Friday, March 28, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Liberal

A few years ago, prior to one of my periodic trips back to New York, I stopped by my usual haunt to ask the crew where I should bend an elbow. They suggested one bar in particular. Good drinks, good people, lots of buzz. Then they asked me to prank the place.

“Go in, tell them we said hello,” I was instructed. “At some point, a round or two in, order a Liberal.” The cocktail is made with Amer Picon, the bitter orange liqueur from France which regular readers know can be tough to acquire. Said Big Apple bar had a bottle of Picon prominently displayed on their shelf.

And there, I was told, it would stay. “It’s just for show. They refuse to open it because they’re afraid they won’t get any more. So go in, ask for a Liberal, and tell us what they say.”

Subterfuge on behalf of my home away from home. Who was I to say no?

I entered the bar in question and spotted the Amer Picon exactly where I was told it would be. I began with a superb house drink. A highly competent bartender asked, “What’s next?” Ice water in my veins and nary a quaver in my voice, I suggested a Liberal.

The highly competent bartender didn’t bat an eye. “That’s a good one. The Zig Zag makes those beautifully, don’t they? But they use a very specific type of bitters and we’re out of them. Let me fix you something like it I think you’ll enjoy.”

He did, and I did. In Seattle I relayed my report, which was met with nods of approval. “Blaming the bitters? That’s a smart play.”

Now that Bigallet’s China-China amer is being imported to the United States, Amer Picon is no longer the problem. It’s the rest of the Liberal that’s giving me fits.

The recipe as it first appeared in George J. Kappeler’s Modern American Drinks (1895) couldn’t be simpler: “one dash syrup, half a jigger Amer Picon bitters, half a jigger whiskey ... a small piece of lemon peel on top.” Maybe too simple; half whiskey and half Picon isn’t the modern version. We’re a bit closer by the time of Albert Stevens Crockett’s 1931 Old Waldorf Bar Days, which drops the syrup, adds a crucial missing ingredient – the drink is now half whiskey and half sweet vermouth – but scales the Picon down to a mere three dashes, which hardly seems worth the trouble of flying back from Marseilles with several bottles taped to your chest.

The China-China burning a hole in my liquor cabinet, I set out to find an acceptable contemporary variation and was flummoxed. Rye had become the default whiskey choice, but aside from that the recipes frequently contradicted each other. One called for equal parts rye and vermouth while preserving Crockett’s minimal quantity of Picon. Another was spirit-forward but boasted equivalent, hefty portions of vermouth and amer. The whiskey was too dominant in my initial attempt. What was the formula for the lovely, balanced cocktail I’d enjoyed in the past?

So I did something I’d never done before. I reached out to the man who’d made many of those cocktails and contributed mightily to the Liberal’s revival, bartending icon Murray Stenson.

Professional that he is, Murray replied to my question with more questions. Bourbon or rye? Which sweet vermouth? Amer Picon or ... ? The ryes I favor are robust, so Murray suggested an equally sturdy vermouth like Carpano Antica Formula. Which, naturally, I didn’t have. That meant only one thing: trial and error.

My next Liberal paired James E. Pepper’s 1776 straight rye whiskey with Cocchi Vermouth di Torino. It was a very good drink, but these elements were almost too similar. Their spiciness echoed each other and overwhelmed the China-China, even with a dash of orange bitters to bolster the citrus notes.

For Liberal Number 3 (a phrase previously only heard on the MSNBC version of The Dating Game), I opted for Rittenhouse bonded rye and a vermouth with some feistiness, Punt e Mes, along with Angostura bitters. Result: pay dirt. The Angostura provided a solid foundation, the cleaner taste of the rye giving the amer room to run. Murray told me the Liberal recipe “just depends.” But with the master’s formula in hand, you can continue to experiment.

Unless I’m pranking you. Or he’s pranking me.

The Liberal

Murray Stenson variation

1 ¾ oz. robust whiskey (rye)
¼ oz. sweet vermouth (Murray suggests Carpano Antica Formula)
¼ oz. Bigallet China-China amer (in place of Amer Picon)
1-2 dashes orange or Angostura bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with an orange 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, March 26, 2014

Miscellaneous: Assorted March Recommendations

You Must Remember This: Life and Style in Hollywood’s Golden Age, by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman (2014). You know you’re getting a true inside Hollywood perspective when your guide ends an appreciation of the home owned by longtime friend Harold Lloyd by remarking “I shot episodes of Switch and Hart to Hart there.”

Robert Wagner has lived in Los Angeles for 75 years. His new book (co-written with Eyman, whose biography of John Wayne is out next week) represents an attempt “to document a way of life that has vanished as surely as birch bark canoes. And I want to do this before the colors fade.” The colors aren’t fading for Wagner yet; he can still recall what he paid for his cocktails at a host of now-shuttered Tinseltown night spots, including an exorbitant dollar fifty for a French 75 at the Trocadero, and conjures up his first meeting with Judy Garland, singing at a party at Clifton Webb’s house, with immediacy.

Wagner keeps the book light but also laments the press’s current adversarial relationship with their celebrity subjects and how, with the emphasis on the bottom line, “the movie business has been converted from a long game to a short game.” But there’s little room for grousing when there are parties to attend and polo matches to play. The names from a bygone era he casually reels off – Chasen’s, Ciro’s, the Brown Derby – are still, for some of us, an incantation charged with magic, and Wagner knows how to cast the spell. He has a gentleman’s eye for refinement and strikes an effortlessly rueful tone, a pleasing combination. The book is like uncorking a bottle of wine and having one of TV’s most debonair presences regale you with stories.

Sorcerer (1977). Director William Friedkin’s adaptation of the novel that inspired Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear had the misfortune to open a few weeks after Star Wars and never recouped its budget. It fared no better critically at first, but its reputation improved over the decades; I know plenty of people who prefer it to the Clouzot film. This change of fortune came about in spite of the fact that for years Sorcerer was essentially out of circulation, with no decent print available.

Thanks largely to legal action by Friedkin against the studios involved, the situation has improved. A 4K digital restoration of Sorcerer is in limited release prior to its Blu-Ray debut. Seeing the film on the big screen confirms that Friedkin’s take on the tale of four outcasts forced to ferry volatile explosives overland is one of the most intense films ever made, with the justly-celebrated rope bridge sequence easily a masterpiece of action. It’s almost unfair to compare Sorcerer to Wages as the two are so different, but if pressed I’d give the nod to Wages – with the proviso that Sorcerer has a much, much better ending.

Stranger by the Lake (U.S. 2014). Henceforth, whenever I’m asked to provide an example of Aristotle’s unity of time, place and action – it happens more than you think – I’m pointing to this film, which won the Un Certain Regard directing prize for Alain Guiraudie at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Unless my interlocutor objects to repeated shots of the male orgasm, in which case we’re going to have a problem. Every scene unfolds along an isolated stretch of beach where gay men come to cruise. Franck (César award winner Pierre Deladonchamps) is drawn to the spoken-for Michel, lingering to watch him – and witnessing him murdering his lover. But knowing Michel’s secret only heightens the attraction. Guiraudie turns the limited locations into an advantage, using the arrangement of parked cars not only to convey exposition but heighten suspense. Highsmith meets Camus with copious male nudity in a thriller that mesmerizes down to the calculatedly oblique ending. Here’s the trailer.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Honeymoon

Nothing like paging through an old cocktail book and chancing upon a drink that sounds like it would suit your palate – and for which you possess all the ingredients. The quencher in question is the Honeymoon, the tome Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual. Only it isn’t.

The Honeymoon is one of a host of cocktails that first appears in a 1916 book with the pedestrian title Recipes for Mixed Drinks by Hugo Ensslin. Ensslin toiled behind the stick at the Wallick House in Times Square, described by David Wondrich in Imbibe! as “one of New York’s second-rank hotels.” While Ensslin may have lacked the chops to “earn him a place in the oral tradition of New York bar lore,” he performed a far greater service. He recorded how bartenders prepared drinks in the period prior to Prohibition, knowledge that would have otherwise been lost. Among the cocktails he preserved for posterity are the Aviation and the Deshler. The treasure trove of tipples he left behind greatly influenced Duffy and Harry Craddock of The Savoy Cocktail Book fame, both of whom plundered Recipes wholesale.

Despite its New York origins, the Honeymoon became a fixture on menus at Los Angeles’ Brown Derby restaurants, an impressive accomplishment considering they had their own signature cocktail. There’s a drink with the identical recipe called the Farmer’s Daughter. I want to say it’s named after the funky chalet-style hotel on Fairfax, but the dates don’t work.

An apple brandy sour with dual sweeteners, the Honeymoon has partisans who insist it be made with calvados. No doubt that’s an impressive version, but bonded applejack hasn’t disappointed me in this drink yet. The spirit-forward recipe below is from Jim Meehan’s PDT Cocktail Book. The apple’s crispness predominates, but is pleasantly modified by notes of citrus and a potent blast of sweetness courtesy of Bénédictine resulting in a fuller, rosier flavor. The Honeymoon is a blushing bride of a cocktail, a smart, tart beverage worthy of the attention given to many of the other drinks Hugo Ensslin remembered for us.

The Honeymoon

2 oz. apple brandy
½ oz. orange curaçao
½ oz. Bénédictine
½ oz. lemon juice

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, March 14, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Hotel Nacional Special

One of the joys of buying a new bottle for the home bar is the opportunity to recreate a perfect memory. Two years ago, I visited San Francisco’s temple of rum Smuggler’s Cove. There, I savored one of the finest cocktails I’ve ever had. With the purchase of some apricot brandy, as discussed last week, I was finally able to try my own hand at the drink.

Wil P. Taylor was the bar manager at the Waldorf-Astoria when Prohibition forced him to ply his trade in warmer if not more temperate climes. He assumed the same role at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana. Charles H. Baker, Jr., singing his praises in The Gentleman’s Companion, said Taylor was at his post in 1933 when the Cuban army “mighty near blasted a marvelous hotel off the map” in order to capture officers loyal to deposed president Gerardo Machado. Taylor, Baker notes, “kept right on managing just as if it had been old times!” In 1946, the Nacional would be the site of an infamous gathering of Mafia chieftains including Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, who would eventually strike a deal with Cuba’s president Fulgencio Batista to take over part of the hotel and open a casino there.

Taylor’s reputation was made with a cocktail perfected during his stint at the Nacional, which Baker would immortalize as “one of the three finest Bacardi drinks known to science.” It’s a daiquiri variation – in some circles it’s known as a Nacional Daiquiri – but what a variation. A few words on the ingredients.

Rum. Recipes call for either an aged or a white rum. Aged, obviously, is preferred. I used white.

Pineapple juice. For the most part, canned pineapple juice is viewed as an acceptable substitute in cocktails. I’d make an exception for the Hotel Nacional Special, where that intense flavor is the entire point. Hold out for fresh juice.

Apricot brandy. Again the question is raised of whether to use apricot brandy (read: a sweet apricot liqueur) or a drier eau de vie. Taylor, in his original recipe, specified “dry apricot brandy,” which would indicate the latter. I don’t have an eau de vie, so the choice was easy. Besides, the liqueur’s additional sweetness is far from an obstacle here, blending with the pineapple’s fulsomeness in splendid style.

Simple syrup. Reliable sources endorse using pineapple gomme syrup, a sweetener made with gum arabic, which combines the simple and the pineapple juice into a single element. I cannot speak to that innovation myself, but regular simple in conjunction with fresh pineapple juice worked magic.

Lime juice. Just regular fresh lime juice. Nothing to see here. Move along.

My rendition of the Hotel Nacional Special didn’t match the one served at Smuggler’s Cove in terms of sheer transcendence – they frothed a pineapple right in front of me, for God’s sake – but it was still a roaring success. The luxuriant taste of the pineapple crossed with the apricot’s sweet earthiness isn’t a memory any more. It’s only a few shakes away.

The Hotel Nacional Special

2 oz. rum
1 oz. pineapple juice
½ oz. lime juice
½ oz. simple syrup
¼ oz. apricot brandy

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a lime wheel.

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

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Keenan's Klassics: Coldblooded (1995)

A lot of irons in the fire these days, kids, so posts may be even more sporadic than usual. In the meantime, here’s an oldie but a goodie, an essay I wrote for Ray Banks’ late, lamented film site Norma Desmond’s Monkey in September 2011.

Now that the independent film cycle of the 1990s has receded into the mists of time, the truth can be told: the bulk of the movies it spawned simply don’t hold up. It’s true of any creative boom in which the inmates, however briefly, run the asylum. For all the splendors of the auteurist flowering of the 1970s, many of the films made during that period come across now as druggy and self-indulgent. The moral is don’t kick against the pricks, artsy types. A lot of you need a firm hand on the reins.

The Sundance craze of the ‘90s was ultimately co-opted by the studios with the result that the Coen Brothers stable of players turns up in the Transformers movies and the reward for demonstrating vision on a budget is being handed a superhero franchise. Independent film’s true legacy – intimate storytelling that isn’t afraid of dark places or protagonists – isn’t in theaters but on cable television. I will even posit that it was worth sitting through all of those grainy coming-of-age tales and different-drummer comedies so episodes of Louie could be pumped into millions of homes each week.

The truly interesting work in any movement is done in the margins, and no genre is more marginal than the crime comedy. Aside from the fact that Quentin Tarantino raised the form’s bar ridiculously high, there are too many opportunities for lazy transgression. Make the main character a hit man, as plenty of ‘90s filmmakers did, and you risk putting bigger fish in a smaller barrel.

Bringing us to Coldblooded. The movie wafted briefly into theaters in late summer 1995. The biggest name attached to the production was producer Michael J. Fox, who also surfaces in a cameo. It didn’t make much commercial impact, but I remember it with affection. A more recent film brought it to mind anew. Forget this year’s Jason Statham/Ben Foster update. Coldblooded is the actual remake of The Mechanic, replacing the original’s vaguely Mansonesque vibe with coffee shop quirkiness. And yet somehow it works.

The film was written and directed by M. Wallace Wolodarsky, who without the initial earned a place in comedy heaven for his work with partner Jay Kogen on the first four seasons of The Simpsons. (There’s a ‘90s staying power test. What would you rather rewatch, any Sundance prizewinner or “Lisa the Greek”?) Jason Priestley stars in an example of an indie film benefit I wouldn’t mind having back: the casting of recognizable TV actors in unlikely roles. One year later, Priestley’s Beverly Hills 90210 cohort Luke Perry would deliver the performance of his career opposite a sensational Ashley Judd in John McNaughton’s neglected low-budget true-crime tale Normal Life.

Priestley pushes deadpan to dangerous levels as Cosmo, a man-child who is essentially the ward of an unseen gangster. He’s perfectly content working as a bookie, seeing perfunctory prostitute Janeane Garofalo on the company dime, and living in the basement of a retirement home. (Cosmo’s dire digs are a triumph of production design, from the outdated appliances to the hideous mossy green stairs.) But when Cosmo’s benefactor dies, he’s forced into a new role in the organization: trigger man. The transition starts with an internship at the feet of the current holder of the position, the affable Steve (Peter Riegert).

Riegert is the rare actor who can mine humor out of being the voice of reason. Every few years he uses this gift to deliver a peerless comic turn. Local Hero will forever be the best known of these, but in Coldblooded he offers one of the great lost performances of the 1990s. His Steve is a cheerful tummler, eager to have a protégé to whom he can pass along his wisdom even though he knows it will mean his eventual replacement. He’s forthright about his profession, complete with little jokes he’s worked out – “Guns don’t kill people, we do,” followed by a used car salesman’s hearty chuckle – and helpful hints offered in front of victims. Riegert relishes the details of Steve’s middle class life: the procession of sports shirts that are a shade too gaudy, the petty grudges against the organization’s other men, the obsession with his car. To this day I recall Riegert’s precise pronunciation of “Cadillac Sedan de Ville” and his line about occasionally reading the newspaper behind the wheel in his driveway. But additional grace notes trace Steve’s slow unraveling, culminating in an authentically disturbing drunken late-night phone call with Cosmo that Steve can’t recall the following day.

Cosmo’s efforts to deal with the stresses of the position – including his natural aptitude for it – lead him to yoga and an instructor (Kimberly Williams) who needs to be rescued from loutish lover Josh Charles. Priestley plays his character as a down-market version of Peter Sellers in Being There in these scenes, Cosmo’s inexperience with women rendering him perfect boyfriend material. Case in point: his surrendering the TV remote to his paramour, the contemporary equivalent of a knight laying down his sword.

Coldblooded unfolds in a strangely depopulated Los Angeles reminiscent of a hipster hit man film from an earlier generation, Murder by Contract. The small cast, including Robert Loggia as the new capo, forces the plot to become somewhat mechanical. And no professional killer would use his own car on jobs, especially when, like Steve, he has everything in his ride set just the way he likes it. Coldblooded may ultimately seem like a slight film. But its easygoing charm and Priestley’s moving, minimalist performance coupled with Riegert’s richly nuanced one give it more heft than many of the trendy favorites of the era.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Claridge

Another Rubicon crossed, another benchmark bottle acquired.

Page through any vintage cocktail book, like the ones I cite incessantly, and apricot brandy appears with regularity. The drinks calling for it remain, for the most part, obscure. But everything old is new again in the cocktail renaissance. I’ve had several impressive drinks using the spirit, some classic and some contemporary. Possession being proof of commitment to the cause, the time had come for me to pick up some of my own. It was an easy decision to make now that Giffard’s once difficult to find Apricot du Roussillon (like Marie Brizard and other notable brands, technically a liqueur and not a brandy) is available in area supermarkets. I bought it mainly so at some point I could make both the Charlie Chaplin and the Douglas Fairbanks, thus completing the trifecta of tipples named for the founders of United Artists. But my first homemade apricot brandy cocktail had to be accessible – and, more importantly, consist of other ingredients I already had on hand.

Enter the Claridge. Its namesake, surprisingly, is not the London hotel that was birthplace of the Hanky Panky and current target of a nasty takeover fight. Instead the cocktail hails from the Continent; gaz regan relays its Parisian provenance. The Savoy Cocktail Book includes both the Claridge and a drink with the identical recipe called the Frankenjack, likely after a New York speakeasy called Frank and Jack’s according to Erik Ellestad of the essential Savoy Stomp.

Proportions vary depending on the recipe, but the ratio of ingredients (gin, dry vermouth, triple sec, apricot brandy) remains 2:2:1:1. There are differing schools of thought on the garnish: lemon twist, cherry, or none. I went with the first. Like gaz I’m a “hog for bitters” and tossed in a dash per his suggestion. The resulting cocktail was a lovely, delicate rose of a drink, balancing the flavors of apricot and orange with the aid of a hint of Angostura.

Mentioning the Claridge on Facebook brought admirers out of the woodwork. Cale Green of Seattle’s Sun Liquor said the drink was “amazing” with an apricot eau de vie, or “water of life” in French, a purer essence of the fruit made by distilling fermented apricot mash. I stopped in at the Zig Zag where several compatriots raved about that preparation of the drink sans bitters. Every day’s a school day, as my friend Ray Banks says, so I ordered a Claridge with eau de vie. The drink was a marvel, extremely dry with a fruit taste both pronounced and crisp.

And yet ... for the first time, I preferred the cocktail I made at home. The bitters and the brandy gave it more character, even if it was a bit raucous and rough-hewn. That’s a sign I’ve developed as a cocktail enthusiast more impressive than any bottle I own: I’m starting to like my own drinks.

The Claridge

1 oz. gin
1 oz. dry vermouth
½ oz. triple sec (I used Cointreau)
½ oz. apricot brandy
1 dash Angostura bitters (optional)

Stir. Strain. 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, March 05, 2014

On The Web: Amble to Ambler

My friend Ethan Iverson, pianist in The Bad Plus and crime/thriller fiction connoisseur, has written another of his brilliant overviews of a single writer’s work, in this case the great Eric Ambler. I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek, and honored to make a meager contribution. Go read it, because I guarantee it will be the only time I ever share space with the legendary Len Deighton.