Friday, January 31, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Frisco

As a child, I was addicted to Encyclopedia Brown-style mysteries. At the end of each story you’d be instructed to flip to another page or turn the book upside down for the solution, which typically involved some verbal miscue by the guilty party. Favorites included Michael Avallone’s Five-Minute Mysteries and the Two-Minute Mysteries series by Encyclopedia Brown creator Donald J. Sobol. (About the titles: what can I say? Even in my youth I was extremely conscious of time management.)

In one of those books, a crime was committed on a West Coast-bound train with the culprit eventually revealed as a counterfeit conductor. How did the phony tip his hand? By referring to San Francisco as “Frisco,” which no railroad professional would ever do. The moral never left me: only reprobates used that diminutive. Yet there’s a drink called that, and a damn good one. It gets the spotlight this week because I’m just back from San Francisco, where the Noir City Film Festival is having its closing weekend.

The Frisco first appeared in World Drinks and How to Mix Them (1930) by William Boothby. Before being elected to the California State Assembly “Cocktail Bill” tended bar at several San Francisco hotels, which likely explains the drink’s name. Boothby’s recipe couldn’t have been simpler: three-quarters “whiskey” and one-quarter Bénédictine, the French liqueur. For decades the first ingredient was taken to mean bourbon, although of late rye has become the preference. Over time some bartenders began adding lemon juice in equal proportion to the Bénédictine, turning the drink into a sophisticated gloss on the whiskey sour. I find the citrus a necessary bulwark against Bénédictine’s aggressive sweetness ... and then I throw in a lemon twist on top of that, because I’m a showman at heart. Balance remains key with this drink; depending on the brand of rye, you may opt for half an ounce less. (The ratio below uses Rittenhouse Bonded.)

The Frisco is the cocktail that brought home the impact of double-straining to me. For years when I made drinks at home I’d strain them once, through a Hawthorne or Julep strainer. But at the Swig Well Academy Bartending 101 course I took taught by Anu Apte of Seattle’s Rob Roy, it was impressed on me that pouring a drink through a second, finer mesh removes ice shards and excess pulp. That’s a fancy trick for your industry types, I figured. The thought didn’t stop me from ordering a tea strainer anyway. The Frisco was one of the first drinks I prepared once it arrived, and the difference was immediate. The technique eliminated some of the lemon’s sourness while leaving its tartness intact, improving the taste markedly. This how-to video features Erik Hakkinen of the Zig Zag Cafe, who will be tending the bar at Noir City tonight in Frisco San Francisco.

The Frisco

2 oz. rye
½ oz. Bénédictine
½ oz. lemon juice

Shake. Double-strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

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

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Noir City: The Streets of San Francisco

Film noir is an organic American cinematic movement, but its DNA contains elements from elsewhere: the visual motifs of German Expressionism, the fatalistic viewpoint of artists fleeing the war in Europe. It’s only fitting, then, that the twelfth annual Noir City Film Festival cast its net wide and showcased noir from around the globe. Programmer, master of ceremonies and impresario extraordinaire Eddie Muller has assembled an amazing line-up including several films that have never screened theatrically in the United States before. Rosemarie and I attended the opening weekend in San Francisco.

The festivities kicked off with international intrigue in a duo of films dominated by Orson Welles even though he didn’t direct either one. Journey Into Fear (1943) would mark the end of Welles’ sojourn at RKO. Norman Foster is credited as the director but Welles’ fingerprints are everywhere, starting with the cast of familiar faces. Joseph Cotten is the munitions engineer passing through Turkey at the start of World War II. Cotten puts his patrician bearing to excellent use playing one of those WASPish Americans overly concerned with propriety, which becomes an impediment when he’s targeted by Nazi agents and must flee the country by boat. A truncated 68 minute running time owing to a troubled production nonetheless preserves the leisurely, almost comedy of manners feel of the Eric Ambler novel. Minor but engaging. Welles plays a Turkish cop. His hat earned a round of applause from a packed Castro Theatre.

What can I say about The Third Man (1949), other than this movie directed by Carol Reed and scripted by Graham Greene is one of the few perfect things in this world? The Ferris wheel scene is its best-known moment, but on this viewing (I couldn’t guess how many times I’ve seen the film) I was mesmerized by what came just before it, as Holly Martins (Cotten) sees his friend Harry Lime (Welles) approaching from a distance. Welles moves with uncanny brio; Harry, like Welles himself, is a star in the world of post-war Vienna. Rosemarie’s succinct analysis: “At the start of the movie Cotten bounds off the train an American, full of purpose. At the end he’s slumped against a broken down cart, smoking, wishing for something he knows will never happen to happen. He’s become European.”

Saturday afternoon brought forth a pair of unsung films from Mexico. 1951’s En la palma de tu mano (In the Palm of Your Hand) features one of my favorite noir tropes: the bogus psychic. “Professor” Karin relies on his beautician wife to acquire information about the upper crust which he then deploys to his advantage. When he deduces an industrialist was murdered by his spouse, he horns in on the scheme – only to become enmeshed in the newly rich widow’s plot to eliminate her lover. Featuring glossy, high-toned storytelling that wouldn’t be out of place in a studio film of the era shot through with a brooding Catholic sensibility that is distinctly Mexican. Up next, a screening of the only subtitled print of the astonishing Victimas del pecado (Victims of Sin, 1951) in the U.S. Starring “The Golden Venus” Ninón Sevilla, it’s an example of the rumberas or nightclub film and compresses an entire telenovela into ninety unhinged minutes with time to spare for some of the sexiest dancing ever before a movie camera (Exhibit A and Exhibit B). A piñata that never empties, Victims communicated directly with the audience’s reptile brain. We didn’t care about motivation or coherence. We only wanted, craved, demanded MORE. These two movies, produced when the Production Code still held sway over Hollywood, demonstrated the freedom filmmakers elsewhere had when addressing adult subject matter. A scene in Palm has a married couple in the standard separate beds of the 1950s only to have the husband slip in beside his wife, while Victims is breathtakingly forthright about prostitution.

Me ruining a perfectly good book.
A personal milestone came on Saturday evening. The sixth Noir City Annual, collecting work published in the 2013 editions of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine, debuted, and a host of contributors including yours truly were invited to a gala signing. It was a pleasure to be seated alongside ace designer Michael Kronenberg – the man responsible for the gorgeous cover of Down The Hatch – and talented writers like Steve Kronenberg, Imogen Sara Smith, Dan Akira Nishimura, Anne Hockens and Carl Steward among others. The annual will be sold at other Noir City festivals and soon through Amazon; please note that my signature on a copy of the book actually makes it worth less.

For the last few years Eddie has been keeping festgoers apprised of the status of the FNF’s latest project, a restoration of the independently made 1949 film noir Too Late For Tears. The new 35mm print, financed in part by a contribution from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s trust, was unveiled on Friday night. Having seen it, I should just toss the two public domain DVDs I own. Roy Huggins’ casually diabolical script prefigures A Simple Plan as young L.A. marrieds Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy accidentally come into possession of a hefty extortion payoff. As Scott’s avaricious tendencies get the better of her, the blackmailer (Dan Duryea) comes calling. It’s unquestionably Liz Scott’s finest hour, but good luck taking your eyes off Duryea who saunters onto the screen all rancid insouciance and ends up timid and broken before La Scott. How successful was Saturday’s screening? People were turned away from a theater that seats over 1400 people.

Our gaze shifted to the Far East on Sunday with a twin bill from Japanese master Akira Kurosawa. The Drunken Angel of the 1948 film’s title is Takashi Shimura’s doctor, toiling amongst the poor of occupied Japan. He patches a bullet wound for brash yakuza Toshirô Mifune and insinuates himself into the younger man’s life, a relationship that becomes more critical once Mifune’s callous boss is spring from prison. A masterwork of humanism made more impressive when followed by Stray Dog (1949), with the same actors reteamed as Tokyo cops pursuing a stolen police gun through a sweltering summer. Maestro Muller, never missing an opportunity, arranged for culturally appropriate libations to be poured throughout the festival. On this night we enjoyed sake served up by Beau Timken, owner of San Francisco’s True Sake and author of Sake: A Modern Guide. A second round came courtesy of the woman Eddie dubbed “the ichiban of noir,” our very good friend Etsuko Tamazawa. The impossibly stylish Etsuko has a film noir blog in Japanese, and beautifully provided Eddie’s introductions in her native tongue.

Alas, that was it for us, but Noir City Seattle starts in only two weeks. Not every title that screened in San Francisco will play in the Northwest; the Mexican films we saw won’t make the trip, for instance, and neither will The Black Vampire, a 1953 Argentine remake of Fritz Lang’s M unspooling at the Castro on Friday.

Miss Noir City 2014 Evie Lovelle. Also pictured: me.
There are so many people to thank for our experience at the festival, which continues through Sunday. First and foremost is Muller. The other big piece of news out of Noir City is that Eddie will be joining Turner Classic Movies as a regular on-air host. Eddie’s knowledge and above all his passion for film makes him the perfect addition to America’s repertory theater. This year’s Miss Noir City is burlesque performer and long-time friend of the festival Evie Lovelle, who performed her duties with aplomb and her usual drop-dead flair. There’s also the utterly essential Daryl Sparks and the army of volunteers who make Noir City a one of a kind event.

Cocktail notes ... on this trip I finally made it to the highly touted Rickhouse, where I enjoyed a Fort Point (bourbon, grapefruit, tart cherry, falernum) and a Rye Smile with rye, lemon and mint. I’d heard nothing but raves for the drinks at Nopa so I ventured there for brunch with David Corbett. I can thus sing the praises of the California perfect Sunshine Fix (aperol, gin, lemon and Angostura bitters). If you’re dining around the corner from the Castro at Poesia – and you should – order yourself a La Dolce Vita made with Jack Daniel’s and Amaretto. My primary contribution to this year’s Noir City will come on Friday night when, naturally, I won’t be there. Cocktails at the Castro that evening will be made with Giffard liqueurs and by Erik Hakkinen, the Giffard rep in the U.S. whose secret identity is bartender at my haunt the Zig Zag Café. Should you find yourself at the theater, be sure to sample his handiwork – then tell him to get back up here and make me a drink.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Bensonhurst

What better way to follow up the Brooklyn than with one of the many innovative tributes to that occasionally elusive classic? Particularly one that makes use of that bottle of Cynar I cracked open a few weeks back.

Chad Solomon, formerly of New York’s Milk & Honey and the Pegu Club and one of the founders of the catering and consulting firm Cuffs & Buttons, crafted this concoction in 2006. By then twists on the Brooklyn had already become a cottage industry. Unlike most of its Kings County brethren, the Bensonhurst honors its progenitor by keeping the dry vermouth. In place of Amer Picon Solomon opted for the artichoke liqueur Cynar to acknowledge the long Italian-American history of the namesake neighborhood.

In his quest to create what he dubbed “a tough-guy drink,” Solomon also devised a true connoisseur’s cocktail. The Bensonhurst is rye forward, but the other flavors remain very much in evidence. You’ll find more maraschino in a Red Hook – Solomon called for a very precise two tablespoons in his original recipe – but its presence is a constant. The vermouth smoothes the edges and permits Cynar’s herbaceous quality to sneak in for a bow. One variation suggests merely rinsing the glass with the liqueur, but I prefer to have Cynar’s bitter complexity in every sip down to the last. The traditional version doesn’t have a garnish. I tossed in a cherry because I had one and nobody got hurt.

The Bensonhurst

Chad Solomon, New York City

2 oz. rye
1 oz. dry vermouth
1/3 oz. maraschino
1/4 oz. Cynar

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a cherry if you feel like it.

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

Friday, January 10, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Brooklyn

It’s one of the great ironies of the classic cocktail renaissance that the drink best showcasing the movement’s ingenuity does so because of how often it can’t be made.

Once upon a time the Brooklyn might have given the Manhattan, named for a neighboring borough of New York City, a run for its money in terms of popularity. The cocktail allegedly devised at Kings County’s Hotel St. George riffed on its better-known predecessor, adding maraschino to the mix of rye and dry vermouth. One curiosity regarding that last ingredient: PDT’s Jim Meehan cites Jack’s Manual, a 1910 book by Jacob A. Grohusko, as the earliest appearance of the Brooklyn. But the recipe as it appears in Grohusko’s guide calls for equal parts rye and Italian (sweet) vermouth, pushing the formula even closer to that of the Manhattan. The vermouth was listed as the now-standard French variety in 1930’s Savoy Cocktail Book, playing second fiddle to the whiskey (Canadian Club in the Savoy, but trust me, you’ll want rye). When this change occurred is a mystery to me.

It’s what replaces the Manhattan’s bitters that is the Brooklyn’s elusive element. Amer Picon is a dense orange liqueur created by France’s Gaéton Picon in 1837. Picon (the amer, not the Frenchman) wasn’t all that easy to acquire back in the Brooklyn’s heyday and has not been exported to the United States in some time; as I have recounted, it can be difficult to put your hands on a bottle in la belle France. The stuff was scarce enough in 1948 for David Embury to suggest in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks substituting Angostura bitters – which would mean you were making a dry Manhattan with a whisper of maraschino. Further complicating matters was the reformulation of Amer Picon in the 1970s, reducing the alcohol content and altering the flavor.

Bartenders rose to the challenge by improvising. Some deployed Torani Amer syrup seasoned with orange bitters. Seattle’s own Jamie Boudreau concocted his own version based on the amaro Ramazzotti. But the greatest flowering of creativity came simply by working around Picon’s absence. The previous decade spawned a host of Brooklyn-inspired drinks christened after the borough’s neighborhoods, among them the Greenpoint and my all-time favorite cocktail the Red Hook. You can even head across the river for an applejack variation in the Newark, provided of course you can clear the George Washington Bridge.

But now there’s another option that gets you closer to what Jack Grohusko would have whipped up prior to Prohibition. The amer China-China was cooked up by Felix and Louis Bigallet in 1875 at the family’s Lyon distillery. Like Amer Picon, it combines orange peels with cinchona, gentian and other spices. Unlike Amer Picon, it is being sold in the United States as of 2013. It’s also 80 proof, compared to the original Picon’s 78 proof formula. Think of it as a boozier, more viscous variety of present-day Picon with a more pronounced orange flavor. The ready availability of Bigallet’s China-China – I picked up my bottle at Whole Foods – means that a host of vintage libations that in recent years had been solely the province of craft cocktail bars can now be prepared at home. The Brooklyn is the ideal place to start.

The Brooklyn

2 oz. rye
¾ oz. dry vermouth
¼ oz. maraschino
¼ oz. Bigallet China-China amer (in place of Amer Picon)

Stir. Strain. No garnish.

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

Monday, January 06, 2014

Miscellaneous: Youngman with a Horn

It’s a side effect of being obsessed with show business. Every time I meet someone who shares the same last name as somebody famous, I think, “Maybe they’re related!” Just a way to make my humdrum life more exciting. It never turns out to be true.

Until my first day in the video game business. I was introduced to the project’s lead designer Jim Youngman and thought, “Maybe he’s the grandson of Henny Youngman, the legendary comedian! The King of the One Liners! The featured attraction at the end of that spectacular tracking shot through the Copacabana in Goodfellas!” Not that I asked him about it. I knew how ridiculous the idea was.

But over the next few weeks, Jim would say things that kept me wondering. The clincher was when he mentioned that his father had edited The Horror of Party Beach, which had turned up on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I did some research and came to our next meeting flabbergasted. “You are Henny Youngman’s grandson!”

Jim happily acknowledged the connection. “Not a lot of people my age know Henny,” he said. But Jim and his father Gary, an accomplished editor and documentarian, are trying to change that.

They’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to finish a documentary about one of the all-time great comics. Take My Life ... Please! features classic Henny Youngman performances, new interviews with contemporaries like Milton Berle, Jan Murray and Stiller & Meara, and exclusive footage of Henny shot late in the comedian’s life. I’m backing it. So is Mark Evanier, your one-stop shop for all things showbiz. And so should you.