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 CafĂ©, 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.