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