Friday, September 27, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Monkey Gland

Pity Doctor Serge Voronoff. The Russian-born, French-based surgeon had not only a name but an obsession that pretty much guaranteed they would laugh at him at the Academy. Laugh, do you hear?!? It didn’t help that Dr. Voronoff leaned into the image of mad scientist. Not many medical men would stand before a conference of his colleagues as Dr. Voronoff did in 1927 and publicly state, “I will breed a new race of supermen.” We are fortunate that video of his TED Talk, one of the first, still survives.

Voronoff’s goal was to use naturally occurring hormones to slow, possibly arrest, and who knows, maybe even reverse the aging process. Only the hormones didn’t have to occur naturally in humans. The good doctor’s research into rejuvenation began with self-injection of extract of dog and guinea pig testicles, as these things so often do. A subsequent expansion of the protocol included grafting the testicles of younger animals to older ones, and transplanting the testes of executed criminals into waiting millionaires.

It was while he was juggling balls that Voronoff had his epiphany. There’s never enough fodder for the gallows, but there is always an abundance of monkeys. Hence, his signature treatment: in 1920 he started implanting thin segments of chimpanzee and baboon testicles into the scrotums of wealthy men, an affront to God, man and ape having the intended purpose of combating senility and restoring potency. One of his first patients gleefully told the New York Times that after the operation his wrinkles vanished, his hair grew back, and he fully expected to live 150 years. (There are no additional articles about this patient, so presumably he failed.) The patient was also moved by Voronoff’s willingness to go out of pocket for the monkey; the French government would later provide a line item in Voronoff’s budget for simians, and he would eventually open his own monkey farm on the Italian Riviera. A 1928 Time article on “the tall, deft Parisian surgeon who grafts fresh, invigorating glands into animals or men who seem to need them” described how wealthy benefactors dispatched him to Syria via yacht to determine whether his unique approach would increase the wool yield by native goats.

But by then, his work was already being discredited. It would become controversial again in the 1990s, when some speculated his xenotransplantation efforts were a possible vector for the AIDS virus’ entry into the human population, a claim that has since been refuted. Others scientists are reappraising Voronoff’s work, calling it an extremely primitive version of hormone replacement therapy. There’s no denying that during its brief vogue, Voronoff’s study made quite an impression. It inspired a reference in an e.e. cummings poem, an Irving Berlin tune in a Marx Brothers movie, a Sherlock Holmes story – and, naturally, a cocktail. Because if you’re not going to drink to restored potency, what are you going to drink to?

Given that history the gin-and-juice Monkey Gland is a bright, surprisingly sprightly creation. Reports in 1923 French newspapers indicate it was all the rage in Paris. In Europe the drink was made with absinthe. American bartenders, then denied that particular beverage, substituted Benedictine. Either is acceptable, as is any standard pastis stand-in for absinthe. I used Pernod, and while it can be mixed with the other ingredients I find it more effective as a rinse for the glass.

In the spirit of Dr. Voronoff I was willing to experiment with the final ingredient, grenadine. I’ve never made my own, because pomegranate season is so short and pomegranate juicing season so messy. I planned on assembling a speed version combining bottled pomegranate juice and superfine sugar. Ultimately, I decided to use pomegranate molasses, which Jim Meehan recommends for this drink in The PDT Cocktail Book. The molasses is more viscous than grenadine and provides a more concentrated jolt of flavor. It also lends the drink a darker, reddish-brown hue. Allow this incarnation of the cocktail a moment or two to settle. The intensity of the pomegranate taste, laced with citrus and hints of anise, is worth the wait.

The Monkey Gland

2 oz. gin
1 oz. orange juice
1 barspoon pomegranate molasses (or grenadine)
several dashes absinthe or Pernod

Shake the first three ingredients with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass rinsed with absinthe or Pernod. No monkeys were harmed in the making of this drink.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Noir City: Portland Exposé!

Anytime Noir City adds a burg to its burgeoning family of festivals, it’s cause for celebration. Rosemarie and I made a weekend jaunt to the Rose City for the debut installment of Noir City Portland at the Hollywood Theater. Alas, the film that gave this post its title wasn’t on the bill. Content yourselves with the trailer.

We weren’t able to make opening night, so we missed seeing the too-long-unheralded Sleep, My Love (1948) on the big screen. We were on hand to revisit a few other favorites, though. A repeat performance of Repeat Performance (1947) underscored how well-crafted this haunting melodrama is. Joan Leslie is an actress who kills her husband on December 31 only to discover once the clock strikes midnight that the old year has begun anew, giving her a chance to change her destiny – and her spouse’s. And any opportunity to watch Alias Nick Beal (1949) must be taken advantage of. This noir retelling of Faust is nothing short of spellbinding, with magnificent atmospherics, Ray Milland’s devil sounding more lobbyist than Lucifer, and a spectacular performance from Audrey Totter. The film remains the crowning accomplishment of director John Farrow’s career. Farrow deserves a book, but so far there’s only the overview of his career in Noir City Annual #2, written by – hey, me!

The film that was new to us was 1956’s The Come-On. You’ve got your classic triangle: gorgeous dame, yearning lover, rich older husband. Only you don’t actually have any of that, because the movie has a few tricks up its sleeve that I don’t want to spoil. Film Noir Foundation impresario and master of ceremonies Eddie Muller introduced the movie as a rare example of “cougar noir” given the casting choices. Anne Baxter, aging out of ingénue roles, plays the dewy damsel in distress with a core of steel. Opposite her is Sterling Hayden, reading every line like a man who left a truck of livestock double-parked in the sun. Even though Hayden was older, their peculiar dynamic makes him seem like the junior partner in the relationship. The high point of the film is Maytag repairman Jesse White as a sleazy private eye blessed with the perfect handle J. J. McGonigle. Both competent and greedy, McGonigle is one of noir’s indispensible shamuses. Trashy fun from start to finish. Strong attendance and a terrific venue. Here’s to next year’s version.

Portland has a thriving cocktail scene which we were also more than happy to investigate. We made multiple stops at Clyde Common, not only for its food but the drinks program overseen by the estimable Jeffrey Morgenthaler. Their brunch cocktail the Bridge Club – Canadian club whiskey, brown sugar, black walnut liqueur, allspice dram, coffee and thickened cream – instantly entered my personal pantheon. Owing to the short length of our trip we only managed one drink each at Teardrop Lounge and Oven & Shaker. Each warrants another visit.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Gimlet

From last week’s drink born of spy fiction, we turn to one made famous by a shamus.

The gimlet, a gloss on the gin sour, is enough of a motif in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1953) that it practically qualifies as a character. Philip Marlowe bonds with “lost dog” chum Terry Lennox over several rounds of them at Victor’s. When Lennox goes to the destiny that awaits all lost dogs, the cocktail serves as both memento mori and harbinger, a way for others who knew him to announce their presence. Only fitting, given how picky Terry was about his cocktail of choice. “A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else,” he declares. “It beats martinis hollow.” To which Marlowe replies, “I was never fussy about drinks.”

I try not to be, either. But it’s about to get all fussy up in here.

The Terry Lennox gimlet
Any discussion of the gimlet begins with Rose’s Lime Juice. Scotsman Lauchlan Rose, charged with provisioning ships, developed a way to preserve lime juice without alcohol in 1867. The catchy version of the story is that a Royal Navy doctor named Thomas Gimlette hit upon the notion of combining this first fruit concentrate with gin as a way of keeping swabbies free of scurvy. It hasn’t been proven, alas, while it is known that the tool used to tap barrels on the bounding main was called a gimlet. Ironically, it was on an ocean liner returning from England that Chandler initially encountered the drink.

Rose’s has been part of the recipe from the beginning. The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) prescribes it in Terry Lennox’s 50/50 proportions, as does Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual. Multiple editions of Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts insist that “a true gimlet” must be made with Rose’s Lime Juice.

Here’s where we hit rough seas. In The Gentleman’s Companion, Charles H. Baker, Jr. wrote that a gimlet is to be made with lime cordial, a relatively simple combination of lime zest and sugar. He calls this “a British invention based on a similar essence to Rose’s Lime Juice,” which he deems more pungent and rightly exiled to soda fountains. If earlier iterations of the product, made decades before the brand was owned by a succession of international conglomerates, were wide of the mark, then contemporary variations certainly are. Chief among them the cloying American version with its generous lashings of high fructose corn syrup.

Order a gimlet in a decent cocktail bar and it’s likely it will be prepared with homemade lime cordial or at the very least fresh lime juice and simple syrup. What idiot would make one the Terry Lennox way now?

This idiot. At least to start.

The Jim Meehan gimlet
That meant acquiring Rose’s Lime Juice, which proved harder than I thought. A search of my local liquor stores and supermarkets yielded bupkis. I eventually unearthed a bottle in the neighborhood drug store. Under the fluorescent lights it glowed a “pale greenish” color, just like Marlowe said. I fixed a drink, equal parts gin and Rose’s. Yes, “it was both sweet and sharp at the same time.” Too sweet and too sharp, the gin hopelessly overpowered. It tasted like obligation and regret, or one of those frozen lime bars. Maybe it was because I’d just reread The Long Goodbye, Chandler’s darkest and most personal work, or maybe it’s that Rose’s Lime Juice is an inferior mixer that deserves retirement.

Next I turned to Jim Meehan’s The PDT Cocktail Book. Meehan’s gimlet uses both fresh lime juice and lime cordial. I didn’t have the time (or the dozen limes) to follow his simple recipe for the latter so I opted for the Rose’s again, largely defeating the purpose of the exercise. The pucker factor was initially quite high, but as the drink settled it walked a tightrope between the authentic sourness of the lime and the Rose’s residual sweetness. Still, not a patch on the Last Word.

The Big Sleep
I stumbled onto a third variation. Brandon Herring, co-founder of the website BarNotes, accidentally combined the makings of a martini and a gimlet in the same beaker with gin being the common denominator. The resulting drink, he decided, could only be called The Big Sleep. I found it a touch too sweet with a lot going on in the glass but it’s still a solid spin, the dry vermouth an interesting counterpoint to the lime.

The Bennett
Terry Lennox sits in Victor’s and grouses, “They don’t know how to make them here ... What they call a gimlet is just some lime or lemon juice and gin with a dash of sugar and bitters.” By stage four of my experiment, that was sounding pretty good to me. Even Marlowe, late in The Long Goodbye, requests bitters in his gimlet “just for tonight.”

As it happens, that drink has a name. The Bennett, so called after a Chilean land baron of the 1920s, is easily the belle of this particular ball. It alone achieves a balance of flavors, the lime a constant tart presence held in check by the welcoming leveling influence of Angostura. It’s the only one of these four I’d regularly make, in part because Terry Lennox would hate it. He’s nothing but trouble, that guy. And he doesn’t know a damn thing about drinking.

The Gimlet, Terry Lennox edition

½ gin
½ Rose’s Lime Juice

Stir. Strain. No garnish. No chance.

The Gimlet, Jim Meehan edition

2 oz. gin
¾ oz. lime cordial
¾ oz. fresh lime juice

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a lime wheel.

The Big Sleep

Brandon Herring

2 ¼ oz. gin
¾ oz. dry vermouth
¾ oz. fresh lime juice
½ oz. simple syrup
dash of orange bitters

Shake. Strain. Lemon peel around the rim and discard.

The Bennett

2 oz. gin
1 oz. fresh lime juice
½ oz. simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Shake. Strain. No garnish.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Down The Hatch: The Cover

Time at last to draw back the curtains on another of my harebrained schemes. Coming to Kindle on Tuesday, October 1, it’s ... Down The Hatch: One Man’s One Year Odyssey Through Classic Cocktail Recipes And Lore.

Honestly, it was worth the effort just that cover alone, a beauty designed by my friend and Noir City colleague Michael Kronenberg.

Down The Hatch collects the first fifty-two Cocktail of the Week posts, revised and updated. There’s more than fifty-two recipes, though, because I’m just that generous. Also included is an introduction explaining how I came to the cocktail party late in life and refuse to go home.

To whet your appetite, here’s Gaz Regan, author of The Joy of Mixology, on Down The Hatch:

Fancy a good cocktail, and a well-told-tale to read while you sip it? This is the book for you. Vince is obviously passionate when it comes to cocktails, and he does a damned fine job of telling us how everything came together for him in this great compilation of fine drinks.

What, you’re not going to listen to Gaz? I’m giving you two weeks’ notice. Adjust your schedules and plan accordingly.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Vesper

It’s not just that Ian Fleming stops Casino Royale dead to provide a drink recipe, but that the recipe is so specific.

“Three measures of Gordon’s, one of Vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel.”

Brand awareness is a Fleming trademark, the author deciding that the labels in the clothes also make the man. Cultural historian Jeet Heer observed that “Fleming’s use of brand names, often dismissed as snobbery, was inseparable from his larger strengths as a storyteller,” while author Larry Beinhart praised the device as “a wonderful and indispensable trick … to create the illusion of verisimilitude.” Fleming pioneered a literary gambit that Bret Easton Ellis took to its excessive conclusion. Daniel Craig reels off the recipe in the 2006 film, even though Kina Lillet changed its name (and its formula) twenty years earlier.

What about the schizophrenic martini that is the Vesper itself? I enter into evidence the fact that once the drink’s namesake meets her fate in the novel, 007 never knocks back another one. The Vesper may not be an original creation, with some speculating Fleming appropriated the recipe from an acquaintance. But novelists are allowed to dissemble. When it comes to cocktails Fleming reminds me of Ernest Hemingway, another famous tippler credited with deep knowledge simply because he had pronounced idiosyncrasies. When Bond orders a martini he requests it in a “deep champagne goblet,” for crying out loud. I never understood the point of mixing gin and vodka, although Fleming deserves credit for being ahead of the curve. He wrote Casino Royale in 1952; six years earlier vodka constituted less than 1 percent of all spirits consumed in the United States. Bartender and Fleming fan Murray Stenson told me, “People always remember ‘shaken, not stirred’ but they don’t realize how rare vodka was at the time Bond asked for it. Ordering vodka was part of what made him an anti-hero.”

I became intrigued by Fleming’s folly anew with the availability of Cocchi Americano, a white moscato aperitif made with an infusion of cinchona bark. It’s a closer approximation of the taste of Kina Lillet than the product’s successor Lillet Blanc, possessing the bitterness that would have been present when Fleming made the drink.

Bartenders will advise you to shake a Vesper, Fleming’s instructions be damned. James Bond prefers shaken cocktails because he wants them very cold. So do I. I shake my martinis. I still stir the Vesper, because I’m perverse that way.

Choice of gin is crucial. The vodka will dilute it so you want a sturdy one that won’t fold under questioning. In the Fleming spirit, I’ll name my spirit: Tanqueray. The Cocchi Americano does make a difference, providing a spiciness and snap Lillet Blanc does not. Given the choice I’ll always take a gin martini over the Vesper, but the addition of an ingredient closer to Fleming’s preference gives his signature cocktail real character.

I like making the Vesper for another reason. It’s fitting that the creator of the most famous espionage series of all time would popularize a cocktail that acts as the perfect stealth operative. Reverse the ratios of the two primary ingredients and you have a concoction that awakens vodka drinkers to the possibilities of gin. The cool spirit they favor predominates with the hint of juniper acting like a sleeper agent, doing its valuable work in the shadows.

The Vesper

Ian Fleming, probably

2 ¼ oz. gin
¾ oz. vodka
½ oz. Cocchi Americano

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a large thin slice of lemon peel. Do not consume in a cane chair with the seat removed.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Algonquin

There are drinks you love. There are drinks you like. Then there are drinks you think you should like.

Consider the Algonquin. A rye cocktail named for the New York hotel where Dorothy Parker and her round table round tabled? It should be a staple, yet I’ve never warmed to it.

Maybe I was making it wrong. As the estimable Gaz Regan observed, “This is one of those drinks that call for precision pouring lest the drink get out of balance.” Time to turn to a professional. On a trip to the Zig Zag Café, I ordered one.

Erik leaned on the bar and looked me in the eye. “Do you like that drink?” he asked. “That’s one of those drinks I think I should like. Maybe I’m making it wrong.” Always a joy to find a like-minded brother in the trenches. I ended up having a different rye cocktail, one that I liked without having to think about it.

Frank Case, who owned and managed “The Gonk” during its glory years, wrote that while New York City boasted “other spots of interest and some distinction,” his hotel “is only the heart from which goes out warmth and light sufficient to make these other places possible for human habitation.” (Today he’d be barred from posting such glowing praise of his own establishment on Trip Advisor.) Many a drink was poured at the Algonquin with several laying claim to the hotel’s name, the best known being one made with rum and blackberry brandy. Odds are Dottie, Bob Benchley and the rest of the Vicious Circle never sipped any of these libations; as cocktail historian David Wondrich observed, they were strictly a highball-and-martini crowd.

So where did the rye-and-pineapple concoction popularly known as the Algonquin come from? In 2003’s The Joy of Mixology, Regan noted that he couldn’t find a reference to this iteration of the drink prior to the 1980s. But in 2011’s The PDT Cocktail Book, Jim Meehan cites a spirit-forward recipe from G. Selmer Fougner’s Along The Wine Trail (1935). Fougner was the first wine critic for a New York newspaper. His daily – daily! – column ran during the height of the Depression and typically tipped the scales at around 3,000 words. (He’d write about restaurants, too.) I don’t have Fougner’s book, but a search of its table of contents turned up a drink called “The New Algonquin,” perhaps explaining the confusion.

I made another attempt at the Algonquin for several reasons. First, its pedigree, however clouded, continued to beguile. Second, I had all of Meehan’s recommended ingredients down to the brand names (Rittenhouse bonded rye, Dolin dry vermouth). Third, I now have ready access to fresh pineapple juice. I was convinced that this was the sticking point, even though both Regan and Meehan agree that canned (unsweetened) pineapple juice works perfectly well in mixed drinks. Note that pineapple juice froths when shaken, so you’re advised to stir this cocktail.

Verdict: It ain’t the juice. And I’m still not sold on the Algonquin.

I lay blame for my reservations on the vermouth. As stated earlier, I’m not a fan of perfect Manhattans because dry vermouth tends to blunt whiskey’s flavor. Without sweet vermouth to compensate, the effect is even more pronounced. The Algonquin feels incomplete, waiting for a grace note that never comes. Other recipes suggest the addition of bitters, specifically Peychaud’s or the more exotic Fee Brothers West Indian Orange, and either might well provide the finish this drink sorely lacks.

I’m tempted to try it with bitters and give the Algonquin one final chance to win me over. The fresh pineapple did make a difference, particularly when paired with Rittenhouse’s robustness. The drink may have been unsatisfying, but it was undeniably strong. Unlike Dottie and her martinis, it wouldn’t take three of these to put me under the table.

The Algonquin

2 oz. rye
¾ oz. dry vermouth
¾ oz. pineapple juice

Stir. Strain. No garnish.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

Be forewarned. The latest issue of Noir City, the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation, is extremely graphic.

That’s because the focus this time out is on comics as a noir medium. Ace designer Michael Kronenberg has pulled out all the stops illustrating this edition, with articles on EC’s “Picto-Fiction” books, the work of urban chronicler supreme Ben Katchor, and a host of other comics-related subjects. There’s also our standard coverage of classic film noir, with Jake Hinkson on the sad career of femme fatale Peggie Castle, a survey of 1960s exploitation fare, and a consideration of the noir roots of Christopher Nolan.

And, of course, another installment of “Keenan’s Korner,” my crime fiction & cocktails column. In this go-round, I take a look at new books from Sara Gran, Urban Waite and Roger Hobbs, and serve up the lowdown on a dark rum favorite for the end of summer.

For your copy, visit the Film Noir Foundation website, make a contribution to the preservation of America’s noir heritage, then clear the decks to devote several hours to the magazine.