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