Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Book: John Wayne: The Life and Legend, by Scott Eyman (2014)

At the heart of this mammoth biography lies a simple piece of psychology that explains what may be the greatest career in movie history. John Wayne, born Marion Morrison, insisted that everybody call him Duke for a reason. Here’s the man himself making the point:

“I know (John Wayne) well. I’m one of his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.”

And here’s Scott Eyman’s version: “In Wayne’s own mind, he was Duke Morrison. John Wayne was to him what the Tramp was to Charlie Chaplin – a character that overlapped his own personality, but not to the point of subsuming it.”

That tension animates Eyman’s opus, almost elevating it to the level of case study. Duke wasn’t merely a nickname, it was a boundary. Or, in the Duke’s parlance, a frontier. He was forever conscious of crossing it, and patrolled it rigorously. It chafed when other actors didn’t do likewise; he was disturbed by Robert Montgomery’s acclaimed turn as a killer in Night Must Fall (1937), feeling Montgomery betrayed the audience’s trust, and told Kirk Douglas (who goaded Wayne by insisting on calling him “John”) after a screening of Lust for Life, “We got to play strong, tough characters. Not these weak queers.” But like a veteran scout Duke knew every inch of that frontier’s terrain, sensing where the shadows were darkest and tapping into them to enrich performances like Red River and The Searchers. (If only he’d taken that offer to co-star with Clint Eastwood in a western written by my hero Larry Cohen.)

This constant tending to his alter ego led to a lot of lousy movies, and Eyman watched them all. (He even made it the end of both The Alamo and The Green Berets.) He pays particular attention to the run of middling Poverty Row oaters Wayne made following the failure of 1930’s The Big Trail, those low-budget years honing his chops, forging his persona – and building an audience in what’s now dismissed as flyover country. His return to prominence in John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach surprised only the critical establishment; as Eyman notes, “Wayne may not have been a star in New York, but he was assuredly a star in Waco and Rockville and Atlanta.” Ron Howard, who appeared in Wayne’s final film The Shootist, said the actor “respected the fact that I had come out of TV. Early on, he said to me, ‘I came out of cheap westerns, and that was the TV of our time.’ He liked the unpretentious work ethic of television, where you have to finish it by Friday.”

Wayne is still remembered and even caricatured for his conservative politics. As he did with his previous book on Cecil B. DeMille, Eyman humanizes an imposing, almost monolithic figure without pulling punches. Wayne was a member of the John Birch Society (although he didn’t buy their fears about fluoridation and the “horseshit” charge Ike was a Red) who uttered cringe-worthy comments about race in a notorious 1971 Playboy interview. But the same man who offered that unwanted advice to Kirk Douglas also said of Rock Hudson’s sexual orientation, “It never bothered me. Life’s too short. Who the hell cares if he’s queer? The man plays great chess.” His Rooster Cogburn co-star Katherine Hepburn had the poor-boy-made-good’s number when she said, “He suffers from a point of view based entirely on his own experience.”

Duke Morrison was generous and loyal to a fault, famously democratic to cast and crew. He relished debate while respecting others’ opinions. Before work started on In Harm’s Way, Otto Preminger told Wayne anyone over thirty has their mind made up about politics and suggested they not try to convert each other. Wayne happily agreed, and the director found him “the most cooperative actor.” Eyman spends considerable time on a series of elegiac commercials Wayne made at the end of his career with the staunchly liberal Haskell Wexler – the man made Medium Cool, for Christ’s sake – recounting how some retrograde views the actor voiced early in production upset a female crew member. Wayne was crushed to have hurt her feelings and eventually won her over; decades later she calls him “a charming chauvinist” while Wexler dubs him “a principled reactionary.” French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier tweaks his leftist friends by praising Wayne over the more politically simpatico Marlon Brando, saying Wayne was the more intelligent film actor and while Brando at his apex “specialized in terrible movies and ridiculous accents,” Wayne used his power to make the best work of his career.

Much of Wayne’s legacy is based on the films he made with John Ford, and Eyman digs deep into the truly perverse collaboration between the actor and the director he called “Coach.” Ford regularly humiliated the actor in front of the company, even after they’d worked together for decades, and Wayne gamely took it. But the results of that tortured relationship played out on TCM all of last week. You may disagree with John Wayne’s views, but by the end of Eyman’s book you’ll like Duke Morrison. (Ward Bond, on the other hand? Total shitheel.)

In 1970, Wayne produced and hosted a TV special called Swing Out, Sweet Land. Eyman calls this vaudeville-style history of America “a time capsule of a special kind of show business hell.” With Dean Martin as Eli Whitney, and the Doodletown Pipers singing the entire Declaration of Independence. Naturally, the whole thing’s on YouTube.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Charlie Chaplin

There’s no business like show business. It is truly dissimilar to any other enterprise with which I am familiar, as the old song says. For that reason, the Charlie Chaplin – the first cocktail named for a movie star – has always fascinated me, even though I’ve never seen it on a menu and have yet to hear anyone even order one. I knew when I started this quixotic quest that the Charlie Chaplin lay near the end of it. Considering this is the centenary year of his film debut, I should have featured it around Charlie’s birthday on April 16. But I’d already promised to make you a Millionaire in honor of tax day. As it happens, the two drinks are mighty similar.

Chaplin was at the apex of his popularity when the cocktail was created at New York’s Waldorf Hotel sometime prior to 1920. As Albert Stevens Crockett wrote in the 1935 edition of The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book, show biz sired many a libation. “The stage, whether or not it drove men to drink in those days, certainly inspired much drinking, and successful plays often stood godfather for bartenders’ conceptions ... Charlie Chaplin had a cocktail named in his honor when he began to make the screen public laugh.” Odds are slim that the Tramp himself tried this tipple. Chaplin’s father Charlie Sr., a music hall performer whom Charlie later wrote he was “hardly aware of,” was an alcoholic who died of cirrhosis at age 37. Early exposure to the consequences of excess was likely a factor in Chaplin’s limited drinking; he resisted the theatrical tradition of buying rounds for the company, which contributed to his reputation for being tight with a buck. Still, it was a drunk act that first brought him fame and led him to America and the movies. Exhibit A: his classic “One A.M.” (1916).

The recipe as cited in Crockett’s book is equal parts lime juice, sloe gin and apricot brandy. Throw in rum and you’ve got the Millionaire. Well, one of the Millionaires, anyway. Surprisingly, I preferred the Charlie Chaplin to its boozier cousin. The lime and apricot brandy are paired to better effect, and the sloe gin gracefully takes center stage. It bears repeating: use Plymouth Sloe Gin when making this drink. You want the refreshing, astringent tartness of sloe berries to be unfettered by sweeteners and buttressed by an undercurrent of sour. The Charlie Chaplin makes a fine spring drink. I’ve seen variations that call for lemon juice. In light of our ongoing lime crisis, that may not be a bad idea.

With the Mary Pickford and the Charlie Chaplin done, only the Douglas Fairbanks remains on my mission to sample every cocktail named for the original founders of United Artists.

The Charlie Chaplin

¾ oz. Plymouth Sloe gin
¾ oz. apricot brandy
¾ oz. lime 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, April 18, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Millionaire (Whiskey)

Picking up where we left off last week, now that the tax man has come and gone ...

The 1920s produced a yacht club’s worth of cocktails called the Millionaire. Trouble is, in the words of spirits historian David Wondrich, “most of ‘em sucked.” Wondrich sticks to the earliest known recipe to lay claim to the moneyed moniker, born in London’s swank Ritz Hotel around the time of Prohibition and consisting of rye, Grand Marnier, grenadine and egg white. Over the years substitutions have been made, like bourbon for rye, framboise liqueur in place of the grenadine or a less domineering orange flavor than the Marnier. Two additions have also become commonplace. While David Embury said the original recipe “produces a very satisfactory drink, in my opinion it is improved by a small quantity of lemon juice.” He also didn’t look askance on a dash of absinthe.

Today’s avatar of wealth is Donald Trump, not Andrew Carnegie, so my Millionaire would be gaudy, complete with all the golden bells and silver whistles. I opted for bourbon as a change of pace from my usual rye, with curaçao as the orange component. Some recipes prescribe rinsing the cocktail glass with absinthe as well as including a small amount in the mix. I’m not a millionaire, so I used Pernod instead. I recommend the rinse only; adding some to the drink hits that note too hard.

Embury, as usual, was on the money. Lemon juice is essential, providing a welcome countervailing element to the egg white. There’s a rich sweetness to this drink that puts it squarely in the after-dinner category. Given a choice, I prefer last week’s Millionaire. But I can’t see any one-percenters ordering either one. They’re more a single malt Scotch crowd.

The Millionaire (Whiskey)

2 oz. rye (or bourbon)
½ oz. curaçao
½ oz. lemon juice
2-3 dashes grenadine
egg white
dash of absinthe (or Pernod)

Combine the first five ingredients. Shake without ice, then with. Strain into a cocktail glass rinsed or misted with absinthe (or Pernod).

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

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Keenan’s Klassics: Cocktail of the Week - The Greenpoint

Reminder: We’re down to the final day of the blog’s tenth anniversary week sale. You’ve got until midnight PST to snag a copy of Down the Hatch at Amazon for the paltry price of $1.99. Go do it now. I’ll wait. Then leave a review. I’ll check baseball scores until you’re back.

What follows is the most read Cocktail of the Week post by a wide margin. Why? It certainly ain’t the writing. I’m not saying I phoned this one in, although as you’ll see I had reasons to be otherwise occupied on August 3, 2012. It’s likely because the Greenpoint is fairly new as cocktails go, so there’s not as much written about it. Whatever the reason, I’m happy to be seen as an advocate for any rye drink.

This will be a fairly short post about another rye-based cocktail named after a neighborhood in Brooklyn. That’s because today is my birthday and I have other plans that include drinking rye-based cocktails named after neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

The first such drink, the Red Hook, was spawned at New York’s Milk & Honey. Another bartender at the same establishment, Michael McIlroy, carried on the tradition with the Greenpoint. (Fun facts about the neighborhood: sometimes called “Little Poland,” Mickey Rooney’s birthplace is currently featured on HBO’s Girls!) Like the Red Hook, the Greenpoint uses Punt e Mes. Here the somewhat bitter vermouth is complemented by yellow chartreuse, with its herbal, almost buoyant flavor. Two types of bitters bookend the taste to excellent effect. The Greenpoint is both lighter than the Red Hook and more layered. Another reason why it never hurts to drink around the borough of Kings.

The Greenpoint

Michael McIlroy, Milk & Honey, New York City

2 oz. rye
½ oz. Punt e Mes
½ oz. yellow chartreuse
dash of Angostura bitters
dash of orange bitters

Stir. Strain. No garnish.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Keenan’s Klassics: Q&A - Christa Faust

Reminder: As part of the blog’s gala tenth anniversary week, I’m running a Kindle Countdown Sale on Down the Hatch. It’s only $1.99 through Thursday at midnight, PST. Buy, imbibe, review.

I love doing author Q&As, and probably should run more of them. I hit on my gimmick early: close with questions about my interests (baseball, movies, cocktails) tailored to each individual. I think it’s amusing, at any rate. I chose to spotlight the Q&A with Christa Faust because she’s one of my favorite people, and because the announcement of her lesbian P.I. series Butch Fatale: Dyke Dick made this the closest I’ve come to breaking news around here. The Zodiac Paradox, Christa’s Fringe tie-in novel, was recently nominated for a Scribe Award, and last month she brought Control Freak, her debut, back into print as an ebook.

November 14, 2011: What can I say about Christa Faust? I can admit that I brazenly stole the idea for my Noir City posts from her. I can reveal that on the day we first met she told Rosemarie, “I assumed you were a fictional character.” I can remind you once again to read her latest book Choke Hold, then I can get out of the way and let the lady speak for herself in another VKDCQ&A.

Q. Tell us about Choke Hold.

It’s my second Angel Dare book. For those who haven’t read Money Shot, Angel’s a former porn star who gets raped, beaten and left for dead so she hunts down and kills the responsible men. In Choke Hold, she’s on the lam from her violent past when she runs into an old flame. Bullets fly and she finds herself mixed up with a pair of MMA fighters. One is the teenage son of her old flame, a cocky kid who’s just getting started in the fight game. The other is an older grappler who is suffering from the early onset of CTE, also known as “punch drunk syndrome.” As they so often do, complications ensue.

Q. Did you plan on bringing Angel Dare back for an encore? Will we be seeing her again?

When I wrote Money Shot, it was intended to be a standalone. After all, that ending is pretty final. I never had any intention of writing a series, but people really seemed to like the character and kept asking me when the next Angel Dare book was coming out. I like a challenge and so I found myself thinking of ways to get her out of the corner I’d painted her into and on the road to further adventures. Now I’m pretty sure there’ll be at least one more Angel Dare book, but I have no idea where (if anywhere) the series will go from there. You’ll just have to stay tuned for the next exciting episode ...

Q. What is the greatest public misconception about mixed martial arts? What impression about the sport do you want people to take away from Choke Hold?

In this country, MMA mostly means the UFC, which started off almost like a kind of wacky, sideshow offshoot of pro wrestling. You know, a guy wearing one boxing glove versus a sumo guy. The human version of a great white shark vs. a grizzly bear. It’s come a long way from that, but still retains a little bit of that naughty-but-tasty, carnival junk food flavor that it never had in countries like Brazil or Japan. In a weird way, MMA is like a hooker dressed up like the girl next door. A slut they can take home to Mama. It’s a way for men to indulge in all the trash-talking testosterone opera of pro wrestling while assuring themselves that it’s okay to watch because it’s legit and not “worked.”

Thing is, MMA can also be very cerebral. There’s a chess-like element to grappling that many casual American fans don’t even notice. They love the beatdowns, the big haymakers and showy knockouts but when the fight goes to the ground, that’s when things can get really interesting.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that all fighters are dumb-ass palookas and all fans are beer-guzzling rednecks. Kind of like the idea that all porn stars are pathetic, exploited bimbos and all guys who watch them are raincoat-clad perverts.

Q. Can you talk about the parallels you draw in the book between MMA and Angel’s former career in pornography?

Both MMA and porn involve young bodies being pushed to the edge of physical endurance and beyond to provide entertainment for the masses. Both offer the potential for wealth and stardom but often deliver the ugly reality of being ground down and broken by the time you’re 30. Some people make it through unscathed and start their own grappling school or production company. Others are pulled under by drugs, daddy issues, and low self esteem. There’s also a disturbing parallel in the fact that so many otherwise unskilled, under-educated teens see fighting or fucking as their only option, the only way out of poverty and broken homes. Their bodies are all they have to offer. I think there’s a powerful, seductive fantasy element as well. Becoming a fighter is seen as a way to be the “ultimate” man. Almost like an over-the-top caricature of alpha manhood. Becoming a female porn star has that same appeal. To become the “ultimate” woman, every man’s dreamgirl. It’s hunger for that elusive fantasy that makes so many young people ignore the warnings about brain damage or prolapsed rectums and all the other potential pitfalls of those professions.

Part of what I tried to do in my books is balance that fantasy with the harsher reality. In Money Shot, I didn’t want to portray the adult film industry as all sexy flash and glamour but I also didn’t want to make it all ugly, evil and soul-killing. Porn’s always been such an easy target in classic hardboiled and noir fiction. The worst possible fate that could ever befall a female would be to end up in porn. I wanted to show it more like it really is. A job. Some good, some bad and a whole lot of in between. I tried to do the same thing for MMA in Choke Hold.

Q. Your cult classic Hoodtown (reissued earlier this year as an ebook) is set against the backdrop of lucha libre. What draws you to sports that are a bit off the beaten path?

It’s not just sports, it’s any kind of unusual, insular subculture that has its own rules and slang. One of the things I enjoy as a reader is being invited by the protagonist into a hidden behind-the-scenes world that I may not normally get to see. Obviously, in Hoodtown, I take the real sport of Lucha Libre and turn it up to eleven, incorporating many of the fictional conceits of the Mexican Masked Hero films of the 60s and 70s, but there’s an underlying truth beneath the mask.

Q. You’ve spoken about your affection for Richard S. Prather, creator of Shell Scott and the man who dubbed you “the First Lady of Hard Case Crime.” What about Prather’s work spoke to you? How do you see his influence in your own writing? If you had to choose, what’s your favorite Shell Scott novel?

I like the fact that out of all the popular hardboiled dicks back in the day, Shell Scott seemed to be having the most fun. By proxy, it seemed like Prather was also having the most fun writing about him. Sure Scott got mixed up in all kinds of violent action, but you got the feeling that he loved his job and didn’t take himself too seriously. Don’t get me wrong – I love the darker, more serious stuff too. But there’s something really charming and addictively readable about the Shell Scott books. I think you can see Prather’s influence on my writing in my dark humor and love of the first person narrative. Strip For Murder would have to be my favorite, because of the whole outlandish naked hot air balloon business. But I also have a soft spot for Dig That Crazy Grave, because that was not only the first Shell Scott book I read, it was also the first hardboiled pulp novel I ever read.

Q. What’s next for you?

I’ve got what I like to refer to as a “toy truck” project that I’m working on right now. The kind of project that isn’t very commercial but really fun to play with. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for more than a decade, but no one was ever interested in publishing it the old-school way. When the whole eBook thing came along, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to get this little toy truck on the road.

It’s an erotic hardboiled lesbian PI series. Imagine Shell Scott as a butch dyke and all the sex is explicit. It’s a hat-tip to Prather, but not a send up. I want to keep that same wacky, light-hearted sense of humor without ever poking fun at the source material. I’m calling the series Butch Fatale: Dyke Dick.

Movie Q. You’re a New York girl now living in Los Angeles. What are your favorite movies about your adopted hometown?

In a Lonely Place is high up there, as is Sunset Boulevard. Targets is another fave that deserves to be more widely known. Mi Vida Loca is full of great pre-hipster Echo Park locations. Bad 80s soundtrack not-withstanding, I still love To Live and Die in LA. Gods and Monsters never fails to break my fucking heart no matter how many times I see it. Of course, we can’t just be highbrow, can we? I also love films like It Conquered the World and Them (okay, so that’s only half LA) or pretty much anything shot at Bronson Cave. And Showdown in Little Tokyo, because Dolph Lundgren has the biggest dick Brandon Lee has ever seen on a man.

Baseball/Foodie Q. Have you ever had a Dodger Dog?

My mom’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen is just down the block from a now long-gone garage where hotdog carts used to go when their shifts were over. Every night, they would dump gallons of nasty day-old hotdog water into the gutter. The powerful memory of that stench has kinda soured me on hotdogs. I loathed them as a kid. As an adult, I’ve learned to get over it to some degree, but that smell is always there in the back of my mind.

I’m also not into baseball, though my Pop is a die-hard fan of the Bronx Bombers. (No offense, since I know you’re a Mets man.) He took me to Yankee Stadium plenty of times as a kid, but I always got peanuts there, not hotdogs. I’ve never been to Dodger Stadium, but I’ve been stuck in the traffic around it when games let out. Does that count?

Cocktail Q. You don’t imbibe. How are we friends? And what makes for a good mocktail?

I’m not a dry drunk or anything like that. I have no moral issue with the idea of drinking, I just never cared for the taste or the effect of alcohol. Also, I have no inhibitions to shed, so there’s really no point. I’d rather spend my money on shoes.

As far as “mocktails” I tend to like intriguing, unusual flavor combos that are not too sweet or syrupy. I’ll never forget that astounding gingery concoction I got that night you took me to the Zig Zag. I have no idea what was in it, but it was the single best beverage I’ve ever had.

And we’re obviously friends because every tippling gadabout needs a reliable getaway driver.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Keenan’s Klassics: Operation Travolta - Michael Keaton

Reminder: As part of the blog’s gala tenth anniversary week, Down the Hatch is only 99 cents through midnight tonight, PST. Use your Amazon credit and pick up a copy while it’s cheap. And feel free to leave a review once you do.

Once upon a time this website was far more film-oriented, with lots of half-baked semi-recurring features like Remake Rematch (in which I watched multiple versions of a film and declared a winner) and Burt With A Badge (decades worth of Burt Reynolds as a cop, for absolutely no reason). The Operation Travolta pieces were easily my favorite. I did one on Sandra Bullock that, if I say so myself, was prescient. This one on Michael Keaton, which originally appeared on September 23, 2004, was the first. I still hold out hope for the actor, who has what promises to be his best role in years in the new film from Alejandro González Iñárritu; a 2009 post on The Merry Gentleman, Keaton’s directorial debut, would land me a mention on Canadian public radio. Ironically John Travolta, after whom the feature was named, is in need of another such procedure. Maybe it can be done more than once, like Tommy John surgery.

Look fast in the ads for the Katie Holmes comedy First Daughter and you’ll see Michael Keaton as the President of the United States. From the gonzo heights of Beetlejuice to playing the dad (albeit the First Dad) in a teen comedy. Keaton deserves better. So I’m issuing a challenge to filmmakers: give the actor a role worthy of his talents, the way Quentin Tarantino revived John Travolta’s career. (Hence the name of this occasional feature.)

Keaton has a special flair for conveying all-American guy-ness. Genial and decent, with a wariness underneath. He has a uniquely hyper way of moving, like a one-time athlete who still hasn’t figured out what to do with his excess energy. It’s a live-wire quality that charges the screen.

It’s obvious that the man has great comic chops, which come through even in sitcom-style fare like Mr. Mom. (Here’s where I confess my affection for the 1984 gangster parody Johnny Dangerously. I even like Joe Piscopo in it, for God’s sake.) Ron Howard made good use of Keaton in Night Shift, Gung Ho and the underrated The Paper. But it’s really in his collaboration with Tim Burton that the actor bloomed. His fearless performance in Beetlejuice is as potent today as it was in 1988. And he remains the only actor to have brought anything to the role of Batman, which as the screenwriter William Goldman points out is “and always has been a horrible part.”

1988 was also the year of Keaton’s greatest dramatic triumph, playing a drug addict in Clean and Sober. There’s a scene in that film – he calls his elderly parents and tells them he’s doing great while trying to persuade them to mortgage their house so he can have the money – that captures the essence of the addict’s psychology better than any other. The whole movie is Keaton’s show.

The ‘90s weren’t so good to him. But neither were his films. (Speechless? Multiplicity? Did anybody like those movies?) There were hints of a comeback when Keaton played Elmore Leonard’s cocky DEA agent Ray Nicolette in two movies, Jackie Brown and Out of Sight. Rumors circulated that Ray would get his own feature. I’m glad that didn’t pan out, because the character can’t sustain an entire story. But Keaton was perfectly cast, as he was in the recent HBO film Live From Baghdad.

So what’s on tap for the actor? Playing opposite Lindsay Lohan in the remodeled Herbie, The Love Bug. That ain’t right, people, and you know it. Where’s Wes Anderson or Dylan Kidd (Roger Dodger) when you need them?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Meaningless Milestones: Tin for the Tenth

Short version: Down the Hatch is on sale this week, so you should buy it and leave a review.

It’s strange to note that this Friday marks the tenth anniversary of this blog, when so many others I follow have closed up shop recently. A decade isn’t quite the eternity it once was in internet time, but it’s still a long damn run.

Blogs, I’m told on a regular basis, are a thing of the past, their DNA subsumed by social media. Whenever something is being continually eulogized, you can make two deductions about it: it is, in fact, still alive, but it isn’t doing very well.

Confession time: I’ve thought more than once about shutting the blog down, hanging up my shingle on Twitter and Facebook, and calling it a day. I don’t post anywhere near as often as I once did, and when I do it’s on a narrower range of subjects. Much of what I used to write about now turns up elsewhere, like my Noir City column. I’ve taken on more responsibilities and assignments, have miles to go before I sleep, etc., etc.

But the ol’ homestead continues to kick for several reasons. Foremost among them, I like to ramble – see the first line of this post – and sometimes 140 characters aren’t enough. Those longer pieces can have a surprising ripple effect. You never know when you’ll be quoted in a term paper, or receive an email from the son of a well-known author thanking you for a review of his father’s book, or become one of the world’s leading authorities on a movie you don’t actually like.

Nothing but good has come from staking a claim to my own corner of the web. This site has directly or indirectly created opportunities and led to close friendships. Over the years the blog has evolved; now, it’s primarily about cocktails. And even that may change. I’m nearing another landmark, the 100th Cocktail of the Week post, and haven’t figured out how much longer I’ll keep the feature going. But rest assured something will surface here on a semi-regular basis. I owe the website too much to shut it down now.

My book Down The Hatch, a collection of the first year’s worth of cocktail posts, is the most lasting consequence of the blog. To celebrate the big 1-0, I’ve put it on sale at Amazon for the week. It’s a mere 99 cents today and tomorrow, then $1.99 on Wednesday and Thursday. Why not buy a copy for old times’ sake? And if you do buy it (or already have), please do me a favor and leave a review at Amazon. Cracking double digits is my modest goal for the sale.

For the rest of the week, I’ll be posting some favorite pieces from the last ten years. And on Friday, the actual anniversary, expect your next Cocktail of the Week. It’s the least I can do.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

The new issue of Noir City is out, bearing word of changes at the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation. FNF honcho Eddie Muller will now be editor-in-chief as well as publisher, assisted by the estimable Steve Kronenberg as editorial director of classic noir coverage – and yours truly as contemporary kingpin. When the Czar of Noir asks you do to do something, you do it. (That’s true of any czar, when you get right down to it.) Planning has begun in earnest, and we have some terrific features coming your way.

Plus plenty to feast on in the current issue. F’r instance:

  •  Steve’s appraisal of the hommes fatale of noir
  • An in-depth survey of the career of one of the best of these smooth operators, Ray Milland
  • Down these mean hallways: a look at the high school noir of Brick and Veronica Mars, including an interview with Mars star Enrico Colantoni
There’s also my take on TNT’s big-budget epic Mob City and the latest installment of my column Keenan’s Korner, with reviews of new crime novels by Theresa Schwegel, Lawrence Block, and Kim Cooper’s The Kept Girl, in which Raymond Chandler turns detective. We’re on a Chandler kick this go-round, as I demolish the atrocious gimlet recipe he set down for the ages in The Long Goodbye while Eddie sizes up Benjamin Black’s new Philip Marlowe novel The Black-Eyed Blonde. Spoiler alert: Eddie finds Black’s knowledge of imbibing every bit as dubious as Chandler’s.

How can you deny yourself this treasure trove any longer? Make a donation to the Film Noir Foundation and all this can be yours. Do it now, so you can be sure to get the rag by the time I start throwing my weight around.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Millionaire (Rum)

From a post dated roughly a year ago:

It’s too easy, spotlighting the Income Tax around April 15. I should have thought outside the box and featured the Millionaire instead. But I don’t have any apricot brandy on hand. There’s always next year.

I take these pledges seriously, even if you don’t. And as of last month, I finally acquired a truly first-rate apricot brandy. Rum and limes, check. All I needed was some sloe gin. About which I knew little. So I did what I always do: asked at the Zig Zag Cafe.

“If I wanted to buy sloe gin –”

“Plymouth,” Ben Perri told me. “That’s your only choice. The rest are so sweet they’re practically simple syrup. Plymouth. Definitely.”

Remember that. Because I didn’t.

Version #1. Do not let the color alarm you.
Sloe berries are produced by the blackthorn shrub, a sturdy plant often used in hedgerows. In her book The Drunken Botanist, Amy Stewart calls the berries a “small, sour fruit” not particularly pleasant to eat on their own. The solution, dating back to time immemorial: soak ‘em in hooch. Stewart catalogs a host of variations like the Basque patxaran, in which sloes are macerated in anisette. Sloe gin remains the best known version, described by Kingsley Amis as “the only all-English liqueur. Traditionally drunk at meets, you know, before going off to hunt the jolly old fox. I can think of nothing better to brighten up a wet Sunday after lunch. Within reason, that is.”

The liqueur factors in several classic cocktail recipes of the 1920s, but fell into disuse. That fate largely came about because, as Brother Perri advised, commercially available sloe gins were heavily sweetened to counter the berries’ severe taste, to the point where they crossed the treacle threshold. It also didn’t help that most modern cocktails with sloe gin, aside from the Sloe Gin Fizz, have idiotic names. I’m not even talking about the bachelorette party specials like the Alabama Slammer, the Hot Flash and the Panty Dropper. Leave us consider the simple concoction of sloe gin and orange juice. That’s practically a Screwdriver, hence it shall be dubbed: the Sloe Screw. This single entendre begat the Sloe Comfortable Screw (the preceding plus Southern Comfort, vodka, and reserved confessional seating the next morning), which begat the Sloe Comfortable Screw Against The Wall (all of the above, plus Galliano and a living will). Up next was the Sloe Comfortable Screw Against The Wall On A Waterbed, With Maybe A Little Grand Funk Railroad In The Background, but then cable TV started and everybody kind of forgot about it.

Fortunately, no spirit is neglected in the cocktail renaissance. Sloe gins that preserve the essence of those tiny, angry berries are on the market again, and I had the name of the best. Plymouth. Definitely.

Too bad I couldn’t find any. After trying a few places I ventured into the largest liquor store in Seattle, where I’d had luck before. Nothing. So I asked a clerk.

“Well,” he said dubiously, “we do have one kind ...”

The first thing I noticed about the bottle he led me to was the fine layer of dust on it. Clearly this stuff wasn’t flying off the shelves.

The second thing I noticed was the brand name. Mr. Boston. As in the first bartender’s guide I ever owned, still possess, and rarely consult. A liquor line not lionized for its quality product.

The third thing I noticed was how the product was identified on the label. A strategically placed ampersand and a word in a smaller typeface revealed that I held “Sloe & Gin Cocktail.” Truth in advertising; all sloe gins are liqueurs. Still, it was alarming to be confronted with such stark evidence right there on the dusty bottle.

The fourth thing I noticed was the price. It was uncommonly low, even in a state where recent deregulation has sent liquor costs spiraling.

So of course my initial reaction was: “How bad could it be?”

Why did I buy the stuff, against the advice of a learned professional and the results of the eyeball test? Because I promised I’d make you a Millionaire, dammit. If anyone’s at fault here, it’s you. You know where to send your checks.

I brought the bottle home, careful not to let the label show; I have a reputation to protect. I opened it and inhaled the aroma, redolent of the finer marker pens of my youth. I tried a small amount. The unalloyed sweetness of cough syrup made me think I’d be better off whipping up a batch of Flaming Moes. Not seeing the point in suffering alone, I offered some to Rosemarie.

Rosemarie: It tastes like NyQuil.

Me: I know. It’s pretty bad.

Rosemarie: I didn’t say it tasted it bad. I said it tasted like NyQuil.

The telltale ampersand.
By now I was regretting the entire enterprise. I’d refrained from buying an inferior apricot brandy, holding out for Giffard’s Abricot du Rousillon. Now I was going to subject its ethereal Gallic charms to some Southie roughneck? Hell, I didn’t even want to waste my few precious remaining limes on the project. Lousy drug cartels. But a promise is a promise.

Because sloe gin predominated in the Millionaire’s original recipe, David Embury wrote in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, “I do not regard it as a true cocktail.” Ted Haigh (Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails) doubled the quotient of rum: problem solved. Haigh’s version is the one I made. He suggests Myers’s Original Dark Rum. I went with Appleton, a sound Jamaican.

Verdict: it wasn’t completely terrible.

You could taste the rum. You got a sense of the lime. You couldn’t avoid the hypercharged sweetness of the sloe gin. It was the apricot brandy that suffered. It was present, but as a distant memory, like the sloe gin had dinner with the apricot on a cruise once, and thought the apricot was super nice, and they exchanged email addresses and totally meant to keep in touch, but never actually did.

Me: So I’m going to get rid of this sloe gin stuff.

Rosemarie: Yeah. (beat) Or you could just put in the back of the liquor cabinet.

And so I did. And there it will sit, until the post-pandemic scavengers find it. And, odds are, leave it untouched.

About a week later, I wandered past a liquor store I’d blown off on my search because this outlet never stocked anything worthwhile. On a whim, I ducked inside. Guess what I found? Go ahead. Guess.

Version #2. Plymouth. Definitely.
There’s no pandering to the palate at Plymouth. Those good people didn’t attempt to sweeten their sloe gin. The aggressive, almost prickly taste of the berries registers in all its unfettered glory, assailing you at the start of each sip, soothing you at the end of it. And an important lesson is learned: try to blunt this effect in the bottle, as Mr. Boston does, and you will lose a vital element you will never regain. Better to keep the ingredient in the raw and let the lime and apricot brandy work on it in the glass.

The Plymouth Sloe Gin Millionaire was a world away from my first attempt. It had a lingering sweetness that was natural, adult, sophisticated. If my maiden Millionaire was like a giggling sorority sister, the other was a woman of the world. And thus did the sloe & gin cocktail get pushed even further back into the liquor cabinet. It’s there if anybody wants it.

Note that there are several drinks called the Millionaire. This one appears as the Millionaire #1 in the Savoy Cocktail Book, #2 in Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual, and #4 in 1937’s The How and When, where Haigh unearthed it. Many spirit historians view the whiskey-and-egg-white Millionaire as the true bearer of the name. We’ll get to that one next week, when you’re flush with cash from that tax return and ready to celebrate.

The Millionaire

Ted Haigh variation

1 ½ oz. rum
1 oz. lime juice
¾ oz. Plymouth Sloe Gin. Plymouth. Definitely.
¾ oz. apricot brandy

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a lime wedge.

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, April 04, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Abbey

If you’ll open your hymnals and turn to the initial selection …

Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book is a veritable Bible of booze, and the Abbey is the first drink named in its sacred pages. Considering it’s batting leadoff, you’d think I would have gotten to it long before now.

The Savoy recipe calls for one-half gin, one-quarter each Kina Lillet and orange juice, and a dash of Angostura bitters. While Lillet Blanc is now used in place of the discontinued Kina, that ratio has remained unchanged – except in some corners of England, where the aperitif is omitted and the denizens of that scepter’d isle are left sippin’ on gin and juice. (Snoop Dogg raps about the Abbey on import versions of Doggystyle: “With my mind on my monks and my monks on my mind.”) Innovation has been limited to the bitters. gaz regan says Peychaud’s also works well, while bitters guru Brad Thomas Parsons favors the orange variety and also a cherry garnish, which I heartily endorse.

Speaking of garnishes, King Cocktail Dale DeGroff recommends finishing off the Abbey with one of his patented flaming orange peels. This step entails expressing the oils of the fruit’s rind through a lit match, which caramelizes them and subtly alters their flavor. A fine idea, but that kind of flash is why I go to bars and have drinks made for me. Plus open flames are a violation of my lease.

I did try another DeGroff suggestion, placing an orange slice into the shaker before the other ingredients, bruising the fruit’s meat and skin with a muddler, then applying some extra elbow grease to the shake. It worked wonders in boosting the citrus flavor – a flamed peel would just be showing off at this point – but it made me glad I’d recently started double-straining cocktails.

One other modification undertaken on my own initiative: using Cocchi Americano in place of Lillet Blanc in the same proportion. This substitution is now standard practice for me, given that the snap of cinchona bark in Cocchi Americano renders it closer to Kina’s now-lost flavor. Little surprise that the Abbey is heralded as a reliable brunch cocktail; most OJ drinks are. But the additional bitterness of the Cocchi Americano proves an equal match for the sweet pop from the juice, making a drink spry enough to break out of that Sunday morning ghetto and cause trouble in the twilight hours.

The Abbey

1 ½ oz. gin
¾ oz. Cocchi Americano
¾ oz. fresh orange juice
2 dashes of Angostura bitters

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a cherry.

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