Friday, February 28, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: Up In Mabel’s Room

The Academy Awards are on Sunday, so why not spotlight another cocktail named after a movie? Even if I’ve already featured one that’s damn near identical.

Up In Mabel’s Room is a 1919 play co-written by Wilson Collison and Otto Harbach, better known as a lyricist (“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”) and mentor to Oscar Hammerstein. You can hear the plot mechanics creaking from the description: a wife divorces her husband upon discovering he’s secretly bought ladies’ unmentionables only to learn they were intended as her anniversary gift, so she sets out to woo him back. It’s like a navy strength episode of Three’s Company.

The stage smash was adapted to the screen twice. The 1926 film starred Marie Prevost, who was for a time Ernst Lubitsch’s leading lady of choice, and Harrison Ford. No, not him. The other Harrison Ford. (Admit it. You didn’t know there was an other Harrison Ford.) Allan Dwan directed the 1944 version, starring Marjorie Reynolds, Jack Oakie and Dennis O’Keefe. Here’s where things turn weird. In addition to being the author of the novel that spawned the Maisie series of comedies, Wilson Collison proved himself to be the laureate of lingerie. He co-wrote another farce revolving around an article of women’s underwear with one of history’s greatest titles: Getting Gertie’s Garter. That play was also filmed twice. The star and director of the 1926 Mabel’s Room reteamed one year later for Garter – and so would Dwan and O’Keefe in 1945.

Both stage and screen incarnations of Mabel’s Room are largely forgotten. The drink deserves a better fate. Its initial appearance came in the Cocktail Guide and Ladies Companion by Broadway producer and bon vivant Crosby Gaige. The recipe, at least as it appeared in the book’s 1944 edition, called for rye, grapefruit juice and honey. In other words, it’s a Brown Derby (aka a De Rigueur) with a different base spirit (rye instead of bourbon). While the Brown Derby still has its adherents – I spotted it on a restaurant’s cocktail list this week – its doppelganger has fallen out of circulation. I rediscovered it thanks to Dark Spirits by A. J. Rathbun. The modern take uses simple syrup in place of honey; while I would never make that substitution in a Brown Derby given bourbon’s inherent sweetness, it works fine with a typically drier rye. In Mabel’s Room the citrus and the sweetener come in generous, equal portions that still allow the grapefruit’s tartness to shine through. Personally I prefer the Brown Derby, but that one doesn’t have any scanties in its scant history.

Up in Mabel’s Room

1 ½ oz. rye
¾ oz. grapefruit juice
¾ oz. simple syrup

Shake. 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

Friday, February 21, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: Tales of the White Negroni

At the heart of this week’s entry lies a temptress known as Suze. Her wiles are such that I haven’t actually tasted the drink this post is putatively about, much less prepared it myself. Instead I offer two variations that attempt to carry on in her absence.

Suze is made with a species of the flowering plant gentian. According to Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist, gentian’s use for medicinal purposes dates back to 1200 BC. The plant is harvested at an age when its roots weigh several pounds. The bitterness of those roots informs a host of liqueurs including Campari and Aperol, but in Suze it’s the whole show. I’ve tasted Suze. The best word for its flavor is funky. Additional tidbits about Suze –

- It’s beloved in France, where gentian grows in the mountains, but has only been commercially available in the United States since 2012.

- It comes in a bottle approximately the size of the torpedoes from which Joaquin Phoenix got his squeezings in The Master.

- In Washington State, one of those bottles will run you about seventy dollars.

- As the product of a Catholic union household, I cannot in good conscience drop seventy dollars on a mammoth bottle of liqueur possessing a taste I am inclined to describe as funky.

- Craft cocktail bartenders in Washington State are also galled by that price, particularly when they know you can pick up a bottle of Suze in Parisian supermarkets for the spare Euros found in the couch cushions. So plenty of craft cocktails bars don’t have Suze, either.

The Fatty 'Cue White Negroni
All of which comes as a disappointment in light of the growing popularity of a drink called the White Negroni. Created by U.K. bartender Wayne Collins in 2002, the drink riffs playfully on the basic structure of the Negroni: gin/aromatized wine/potable bitters. The relative scarcity (and high price) of Suze has led others to tinker with that formula even further. Several of those later innovations, mercifully, all use ingredients I happened to have on hand.

First up was a variation from Michael Dietsch of Serious Eats. Dietsch used Cocchi Americano in place of Lillet Blanc, which is now my default substitution, along with dry vermouth. My contribution: grapefruit bitters. The drink certainly qualifies as white – I’ve had martinis that aren’t as clear as this – and its crisp, cool taste is bolstered by the presence of grapefruit. But I longed for some additional bitterness.

More to my liking was the White Negroni credited to the New York restaurant Fatty ‘Cue. As in Dietsch’s drink, they use gin (favoring Plymouth), Cocchi Americano, and dry vermouth. They also throw in my old favorite, celery bitters, then push the result more toward the Negroni camp with the addition of the artichoke liqueur Cynar. (Fatty ‘Cue also garnishes the glass with a fennel frond, which is the kind of flash I leave to the professionals.) It’s more herbal than Dietsch’s cocktail but still possesses a bright, clean taste. This is the one I’ll make when I wonder what a White Negroni with Suze might be like.

The White Negroni I’ve Never Actually Had

Wayne Collins, London

2 oz. Plymouth gin
1 oz. Lillet Blanc
¾ oz. Suze

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist.

The White Negroni, Variation #1

Michael Dietsch, Serious Eats

1 oz. gin
1 oz. Cocchi Americano
½ oz. dry vermouth
2 dashes grapefruit bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist.

The White Negroni, Fatty ‘Cue Edition

Fatty ‘Cue, New York

1 ½ oz. gin
¾ oz. Cocchi Americano
½ oz. dry vermouth
¼ oz. Cynar
2 dashes celery bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist, or a fennel frond if you have that kind of time.

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, February 19, 2014

Movies: It Always Rains on Noir City Seattle

A scant two weeks after the big top folded in San Francisco, the Noir City carnival rolled into Seattle. Much of the Bay Area’s company of players reassembled: ringmaster Eddie Muller, the redoubtable Daryl Sparks working her usual magic behind the scenes and at the swag table, Tokyo’s stylish noir aficionado supreme Etsuko Tamazawa, the missus and yours truly. Also on hand was this year’s program, a cherce complement of films from around the world attesting to the fact that film noir, even in the middle of the last century, was a truly global phenomenon.

Amidst the filmgoing, there were copious amounts of socializing and strategizing. The latter has heaped quite a bit more on my plate, so herewith are truncated highlights. There is a twist ending, though, because it just ain’t noir without a sting in the tail.

Death is a Caress (Norway, 1949). The first half of what is surely the most perverse Valentine’s Day double bill ever programmed. A Scandinavian riff on James M. Cain (note the note on the homme fatale’s doorbell to “ring twice”), directed by a woman (Edith Carlmar) and made in a country with no production code and a more tolerant attitude toward infidelity. Aimless young man takes up with sexually aggressive, wealthy older married woman. Murder is never plotted, yet doom hangs in the air. A bracing lesson in gender politics. It took a while to recover from the shock of seeing characters in a 1940s film speak openly about abortion.

Death of a Cyclist (Spain, 1955). Think working for the studios in the heyday of the Hays Office was a tricky proposition? Try making societal critiques under Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Part two of the Nobody’s Getting Laid This Valentine’s Day line-up, this film from director/co-writer Juan Antonio Bardem (uncle of Javier) is a scathing critique of bourgeois privilege. Returning from a tryst, a married woman and her ex-fiancé are involved in a hit and run accident. An oily hanger-on in their circle (the spectacular Carlos Casaravilla – think a sinister Oscar Levant) insinuates that he knows all. The film eventually gets bogged down in philosophizing en route to an ending at once predictable and brazen, but its opening forty-five minutes is supple, modern, and brimming with both style and righteous anger.

Hardly a Criminal (Argentina, 1949). Bank clerk José (Jorge Salcedo), addicted to gambling, isn’t above dipping into the till to cover his losses. When he realizes Argentine law means he’ll serve the same six-year sentence no matter how much he steals, he goes for broke and deliberately gets caught, planning to do his time then live high. What he doesn’t figure on is how his actions will affect his family – and how his fellow inmates will cotton to his clever crime. A blast of pure, straight-ahead noir that you could easily see being made Stateside. Little wonder the chops on display here brought director Hugo Fregonese to Hollywood.

The Murderers Are Among Us (Germany, 1946). A day of films shot from 1946 to 1948 as war clouds were dissipating began with a landmark, the first movie made in Germany after Berlin fell. (As Eddie said when introducing Japan’s Drunken Angel, contemplate what noir means in the countries that lost World War II.) A concentration camp prisoner (Hildegard Knef) returns to her ruined flat to find an alcoholic doctor squatting there. Even as her presence awakens something in him, it also leads to the discovery that his brutal former commanding officer is prospering as Germany starts to rebuild. An astonishing artifact filmed guerilla-style in the rubble, it’s only slightly compromised by its compelling history. (Production had to be backed by one of the city’s occupying powers. Only the Soviets stepped up, but they insisted on changes in the script. Later the Americans arrested lead actor Wilhelm Borchert for falsifying information on his papers, jeopardizing imposed reshoots.)

It Always Rains on Sunday (England, 1947). A movie I’d missed in repertory screenings for years, finally viewed on a Sunday – when it was raining! Kismet! The revelation of the festival, Sunday captures a day of supposed rest in London’s East End as the city copes with war’s aftermath. The script by director Robert Hamer, Hitchcock collaborator Angus MacPhail and Henry Cornelius weaves together a mosaic of stories all anchored by the tale of an escaped convict seeking temporary sanctuary at the home of his now-married former flame played by a magnificent Googie Withers. A powerhouse of a film.

I promised a twist, didn’t I? Turns out master of ceremonies Muller would not be available to present the President’s Day roster of French noir. Not wanting to disappoint the crowd, he asked Rosemarie and me to stand in for him. A tall order, considering he was just named a host on Turner Classic Movies, but who could deny the man who’s done so much to preserve film noir? We suited up – I put on a tie, people, I got my shoes shined – and set about our task in earnest.

What made it easier than expected was the quartet of movies we were fortunate enough to introduce. Pépé Le Moko (1937), with Jean Gabin incarnating the essence of la belle France as the gangster who yearns for home from his aerie in the Casbah of Algiers. Rififi (1955), perhaps the definitive heist film. Une si jolie petite plage (Such a Pretty Little Beach, aka Riptide, 1949) the wild card of the bunch, a bleak, elliptical story of a mysterious young man who haunts an off-season resort village with a memorable lead performance by Gérard Philipe, France’s James Dean. And finally, one of my personal favorites, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Quai des Orfévres or Jenny Lamour, a saucy tour of the demimonde of Paris music halls. This movie has everything: sex, love, suspense, humor, and an inspired ending. It was the perfect way to ring down the curtain. To have some small part in bringing this peerless gem to a new audience was an honor. But honestly, I don’t understand how Muller does this night in and night out. Rosemarie and I were exhausted at the end of our tour of duty, and we were sharing the workload. Still, we’d do it again.

Austin, you’re up next. Get ready.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Blood and Sand

They’re not many in number, Scotch cocktails, and understandably so. Scotch whisky, whether smoky or peaty, is a lonely, Brontë-esque figure on the moors, demanding to be savored in solitude. The one or two drinks I’ve spotlighted using this spirit don’t stray far from the Manhattan. But the cocktail that shows Scotch to its best advantage moves in a completely different direction, and is in my personal pantheon. Naysayers who don’t believe Scotch mixes well be warned: no less an authority than Ted Haigh, in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, calls the drink “revelatory.”

Blood and Sand began as a 1908 novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. The tale of a young bullfighter undone by success, it would be brought to the screen by the author himself in 1916. Six years later, a Paramount Pictures adaptation would cement the fame of Rudolph Valentino; the actor later identified the role as his favorite and the performance as his best. A 1941 remake starring Tyrone Power and Rita Hayworth was also a hit. As for the 1989 Spanish-made version inexplicably starring Sharon Stone, this much can be said: it exists. Both the 1922 and 1941 films spawned comic send-ups by name talents, first Stan Laurel’s “Mud and Sand” (in which he plays Rhubarb Vaselino) then the Three Stooges’ immortal “What’s The Matador?”

Valentino’s triumph also gave rise to the cocktail. Its exact origin is unknown, but the recipe first appeared in Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book (1930). The inspiration carries over to the ingredients, with orange juice representing the sand and the rich red of Cherry Heering serving as sanguinary element. Springing for a bottle of this extraordinarily flavorful brandy has allowed me at last to make this drink at home.

The Blood and Sand was initially an equally parts cocktail, and many bartenders still prepare it this way; A.J. Rathbun in Dark Spirits cleverly suggests making it as a punch. The redoubtable gaz regan ups the OJ ante and serves it as a brunch highball. I prefer it with an emphasis on the whisky, leading to the question of which brand to use. You’ll want a light single-malt or a blended. Famous Grouse is the default choice at the bars where I regularly order it, but following a run on the product at my local liquor store I sent Bank Note Blended (containing a higher than usual 40% single malt yet at a price that won’t gore you) into the ring in its suit of lights and it brought the crowd to its feet waving white handkerchiefs. A sterling replacement.

The Blood and Sand

1 ½ oz. Scotch
¾ oz. orange juice
½ oz. Cherry Heering
½ oz. sweet vermouth

Shake. 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

Friday, February 07, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Queens

Years after leaving the city, I still identify myself as a New Yorker. My latent municipal pride extends to highlighting drinks named for the Big Apple’s boroughs. I’ve covered the Manhattan. I’ve showcased the Bronx in its bitters-blessed form, the Income Tax. I paid homage to an array of Brooklyn-inspired cocktails until I was finally able to feature the original.

Yet I’d never honored the borough of my birth. (Sorry, Staten Island. You’re on your own.) Queens is the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world. Think of it as an EPCOT Center with two airports and a baseball team to which I remain inexplicably devoted. The lapse wasn’t caused by neglect but ignorance; I didn’t even know there was a Queens cocktail. Then I discovered there was, and didn’t want to try it.

The Queens is made with pineapple, the fruit that is, of course, synonymous with the borough. Queens is lousy with them. The impossibly fragrant ones of Bayside, the hearty stripe grown in Jackson Heights, the dense, almost smoky variety found only in darkest Maspeth. For generations pineapples were accepted as currency from Astoria to Flushing. Legend has it that before the epochal Game Six of the 1986 World Series, a towering effigy of Boston Red Sox closer Calvin Schiraldi made entirely of pineapples was erected in the barren auto yards of Willets Point and set ablaze, to be consumed by hordes of Mets fans – rinds, fronds, and all. Neither I nor my gastroenterologist will vouch for this story.

What is known is that the Queens cocktail, like the Bronx, is a perfect martini with fruit juice. It has long been assumed that some uppity barkeep on the wrong side of the East River decided the neighborhood needed a libation of its own and simply swapped the Bronx’s orange for pineapple. Or so said the few articles on this neglected drink.

I consulted Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book and made an alarming discovery. A drink with the same ingredients (calling for a slice of crushed pineapple instead of the juice) does appear in its pages – where it’s listed as the Queen’s Cocktail. As in possessive. As in belonging to Her Majesty. Such is the way of history; first you lose your apostrophes, then your empire. Being affiliated with royalty still doesn’t explain why pineapple is involved. I can only assume Captain James Cook presented one of the fruits at court and when asked what should be done with it replied, “Beats me. Soak it in gin and serve it to the old broad?” (For the purposes of this historical reenactment, Captain Cook is a graduate of Archbishop Molloy High School.)

So the drink in all likelihood has nothing to do with my old stomping grounds, and the combination of pineapple and dry vermouth calls to mind the Algonquin, of which I am not a fan. But something, perhaps this recent article on the evolution of the store where I used to buy my comic books, compelled me to sample the Queens anyway.

While some recipes suggest equal parts, I chose proportions closer to those of the Bronx. Your mileage will most definitely vary, considering the potency of pineapple’s flavor. My immediate reaction was to say if I wanted fruit in my perfect Martini I’d rather have a Bronx, and even then I’d still prefer a Manhattan. It’s not a bad drink; its taste grew on me as it settled. But it wouldn’t occur to me to order one, and I’m from Queens. I could see tinkering with the balance, though, out of perverse loyalty to my birthplace.

Shame about Staten Island not having a drink, though. Did you know the borough was originally called Richmond?

Wait, there’s a Richmond cocktail? Hmm ...

The Queens, or The Queen’s, or The Fuhgeddaboudit

1 ½ oz. gin
1 oz. pineapple juice
¾ oz. sweet vermouth
¾ oz. dry vermouth

Shake. 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