Front Page Reviews and Stories
Last time, we talked about how to go about building a better home bar. Once you’ve done that and have all sorts of empty space (because you paid attention, and your bar holds about twice your current supply of liquor, right?), we should now get on to the fun part – how to best fill your shiny new liquor cabinet.
Now I know that I’m going to catch it in the comments by declaring some brands “essential” versus others. I know y’all are a bunch of passionate drinkers, and I also know that in certain areas, y’all have much more experience than I do tasting and thinking about spirits. But that’s not going to stop me from doing just that. The good news? After making declarative statements about which spirits you should have in your bar, I’m going to let you in on a few secrets about how to find rare and discontinued bottles that have helped me in the past. So take a deep breath, and enjoy the ride.
I’m a firm believer in Alton Brown’s mantra of buying things that serve many purposes. Unless you’re into a certain segment of the liquor market, you should strive for buying liquor that lets you make as many cocktails as possible. Once you’ve tasted a good representation of what’s out there, decide what to focus on, and buy more of those things, but with the understanding that if you run across something special and hard to find, you really ought to buy it. But more on that later.
|Gin (London Dry)||Tanqueray|
|Gin (New American)||St. George Terroir|
|Rum (French Style)||La Favorite Blanc|
|Rum (English Style)||El Dorado 5|
|Rum (Spanish Style)||Flor de Cana 7|
|Rum (Exotic)||Smith & Cross|
|Rum (Overproof)||Lemon Hart 151 (dark) or Wray and Nephew (white)|
|Bourbon||Old Grand Dad 114|
|Rye Whiskey||Rittenhouse 100 or Bulleit Rye|
|Scotch Whisky||Aberlour 10 or Balvenie Doublewood|
|Brandy||Germain Robin Craft Method|
|Cognac||Pierre Ferrand 10|
|Apple Brandy||Laird’s Bonded|
|Tequila||Siete Leguas or Ocho|
|Mezcal||Del Maguey Vida|
|Sweet Vermouth||Cocchi or Carpano Antica|
|Exotic Vermouth||Punt e Mes|
|Exotic Aromatized Wine||Bonal|
|Herbal liqueurs||Benedictine and Green Chartreuse|
|Funky liqueur||Luxardo Maraschino|
|Apricot liqueur||Marie Brizard Apry|
|Chocolate liqueur||Marie Brizard Crème de Cacao|
|Bitter liqueurs||Fernet Branca, Campari and Cynar|
|Bitters||Angostura, Peychaud’s, Regans’ Orange #6, Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Boker’s, Bittermens Xocolatl Mole|
|Syrups||Simple, Grenadine, Orgeat [editor: B.G. Reynolds, Small Hands, homemade, or similar] , Dark Sugar Simple (I have 2:1 piloncillo)|
As for tools, I like the OXO line – I have a double sided 1/1.5 oz jigger, a muddler, a three piece steel shaker, and a small plastic cutting board and knife from them. I have a few Hawthorne strainers, and a barspoon with a twist handle and a counterweight, which doubles nicely for cracking ice. Sadly, my wife won’t let me install a Kold Draft machine in the kitchen – I use some trays for normal sized ice and a few Tovolo King Cube trays.
Let’s now talk about liquor spelunking. You’d be amazed at how much old liquor sits on store shelves waiting for the lucky (and knowledgeable) consumer to walk in and buy it. Being vigilant and knowledgeable will lead to rewards. Many rewards.
Rule #1 – Location, location, location
One of my favorite places to go spelunking is a tiny little liquor store next to a Kroger in a fancy part of Houston. It’s got bars on the windows, and most people are there for pints of vodka from behind the counter, but if you’re willing to lay on the floor, you can find all sorts of things – I’ve found 1994 Zwack Unicum, 50 ml bottles of Pierre Ferrand Abel (45 years in barrel!) for $4, and 80’s era Punt e Mes there – within the last three years.
You should get into the habit of popping in to out of the way liquor stores. Not the ones that look new, are well lit, and clean. And you’ll probably want to avoid the ones that are obviously dangerous looking, unless you’re with a group and feel comfortable. Don’t dress up. I once bought three bottles of 1964 Broadbent Bual Madeira from a liquor store for $40 a bottle (replacement value? $325) while wearing a stained T shirt from a barbecue joint and not having shaved for two days. The places you’re looking for look like they’ve appeared on an episode of “Hoarders”. If you’re crafty, and the store has a website, check and make sure they’ve been around a while.
Rule #2 – Be Polite
I sell wine for a living. I know that the only thing that separates me from my competitors is my personal relationship with my buyers. When I was in retail, I wanted relationships with people who bought wine, and wouldn’t hesitate to dig through shrink wrapped pallets for that one case of allocated wine they wanted. If you’re going to look for old, weird liquor, you need to make friends with the staff pretty quickly. Be polite. Tell them you like weird old things – you never know what might come out of a back room. If you can, develop a relationship with the staff, which might involve you buying a bottle you don’t necessarily want to reap greater rewards in the future.
Once they trust that you’re not there to steal from them, don’t be afraid to get down on the floor and look. Customers don’t glance at low shelves. Look for obvious signs of old things: dusty bottles, faded front labels, bottles that are obviously out of place. At the same time, check high shelves as well. I almost had a mid-70’s era Campari bottle from a store in Taylor, Texas a few years back. It was behind the counter as a “display”, but it was full.
Rule #3 – Be Knowledgeable
Google Image search is your friend. Seriously. Once you’ve settled on something to hunt, go type it in to Google Image and look at the labels that pop up. Today’s label should be easy to spot – you can also walk into any liquor store and see it. Google Image will also show older labels, which can at least give you something to look for. This is how I found a pre-Diageo Zacapa 23 at a store in San Marcos, Texas… the wicker covering is distinctive and it was the last on their shelves.
You should also know (for example) that Campari lost its carmine coloring in 2006, and that metric volume on liquor bottles was required after 12/31/1979. Lack of government warnings and UPC codes can also date bottles pretty well.
If it’s Bourbon you’re after, things become a little easier and much more complex at the same time. Bonded whiskey is required to state the DSP (Distilled Spirits Plant) where it was produced and bottled (if different). Knowing that DSP 16 is Stitzel-Weller and hasn’t produced a drop of whiskey since 1992 is something that most people aren’t going to be able to decode from a quick glance at a label. Or that Ancient Ancient Age used to be a 10 year old Bourbon and is now called “10 Star”. Or that many domestic whiskey bottles have a two digit code stamped into the glass at the bottom of the bottle which are the last two numbers in the year – this doesn’t mean the whiskey is from this date, but it helps date the bottle more than looking at a label can.
Hunting for domestic whiskey is almost beyond the scope of this article, and I encourage those of you who want to read more to look at Chuck Cowdery’s blog or visit the fine folks at Straight Bourbon.
Let’s talk about pricing for a moment. It is not your job when you’re buying dusty liquor to tell everything you know to the store staff. At the same time, don’t be a jerk. Moving price tags or shelf tags is a quick way to be banned from a store. Don’t do it. But if things are not marked with a price, don’t be afraid to ask – once you’ve checked to see there are no price tags on or around what you’re looking for. Don’t offer a price – let the staff make that decision. That mini bottle of Ferrand’s Abel I bought was surrounded by a bunch of the 10 year old minis. Did I want the 10 year minis? No. Did I want the Abel that was missing a price tag right next to them? Sure. I bought half a dozen 10 year minis and the Abel, and the clerk charged me $4 for each of them.
You should also use technology to your advantage. Winesearcher is a good resource to check pricing. We’ve talked about Google Image to check labels, but also, if you type in the UPC of a product, someone, somewhere might know just what it is, or that it doesn’t exist anymore.
Finally, a word for all of you stuck in benighted control states. It’s ok. So you can’t find a lot of dusty bottles of old things because the state owns all the liquor. Oregon is that way, and it frustrates me to no end. But Oregon at least has a posting of all price changes on their nice, neat state website, and checking this list every month is a great way to find out what’s discontinued and marked way down – this month, the winner is 200 ml bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue Label for $45. Do I want the stuff? Not really. But it’s $10 less expensive than the going rate.
The important thing is to have fun doing it. The thrill of the hunt is exciting, and while it can take a lot of preparation and the right amount of luck, walking into a liquor store and getting the feeling that a special bottle will soon be yours. And even if you don’t necessarily want something you find that’s old and rare, chances are you know someone who does, and you can brighten their day. After all, sharing what you’ve learned makes this a great place.
Also see Brand Recommendations
In many ways, my home bar is an extension of my passion for cooking. Years ago, when vanilla beans were on sale, I’d make vanilla extract for friends or flavored vodkas with weird ingredients that I’d invariably take a sip of and shove into the back of the pantry. Over time, the bottom shelf of the pantry became an exercise in forensics – I never really labelled anything, so color and smell became a clue as to just what I’d done.
Intermixed with all of those science experiments was my collection of spirits. Back then, I was lucky enough to work in a large liquor store, and part of my training was to be able to speak fairly authoritatively about most things we sold. Talking to my coworkers led me to amass about a dozen bottles – things like Cruzan Blackstrap, Maker’s Mark and Monopolowa vodka.
The power of the Anvil
The trouble really began when I met Bobby Heugel. I wandered into Anvil on a tip from a friend in my CSW* study group, and was dutifully impressed. A few weeks later, I popped in after work (still in my work shirt), and the friendly conversation quickly became much more professional. Bobby ran to the back and came out with a three page annotated list of liquor that he wanted to sell, but no one in Texas could find for him. I took the list in to our liquor buyer and after some initial hesitance, he agreed to pretty much bring in whatever Bobby wanted.
So now I had to learn how to talk to liquor reps. Between having Bobby in one ear and liquor reps giving me puzzled looks until I figured out how to get what I wanted from them, I learned a lot about liquor in a fairly short period of time. Sitting at Anvil, I got a crash course in period cocktails and how to think about liquor in the same way I thought about wine. And because I could see physical inventory throughout a large chain of retail liquor stores, I got to buy a few special bottles of things that are now hard to come by.
The power of the mother. Of invention.
We left Houston to live in central Texas in the summer of 2010. I remember packing two wine cases of liquor into the back of the car, which I thought was a whole lot of alcohol. The town we moved to was tiny, and had a distinct lack of craft cocktails – I was spoiled from Anvil, and quickly realized that the nearest quality drinks were an hour away in either Austin or San Antonio. Considering I wasn’t about to drive an hour, have a few drinks, then drive an hour back, I decided that I’d learn something about making cocktails at home.
As luck would have it, my two little boxes of alcohol found a new home – we had to get some new bedroom furniture after the move, and I appropriated a pretty basic surplus armoire to hold my booze. This was an unfinished, cheaply made, too tall, beat up thing that had one shelf and a drawer in the bottom. But it was better than making drinks on the kitchen island and walking back and forth to the pantry to retrieve bottles.
Living out in central Texas also led me to a life of liquor spelunking. You’d be amazed what you can find in out of the way places if you look hard enough and make friends with the staff of liquor stores. I’m talking about pre-artificial color Campari and pre-Diageo Zacapa 23 – before it was “Solera 23”. Old Stitzel-Weller distilled Bourbons on dusty shelves. Mispriced Mount Gay XO – the store in question thought it was a twelve pack when it was only six in a case, and refused to change the pricing after I told them about it. We’ll come back to this topic — how to hunt down interesting bottles and fill your bar — in the next installment.
Over a couple of years, I amassed a sizeable collection of liquor ... to the point that my little armoire that could was becoming untenable. The top was scarred by knife cuts and dented from setting bottles down too hard. Drippy bitters bottles had left multicolored rings in the unfinished wood top. I had exploded a couple of bottles of fermented ginger beer in there somewhere – not a sound you want to hear at 6 AM. Worse, I was breaking bottles trying to grab something from the very back of the cabinet and pulling it out sideways over the tops of all the other bottles.
About the same time that my issues were coming to a tipping (dripping? — editor) point, we also needed a buffet for the dining space. We like to entertain, and during the holidays, having 20 people in the house was not atypical. Putting dishes on the island worked, but not well, and killing two birds with one stone, my wife agreed to let me have a bar custom built as long as it was big enough to act as a buffet. She would use it when we had people over.
One of the great things about living in a small town is how easily some things become. The people from whom we were renting our house were also custom builders, and brother in law of a custom cabinet maker, who had made all of the cabinets in the house. It took me about five minutes to realize that a bar is nothing more than a custom cabinet — sure, turned on its side and larger than usual, but still – the work is the same. It was a quick phone call and a few meetings with the custom cabinet guy who agreed to the work, and then I had to figure out what exactly it was that I wanted in a new bar.
The power of height
My limiting factor in all this? It had to fit in a reasonable space, be big enough to double as a buffet, and I had a statuesque bottle of Luxardo Maraschino that was the bane of my existence. I had seen pictures on the internet of the creative ways people had dealt with that crazy bottle shape. After dealing with hidden bottles and lack of access to them, I wanted shelves that extended fully. And I wanted a sealed top that would be pretty impervious to scratches and stains.
|1 1⁄4||oz||Rum, Mount Gay Extra Old|
|1||oz||Scotch, Oban (95 Distiller's Edition)|
|1⁄4||oz||Sweet vermouth, Carpano Punt e Mes|
|4||ds||Bitters, Dr. Heather Duncan's Christmas Bitters|
|1||twst||Orange peel (flamed, as garnish)|
|1||ds||Bitters, Dr. Heather Duncan's Christmas Bitters (as garnish)|
So the guy built this cabinet for me. It’s cherry, 78 inches long by 24 inches deep by 42 inches high. This is enough for eight drawers (I chose six drawers and two adjustable shelves) that have full extension cabinet slides with hardware that supports 100 pounds. The height is a good working height for me; I’m 6’2”. The best way to figure this out is to hold your hands like you’re making a drink and mark the height a little lower than your hands. This is as tall as your bar should be, subtracting an inch and a quarter for the granite top. The lower bound for the bar should be the height of a Luxardo Maraschino bottle times how many drawers you want vertically, and adding in space for clearance and the wood itself.
I actually weighed full bottles of liquor to get to about 60 pounds, then grouped them together to find the dimensions of a drawer. Adding in gaps for the wood and hardware got me to 78 inches long and 24 inches deep.
The power of the tool
It took my guy about three weeks to make the piece, and a matching box to hold bitters. About halfway through, I visited the shop to see how it was coming along, and it looked fine. Cherry’s sort of pale and plain looking before it’s finished, and having stared at my kitchen cabinets for a year, I knew that he wanted to polyurethane the piece once it was finished. Now, I don’t like polyurethane. It’s fine, and relatively waterproof… if you don’t nick or scratch the finish. Once you do, it’s a pain to restore, or it’s all got to come off and be reapplied, and I wanted something more resiliant. I decided that I wanted a Danish oil finish, as it penetrates the wood, is water resistant, and leaves no coating, but a satiny shine. They put a coat on, then delivered it to the house.
Because I’m a crazy guy who can’t leave well enough alone, I proceeded to put on an additional five coats of Danish oil, each one cut with more and more mineral spirit and sanded with finer and finer sandpaper until it had a beautiful satin gloss. To protect the wood from stains, I bought a disk of beeswax, rubbed it over the piece until it was dull, coated the wax with one final coat of straight Danish oil, then buffed the wax and oil out with 0000 steel wool so that the bar had a glassy smooth finish. Cherry is also photosensitive, meaning it will darken as it’s exposed to sunlight.
The granite top was a lot easier. There was a granite yard in town, and I selected a piece that had an overhang of 1 ¼ inches that looked nice with what I thought the final color of the bar would be.
All told, the project ended up at about $2,000, with one quarter of that being the granite top, locks and knobs. I wanted something that would effectively be indestructable and be bigger than I needed at the time. Here’s how it looks today.
My best advice for people who are ready to take this step? Build your bar as if you have twice as many bottles as you have. I can’t stress enough how handy full extension cabinet slides are, and building it tall enough to be at a good working height will save your back a lot of stress. The rest of the details are completely up to you.
Zachary Pearson, editor
* Certified Specialist of Wine
The Curious History of an Early Spirit
It went like this, but wasn’t. Some four thousand years ago in Mespotamia, the perfumers at the court of King Zimrilim created a technique to separate the essential oils of precious woods and flowers from the woods and flowers themselves in order to embalm their dead. Originally, this probably involved soaking flower petals in warm water and capturing the fragrant oils that rose to the surface. What they called this method is lost, but other cultures refined their work into the art and science now known as distillation.
Many ancient scientists ran up against this phenomenon. In the fourth century BCE, Aristotle realized that seawater could be made drinkable by distillation, and that the process could be applied to wine and other liquids, though there is no record of his actually distilling wine. To the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks, distillation must have seemed like magic, and their knowledge was guarded from unknowing eyes.
A major advancement in distilling came between the 3rd and 4th century CE with the invention of the alembic (from the Greek ambix – a cup, typically made of glass) by Zosimos of Panopolis, an Egyptian. Having two vessels, one with the liquid to be distilled and one to catch condensed vapors with a tube running between them gave much more control and finesse to this delicate process. With a few modifications, this device is now known as a pot still.
During the Golden Age of Islam (roughly spanning the years from the 9th century to the 13th), much of the older knowledge of the Greeks and Romans came to be translated and advanced significantly. While Islam forbade drinking alcohol, scientists like Avicenna looked into the ancient arts known to the Greeks as kimia – the magical knowledge of the land of Kemet, or as we know it, Egypt. Kimia became known as al-kimia, or alchemy, and distillation was at its heart. Wine could be converted into an essence that had magical, medicinal properties. This clear liquid, collected by scientists drip by drip, was called “juice” or “sweat” – arak.
Due to the spread of Islam throughout the Middle East, many cultures have a distilled drink called something like arak: In Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Israel, arak is usually unaged grape brandy flavored with aniseed during the second or third distillation so that it louches* in water. In Turkey, a drink like this is called raki. In Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, and Georgia, aragh is unflavored and more like vodka. And in Java and Sri Lanka, this word becomes arrack – still unflavored, but now made from sugarcane or coconut sap.
Interestingly enough, people in the East Indies probably learned distillation techniques not from the Middle East, but from China, where by the 9th century BCE, distillation was being carried out on rice wine. These stills are not tall and swan-necked, but shorter, with a pan of cold water to encourage condensation at their tops. Some producers on Java still use them.
In his book “Punch”, David Wondrich tells the story of an early encounter with native distillation – that in 1521, Ferdinand Magellan landed in the Phillipines on the island of Palawan. With him was Antonio Pigafetta, a wealthy Venetian turned sailor who chronicled Magellan’s voyage. In his journals, Pigafetta noted that “the natives drank both distilled palm wine and distilled rice wine… the latter being the stronger and better” (pg. 27). He also mentioned that the local name for this hootch was arach.
Arak, this ur-word for the end result of distillation, can be divided into two main types: a grape brandy based, aniseed flavored version called arak or raki that is drunk with water, is clear before the water addition, and about 80 proof. This originated in the Levant and is mainly drunk there.
The second type is called arrack and can be divided into two categories: Batavia Arrack from the island of Java, which is made from molasses with a small addition of red rice, distilled in Chinese style pot stills, and aged in large teak vats for a while. This is the stuff of Jerry Thomas, who had recipes for “rack punch”, but it fell out of fashion and ceased being imported into the United States some time before Prohibition.
The spread of British colonies to the Far East in the early 17th century brought arrack to new markets. This was in an age before the capture of Jamaica and the introduction of the rum ration aboard Navy ships, but smart captains stocked spirits for long sea voyages, as they would not spoil as beer or wine so often did. Once they established a foothold in India, the local spirits were adapted to familiar uses, which at that time meant punch.
The rise of punch as a social drink brought with it a serious demand for arrack, and considering it had to come via ship from quite a long distance, arrack was not cheap. Wondrich mentions that in 1730, Henry Fielding wrote that rum or brandy cost about six shillings a quart, but that arrack was eight. While Fielding was writing fiction at the time, Wondrich assures us that this was actually the prevailing cost of the stuff, and as an aside mentions that eight shillings was effectively $250 in today’s money as a percentage of a yearly wage.
The decline of arrack as an English drink came in the early 19th century. Domestic Jamaican rum producers lobbied and got a tax increase on imported arrack. Between this and the decline of punch, arrack became hard to find. Jerry Thomas has a few recipes for arrack punch, but by 1869, William Terrington, in “Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks” includes a recipe for “Mock Arrack, or Vauxhall Nectar” which was a Jamaican rum base flavored with benzoin (a resin that smells like the perfume component amber and vanilla) and pineapple, then had milk added to it, presumably for body and sweetness. Terrington at least praises the quality of arrack, mentioning that it’s a generic term for “all the spirits made in the East”, that it’s made from coconuts, and that Java and China produce the best examples.
Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz has resurrected Batavia Arrack, importing the van Oosten label from Java. It’s clear and 100 proof with just two percent Javanese red rice, and it’s not for the faint of heart. There’s a definite hogo note (think about Wray & Nephew overproof or La Favorite Blanc – funky!), but underneath that a green/cardamom aroma and a buttery-oily richness that’s a bit much sipped neat, but this feral beast is a great catalyst for punches, where even a small amount cuts through lemon, green tea or nutmeg.
|2||Lemon (peel and juice)|
|5||oz||Sugar (Black sugar, see note)|
|8||oz||Green tea (hot, from 1 Tbsp tea)|
|4||oz||Lemon juice (strained)|
|1||pn||Nutmeg (as garnish)|
This is a fairly simple punch based on the classic Wondrich recipe, but scaled down to make about 25 ounces. It’s what I imagine those earliest punches were like: local spirit and local sugar, but the addition of green tea gives this a depth and reinforces the green notes of the Batavia Arrack. It’s quite pleasant and easy at first, but the finish is tenacious – oily and funky.
The other style of arrack is just as old as the one from Java, but is entirely different. In the late 13th century, Marco Polo described a sort of wine made from palm trees on the island of Sumatra that was called “toddy.” Whether or not it was distilled at that time is unknown, but the technology was surely available in that part of the world, either from the Chinese or the Middle East.
To make this style of arrack, which is typically called “coconut arrack” or “palm arrack”, people climb coconut palms and cut slits into the unopened flower buds high atop the trees. Small buckets are placed under the flowers and the watery sap is collected. A quick native fermentation happens (usually taking no more than an hour or two), and the resulting palm wine is pooled and distilled in a combination of pot and column stills. Historically, this type of arrack was bottled a bit underproof.
The bottle of White Lion VSOA I received from their US importer is 73.6 proof (which is evidently the traditional strength), aged in vats made of a local wood called halmilla, and colored a warm medium brown with caramel coloring. It’s mildly sweet smelling, with a sweet-floral coconut topnote and a bit of hogo. It’s round and soft, and tastes of burnt sugar – not from the coloring matter, but from the slight scorching of the coconut sugars in the base wine. If pressed, I would say this is much more like a sweety Guatemalan rum like Montecristo 12. It’s certainly pleasant to sip on, but be careful mixing with it – big flavors will overpower the delicate floral sweetness.
Because the coconut arrack is much more delicate, I wanted to pull out flavor components and accentuate them with like aromas. There’s a lot of creamy/buttery notes here, and both the Imbue (which is Pinot Gris based) and the pear eau de vie are strongly creamy and floral, the piloncillo syrup reinforces the coconutty sweetness, and building it as a scaffa – without ice or further dilution – makes this more spirit forward and preserves the aromatic intensity of the arrack at room temperature. The bitters, with their oily violet-orris root scent push the floral notes of the arrack and Imbue forward.
Most interesting to me is how different these two spirits are. They don’t compete with one another, and you should have both in your liquor cabinet, especially if you’re a rum aficionado. While Batavia Arrack is relatively available in the United States – at least the van Oosten brand, thanks to Eric Seed – finding coconut arrack is much more difficult. Hopefully the spirit revival going on in this country increases demand for such an interesting and historical product.
* Louche is the process of the anise compounds dropping out of the alcohol solution as water is added. Louche comes from the French for, literally, squinting or cross-eyed, meaning of questionable taste or decency, or decadence – a charming word for absinthe’s odd behavior. – Editor
Author’s disclosure: I work for the Oregon distributor for Haus Alpenz, but bought the bottle of Batavia Arrack van Oosten for this article. I received a sample bottle of the White Lion VSOA from their US importer.
“that which I have seene most fruitful is sower [sour] oranges and lemons . . . I wish that some learned man would write of it [scurvy], for it is the plague of the sea, and the spoyle of mariners.”
— Sir Richard Hawkins, 1590
A gimlet is a small hand drill, meant (back when things were still sealed in barrels) to drill a hole in a barrel and let whatever was put inside out. A gimlet pierces things, and so people with a sharp gaze were “gimlet-eyed”. A Gimlet also pierces. Made from gin and lime, it’s meant to be a short, sharp drink tossed down the hatch, but modern, craft oriented bartenders take one look at the neon-green, corn syrup filled Rose’s lime juice that’s supposed to go into the drink and think about either making their own lime cordial or simply substituting fresh lime juice and sugar. And I don’t think they’re wrong.
The gimlet actually has a rather short history in print. Harry MacElhone prints the first recipe for the Gimlet in his “ABC’s of Mixing Cocktails” (1922) as one half Coates Plymouth gin and one half Rose’s Lime Cordial with the odd instructions to “Stir and serve in the same glass. Can be iced” and a short note saying it was a popular drink in the Navy. Thirty years later, Raymond Chandler has one of his characters in The Long Goodbye maintain that “a real gimlet is half gin and half Rose's lime juice and nothing else.”
But 1922 wasn’t the gimlet’s first mention in print. In his memoirs, Admiral Albert Gleaves of the United States Navy mentioned that while on a visit to Tientsin, China in September of 1920, “… I was served a new drink called gimlet – a mild affair of gin, lime juice and water”.
So how does this mild Chinese affair of a drink of gin and lime juice and water that is quite similar to a Gin Rickey within a few years become a popular Royal Navy drink of half high proof gin and half sweet-tart and preserved tasting Rose’s lime Cordial? The story a bit stranger than you might think.
Let’s go back three hundred years. In the early 17th century, life aboard a ship in the Royal Navy was pretty miserable. Everything edible was either salted, dried or both, and the food was monotonous: beef, pork, peas, and hard, unsalted biscuit. For hydration, it was a gallon of small (weak) beer per man. Invariably, after ten to twelve weeks of this diet, the men developed scurvy.
We think about scurvy now as a disease that no one gets, that is well understood and easily curable. Scurvy killed three million sailors in the three hundred years between the end of the 15th century and the end of the 18th century. Scurvy is lethal and horribly unpleasant, and many ships lost 70% of their men due to it alone.
The main problem with scurvy is that no one really knew what caused or cured it. It has been described since the Egyptians in the 15th century BCE, but the cause of the disease wasn’t formally elucidated until 1923. Scurvy is caused by a lack of Vitamin C, something that most animals make but humans (and guinea pigs) must obtain through their diet.
Vitamin C is present in red bell peppers, citrus juice (though more in orange and lemon than in lime, as we’ll see later), organ meats, and some evergreen trees. From the beginnings of the Age of Exploration, sailors knew what scurvy was and what sorts of things cured it – almost always fresh produce, but especially the juice of lemons and oranges.
“Succus Limonum, or juice of lemons expelling and refrigerating… [i]t being very cordial of itself, and the most precious help that ever was discovered against the Scurvy to be drunk at all times; for it mightily opens all obstructions and refresheth and restoreth nature.”
— John Woodall (Chief Surgeon of the East India Company), The Surgeon’s Mate, 1613, pg. 89
Problematically, vitamin C is fragile. It’s destroyed by oxidation and heat, so that by the time sailors needed it most, it’s been destroyed by being on a ship. Preserving liquids during that time typically meant reducing them by boiling. Putting them in a barrel invariably meant oxidation, both through the wood and in the headspace.
Amazingly enough, sailors and their surgeons figured out something that the most learned of the medical establishment did not, and they proved it time and time again, to no avail. In 1597, Sir Hugh Plat recommended that only fresh lemon juice be used to prevent scurvy, and to cover the juice with olive oil, instead of cooking it. It would take almost 200 years for another naval surgeon to rediscover this idea.
In the mean time, the British captured Jamaica in 1655, and the beer ration – which must have taken up an incredible amount of space on a ship – was changed to what was now domestically produced rum, at half a pint (8 oz) a day divided into two servings.
On May 20th, 1747, James Lind, surgeon on HMS Salisbury, took twelve men suffering from scurvy and paired them off. In addition to their normal diet, one pair got a quart of cider a day. Another got 25 drops of oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid). The other pairs received vinegar, a pint of seawater, or a purging medicine. None recovered. The last pair ate two oranges and a lemon a day, and were better six days later, when the supply ran out. Lind had run a (somewhat) controlled medical trial and proved that there was something unique about oranges and lemons, but not the acidic vinegar or sulfuric acid, that cured scurvy.
Lind left the Navy the following year and devoted his life to writing about scurvy and attempting to cure it. He made something called rob, which was the strained juice of two dozen lemons or oranges reduced at beneath a boil to a few ounces. This certainly preserved the acidity (I’ve made a small batch of the stuff – it smells like lemon curd but is painfully acidic), but destroyed whatever vitamin C was in the juice. It took him until 1778 to realize what Hugh Plat knew almost two hundred years earlier – that fresh juice covered with oil remained effective against scurvy for a long time.
By the 1790’s, things began moving faster. Two Scottish surgeons, Thomas Trotter and Gilbert Blaine not only rediscovered that citrus juice cured scurvy and that it could be preserved with alcohol instead of boiling, but kissed up to their superiors enough that in 1795, strained lemon juice preserved with spirits became part of the standard ration for Royal Navy ships away from shore for any length of time.
So this cured scurvy in the Royal Navy. At least until 1845, when the governor of the Bermuda convinced the navy to change out lemon juice (which came from Portugal or the Mediterranean) for lime juice, which conveniently was sourced from plantations in the British West Indies. No one knew that a lime only has about half of the vitamin C that a lemon has. It was thought that a lime being more sour than a lemon meant it was more efficacious. By this time, the people at the highest risk for scurvy were Arctic explorers, and after a few expeditions supplied with lime juice came down with scurvy, their juice rations were increased.
In 1867, two big things happened. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1867 was passed which brought English merchant ships in line with Naval vessels:
(3.) No Lime or Lemon Juice shall be deemed fit and proper to be taken on board any such Ship, for the Use of the Crew or Passengers thereof, unless the same has been obtained from a Bonded Warehouse for and to be shipped as Stores…nor unless the same contains Fifteen per Centum of proper and palatable Proof Spirits… [nor] unless the same is packed in such Bottles…”
(5.) The Master of every such Ship…shall serve or cause to be served out the Lime or Lemon Juice with Sugar (such Sugar to be in addition to any Sugar required by the Articles)…the Lime or Lemon Juice and Sugar to be served out daily at the Rate of an Ounce each per Day to each Member of the Crew, and to be mixed with a due Proportion of Water before being served out…”
— Merchant Shipping Act, 1867, emphasis mine
If you’re keeping track, the rum ration was 2 ounces (a tot), with 1 ounce of lime juice, 1 ounce of sugar and 6 ounces of water. From a modern standpoint, the lime juice and sugar made a basic cold-processed lime cordial. This is what the “ratings” – the enlisted men – drank. Petty officers and above could take their tot neat.
Speaking of lime cordials, 1867 also was a great year for a fellow named Lachlan Rose, who patented a method of preserving lime juice using the winemaking trick of burning sulfur to stabilize the juice instead of alcohol. This stuff was put into decorative glass bottles embossed with lime leaves and fruit and called Rose’s Lime Juice.
Lachlan Rose wasn’t looking to sell his newfangled preserved lime juice to merchant vessels or the navy – it had no alcohol in it. He was, however, riding a wave of Temperance in England, and his pretty bottles of lime juice (and sweetened cordial and lime “Champagne”, and “limetta-ginger”) were instantly popular as soft drinks. The July 3rd 1880 Church of England Temperance Chronicle has an ad for Rose’s Lime Juice that mentions it’s an antiscorbutic. By the last decade of the 19th century Rose’s was being exported to the Straits Settlements, South Africa (carried by British soldiers), and the United States.
Toward the end of the 19th century, American-style mixed drinks became fashionable in England. Instead of being made with American whisky or French brandy, the English elevated the new London Dry style of gin to a socially acceptable drink. Cheap, sweetened gin was swilled by the masses, but a few bar owners took a new, readily available product and pitched it to an upwardly mobile middle class, including Royal Naval officers who had a large base just outside of Plymouth.
It is very likely that the gimlet has its origins in the English class system in the early 20th century. Everyone aboard a ship drank the rum ration, but officers could (and did) supplement their rum with other spirits. I can certainly see how the upwardly mobile dry style of gin (from Plymouth, and at Naval proof) and the fashionable Temperance-oriented Rose’s would have both found a home in an officer’s cabin — as a way to separate the officers from the “ratings”. Obviously, ice would be a luxury that no one had.
Ashore was a different matter. Officers in their clubs had easy access to fresh limes and ice and it is again likely that both ways of making this drink called a Gimlet are valid – they’re effectively the same drink but made different by the necessities of life on a ship.
So in the end, I believe that McElhone had it right. The gimlet was first a Royal Navy drink that was introduced by officers aboard ship and made from high proof (probably Plymouth) gin and Rose’s lime cordial (though today, you should make your own and avoid the fake color and corn syrup laden modern Rose’s). Once ashore though, I think the drink changed slightly to the Rickey-esque drink encountered by Admiral Gleaves. I would recommend making them both, finding the day’s Naval toast, and raising a glass.
Let’s get some known facts out of the way first, shall we? The Singapore Sling was probably invented some time between 1913 and 1915 by Ngiam Tong Boon, who worked at the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. It certainly had gin. And ice. It may have had “cherry brandy” (by which we mean a cherry liqueur ... or perhaps not) and Benedictine. It may have also had lime juice, lemon juice, pineapple juice, grenadine, sloe gin, crème de cassis, orange bitters and/or the all-mysterious “bitters”.
Furthermore, let’s set some things straight. First, this drink, whatever it is, isn’t a sling. A sling is a lightly sweetened and chilled spirit, lengthened with water of some sort. This drink, with its citrus, bitters and liqueurs is much more like an early English Tiki drink than a proper sling.
In fact, so little is known about this drink’s ingredients that David Embury, writing in “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks” (1948) claims that he’d never seen two recipes with the same ingredients. I would extend this, and say that we should differentiate between the Modern Raffles Hotel Singapore Sling, the Original version of the same drink, and the more generic “Singapore Sling”, which may or may not have a lot in common with the version served at the Raffles.
|1⁄2||oz||Cherry Liqueur, Cherry Heering|
|1⁄4||oz||Triple sec, Cointreau|
If you are so lucky as to sit down at the Long Bar at the original Raffles Hotel in Singapore, you’re likely to get a blended drink that suffers greatly from “Bad Tiki” syndrome — it’s a lot of juice and a bunch of strident flavors made from a mix and doled out to tourists in a souvenir glass. It is better if made according to what is now the official Raffles recipe, which was reinvented with a big slug of pineapple juice by Mr. Boon’s nephew some time in the mid-1970’s. But I’d like to go back. Way back.
In the beginning was the gin sling. A simple little drink, tossed off by “Professor” Jerry Thomas as a drink “…made with the same ingredients as the gin toddy, except you grate a little nutmeg on top.” This is easy: 1 wineglass of gin (about 2 ounces), ½ wineglass of water, 1 teaspoon of sugar, and 1 small lump of ice, stirred with a spoon. Grate some nutmeg on top.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, was Singapore. Not yet a Crown Colony, in 1862 Singapore was part of the Straits Settlements, which came about as a result of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. Singapore was administrated by the British East India Company, which controlled English trade to and from Asia, minted its own money, had armies and was effectively a shadow government until civil unrest and famine splintered its empire.
Even after the end of East India Company rule in 1874, Singapore was a fascinating place to live. There was still strong Dutch influence in that part of the world, but on top of it was all the expectations of an Englishman living abroad. There would be tea, there would be servants, and oh yes, there would be drinking.
Around the turn of the 20th century, lots of alcohol was available in Singapore. Clarets, Rhine wines, Sherries, stout and gin were advertised in newspapers. The first mention in paper of a gin sling was a poem written in the May 15th, 1895 Straits Times by someone calling themselves “The Chutney Man” which tells the story (in shockingly bad 19th century style) of a rebellion in the state of Kachang Gorang, ruled by the wonderously named Sultan Abdul Moocher Alley bin About a Beer and his rebellious cousin Mustapha Gin Sling. All this means is that people were drinking something called a gin sling at the end of the 19th century, and while it was assuredly enjoyed in the tropical heat and humidity pre-air conditioning as a morning drink (I kid you not), this was not yet a Singapore Sling.
I would be remiss at this point if I did not acknowledge the research that Dave Wondrich has done on this subject for the July/August 2011 edition of Imbibe. He is correct on most of the palpable points, and not only that, he points the way to the primary newspaper sources in the Singapore National Library. My only quibbles? He’s two years off in dating the first usage of “gin sling”, and he uses an obscure quote in a society piece from the October 2nd 1903 Straits Times in which both “fizzy wine” and “pink slings for pale people” were served at a going away party for one “Daddy” Abrams to prove that whatever was in this proto-Singapore Sling was not clear cherry eau de vie, but red cherry liqueur. I’m not as convinced as Mr. Wondrich that this pink sling was the forerunner to the Singapore Sling, but it’s one piece to the puzzle.
On the side of “the original Singapore Sling was pink” are two things. First, the Danish Cherry Heering was certainly available in Singapore during this time. They’d been advertising since 1847. An ad from this period calls the stuff “Heering’s Cherry Brandy (kirsebaer)”. The first ad for Bols cherry brandy dates to January 11th, 1916. Secondly, bartenders knew the difference between “cherry brandy” which was red colored and sweet and “kirschwasser”, or cherry eau de vie which was clear and dry.
Only ten years later, some angry cricketers, upset that they could not get a gin sling at the very proper Singapore Cricket Club found that they could make do with “…one cherry brandy, one domb (sic), one gin, one lime juice, some ice and water, a few dashes of bitters…” It’s easy to take those as one ounce measurements, and “domb” as Benedictine DOM. At least they wrote of their good fortune in the September 20th, 1913 edition of the Weekly Sun. And we’re now in the time frame in which the mysterious Mr. Boon created his famous, misinterpreted drink.
The picture starts to become muddled almost immediately. In 1922, Robert Vermeire’s book “Cocktails – How to Mix Em” has the Straits Sling, “a well known Singapore drink” which has 2 dashes each of orange bitters and Angostura bitters, the juice of half a lemon, 1/8 of a gill each (a gill is 4 ounces, so this is ½ oz) of Benedictine and “dry cherry brandy” (which was still red and somewhat sweet), and a half gill of gin. All this is poured into a tumbler and topped with soda water.
By 1930, the Savoy Cocktail Book had both a Straits Sling and a Singapore Sling. The Singapore version is 1 ounce of cherry brandy, ½ ounce dry gin, and the juice of ¼ of a lemon, shaken, strained into a “medium” glass, topped with soda water and a lump of ice. The Straits Sling on the other hand is for six people, and has 8 ounces of gin, 2 ounces each of Benedictine and cherry brandy, the juice of 2 lemons, and a teaspoon each of orange and Angostura bitters.
Both Frank Meier’s “The Artistry of Mixing Drinks” (1936) and the “Café Royal Cocktail Book” (1937) mimic this more minimalist Singapore Sling: Meier calls for a half-glass (theoretically a bit more than an ounce) of gin and cherry brandy, with the juice of half a lemon and water (let’s call it 2 ounces) to fill a tumbler with “three or four pieces of ice” in it. The Café Royal uses ½ gin (say 2 ounces), ¼ each cherry brandy and Benedictine (1 ounce), and the juice of half a lime, shaken and poured unstrained into a tumbler, then topped with what might be 1.5 ounces of soda water.
Finally, in his 1939 classic “Jigger, Beaker and Glass”, Charles H. Baker, Jr. declares that the original recipe for the Singapore Sling is one third each gin, cherry brandy and Benedictine shaken or stirred with a few lumps of ice and filled with soda water, then garnished with a spiral of lime, but that he prefers a drier version which is a 2:1:1 ratio.
This Baker recipe is the most stripped down version of the Singapore Sling, and he claims it is the original recipe, which he first encountered in 1926. While technically this is still a gin sling, Professor Thomas might have recognized it as an “improved” or “fancy” gin sling, where the plain white sugar was replaced by flavored liqueurs, albeit in much larger amounts that is typical. Sadly, this version is heavy and overly sweet, not tropical or refreshing. But it may be as close as one can get to what was first served at the Raffles.
Interestingly enough, Trader Vic agrees with Baker in his “Bartender’s Guide” (1947), calling the same recipe the “Raffles Hotel Sling”. Strangely, he gives two variants: Number Two is 2 ounces of dry gin, ¾ ounce of cherry brandy, a dash of Benedictine, and the juice of half a lemon stirred with ice, filled with seltzer and garnished with orange slices and mint. His Number One variant is bizarre, with 1 ½ ounces of dry gin, ½ ounce cherry brandy and lemon juice, the juice (and shell) of ½ lime, and then a teaspoon of grenadine, ¼ ounce sloe gin, and ½ ounce crème de cassis! This concoction is stirred with some ice and topped with seltzer.
Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about where to put down my marker on this drink. Looking back at the 1913 article, the people who frequented the Singapore Cricket Club were obviously perturbed that the Club refused to make their gin sling, thinking it was low-brow. I take that to mean that this drink, using the ingredients listed, was widely popular in Singapore at the time. This is the recipe I like.
Not only that, but it’s a really good drink that is quick and simple to make and which touches the points that most sources agree on: gin, cherry brandy, Benedictine, lime. I also think it’s important that the acidity be lime juice, as it provides more punch to get through the half of the drink that is sweet liqueurs better than lemon. All the recipes with extraneous ingredients (bitters, pineapple juice, grenadine) turn this into an amorphous mess, including what they serve now at the Long Bar.
A final word on the subject comes in an article in the Straits Times from July 14th, 1969. Chew Ah Mit, the bartender at the Selangor Club was due to retire, having worked behind the bar there since 1908. He fondly remembered the gin slings that by his retirement were out of fashion as “a little gin, a dash of cherry brandy, a drop of liqueur, a splash of DOM, and some lemon” – a simple drink for a simpler time.
The Negroni is indomitable. Attack it with skewed ratios, and it rallies. Violate the ingredients, and it stubbornly persists. I can’t think of another drink that you can screw up so thoroughly and still enjoy the result.
This history of the Negroni is disputed, but probably dates to 1919, where the Americano was stiffened by substituting gin for the soda water. Regardless of exactly who created the drink and when, the Negroni is the King of bitter cocktails. If you spy a bottle of Campari on the backbar, the bartender probably knows how to make a Negroni.
To challenge my ability to ruin a simple, innocent cocktail, I set about testing a variety of base amari:
- Campari – the gold standard, and the definitive choice
- Luxardo Bitter – the red, cheaper, harder-to-find alternative
- Gran Classico – the new Swiss entry with a distinctive profile and golden hue
- Cynar – the popular, brown distant cousin to Campari, included because it's awesome
First, an admission about sugar. I’ll happily drink a classic Negroni, but I find them sweeter than ideal. Two parts sweet ingredients to only one of spirit is pushing the limit for me, even with the bitter aspects to balance the sweetness. I prefer a less syrupy ratio, and have even gone so far as try other acidifiers, such as lime, citric acid, and Lactart. But certainly the easiest and most authentic way to tame sugarzilla is the perfect variant: split the sweet vermouth fraction into equal parts sweet and dry.
Normally I would have selected Punt e Mes as my preferred sweet vermouth. Some would classify this bitter oddity as a hybrid amaro / sweet vermouth, but I close my mind and try not to think about it. The stuff is just wonderful, so, yup, it’s just sweet vermouth. Alas, I was nearly out (oh dear). I opened a fresh bottle of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, which I enjoy on its own merits. And a newish bottle of Dolin Dry served for the dry vermouth. I am also rather partial to Boissiere.
So my prototype recipe was:
2/3 oz Gin, Beefeater
2/3 oz Campari-like amaro
1/3 oz Sweet vermouth, Cocchi
1/3 oz Dry vermouth, Dolin
To minimize differences in dilution and stirring, I built each in a frozen glass with a huge very frozen ice cube, stirring each in several iterations.
I enlisted the help of my expert bitter snob (and spouse) and we started sampling.
Campari. The original, familiar. Bright citrus flavors. Instantly recognizable as Campari. As wonderful as you would expect it to be.
Luxardo Bitter. Quite similar to Campari really. Essentially the same (artificial) color. It has a floral aspect and is just enough different that I just don’t quite like it as well. In my area it is about 25-30% less expensive, but I would still pay the extra $8-$10 for Campari, even though I go through an astonishing amount of the stuff. Still, a worthy substitute.
Gran Classico. Interesting and quite different. Deeply floral with a spicy flavor. If you like Creme de Violette and Orange Flower Water, this might appeal to you. The golden color is natural and lovely. I enjoyed the variation, but mostly for the variety itself.
Cynar. The Gin-Cin-Cyn is essentially the same drink, and I certainly enjoy it. However in back-to-back sipping, it was thinner and less interesting than the original Negroni, which surprised me. Cynar (with a squeeze of lemon) is my go-to “I want something a little more” aperitif. I think it just couldn’t quite stand up to the other bold ingredients the way that Campari can.
So there you have it. All Negroni variations are good. But I like the original [P]erfect Negroni best. So far.
Dan Chadwick, Chief Swizzlestick
April 1, 2013. I put on my temporary neck tattoo and rode my velocipede down to Powell’s bookstore the other day. Luckily, there’s designated parking throughout most of downtown Portland for velocipedes, and I took the next to last one available. Dodging through the mass of newspaper sellers, itinerant players of Trevelyan’s Rocker, and stand-ins for the cover of Shearwater’s magnificent album “Rook”, I quickly found my way up to the rare book room. I often visit this room for some peace and solitude, as all the books in this room are over $20.
While idly browsing the stacks of books, I was startled to find one pushed to the back of the shelf, as if someone had wanted to hide the book from the gaze of mere mortals. Even more startling, the cover was not affixed with multitudes of bird stickers. Though the print was barely legible, I could make out that it was a Eighteenth century book of “Divers Receipts for the Manufacture, Blending and Drinking of Chymically-Flavoured Neutral Grain Spirits at Modest Proof”. Knowing my velocipede was safely parked outside and that I had removed the seat, the large wheel, the tires and the chain to deter thieves, I settled down to peruse the curious little book.
Now, I could tell you, gentle reader, that I spent a fine afternoon in and amongst the aroma of old paper and unwashed clerks. But I did not. I found something in this book that made me retreat to my mode of transportation and hie back to my home bar. Evidently, someone had scribbled a “receipt” in the margins of this book for a drink they called a “Wild Squirrel Sex Manhattan”, and I enclose it here for you.
Now let’s talk for a little about how this drink works. This is obviously a very early Manhattan variation, where the author has substituted “chymically flavored” vodka for Bourbon, Grenadine and a wave of the sweet vermouth bottle for the sweet vermouth, and Amaretto for the cherry garnish. Building it over a large quantity of wet ice does keep with the spirit of the original drink, though.
A modern drinker should keep in mind that this was probably meant as an “eye-opener”, a quick drink to start the day. Also keep in mind that tastes in that time were quite different than ours, and that exotic fruits like the strawberry, orange, raspberry, cranberry and lemon were hard to come by. The lack of garnish here accentuates the lack of real fruits, though I think a taxidermy squirrel might be a nice touch in future revisions.
I think the most important thing to think about here is the sense of balance in this drink. While it doesn’t look balanced, the midpalate of the drink is wave after wave of fruit flavors, while the tart lemon juice and amaretto provide a framework for the artificial flavors to weave in and out of. Interestingly enough, flavors of grenadine outlast all the others in a pleasant surprise.
Oh, and just one more quick note: If you’re wanting to make this drink, the first thing to do is use your mouse and hover the pointer over the time down at the bottom right of your computer screen [Ed: or top, yee of Jobian faith]. This drink tastes best on the first day of the fourth month, and should only be attempted then.
by Zachary Pearson, Editor
Americans drink a lot of Margaritas. While the Margarita makes up eighteen percent of the mixed drinks ordered in the United States, tequila represents only six percent of the domestic spirits market. Unfortunately, we drink a lot of bad Margaritas too. Neon colored, super-sweet, artificially flavored, poorly made, cheap ingredient, frozen-slushy Margaritas surely account for most of those eighteen percent.
Perhaps one reason that Americans drink a lot of bad Margaritas is that we seem to have no idea of its origin. There are theories (among others) that Dallas socialites, Peggy Lee, Mexican (or Irish, or Texan) bartenders, German ambassador’s daughters or Ziegfeld Follies dancers all have a hand in the drink.
Trying to sieve fact from fiction here is difficult. Charming stories aside, there are two camps: People who think the Margarita is in the Sidecar family and those who think it’s effectively a Tequila Daisy.
In the 1936 Café Royal Cocktail Book, there is an entry for a drink called the Picador, which reads “¼ fresh lime or lemon juice, ¼ Cointreau, and ½ tequila” with orders to shake, but not strain. Keep in mind that this is an English book that was highly curated by W. J. Tarling—pared down from 4,000 recipes. At heart, this is a Savoy Sidecar, keeping the 2:1:1 ratio, but using tequila instead of brandy. At this point, the Sidecar was only about fifteen years old, and had already mutated into the White Lady.
Those in the Daisy camp point to a 1936 story unearthed by David Wondrich that tells the story of an Iowa newspaper owner who took his wife to southern California on vacation with a quick stop to Tijuana. Upon arrival, their taxi driver took them to a bar whose Irish owner served them a Tequila Daisy, variations of which date back to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, who listed four of them in his 1862 “How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion.” As a family, a Daisy is a spirit, sweetened with gum syrup, Maraschino, orgeat, or Curaçao, acidified with a little lemon juice, then shaken and topped with sparkling water. By the time this article came out, grenadine had replaced other sweeteners in the Daisy.
It certainly seems much simpler that the Margarita is a variant of the Sidecar, where there’s only a simple spirit substitution instead of losing the Daisy’s sparkling water completely and changing grenadine for Cointreau.
Let’s look at a very basic Margarita, discuss how it works, and then look for places to make changes to make it taste better. A basic Margarita is 2 ounces of tequila, 1 ounce of lime juice and 1 ounce of Cointreau, shaken and strained. Cointreau and lime juice are easy, but which tequila? At the time of its invention (whichever story you believe), years of war in Jalisco and governmental instability had reduced tequila production to a bare minimum, so much so that sugar cane was used to supplement agave as a source of fermentable sugars. Frank Meier’s 1936 “The Artistry of Mixing Drinks” calls tequila (along with Cana, Caxaca, Guarapo and Paraty) a sugarcane distillate. These tequilas could not have been aged in wood for very long. And if you think the lineage of the Margarita includes the White Lady, there’s not a big step from unaged gin to minimally aged tequila.
Shaking together Blanco tequila, lime juice and Cointreau leads to a Margarita that is earthy, where the bitterness of the lime juice and the agave plant taste of high quality tequila play nicely together in a way they don’t with the more subtle lemon juice. Likewise, the neutral orange flavor and lack of color in Cointreau are more appropriate in this drink than brandy based, darker colored Grand Marnier—if the goal of a Margarita is to emphasize the interplay of earth and lime on a backdrop of orange, throwing more strongly flavored spirits, neon-colored liqueurs or fruit into this obscures what makes this drink great.
Increasing the earthiness of the tequila through brand selection—obviously, unaged 100% blue agave tequila from great producers like Siete Leguas or Tequila Ocho will have more agave taste than mixtos or high volume brands. Removing some of the Cointreau for more tequila is also a good way to go, but only about ¼ ounce more, or the drink will be unbalanced. A bare pinch of salt, either on the rim of the glass or in the drink can lift earthy flavors out of the drink as well. Finally, lime oil is more intensely aromatic than lime juice, and by either shaking half a spent lime with the other ingredients or expressing some lime oil over the top of the finished cocktail can emphasize the earth-lime synergy.
The Margarita I made with 2¼ oz Siete Leguas Blanco, 1 oz lime juice, and ¾ oz Cointreau (9:4:3) stirred with the lime shell and strained into a half salt-rimmed coupe was delicious. The Cointreau fades into the background, simply providing a place for the green-bitter lime and the earthy-salty tequila to meet each other, and each nip at the salted rim served to pop the earthy-saline flavor out of the drink.
Regardless of its history and how unpleasant the Margarita can be, it’s a worthy drink. By stripping it back to its roots and tinkering with those three simple ingredients, the Margarita can take its place among the great drinks of the 20th century.
by Zachary Pearson, editor
Though all the crannies of the world we filled with elves and goblins, though we dared to build gods and their houses out of dark and light, and sow the seed of dragons, 'twas our right (used or misused). The right has not decayed. We make still by the law in which we're made.
— “Mythopoeia”, J.R.R. Tolkien
I read Derek Brown’s article in Table Matters “Bartenders, Stop Making (Up) Cocktails” today with a great deal of dismay. For under a great deal of flowery language and appeals to long dead psychoanalysts was a sense of utter, terrible defeat, and a denial of one of the greatest aspects of humanity.
His first sentence makes this evident, where he claims that “[a]mong the worst instincts known to man is that of creation.” I would hesitate to ask him what he thought the best instincts were. He proceeds to indict the entire craft cocktail movement and its practitioners, passing them off as places “where you can drink new cocktails made with quirky ingredients such as dehydrated carrots, yogurt and thai chiles. “
The root cause of this defeatist attitude? Once upon a time, Mr. Brown decided to make a warm version of the Cosmopolitan, and now that he’s had an appropriate amount of time to think about it, he now realizes that “Yes, it was terrible.”
To make the leap from one failed cocktail some time in the mid-1990’s to stating things like “Too often, bartenders, rather than sharpening our axes, studying, searching and trying to find meaning among the thousands of cocktails already created… indulge in the worst possible fantasy: that of some mixological Prometheus who steals the eternal flame of creativity from the old, stuffy Gods and re-imagines it as lavender-infused ice or cinnamon-ancho rim.”is, hopefully, hyperbole.
Once upon a time, people in this country drank whiskey. It was probably a bit rough around the edges, so an enterprising person created a new drink, one that mixed that harsh whiskey with things that would mellow it: sugar, water, and bitters. Today, this is known as an Old Fashioned, a widely revered cocktail (even by Mr. Brown). But the Old Fashioned begat the Improved (or Fancy) Cocktail, which begat the Brandy Crusta, which begat the Sidecar, which begat the Margarita, and lo, eventually led to the creation of the White Lady, the Cosmopolitan, and Mr. Brown’s warm version thereof.
At which point in time would Mr. Brown like to stand athwart the world and yell “Stop!”? Dividing the universe of cocktails into “approved” ones and “unapproved” ones is a false dichotomy, though Mr. Brown does evidently approve of the aforementioned Old Fashioned, the Daiquiri (invented c. 1898) and the Cosmopolitan (invented c. late 1980s, formalized, 1996). Cocktails (like all creative acts) are neither good nor bad prima facie. They simply are – a drive built into every human being. To deny the right to create is to deny art, music, and poetry a chance to exist. Denying the creative spark is to deny the stuff from which we’re made.
This is not to say that Mr. Brown doesn’t have some cogent points. It would be beneficial for aspiring bartenders to learn the classics and have a solid understanding of theory and flavors before trying to create a new drink. Or to quote the great Charlie Parker, “[m]aster your instrument, master the music, then forget all that shit and just play.”
There are even things to learn from a less than good cocktail. Making a drink is rarely perfect the first time, but can lead to a better understanding of how ingredients work together. Attitudes toward inventive uses for already available products change, like using Angostura Bitters in place of whiskey in a Sour (thank you Guiseppe Gonzalez of Clover Club) to make the Trinidad Sour (2009).
The longing to slow down the pace of change in the face of it is great. But yearning to deny creativity and craft out of fear of change is not only short-sighted, but impoverishes the world of much that may, some day, be beautiful.
by Zachary Pearson, editor
Murray Stenson, Seattle's well-known and highly-regarded bartender (Zig Zag Café, Canon, 2010 "American Bartender of the Year") has a heart condition that will require an expensive surgery to allow him to return to work. Like many bartenders, he lacks health insurance. While we have not had the pleasure of visiting Murray in Seattle, we have certainly enjoyed some of his recipes and have heard tales of his hospitality.
Yes, the alcohol industry is gigantic: $70 billion wholesale in the US alone. Yet the craft cocktail family is small. Please join Kindred Cocktails in helping Murray through this difficult time. An online fund, MurrayAid has been established to help raise funds for Murray's operation and other medical expenses. You can also follow the project on the MurrayAid Facebook page.
-- Dan and Zachary