Friday, January 17, 2014

Let's make some cocktails

During a recent stay-at-home vacation, the kind where you take field trips to the local and beautiful autumn woods,

I ventured to the local liquor superstore to splurge on a bottle each of good gin, scotch, and vodka, so as to begin stocking my liquor cabinet with the basics needed for future treats. It is amazing how many basics there seem to be. Rum and brandy are next on my shopping list, but after that, if I want to be truly at the ready, it seems I must lay in tequila and all sorts of liqueurs and fruit brandies, plus the contents of a fruit stand, plus gallons of sugar and flavored syrups ("orgeat" is my favorite so far -- it sounds so medieval and probably is, being almond milk syrup), and assorted colas and un-colas. 

These lists and almost all my other knowledge of cocktails comes from one master, Charles Schumann and his American Bar. He is the nice gentleman, remember, with the very high standards. In American Bar he won't make a typical Long Island Iced Tea, for example, because he considers it disrespectful to the spirit(s) to mix gin and vodka just for a start. He also demands care and discipline with his garnishes, positively abhorring a stuffed olive in a martini ("what place does a stuffed olive have in a Martini?"), permitting only a green olive with pit. The fact that he proffers no explanation for this makes me trust him all the more, on everything. He must know, or he wouldn't be so confident, right?

To be sure there are other, earlier masters one may also consult on the art of cocktail mixing. After all, somebody must have taught Mr. Schumann. The cognoscenti begin, it seems, with Jerry Thomas, "the father of all bartenders," who published his How to Mix Drinks or A Bon Vivant's Companion in 1862. Not far behind him in authority is Harry Johnson, another nineteenth century bar owner who published a Bartender's Manual twenty years later. Today we may turn to the fine website and learn from contributor Jim Meehan, author of the newly published The P.D.T. Cocktail Book, what he has in his library. Mr. Meehan's five favorites are:

The Artistry of Mixing Drinks by Frank Meier (1936)

Barflies and Cocktails by Harry McElhone (1927)

Cocktails: How to Mix Them by Robert Vermeire (1922)

The Gentleman’s Companion by Charles H. Baker (1939)

The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock (1930)

I look forward to unearthing and reading these as soon as I can, but for the moment I dip into a second, humbler source, a dog-eared old promotional booklet from the Calvert Distillers Company called The House of Calvert Party Encyclopedia (1960). It hails straight from the Mad Men era by way of a local library's cast-off book sale, and looks every inch (ounce?) of it.

The pamphlet has been useful in giving me cocktail recipes of almost Schumannesque simplicity, calling for two or three ingredients only, and therefore just right as teaching tools and easy on my modest inventory. Thus far the Calvert Party Encyclopedia has taught me to make -- and heavens, if I can do it, you can -- :

the Bee's Knees
1 tsp. honey
the juice of 1/4 lemon
1 and 1/2 ounces gin
Mix in a cocktail shaker and serve in a cocktail glass (no garnish is suggested -- would an apple slice be good, or would it be an abomination?).

the Gin Rickey
1 and 1/2 ounces gin
the juice of half a lime
Mix in a shaker and pour over ice into a highball glass, then fill the glass with club soda. The recommended garnish is a slice of lime, but I opted for two green grapes speared on a toothpick.

the Highland Fling
1 and 1/2 ounces scotch
1 tsp. sugar
3 ounces milk 
Shake all ingredients well with ice, pour into a highball glass and dust with nutmeg.

the classic dry Martini
1 part dry vermouth
4 parts gin
Stir with ice and pour into a martini glass, to be topped off only with a green olive with pit. It seems we stir the martini -- never mind what James Bond says -- to avoid "bruising" the gin. Even the kid nephew in Auntie Mame, able at the age of eleven to mix a "Lucullan little martini" for the scandalized Mr. Babcock, says so. There is a tradition of swirling the vermouth in the glass and then gracefully tossing it out, before proceeding with the martini really. I seem to recall reading that this tradition reflects vermouth's usefulness, in bygone days, simply in disguising the taste of poor gin. Vermouth qua vermouth wasn't particularly wanted.  

Talking of unwanted things, the one spirit missing from our copyright 1960 pamphlet is tequila. Perhaps it wasn't popular, or perhaps the Calvert company didn't sell one at the time. Whatever the reason, tequila's absence means that margaritas are missing, too. As is another classic cocktail, the pina colada. Where it belongs, in the section on rum drinks, we find instead near-forgotten joys like the Pirate's Prize (2 parts dark rum, 1 part sweet vermouth, 1 dash bitters) and the Parisian Blonde (1 part dark rum, 1 part curacao, 1 part cream).


Now in order to do up our cocktails right this weekend, we novices should acquaint ourselves with some mechanics. American Bar advises that we must never mix more than two cocktails at once in a shaker. We see how conducive this rule would be to quiet romantic evenings. But, if we must savor our treat alone, then five or six ice cubes per recipe are desirable (use only three or four for a doubled version). Put the liquor into the shaker last; any juices or sugar syrups go in first. Ten seconds of shaking is enough for cocktails that mix easily. Those including egg or heavy syrups will need twenty seconds. It is the drinks that mix very easily, but are served very cold, or those that would turn murky with shaking, that are stirred with ice instead. Remember the Martini.

And as Mr. Schumann exhorts in red type and ALL CAPS: "A Good Cocktail Doesn't Mean a Big One." If you grew up watching the adults mix their Four O'Clock Drinks of about half an inch of Canadian Club in an ice-filled highball glass, with three inches of ginger ale then poured on, you will be startled at the diminutive size of what American Bar allows you to have. The Calvert Party Encyclopedia agrees at least that you must measure your liquor. "It will go further." The measurement repeated over and over again, in both books, is 1 and 1/2 ounces. This is 3 Tablespoons, a jigger, a gill, or 4.2 cl (centiliters). How small is a jigger? Quite small. The penny in the picture above, propped against the family heirloom pewter jigger, should help to show scale.

So a recipe for a classic martini,which consists only of a jigger of gin and a half teaspoon dry vermouth, will put a little over three full tablespoons of vital liquids into your glass, plus another half ounce of water (about a tablespoon) which the stirring with ice adds. Nothing like your parents' generously sized CC & ginger ale, and nothing like the huge glass canisters, full nearly to the brim, gripped by the earnestly debating men in the Calvert photo of 1960. And anyway why doesn't the girl get a drink, too?

I suggest that when she's done listening to the talk, she go out to the kitchen and mix herself a Gunga Din. It's my new favorite.

To five ice cubes placed in a cocktail shaker, add
half a jigger of dry vermouth
a jigger and a half of gin
"the juice of a quarter of an orange" (a little less than a jigger)
Shake for ten seconds. Serve in a cocktail glass garnished with a slice of fresh pineapple.  

And wear all the jewels you've got.

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