Friday, May 30, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Douglas Fairbanks

“You can talk about your stars and their talents … but Douglas Fairbanks had something none of the rest ever possessed. It was a combination of good manners, looks, athletic skill, and extroverted charm. Doug loved everybody, and his infectious grin and easy way made everybody love him.”

So wrote Hedda Hopper in her 1952 autobiography From Under My Hat. (Examples of other stars and their talents cited by La Hopper: “Jack Gilbert’s poetic love-making, Wally Reid’s boyishness.” It’s a one-of-a-kind book.) The man crowned King of Hollywood and the movies’ first great action hero – he played Zorro, Robin Hood, D’Artagnan – deserved to have a cocktail named in his honor, like two of his fellow co-founders of United Artists Mary Pickford, aka Mrs. Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin. Douglas Fairbanks (born Douglas Ullman) may have been a teetotaler, but Hollywood never lets facts get in the way of a story.

The question is: which drink is Douglas’s? Page through The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock or Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual and you’ll find the Fairbanks numbers 1 and 2, neither bearing a Christian name. The Fairbanks #2 is a martini variation with Crème de Noyaux, the pinkish liqueur made from apricot kernels yet tasting of almonds. This drink started in the 1920s as the Fairbank, but somewhere along the way an ‘s’ was appended. Clouding matters was an entry in Robert Vermiere’s Cocktails: How to Mix Them (1922), which claimed the drink was so called “after Senator Fairbank, a personal friend of the late President Roosevelt, of America.” Said Senator was actually Charles W. Fairbanks, not just Teddy Roosevelt’s personal friend but his Vice President. Considering Vermiere got both name and title wrong, it’s unclear how reliable a source he is, and anyway that’s not the drink I’m making. (By complete coincidence I had a riff on this Fairbanks courtesy of Ben Perri at the Zig Zag Café this week. With the addition of Cocchi Americano, it was terrific.)

More Hedda on Fairbanks: The actor famously had a steam room built at the studio he and Pickford owned. “That steam room was the great leveler. When he’s mother-naked, you can’t tell whether a man’s a duke, a masseur or a producer.” This fulfills my longtime dream of using the term “mother-naked” in one of these posts.

It’s more likely the Fairbanks #1 was named for the actor. The recipe originally appeared in the Sloppy Joe’s Cocktail Manuals published throughout the 1930s in Cuba, the land that sired Mary Pickford’s namesake drink. Craddock and Duffy prescribe an equal parts ratio of gin, apricot brandy and citrus juice (originally lemon, now lime), while Sloppy Joe and contemporary experts prefer a spirit-forward version. While grenadine is no longer included, the sometimes-vexing egg white called for by Sloppy Joe still is. I now follow the lead of the experts and use one egg white for two drinks. The Douglas Fairbanks proves such a sterling showcase for the derring-do of apricot brandy that although the egg white adds its usual silky mouthfeel, the cocktail would taste just fine without it.

One last tidbit from Hedda Hopper. When Douglas Fairbanks died, a coterie of pals led by actor/wrestler Bull Montana conspired at Hollywood’s Brown Derby to swipe the actor’s body, prop it under a favorite tree, and give him a more private sendoff. A busboy must have overheard the plan, because when Bull and the boys arrived at the mortuary the guard had been doubled. The ceremony proceeded at the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather without incident.

The Douglas Fairbanks

1 ½ oz. gin
1 oz. apricot brandy
½ oz. fresh lime juice
½ egg white (just use one egg white and make two drinks, it’s easier)

Shake the ingredients without ice, then with. 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, May 23, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Rob Roy

At one of my many desk jobs, I’d to listen to NPR to pass the time. (I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the sports talk station. It made me “too excitable,” to hear Human Resources tell it.) One Friday afternoon a regular program turned itself into “a cocktail party on the air” – Jesus, just typing those words depressed me – with one of the co-hosts serving as bartender. Reaching deep into his dusty bag of tricks, he told a guest, “I think I’m going to make you a Gibson.”

“A Gibson?” said the main host with a scorn I assumed NPR’s mics wouldn’t register. “Why don’t you make her a Rob Roy?”

It was a few years ago, obviously. The cocktail renaissance has since rehabilitated both drinks. (Who are we kidding? It’s buffed the reputation of every drink.) But for decades the Rob Roy was seen as archaic, the kind of tipple your grandfather might have favored. It didn’t help that the Rob Roy lived permanently in the shadow of a titan, regularly referred to as a Scotch Manhattan. (Even I did it.) But the Rob Roy has its own pleasures, and so deserves a turn in the spotlight.

Which is only appropriate, considering how the drink got its name. It was created at New York’s Waldorf Hotel, which given its proximity to Broadway would regularly dub cocktails after shows. 1894’s Rob Roy featured music by Reginald DeKoven and a libretto by future Ziegfeld Follies mainstay Harry B. Smith. Who among us can forget such staple songs as “Who’s For the Chase, My Bonnie Hearts?” and “My Name is Where the Heather Blooms”? Rob Roy wasn’t a smash like DeKoven & Smith’s other tuneful telling of a Celtic hero, Robin Hood, which introduced “Oh Promise Me” (lyric by Clement Scott); it was revived on Broadway only once, for two weeks in 1913.

The name would continue to be an issue for the Rob Roy. I can’t think of another cocktail that has a moniker for each minor variation. Some purists insist that the Rob Roy is equal parts Scotch and sweet vermouth, with the now-accepted addition of bitters transforming it into a second drink known as, well, the Scotch Manhattan. Choose orange bitters, according to David Embury, and you’ve prepared a Highland, a Highland Fling, or an Express, the exact designation apparently depending on which glen you happen to be downing it in. Add a dram of Bénédictine or Drambuie and it’s the Bobby Burns. Make it perfect, with equal parts sweet and dry vermouth, and it’s the Affinity, while dry alone is the Beadlestone. No wonder the poor wee bairn developed a complex. And then Kingsley Amis comes along and dismisses the entire clan of cocktails by saying they’re “bearable, but quite unrewarding.”

But use the right blended Scotch like my new favorite Bank Note, with its higher single malt content, and you’ll find sustained notes that a Manhattan won’t play. The bitters remain a point of controversy. Many recipes specify Angostura, while some authorities like gaz regan say they’re never to be used here. Others suggest the more floral Peychaud’s pairs well with Scotch. I opt for orange, as called for in my copy of The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book. You can garnish with a cherry as you would a Manhattan, but a lemon twist adds a few subtle flourishes.

And remember, when in Seattle, visit the cocktail bar of the same name. Ye’ll find no confusion there.

The Rob Roy

2 oz. blended Scotch whisky
¾ oz. sweet vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters

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

Friday, May 09, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Jungle Bird

Strange how a creature with such beautiful plumage can hide in plain sight.

When Seattle’s Rob Roy changed its menu, we stopped by at the earliest opportunity to sample the latest wonders from Anu Apte and her team. Rosemarie’s eye was immediately drawn to the Jungle Bird. “It sounds like a tiki drink,” she said, “but it has Campari in it.” As we were leaving, she informed me, “We’ll be coming back for more of those.”

A short time later, this Robert Simonson piece in the New York Times offered an update on the Jungle Bird’s migratory pattern. It was coming home to roost at cocktail bars all over the country. The drink is no spring chicken; created at the Kuala Lumpur Hilton in Malaysia, it’s been around since 1978. The recipe was recorded in John J. Poister’s New American Bartender’s Guide (1989), where it was largely ignored. Only when tiki authority Jeff “Beachbum” Berry unearthed it for his 2002 book Intoxica! did its popularity begin to hatch.

What gulls galls me – all right, I’ll lay off the puns – is that I have Poister’s book on my shelf, yet unlike everybody else, I’d never heard about the Bird*. Poister’s recipe calls for a veritable flotilla of garnishes: a maraschino cherry, an orange slice, a lime slice, and an orchid (listed as optional, and thank our lucky stars for that). He also recommends you “serve in a special ceramic bird container or use a chilled hurricane glass.” You’ll take a basic rocks glass, Poister, and you’ll like it. Most bars now pour the cocktail over a single large ice cube.

I freely confess I am not typically a fan of tiki drinks. More often than not you can only taste the fruit, the rum not hitting you until you wake up in Laughlin with yet another showgirl wife to explain to the uptight authorities. As Rosemarie suspected and Berry confirms in the Simonson article, it’s the presence of Campari that accounts for its success in the contemporary bar scene, its bitterness corkscrewing through the drink and preventing the entire enterprise from floating away on a cloud of sweetness.

While Simonson is correct in saying rare rums aren’t required here, you’ll want a darker one that will bear up to the Campari. I followed the advice of esteemed New York bartender Giuseppe Gonzalez and used Cruzan Black Strap, the more intense (and, yes, bitter) version made from blackstrap molasses. The complex taste and texture of this spirit leave no doubt who’s in charge here. I appreciated the result more having tried a different variety first – I believe Rob Roy’s fine Jungle Bird is prepared with Amrut Old Port Rum – and would suggest doing likewise in order to understand the drink’s nuances. Perhaps a flight of Jungle Birds? OK, seriously, I’ll stop now.

*Technically not a pun, but a dated musical reference.

The Jungle Bird

1 ½ oz. dark rum (blackstrap when you’re ready for it)
1 ½ oz. pineapple juice (canned is fine, fresh is infinitely better)
¾ oz. Campari
½ oz. fresh lime juice
½ oz. simple syrup

Shake. Strain. No garnish necessary, but feel free to go nuts. (NOTE: do not garnish with nuts.)

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, May 02, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: Remember The Maine

From 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

Madam of a house of ill-repute: All right, you two. I want you at my party.
Butch: What party?
Madam: I’m losing my piano player. He’s going off to fight the war.
Sundance: What war?
Madam: The war with the Spanish.
Butch: Remember the Maine!
Sundance: Who can forget it?

Right after this exchange we catch a glimpse of said party, a handmade sign bearing the American flag and that rallying cry hanging over the piano. Butch and Sundance decide to enlist and bring their, ahem, leadership and maturity to the war effort. They toast their new commitment. With beer, not with this cocktail. It wasn’t around then. They don’t join up, either. They have trains to rob, and the war doesn’t last that long, anyway.

The U.S.S. Maine sank in Havana harbor in February 1898, blown up by a mine. The incident was seized on by the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers, then in their yellow journalism heyday, and used to fan the flames of public outrage. That simple three-word call to arms helped enormously.

All of which is only distantly related to the cocktail of the same name. It is canonized in Charles H. Baker, Jr.’s The Gentleman’s Companion, and he lays out its provenance in his usual idiosyncratic fashion, calling it “a HAZY MEMORY of a NIGHT in HAVANA during the UNPLEASANTNESSES of 1933, when EACH SWALLOW WAS PUNCTUATED WITH BOMBS GOING off on the PRADO, or the SOUND of 3” SHELLS BEING FIRED at the HOTEL NACIONAL, then HAVEN for CERTAIN ANTI -REVOLUTIONARY OFFICERS.” You’d think an incident that dramatic would prompt the christening of a cocktail for the Hotel Nacional. Oh, right. It did.

“Treat this one with the respect it deserves, gentlemen,” Baker continued. An order easy to follow considering the Remember the Maine is a distant relation of the Manhattan featuring the bright sweetness of Cherry Heering and the unruly kick of absinthe (or a pastis substitute). The drink is a staple offering in craft cocktail bars, although I doubt bartenders follow Baker’s instructions while making it to the letter and “stir briskly in clock-wise fashion – this makes it sea-going, presumably!”

But innovation continues with this concoction. Barrel aged cocktails are a more recent trend, entire mixtures being placed in barrels for weeks to alter the character. Recently at Seattle’s Radiator Whiskey I sampled a Remember the Maine made months earlier. Bartender Justin told me they used Old Overholt rye because it has some spiciness while being soft enough to change in the barrel. I’ve been dubious about barrel-aging cocktails, but this one, mellow and contemplative, might make me a believer.

You can prepare this drink with a few dashes of bitters or garnish it with a cherry. I adhered to Baker’s prescription as best I could, switching in Pernod for absinthe. I threw in the merest hint with the other ingredients per the master’s orders; feel free to rinse the glass with it instead.

Still, the drink has nothing to do with the actual sinking of the Maine. And if I’m poking holes in illusions here, I might as well go all out and observe that in his essential book Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman said one of the weaknesses of his Butch and Sundance script was too much smart-ass dialogue, citing Sundance’s jibe about the Maine as an example: “I guess there’s a joke in that thought somewhere, but I sure as hell didn’t find it.” I thought it was funny. But we’re none of us perfect.

Remember the Maine

2 oz. rye
¾ oz. sweet vermouth
½ oz. Cherry Heering
1 teaspoon absinthe or Pernod

Stir in whatever direction you prefer. 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