Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Fish House Punch: A Relative Elixir or How to Muddle Through Somehow

There's a little place just out of town,
Where, if you go to lunch,
They'll make you forget your mother-in-law
With a drink called Fish-House Punch.

-- The Cook (1885)

In our Christmas trip down distillery lane, let's stop first at

the greatest of all American Punches. It deserves to be protected by law, taught in the schools, and made a mandatory part of every Fourth of July celebration, with dilute portions given to those not yet of legal age, so that they may be accustomed to the taste.

This glorious review is for the Fish House Punch as described by David Wondrich, cocktail historian, in his book Imbibe. Christmas gift suggestion there — please don't say I never gave you anything.

Wondrich has no faint praise, but this punch is not limited to the Fourth of July barbecue. Actually, the beverage is an important part of the Christmas celebrations at one of the original Old Boys Networks, the Schuylkill Fishing Club in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The 1905 New York Timescalled it the oldest dining club in the world, older than the "famous Beefsteak Club of London — founded in 1739." In the mid-19th century, the club opened its Christmas parties to women. The ladies were served this punch in an effort to liven things up, not that a exclusive men's club would necessarily need to liven things up.

Established by 27 Quakers, two of whom came to Philadelphia with William Penn, the Schuylkill Fishing Club was what it claimed to be — all about fishing, with some incidental eating. The organization built its clubhouse , called the Castle, on the banks of the Schuylkill River with permission of the local Leni Lenapes tribe.

One of the most unique aspects of the club, pointed out in the 1905 Times article, is the obligation of each member to take his turn in preparing the annual dinner:

In this he may have as assistants two or three apprentices who are awaiting to be admitted to full membership. No servants are employed. The apprentices — not infrequently men past middle age — wear white aprons and white straw hats and must comport themselves respectfully and obediently, in helping to cook the dinner and in serving it.

More to the point, the punch:

The standard beverage is Fish House punch, mixed in a huge punch bowl by three citizens, solemnly elected for that office. The exact ingredients and their proportions is the secret of the 'State' in Schuylkill and has been handed down from generation to generation. The recipe for the blending never has been revealed although so-called Fish House punch has been served for years at dinners in different parts of the country. All these are imitations — some of them very good, but not one the real thing.

One "imitation" I lifted recently is from the 1951 Gourmet magazine (now defunct, but with recipes still on their website for an undetermined length of time — gather ye concoctions while ye may ).

From the days when the individual cocktail was unheard of and everything was designed for large amounts of friends and guests — the Fish House Punch.

1 cup of sugar
3 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups fresh lemon juice (6-8 lemons)
1 (750 ml) bottle amber rum
12 oz. cognac
2 oz. peach brandy (1/4 cup)

Dissolve the sugar in the water. Then add rest of the ingredients. Chill before serving for at least three hours.

Traditionally the punch is served over an ice block. This can be made with a cardboard orange juice container with the spout cut off. Fill with water and freeze. If you would like a clear block of ice, boil the water first, then cool. I used a silicone bundt pan for the ice block and floated some lemon wheels in the water before freezing. It looked lovely, if I say so myself.

If you are having trouble finding peach brandy and would like to use peach schnapps, be my guest, says my local liquor store proprietor (who is, by now, becoming curiouser and curiouser about my recent purchases). The brandy has peaches distilled in the original process while the schnapps has peach flavoring added after the fact. In a pinch, the schnapps will do. Besides, when you are pouring in a bottle of rum and a half bottle of cognac into a punch, how could a 1/4 cup of peach brandy or schnapps matter one bit? And with that kind of attitude, you can see why I mix cocktails, not bake cakes.

This punch is very easy to make, and it was a hit at a recent Christmas party I attended, lugging a punch bowl with me. Right before serving, I added some club soda to give it some energy. Some recipes call for champagne, but I opted for a non-alcoholic mixer. It is a strong punch — Christmas caution is advised. One added benefit — with all the citrus in this drink, scurvy will not be on your 2010 calendar.

W. C. Fields is incorrectly credited with saying, "rather here than Philadelphia." We know that's not true. Everyone wants to be in Philadelphia when the Schuylkill Fishing Club's Fish House Punch is ready.

Then, the party is over. You put your feet up. You move slowly from the mass to the me. Make yourself that elusive individual cocktail. Use some of that leftover cognac from the punch.

After a very successful Christmas evening, make yourself a sidecar. Not just any sidecar — a Ritz sidecar, so named because you are using cognac instead of brandy. Actually, cognac is a brandy, but it is a brandy made exclusively in the Cognac area of France under strict regulation. This relationship of cognac to brandy is analogous to Champagne and sparkling wine — Champagne is sparkling wine made in the Champagne area of France, using the m├ęthode champenoise.

The Ritz Sidecar from Ted Haigh's excellent Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails:

5 parts cognac (the older the better)
3 parts Cointreau
2 parts fresh lemon juice

Shake in an iced cocktail shaker. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass rimmed with superfine sugar, and have a Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

More Beer Cocktails: We Won't Go Until We Get Some

We wish you a Merry Christmas
and a Happy New Year.

Good tidings to you, wherever you are.
Good tidings for Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Oh bring us a figgy pudding
and a cup of good cheer.

We won't go until we get some,
so bring it right here.

What to do with those pesky carolers who are demanding a figgy pudding when you don't happen to have one in the fridge? Bring them a cup of good cheer. They won't go away unless you do. But what if you find you are out of wassail? Give them a different beer-based beverage — the Boilermaker. That will shut them right up.

The Boilermaker — a serious beer cocktail. A serious college moniker. The Crawfordsville Daily Argus News of October 26, 1891 headlined, "Slaughter of Innocents: Wabash Snowed Completely Under by the Burly Boiler Makers from Purdue." Boilermakers at the time were synonymous with coal shovelers and stevedores — all names the Purdue team tried on, but the Boilermaker stuck. A boilermaker was a steel worker, then a basic shot and a beer, and then a shot in a beer.

As a cocktail, the Boilermaker made its first film appearance in 1938 in the Warner Brothers movie Gold Diggers in Paris, as a "boilermaker and his helper." There are many variations on this theme. Gin was the shot in the movie. Irish whiskey will make it an Irish car bomb — something not PC in this household. Sake will make the beer into a sake bomb, in an unimaginative turn of phrase.

I do admit that I am intrigued by the October Crisis: a dash of maple syrup in a shot of Canadian whiskey. The shot is then dropped into the requisite Canadian beer. Here in the U.S., the October Crisis tends to denote the Cuban Missile Crisis, but for our northern neighbors, it describes the October 1970 political kidnapping of two Canadian government officials by Quebecois separatists. The kidnapping ended tragically for one victim, and the whole plot did not go as planned, as Quebec is still part of Canada. The October Crisis is a drink that commemorates bad endings all around, which seems appropriate for dropping whiskey into beer.

I had a Boilermaker last night in the interest of science… and researching this blog. I was at a very tony bar — 42 in White Plains, New York. High over the city, 42 boasts one of the best views in the tri-state area. Unfortunately, we were hemmed in by an impenetrable fog, making the view irrelevant. I will have to go back there to try again for the view.

Being that it was a hedge fund crowd, I did not drink my boilermaker in the traditional way. Instead, in a very ladylike way (if ladylike is the correct term for what I do here), I surreptitiously poured my neat Maker's Mark bourbon into my glass of Samuel Smith porter. Sipping rather than chugging — it was all so classy, much more so than "a shot and a beer." For a caroler, however, I suggest dropping the shot into the beer — to save time, of course. There must be songs to be sung.

We'll move on to the marriage of two perfections, champagne and Guinness — the Black Velvet. Black Velvet can be a blended whiskey. It can be a dramatic pop song by Canadian Allanah Myles (again with the Canadians). Or it can be one of the better of the beer cocktails: sparkling white wine and a stout in a 1:1 ratio.

Not to be confused with Miller High Life, the Champagne of Beers, the Black Velvet is traditionally thought to be a British drink, created in 1861 in the Brooks club during the nationwide mourning period for Queen Victoria's departed husband. Black Velvet describes the black mourning ribbons men wore around their arms. The drink is also called the Bismarck, especially in Germany. It is named for Otto Von Bismarck, a big fan.

Some recipes call for the champagne to be poured first into a champagne flute. Other recipes call for the stout to go first. The top layer, whether champagne or stout, should be poured over the back of a spoon gently (which I acknowledge is difficult with champagne, which tends to have an energy of its own).

Hopefully, with a steady hand (not a hazard of this business), a layering effect will be produced. My results met with varying degrees of success. I tried both methods. Gruet first and then the Guinness; then I attempted the reverse. Based on my experiments, laying a base of Guinness first and adding the sparkling wine second leads to a more distinct layering.

Others on the drinking net say that Guinness on tap or even Guinness in a draught can will sit on top of the champagne better than the Guinness in a bottle. I wasn't able to make it happen, but I will keep trying in the name of education. Ultimately, I applaud those who just mash up both ingredients in a large pint glass and drink it down before the Sunday football game, or in this month's case, the holiday brunch!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Here I come a-wassailing.....

For the month of December, I'm concentrating on beer or ale-based cocktails in honor of the wassail. The wassail, as in "Here We Come A-Wassailing…" is a familiar and favorite Christmas carol but an unfamiliar beverage!

The song dates back to the twelfth century by some accounts, the tradition to even before that. The concept of "wassailing" may have pre-Christian roots, which makes it vintage indeed.

In those pre-martini days, to wassail was to carol at the big house, the feudal manor, in hopes of getting refreshment in return for song. In addition to house-visiting, there were also orchard wassailers — carolers who sang to trees in hopes of a good harvest. To our contemporary palates, a few cups of wassail and everyone is in danger of harmonizing to the backyard dogwoods.

To make my own wassail, I found a very doable how-to in a 1985 Christmas Memories cookbook from Mystic, Connecticut. The recipe is for a traditional Old English Wassail, based on John Bickerdyke's 1860 instructions on how best to serve this spiced ale beverage.

Mr. Bickerdyke's original wassail called for a half pound of sugar dissolved in a pint of warm beer. Add four glasses of sherry and four pints of beer. Throw a little ginger and nutmeg in there, let stand for three hours til the carolers come from the feudal kingdom next door, and you have yourself a little wassail.

The Mystic cookbook updated the recipe for a more modern beverage, but be warned, it is still heavy on the cinnamon and the cloves, to paraphrase Clarence the angel from It's A Wonderful Life.

The Wassail

4 cups of ale
1 stick of cinnamon
2 tsp. powdered ginger
6 whole cloves
6 allspice berries
1 tbs. ground nutmeg
2 cups of sherry
juice and finely slivered rind of one lemon
1/2 cup of sugar
2 slices of toast
6-8 roasted crabapples or 2 or 3 roasted large apples.

Heat ale in enameled saucepan but do not boil.

Stir in spices, sherry, lemon juice, rind and sugar. Stir until sugar dissolves, cover and steep over low heat for 20-30 minutes. Do not boil.

Pour into heated punch bowl. Add toast and apples. Ladle into warm punch cups.

I used Saranac's Pale Ale because it presents itself as a classic English Ale. How appropriate. For the sherry, I may have erred with using the La Ina from the Domecq Vineyards. It is the most refined of the sherries and may not have been robust enough to withstand all that pale ale, let alone all the spices.

I have included a picture here of the wassail in the punch bowl, but there is just no way to put toast and a roasted apple in a brown liquid and make it look delicious. Toast - yes! You see, this is where the term "to toast" comes from. Cheers!

The single serving is the way to go, at least photo-wise. The wassail is a conversation piece and makes the house smell lovely, but you may find your guests heading to the fridge for the leftover Saranacs.

In search of a more new-fashioned variation on the beer cocktail, I went to Mac's, a neighborhood legend of a bar in Maspeth, Queens, New York City. Mac's traces its roots back to the Prohibition, making it truly a speakeasy. Coleman McCarthy, proprietor, is pictured here on the right with friend Jim, proving once again the joy a speakeasy still brings.

I ordered a Shandy — traditionally a 50/50 beer/ginger ale combination. You will also see the Shandy served up as a beer/lemonade mix. If you ask for this in Europe, you won't receive what we think of as lemonade — fresh lemon juice, sugar, water — but rather a 7-Up or a Sprite, a lemon-based soda. Anecdotally, the Shandy was born in Irish and British pubs where the quality of the beer was suspect. A cover-up with a mixer was called for.

The Maspeth Shandy was a Bass Ale and 7-Up. Bass Ale, a bitter ale, agrees with the sweetness of the soda — a great alliance. Upon hearing my request, the bar's patrons were very helpful: "A Shandy! Perfect for a hangover." And so it is, but I'll leave that for a New Year's column. Fashionista and Shandy Fan Kate Reeves Sonnick, my taste tester for the evening, says there'll be more beer soon!

In conclusion on the wassail, as Blur, famous Brit-pop band and not-so-famous wassailers say:

Wassail, wassail all over the town
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks for Irish Whiskey

I'll tell you one thing that Margo Channing wouldn't do. She wouldn't have wimped out on the Chatham Artillery Punch. Yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, was the day to haul out the Chatham Punch. The recipe, 175 years young, called for an additional bottle of champagne upon serving. I ended up adding a half-bottle. After all, the concotion was 50% alcohol already!

The consensus was that the punch smelled alcoholly but tasted a lot better than it smelled. Quite a resounding endorsement.

Working on a freelance gift guide, I had writer's block on the Scotch.

I'm not much of a Scotch drinker. I can't think of another beverage for which to be called medicinal is a good thing. I hesitate to go into an arena that encourages such fanaticism. You could drink the scotch with the longest, most unpronounceable name. Or you can drink Oban. It falls right in the middle between dry, peaty, smoky Scotch and the sweeter, milder sort. It comes from a tiny distillery in a tiny town so it's a little pricey, around $55 a bottle, but it's pronounceable.

As for the Irish, Jameson's is not a sipping whiskey no matter what any Irishman might tell you in Woodlawn. Powers is better (and cheaper), and Black Bush is better still. But I know from experience, that ordering a Black Bush at a bar leaves you open to all kinds of unwelcome ribaldry.

Uisce beatha - the water of life. Powers because who's having a Scotch coffee at the end of a big meal?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I Don't Want to Make Trouble; All I Want Is a Drink: A Thanksgiving Punch for Whole Family

Thanksgiving comes soon. Time to make cocktails for large amounts of people. So, over the river (Hudson) and through the woods (Harriman State Park), to the bourbon distillery we go. The Mini Cooper knows the way to carry.... I have no idea why the Mini knows the way to Tuthilltown Distillery. It must be that once-British, now-German engineering.

It is time to expand the vintage cocktail to include entertaining for many. The holidays approach quickly when sitting at the local bar. Some of you may be feeding an army this Thanksgiving. Here is a recipe that's guaranteed to fell that army — the Chatham Artillery Punch. But first, the bourbon.

We went to Gardiner, New York on a perfect autumn day to check out the first distillery in the state since the Prohibition, Tuthilltown Spirits. The four-year-old distillery has a retail store and a tasting room — something that I took full advantage of. For ten dollars, you get to taste three of their current whiskeys. On that particular day, they had Corn Whiskey, Baby Bourbon, 4-Grain Bourbon, Manhattan Rye, and New York Whiskey. The alcohol was offered in order of complexity, each one amazingly smooth.

Tuthilltown is causing lots of buzz on the spirits circuit. As Green Acres as it appeared on the outside, inside the store, a film crew was shooting a video -- an indication of the distillery's sophistication and popularity. However, our little field trip wasn't ignored in the media swirl. The lovely clerk was very attentive to us homespun blogger types.

I came away with the Corn Whiskey, which was delicious and deserves its own column in the future. I also bought the Baby Bourbon and the New York Whiskey for the hubby's bar. A note on the New York Whiskey: this is a sour mash, so named because of the process of distilling, adding an older mash to a newer batch. It ends with a sweeter product despite the name. The wonderfully enticing bottles are all hand-capped. Perfect for Christmas gifts, but I get ahead of myself.

Tuthilltown is a trip of about two hours north of New York City, and I can't recommend it enough. The corn fields, the oak barrels, the roaring brook next door: it is an idyllic experience and can be revisited with each taste at home.

Pulling the Punch

Please take the trip if you're in this area, but don't pour the Baby Bourbon into the punch bowl. The BB is an expensive sipping bourbon, aged for a year in an American Oak barrel. In general, for punches, I suggest moderately priced alcohol — not the bottom of the cask that causes those lovely hangovers the next morning, but something in the middle. Jim Beam is just fine for the bourbon. The same goes for all the alcohols. Everything in moderation.

The Chatham Punch is as vintage as vintage can get. It is approximately 175 years old, originating with the Chatham Artillery in Savannah, Georgia. The Savannah ladies served this punch at military functions. Historical drunkenness ensued. The original recipes serve two hundred. I've scaled it back to serve around twenty.

Start this recipe a few days ahead, even a week before serving!

Chatham Punch:

4 cups white rum
2 cups gin
2 cups bourbon
2 cups brandy
1 1/2 bottle sweet red wine
1 gallon strong cold tea
1 cup maraschino cherries, drained
1/4 pound pineapple chunks (fresh)
1 1/4 cup light brown sugar
Juice of 4 lemons
1 bottle dry champagne

First problem: Where to put all this alcohol?! I found this great 2 1/2-gallon glass jar in Target — perfect for making punches. It's called the Montana Jar, and it was a fantastic find. Who knew Target had stylish glassware for brewing lethally alcoholic beverages? Love Target.

Mix all the ingredients except champagne in a clean container with a lid, and store in a cool place. I used the refrigerator.

Some recipes say this punch is ready in twenty-four hours. Others say it is ready in one week. One even says it can sit in the fridge for two weeks. From personal experience, the punch was ready the next day, but it was better, had more flavor, with every day it sat. After one week, I plan on putting in the freezer. Feel free to contact me for the results!

When serving, use a large punch bowl with blocks of ice, rather than ice cubes. You can make ice blocks with Tupperware in your freezer. Use a bundt cake pan for a decorative block. Add the champagne, some lemon wheels, and serve.

Well done, I say to myself. I can see my career rising in the east like the sun.

Warning: this beverage is very potent. Use caution. Remember that driving drunk in1837 was different than driving drunk now. Then the horse really did know the way.

Don Draper's Drink for When the Universe is Indifferent.

Make it another Old-Fashioned, please!

So said Cole Porter and now says Don Draper.

In honor of Mad Men's fantastic season finale, I went on a week-long search for Don Draper's cocktail of choice — the Old-Fashioned. In series creator Matthew Wiener's world, the Old-Fashioned is a heavy metaphor. Don Draper is struggling to stay in step with a rapidly changing decade — the JFK assassination, the Civil Rights and women's movements, and the age of television. Don, deceivingly cool in his Brooks Brothers suit, is antiquated. Would he survive the chaos of the sixties? Will he trade in his Old-Fashioned for a vodka martini? Will he continue to drink cocktails at 9:30 a.m.? Stay tuned for season four.

In the meantime, mad spirits await. I started my Goldilocks (half-head highlights) tour at the Billy Martin Tavern in the Georgetown area of Washington D.C. This Billy Martin is no relation to the famously tempestuous Billy Martin of the NY Yankees, but he is equally legendary in the neighborhood.

Martin's Tavern is a landmark in an area that is saturated with landmarks — the famous Exorcist stairs, for example.

Photo by Colleen Kaiser/

Martin's Tavern was offering a 75th anniversary edition of the Old-Fashioned. I'm not sure what exactly constituted the special edition of the cocktail. The waiter wasn't any help either. He didn't know it was on the specials list.

The cocktail arrived without incident and without explanation. Perfectly serviceable, muddled orange and cherry, but maybe not worth waiting 75 years for.

There are many recipes for an old-fashioned. A very old drink, it may have been very first so-called cocktail - a drink at the rooster's crow.

The Old-Fashioned:

2 oz. of bourbon
2 dashes of bitters
1 splash of water
1 tsp of superfine sugar
1 maraschino cherry
1 orange wedge

In the Old-Fashioned's history, there has been plenty of time for changes along the way, but what should happen is this: the sugar and water dissolve in the bottom of a large rocks glass. Add the bitters. Add the cherry and orange wedge. Muddle with a muddler. Yes, a muddler! If you're going to keep reading these tracts, you'll need a muddler — just kidding, the round of a spoon works well too. Fill glass with ice. Add the bourbon and stir.

The drink at Martin's may have been ordinary, but the history at Martin's is extraordinary — every sitting president since Harry Truman has visited the restaurant. All anxiously await President Obama.

According to the menu, Booth Three is where JFK proposed to Jackie. We could only glance at the iconic seat - the tavern was so crowded. It was Sunday brunch, and Sunday brunch in D.C. is the equivalent to 1:30 a.m. in New York City's meatpacking district.

Some Old-Fashioned recipes call for less bourbon and more water. Beware the "modern Old-Fashioned" which calls for one ounce of bourbon, and the glass filled with club soda. A cautionary tale I encountered was an Old-Fashioned that was essentially a very tall Manhattan. The drink was strained onto another glass full of ice — a wine glass — with no garnish and a cherry on the bottom.

Another Old-Fashioned, that same night, had an alarming color — perhaps an abundance of cherry juice. There is a variation of the drink that calls for maraschino juice as a substitute for water in the muddling. Muddling. I like saying that word.

My companion was suspicious that the drink was so red that there might be grenadine in it. The bartender was shocked, shocked at the suggestion.

Final stop was X20, the latest restaurant from Peter X. Kelly, Iron Chef winner. A gorgeous spot in Yonkers, New York on the Hudson River, overlooking the Palisades, X2O is a five star restaurant with a five star bar. I picked the Tuthilltown Baby Bourbon for my Old-Fashioned. It was served straight up which concerned me at first, but all was forgiven. It was the best of the week.

Beginning and ending the week with a presidential theme, I asked Chris, the bartender at X2O, about a recent visit to the restaurant by the Clintons. What did the president drink? Inquiring minds must know. It turns out that the Clintons had red wine. I was surprised, thinking that Bill might be a cocktail guy, or at the very least, a beer guy. Mrs. Clinton, said Chris, ordered the wine.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Side Car: A Drink That Tastes Much Better than It Sounds

I have been thinking about Sidecars a lot lately. Hasn't everyone?

Well, apparently yes, they have. In yesterday's mail, amidst all the Christmas catalogs, there arrived fashion designer Trina Turk's new advertising flyer. Trina is recommending the Sidecar for holiday entertaining. I say, "Sure! Let's! I was just thinking the same thing!"

The Sidecar came up frequently during my research into the Whiskey Sour. The Sidecar is a cousin, or at least it's in the same family--the Family Sour: a liquor base with a balance of sweet and sour.

The Sidecar is a Whiskey Sour relation: the relation with the much more intriguing name. Why a sidecar? What does this cocktail have to do with an extra seat attached to a motorcycle?

Perhaps the answer lies in the beginnings of the drink, which were at the end of World War One. It originated maybe in Paris, maybe in London, maybe on a motorcycle. Who knows?

A bartender needed to make an emergency cocktail while commuting. His only transportation--a motorcycle. Hilarity ensued.

One of the first mentions of the Sidecar is in Robert Vermeire's 1922 Cocktails: How To Mix Them,for those of you keeping score at home. The drink was supposedly invented by legendary bartender MacGarry of London's Buck Club, a true visionary not only of mixology but of the need to have only one name as a celebrity.

Here is the trusted recipe:

The Sidecar:
2 oz. of brandy or cognac
3/4 oz. of Cointreau or triple sec
3/4 oz. of fresh lemon juice
lemon wedge

With the lemon wedge, moisten rim of a coupe glass (it looks like an old-style champagne glass). A martini glass will do just as well. Sprinkle wet rim with superfine sugar. A true bartender will only coat half a glass with sugar to give the customer the option - to sugar or not to sugar.

Place the first three ingredients into a cocktail shaker full of ice. Shake well until a frost forms on the shaker. Strain into glass. Start your engines.

I recently visited the Chelsea area of New York City. At the always funHalf-King, a necessary stop on anyone's literary pub crawl since it is partially owned by Sebastian Junger of The Perfect Storm fame, I had the brainstorm to order a Chelsea Sidecar, a variation on our theme that calls for gin rather than brandy. I was confident that the bar would stretch to the occasion, not only because of geography but also because the Sidecar was on their drinks menu.

What resulted was a rather unpleasant gin gimlet. Lime juice and too much of it. There's nothing wrong with a gimlet, but that's for another column.

Moving onto Astoria, Queens, I tried again. That could have been a mistake too. Astoria has its own cocktail, basically a very wet martini with orange bitters. The neighborhood might not have been welcome to the idea of a Sidecar on 31st Avenue and 33rd Street, or 31st Street and 33rd Avenue, or 31st Road and 33rd Street. Astoria can be confusing. You don't want to have too many Sidecars, or you won't find your way out.

We visited the Brick Cafe, a charming little rustic chic Euro restaurant. Far from being defensive about the Astoria Cocktail, the waiter at the cafe was undaunted by the order of the Sidecar. And after the drink arrived, I could see why. It was excellent. So much so that visions of award ceremonies danced in my head. The Speakeasy's Award for most Unfazed Waiter, and maybe even The Speakeasy Award for Best Cocktail. Awards ceremony season is rapidly approaching. I'd better get to work on that. Just one more cocktail. I'll make it a stylish one on Trina Turk's good advice.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Whiskey Sours: Grandmother's Class Act.

The only cocktail I ever remember my grandmother drinking was a whiskey sour. The only occasion was while dining at Hoak's Restaurant, a longstanding, lakefront restaurant in Hamburg, New York. The drink became special to me through nostalgia.

The original appeal of my grandmother's whiskey sour came from the slice of orange and the maraschino cherry. As I grew older and even more attracted to bright, shiny objects, I grew to love the drink for the vintage cocktail shaker it arrived in.

Hoak's was a homely fish-fry place. In contrast, it seemed glamorous for your drink to come to the table in a tall shaker with the rocks glass on the side. You strained your own cocktail, and the drink stayed cold and refreshing. To this day, I am disappointed when a whiskey sour arrives without the shaker – not that I order the drink often. And therein lies the problem. It is time for a whiskey sour renaissance.

The whiskey sour is the granddaddy of the Family Sour – mixed drinks that have a base liquor, lemon or lime juice, and a sweetener. This balance of sweet and sour should sound familiar. Many modern, more popular drinks are based on it. The margarita, for one, in which the sweetener is triple sec.

Recently, in honor of my grandmother, I ordered a whiskey sour at the Yankee Doodle Tap Roomin Princeton, New Jersey. It was the anniversary of her death, also the anniversary of her birth. In a most Jeffersonian way, she passed away on her birthday. A woman as wise as Jefferson in many ways, she had good taste when it comes to cocktails.

The whiskey sour has a long, lovely history. It is one of the original drinks in the iconic Jerry Thomas' Bartender's Guidefrom 1862. Looking even further back, the lowly whiskey sour appears to have been the official drink of the 184-year-old Jefferson Literary and Debating Society at the University of Virginia, the oldest continuously existing collegiate debating club. Member Edgar Allen Poe probably was a fan of the whiskey sour, although later in life, poor guy, he may have called for a whiskey sour, hold the lemon, hold the sugar.

I imagine the drink is no longer the official drink of UVA debating. Think of how entertaining a college debate could be, however, when under the influence of its "official drink."

There is no reason for the whiskey sour's ostracization, its demotion to simply a grandmother's drink, as beloved as that grandmother might be. Actually, I take that back. There is a reason for the lowly status of the whiskey sour: the sour mix.

Why put sour mix in a whiskey sour? It is not too much more effort to simply dissolve some superfine sugar in some lemon juice. The true whiskey sour is, fundamentally, lemonade with lots of whiskey! Canadian, bourbon or Tennessee whiskey is just fine if you don't have rye. If you have rye whiskey in the home, with rye becoming increasingly uncommon you may not want to squeeze a lemon into it.

Here is the recipe from that iconic book, The Art of Bartending:
Whiskey Sour:
(Use small bar-glass.)
Take 1 large tea-spoonful of powdered white sugar,
dissolved in a little Seltzer or Apollinaris water.
The juice of half a small lemon.
1 wine-glass of Bourbon or rye whiskey.
Fill the glass full of shaved ice, shake up and strain into a claret glass. Ornament with berries.

I don't know about the berries. I think the drink is grand with an orange wheel and a cherry, like they mix at Hoak's. That's the six-year-old in me talking. The 40-something says: "Don't you love Jerry Thomas' measurement of "1 wine-glass of whiskey"?

The whiskey sour I had at the Tap Room was nothing to write home to Grandma about (sour mix?), but the location was. It is definitely a spot you want to visit if you find yourself in this scenic college town. The Yankee Doodle is renowned for the large 1937 Norman Rockwell mural behind the wall.

The tables are covered with decades' worth of Princetonians's initials.

The wall is covered with Hall of Fame photos. Our First Lady's vibrant portrait, unveiled earlier this year, was awash in a sea of pale, male faces, comically close to the face of Donald Rumsfeld – the face of one presidential administration next to the face of another.

Here is another notable on the wall, from the class of '32:

A decade and half later, Jimmy Stewart would play George Bailey, known to have a wonderful life even when he drank too much at Martini's Bar.

Try a whiskey sour again. It's no flaming rum punch, true. It's better.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

From the Rangoon Ruby to the Nantucket Cosmopolitan

Last weekend, during the nor'easter that dumped premature snow on Boston, we headed to the beach for the season's last clam roll and warm weather cocktail. Logical, right? We ended up at Hemisphere in Sandwich, Massachusetts, first town over the Sagamore Bridge. The waterfront restaurant rattled in the wind. Patio chairs flew by the windows. On recommendation, I ordered a Nantucket Cosmo. It was summer a few hours longer.

There are so many variations on the cosmopolitan these days that the Sex and the City beverage of choice seems a vintage drink in comparison. What started as a simple drink in a sophisticated glass — Absolut Citron, a splash of Triple Sec or Cointreau, a drop of lime juice and just enough cranberry to make it pink — comes in many flavors and bears little resemblance to the original cocktail other than the martini glass.

Heavy on the cranberry, the Nantucket Cosmo is an ironic transformation of the Cosmo which is itself a relative of the ye olde Cape Codder. And here I was — on Cape Cod.

The original Cape Codder dates back to somewhere in the early 1960s, probably originating at Trader Vic's. Then the cranberry and vodka cooler was called a Rangoon Ruby, and to this day it is on the Trader Vic's strong drink menu made for "Pirates, Buccaneers and Beachcombers." As advertised, it is "no sissy drink." Do you hear that, Carrie and Co.?

By 1965 Ocean Spray saw a business opportunity and put Cape Codder drink recipes on its juice labels calling for vodka or rum and Ocean Spray Cranberry Cocktail. The beverage then spent a brief time as a "Harpoon" which introduced fresh lime instead of Rose's lime juice. The Harpoon is how vodka and cranberry appears in the exhaustively detailed Mad Men minutiae. Fans of the show may remember the Harpoon cocktails daughter Sally made Don Draper - 90% vodka, 10% cranberry. The name Harpoon is probably in reference to the arrow-through-the-head feeling Don Draper experienced the morning after.

Vodka and cranberry is back to being a Cape Codder now, and a drink with much more vodka than cranberry is a cosmo. Sally Draper was so much ahead of her time.

Hemisphere's Nantucket Cosmo

* 3 oz.Triple 8 cranberry vodka
* 1 oz. triple sec
* Splash of cranberry
* Fresh lime slice as garnish

The Nantucket Cosmo is marked by its vodka, Triple 8 Cranberry Vodka, distilled on Nantucket. I applaud the use of local product, but in this particular drink, the cranberry vodka was redundant. It may be sacrilegious to say this while on the Cape, but there was just too much cranberry!

I moved inland one mile, away from the 30 mph winds, to the Belfry, a former Catholic church renovated into a gorgeous restaurant, also in Sandwich. It was a busy bar, filled by Cape Cod's Restaurant Week. I managed to find a seat and ordered a pomegranate cosmo continuing with the theme of the night. Or was it described as a pomegranate martini? Who knows? When so far off the beaten cocktail path, does it matter if it is called a cosmo or a martini? In my biased paradigm, a drink containing vodka, lime juice, and triple sec with a splash of cranberry is a cosmopolitan.

The Belfry's Pomegranate Martini/Cosmopolitan

* 3 oz. Clear Pomegranate Vodka
* 1 oz. Triple Sec
* 1 oz. Pomegranate Liqueur
* Splash of cranberry
* Fresh lime juice

Chris Wilson is the meticulous visionary/owner of the Belfry and its neighbor The Painted Lady. As crowded as his restaurant was, he still had time to come to the bar and ask me how my drink was. How often does that happen? Restaurant owners will frequently stop by a table and inquire after a meal, but to ask about a drink? Such a gesture makes me, as Patti Page sang, fall in love with Old Cape Cod.

Chris, the cocktail was refreshing. The pianist played "Autumn Leaves." The fireplace warmed up the storm outside. Everything was perfect.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Manhattan in Manhattan

Walking into T-Bar Steak & Lounge on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is like walking into a Noel Coward play – or rather walking into a Woody Allen movie describing a Noel Coward play: "someone should be mixing martinis."

Instead they were mixing Manhattans. Seemingly appropriate except…

Is a Manhattan made with Canadian Whiskey a Manhattan – even if it's made in Manhattan?

Maybe it should be something like a Saskatchewan? But that's hard to order after a couple of drinks.

Commonly made with Canadian Whiskey because that's what is at hand, Manhattans if at all possibleshould be made with rye. Accompanying the rye will be the requisite short dash of sweet vermouth and the picturesque maraschino cherry. Occasionally you will come across a Bourbon Manhattan, but that sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it?

There's some dispute as to the origins of the name Manhattan for this strong, masculine drink – whether it is for the borough itself or a derivation on the name Martinez for the vermouth – but there's no argument that this is a cocktail your grandparents made by the pitcher. At 4 p.m. Manhattans were put in the fridge. At 5 p.m., they were consumed.

T-bar is a steak house with more fish and vegetarian courses than steaks. The menu is for the Upper East Side type – you know – the larger the Manhattan apartment, the thinner the occupant. With my steak (seeing as how I neither have a Manhattan apartment nor am thin), I ordered a jalapeno margarita. T-Bar was T-short on anything but sweet cocktails on their signature menu, so I thought the jalapeno concoction would be a nice balance to my carnivore leanings. It was.

Jalapeno Margarita

- El Tesoro Platinum Tequila
- Triple Sec
- A healthy portion of sliced jalapenos
- Fresh lime juice

And instead of the sickeningly sweet simple syrup you might find in other margaritas, T-Bar used Sprite because "it's a natural!"

It took a couple of sips to get past the pepper shock, but by the end of the drink and the middle of the steak, it was a drink and dinner made in heaven.

T-Bar is a very noisy bar, not like a Noel Coward play at all, now that you mention it. All the bon mots are lost in the din. You'll need to learn to lip read. But there's probably an app for that now.

The end.