuxedo was likely made with sherry and dry gin – unless it was made with Old Tom gin, as in some reports – and bears only a distant resemblance to the cocktail’s current conception. In the revised Official Mixer’s Manual, Patrick Gavin Duffy blithely offers three different Tuxedos with no explanation, including one that doesn’t have gin at all.

Duffy’s third stab at the recipe is the drink I set out to make, essentially a very wet martini with the traditional orange bitters, enlivened by a splash of maraschino and served in a glass rinsed (or in my case misted) with absinthe (or any anise liqueur, in my case Pernod). Traditionally the cocktail was prepared with equal parts gin and vermouth, but I adhered to contemporary custom and opted for a more spirit-forward version, which has the added benefit of throwing a little more light on the spark of cherry sweetness provided by the maraschino.

Forego the dash of anise and switch to more flavorful Angostura bitters and you have the Imperial. I mentioned this drink the other night at the Zig Zag CafĂ© when Rosemarie said she wanted something like a martini but different. We turned to the redoubtable Ben Perri, who in turn consulted Jones’ Complete Barguide to confirm that I had the recipe correct. (Turns out there are an assortment of Imperial Fizzes as well as a brandy-based Imperial Delight muddying the brand.)

Jones calls for equal parts gin and vermouth in the Imperial. More intriguingly, it says the drink can be garnished with a cherry or an olive. The former would seem the favorite, given the presence of maraschino. But Ben said “I’m not feeling it” and went with the olive, which proved the right decision. The taste of cherry is already in play, and the martini profile is strong enough that the olive feels right at home. Before Rosemarie finished drinking hers, three other customers had ordered Imperials of their own. Single-handedly starting a mini-craze for an obscure cocktail. It’s my proudest moment of the year so far.

The Tuxedo

2 oz. gin
1 ½ oz. dry vermouth
¼ oz. maraschino
2 dashes of orange bitters
dash of absinthe or Pernod

Combine the first four ingredients. Stir. Strain into a cocktail glass rinsed or misted with absinthe or Pernod. Garnish with a lemon twist and a cherry.

The Imperial

1 ½ oz. gin
1 ½ dry vermouth
¼ oz. maraschino
dash of Angostura bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a maraschino cherry or an olive, but for variety’s sake start with the olive.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Left Hand

The thing about hobbies is people generally know what to get you when gift-giving occasions roll around. A friend was kind enough to pick up an assortment of Bitter Truth bitters to mark an event. The Xocolatl Mole variety, inspired by the chocolate sauces of Mexico, was included in the order by mistake. A bit of lagniappe, to mix two completely different languages and cultures. I added them to my bitters shelf – yes, I have one – and there they stayed, because I didn’t know what to do with them.

Paging through Jim Meehan’s The PDT Cocktail Book, I came across a drink called the Left Hand. I blew the dust off the bottle, made the drink, and it instantly joined the ranks of Chez K favorites.

The Left Hand was created by Sam Ross, a New York bartender with a track record featuring one esteemed watering hole after another: Little Branch, The Pegu Club, Milk & Honey, and the current occupant of the original M&H spot, Attaboy. The drink is frequently described as the blessed union of the Negroni and the Manhattan, although I prefer to think of it as a twistless twist on the Boulevardier. Meehan’s book claims the drink is named after Al Pacino’s character in Donnie Brasco, although a chicken-and-egg bit of inspiration must surely be the Right Hand, devised by Ross’s M&H colleague Michael McIlroy around the same time and essentially the identical cocktail made with aged rum.

Meehan’s recipe specifies the robust Carpano Antica sweet vermouth. I started by using my default choice, Dolin, and was not disappointed. Inspiration struck and I shifted to Cocchi Vermouth di Torino. Its notes of cocoa are heightened by the chocolate bitters, giving the drink an extraordinary texture. I’ve yet to make the Right Hand, but I know what the Left Hand is doing and it’s something special.

The Left Hand

Sam Ross, New York, 2007

1 ½ oz. bourbon
¾ oz. Cocchi Vermouth di Torino (or other sweet vermouth)
¾ oz. Campari
2 dashes Bitter Truth Xocolatl Mole bitters (or other chocolate bitters)

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a cherry.

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

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Movies: Some Summer Viewing

Time to do for a few movies what the previous post did for books.

Hey, Bartender. I awaited no film more than this documentary about the craft cocktail movement, which is probably why I found it such a colossal disappointment. It’s too muddled and New York-centric to do justice to its subject. Hey, Bartender is several movies elbowing each other for space. You’ve got a host of well-chosen experts offering a hasty history of mixed drinks with no insight into the current revival. There’s a look at Employees Only, a fine Big Apple bar reduced here to an obnoxious scenester hangout. One of EO’s bartenders, Steve Schneider, has a compelling story, but the film mistakenly relies solely on him to tell it; it would be far more interesting to learn why Dushan Zaric, Employees Only’s owner, took a chance on putting a wounded ex-Marine behind the stick. Lastly, there’s the proprietor of a struggling Connecticut tavern who foolishly listens to a liquor rep’s advice to go to Tales of the Cocktail in scenes wouldn’t make a decent episode of Bar Rescue. He gets to New Orleans and immediately buys himself a hat, which perfectly sums up the film’s superficial approach. A bartender friend told me that the great boon of the cocktail renaissance is its democratizing effect; you can walk into a dive bar in the middle of nowhere and find a bottle of maraschino on the shelf. That’s a story worth telling, and Hey, Bartender stumbles onto it several times, most notably when spirits historian David Wondrich describes his amazement at learning that Boise, Idaho “only” has two craft cocktail bars. Too bad the movie keeps on walking.

The Call. Brad Anderson may be having the definitive post-indie film career, moving effortlessly between inexpensively made auteurist features (The Machinist, Transsiberian), smart TV series (The Wire, Boardwalk Empire) and studio fare like his latest, which I caught up with on DVD. Halle Berry plays a 911 operator who, following a mistake that resulted in a teenage girl’s death, is on training duty. She gets a chance to redeem herself when the same killer resurfaces. Anderson, Berry and company relish the opportunity to explore the fresh terrain of an emergency call center. The villain’s backstory is believable, even tragic, and cagily doled out. It’s a thoughtful, well-structured movie that continually ratchets up the tension.

Then the last 90 seconds ruin it.

After what should clearly be the film’s final image comes a scene that smacks of studio interference and plays like an alternate ending meant to be exiled to DVD. Everything about it feels off, the actors giving wholly different performances as if going through the motions on a rewrite they hope will never see the light of day. It’s actually impressive, how thoroughly this addition undoes all that’s gone before. What would be an authentic sleeper leaves only a bad taste.

Jesus, did I see anything I liked? Well, yes.

In Berberian Sound Studio, Toby Jones is a reclusive English technician who goes to Italy in the 1970s to work with a director obviously based on Dario Argento. We never see a frame of his film, aside from its gloriously overwrought title sequence. We only hear it, in detailed descriptions of the degradations it depicts and Jones’s construction of the soundscape that brings it to life. It will not come as a surprise that our man slowly goes nuts. Beautifully and meticulously assembled, down to a soundtrack that fiendishly mimics those of Argento films. Watch that trailer. It’s a masterpiece.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Books: Some Summer Reading

Don’t let the blog go all cocktails all the time. I told myself that more than once. But a summer full of deadlines and other pressing business later, that’s exactly what happened. To make it up to you, here’s a quick roundup of books I’ve read in recent weeks worth your time.

Middle Men, by Jim Gavin (2013). Confession #1: I never read the fiction in the New Yorker. I don’t know why. Confession #2: I made an exception for Jim Gavin’s ‘Costello’ only because the illustration featured a Dodgers cap and I thought it was about baseball. (I’m really a very simple man.) Love of the game is part of the background in the finest short story I’ve read in years, about a widowed plumbing supplies salesman making the adjustment to living the good life in California alone. ‘Costello’ is the closing entry in this aptly-named, terrific collection of stories about men of varying ages accepting their limitations in the Golden State. ‘The Luau’ is a companion piece to ‘Costello’ about Costello fils. ‘Elephant Doors’ follows an aspiring stand-up comic who works as a production assistant on a game show that is nothing like Jeopardy! The uproarious, shaggy-dog ‘Illuminati’ includes a brilliant bit of show business lunacy, while ‘Bewildered Decisions in Times of Mercantile Terror’ contains as lethal a dissection of the modern workplace as you’ll see. (A sales team consists of “a pack of hyenas from third-tier MBA programs who spent their days quoting Old School and refreshing”)

The Legends of Last Place, by Abe Streep (2013). In this brief ebook, the editor of Outside magazine (and former college baseball player) spends a season following the Santa Fe Fuego, the worst professional team in these United States. ‘Professional’ is used advisedly here; Fuego players earn fifty bucks a week, crash with local families, and double as the grounds crew. Streep dives deep into what keeps players and fans committed to the game at its lowest level. FYI: Roswell, New Mexico’s club is called the Invaders.

Big Maria, by Johnny Shaw (2012). If it’s been too long since you’ve read something heartwarming yet filthy – or filthy yet heartwarming, your choice – have I got the book for you. Three outcasts in the high desert, a place fabled for outcasts, decide to turn their sorry lives around by joining forces to find a forgotten gold mine. That the mine is now part of a government artillery range is the least of their problems, given what bone-deep screw-ups they are. It’s a scatological Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or a Donald E. Westlake Dortmunder novel where the heisters are cursed-by-God unlucky. Shaw balances a willingness to rush headlong into grim (and gross) comic terrain with genuine affection for his misfits, and damned if you’re not rooting for these sad bastards come the end.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Bee’s Knees

Offering multiple uses for every ingredient, no matter how homely, is part of the Cocktail of the Week ethos. Thus we turn again to honey syrup, previously discussed in re: the Brown Derby.

Given its name it should come as no surprise that the Bee’s Knees is a Prohibition era concoction. The common lore holds that the honey concealed the generally poor taste of bathtub gin, with an alternate version claiming that it was used to trick the nose, its scent masking that of the booze on the imbiber’s breath. I don’t buy either theory. The Bee’s Knees is a simple gin sour with honey as a sweetener. No further explanation required. Put maraschino in the same role and you have a violette-less Aviation, but honey’s floral notes blend with the gin in such a fundamentally different way that they’re not close to being the same drink.

The general time period of its creation is the only part of the Bee’s Knees’ history that experts agree on. (Some books refer to it as “The Bees’ Knees,” so even the number of insects involved is unclear.) At least two different cocktail guides from the 1930s contain the recipe, with one including orange juice. There are multiple variations – a Honey Bee is made with Jamaican rum, a Bee’s Kiss with rum, honey and cream – which only compounded the confusion over time. The formula in my edition of the Playboy Bartender’s Guide features five ingredients, and somehow gin, honey and lemon juice are not among them. “A speakeasy heirloom whose orange accent is most mellow,” says Playboy. This is why I only read it for the pictures.

The orange accent is so mellow in the recipe below that you’ll never taste it. Know that a 1930s Bee’s Knees was extremely spirit forward, with only a teaspoon of honey versus a jigger of gin. Know also that contemporary bartenders have been known to make the drink with lavender honey. I haven’t tried that take on it yet, but I badly want to.

The Bee’s Knees

2 oz. gin
¾ oz. honey syrup
¾ oz. lemon juice

Shake. Strain. No garnish.