Drink of the Week: The Ritz Cocktail

the Ritz Cocktail. What are you willing to give up for a cocktail? If you live in Los Angeles, the answer for the casual fancier of serious mixed beverages might be as high as $17.00 in some joints. If you’re one of the people who actually makes his living trying to make really good cocktails, however, the price might be a little higher still.

As I’m learning from an upcoming film I’m probably embargoed from discussing in any detail, the documentary “Hey Bartender,” the business of dispensing booze can take from a person’s life, but it can also give. However, the price I’m thinking about right now has mostly to do with the garnish — yes, the garnish — of today’s drink.

Fire is involved, and so is my right hand. I like my right hand. It’s helping me type this blog post and it does other nice things for me from time to time. But more about that later. (The garnish, I mean.)

The Ritz Cocktail was created by a cocktail legend I’m not sure I’ve even mentioned here before, and that’s largely due to the fact that I’m still a relative newbie to serious boozing. Although he’s not quite a household name — even his Wikipedia page is a still a stub — Dale DeGroff is credited by lots of folks as spearheading the revival of the lost art of the American cocktail. This started back in the 1980s, when he was at the Rainbow Rock at Manhattan’s 30 Rock, I was still in school, and most of the oldest of you all were lucky to be past the zygote stage….and DeGroff is still a relatively young man for a living legend. Well, his Wiki doesn’t give his age, so it’s hard to be sure.

Today’s drink is contained in DeGroff’s epochal 2002 tome, The Craft of the Cocktail. It’s named in honor of the several legendary bars of the famed Ritz hotel chain founded by César Ritz. Much as Mr. DeGroff has been dubbed “King Cocktail,” Mr. Ritz was dubbed “king of hoteliers, and hotelier to kings.” So far as I know, however, he had nothing to do with the cracker.

The Ritz Cocktail (the slightly heretical and debased version)

3/4-1 ounce cognac, or brandy alternative
1/2 ounce Cointreau
1/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/4 ounce maraschino liqueur
Champagne or sparkling white wine alternative
Flamed orange peel (garnish, to be explained!)

Combine all the liquid ingredients, except the champagne/sparkling white wine, in a cocktail shaker or mixing glass with ice. Stir (if you want to be like the suave Mr. DeGroff) or shake (if you want to be an uncouth philistine, like me). Strain into a cocktail class and top off with your bubbly.

Then, get out your matchbook or lighter and add your flamed orange peel (more on that below). If you’re fingers are unscorched, you’ll want to toast Mr. DeGroff for his delicious cocktail. If you’re feeling cowardly, and I don’t one bit blame you, an unflamed orange or lemon twist will do fairly nicely.


Before I get to the flaming orange peel, let’s talk about the other ingredients. As a cheapskate/not-rich-guy I’m not usually swimming in authentic cognac or champagne. Moreover, I’ve found that Reynal Brandy, which has offices in the French town of Cognac, is actually as good or better in a cocktail than at least some actual cognacs selling for about twice as much. I used up some of little remaining Ile de Ré Fine Island Cognac I had for my first attempt, and then went with Reynal after that. I think it’s possible the somewhat blander Reynal might have worked better in this drink.

I also used a bit less of my base spirit than DeGroff originally suggested. That’s because I only received The Craft of the Cocktail from Amazon yesterday, a sad confession, I know. I didn’t know that the online versions of the recipe, which mostly call for 3/4 of an ounce of cognac, differed from the original version which calls for a full ounce of the stuff. I also deliberately went against DeGroff’s advice advice when I found that my usual slight preference for shaking over stirring seemed to apply to this drink as well. Also, I switched out the champagne for some brut sparking blanc de blanc. It’s pretty much the same exact situation as the cognac/brandy switch.

Now, about that flaming orange peel. Basically, this is supposed to be an enjoyably dramatic approach to spreading a bit of carmelized orange oil over your drink. You should probably use the video below before you go by my instructions, but basically what you do is cut a bit of orange peel with very little of the white pith still on it. Then, you hold a lit match or a cigarette lighter to the orange peel. You heat the orange peel, keeping it flat. Then, when the peel is good and shiny, you short of bend the thing, creating a flame that ideally should shoot over the rim of the glass. Finally, you glide the orange skin around the rim of the glass and drop your flamed peel into the drink, as you usually would.

Because I am, no exaggeration, a complete klutz, I was really and truly a bit scared to attempt this mixological parlor trick. Since it’s good to do things you’re scared to do, I tried it several times, even though I was skeptical it would have much impact on the flavor. The fact of the matter is that I only achieved partial success when I stropped trying to use a match and sprung for an easier to use cheap lighter. I don’t think it was just my imagination, but the drink really did taste pretty great when I finally managed a relatively pathetic fire burst. That shows me for doubting King Cocktail.