Drink of the Week: The Keys of the Kingdom (TCM Fest 2016 Salute #1)

The Keys of the Kingdom.Every year since it’s inception, the organizers of theĀ  TCM Classic Film Festival have been letting me in without paying. Most of those years, I’ve been celebrating that fact by putting together my own drinks inspired by the films I was lucky enough to see there.

My first 2016 beverage du cinema (please don’t tell if that’s not actual French) is actually drawn from a film I saw on the last day of the fest which, frankly, was rather a last minute choice. An adaptation of a novel by A.J. Cronin, “The Keys of the Kingdom” isn’t a movie even hardcore film geeks hear that much about, even if it netted a young Gregory Peck his first Oscar nomination. As the decades-long tale of an idealistic priest from Scotland who finds himself a missionary in China, I have to admit that I had some qualms about spending my dwindling TCM time on what seemed likely to be a rather draggy bit of classic-era Hollywood Oscar bait from John Stahl, a director best known for making the original 1930s versions of the classic melodramas “Imitation of Life” and “Magnificent Obsession.” (If you know them at all, you’re likely more familiar with the 1950s remakes directed by Douglas Sirk.)

However, I should have more thoroughly considered the talents of two of classic Hollywood’s most skilled and witty screenwriters, Joseph Mankiewicz (“All About Eve”), who also produced, and the hugely versatile Nunnally Johnson (“The Grapes of Wrath,” “How to Marry a Millionaire,” and, get this,”The Dirty Dozen.”) As good as the suprisingly humorous and compelling script turned out to be, I was very pleasantly surprised by the film’s treatment of its many Asian characters. They are well-rounded non-stereotypes and, even more of a surprise, all played by actual Asian actors. That’s more impressive than it should be considering that, up to this very moment, Hollywood seems to be allergic to casting Asian actors in large roles.

“The Keys to the Kingdom” is a bit longish but, otherwise, a terrific example of classic-era Hollywood at it’s humanistic, entertaining, inspiring, and relatively progressive semi-best. Why not make it a cocktail?

As it happened, some years ago, a friend of mine who noted my burgeoning interest in all things boozy, had given me a bottle of Moutai that had apparently lain dormant on his own shelf for some time. It’s the best known brand of baiju, which, of course, you haven’t heard of, either! It’s a Chinese distilled spirit made from sorghum that has yet to find much of an audience in the U.S. or Europe. Once you’ve tried it, it’s easy to see why it’s a tough sell to Westernized tastes, and why my Chinese-Californian compatriot prefers to stick to beer and tequila. Some compare its flavor and bouquet to solvent. However, while there’s no denying that 106 proof Moutai is not for the faint of palette, I was reminded of a certain kind of strong pickled cabbage. I always knew there had to be a cocktail for it somewhere.

So, what follows is the blending of just enough Chinese Moutai with Scotch. By itself, this would never work. Fortunately, a bottle of Japanese pickled scallions in sweet brine came to my rescue. The results is an intriguing drink that’s probably as good a way to introduce your tongue to baiju as you’ll find. Like the movie it’s inspired by, I find it a worthy blending of disparate ingredients that come across far better than you’d ever expect.

The Keys of the Kingdom

1/4 ounce Moutai
1 1/2 ounces blended Scotch whiskey
1/2 ounce Rakkyo Zuke pickle brine
1/4 ounce simple syrup or 1 teaspoon superfine sugar
1 pickled scallion (nearly essential garnish)

Combine the liquid ingredients in a mixing glass or cocktail shaker with ice. You can shake this if you like but, for some reason, every fiber of my being rebels at the thought. So, I say stir this one vigorously, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add your pickled scallion, and prepare yourself. This isn’t your usual drink.


Since I know next to nothing about baiju, and only have the one bottle of Moutai, I couldn’t begin to say what impact using another brand might have on the Keys to the Kingdom. I do know that, with Moutai, it’s a classic case of a little goes a long way. If you dare, you can consider upping the amount to 1/2 ounce, but I wouldn’t go any further. This is already a drink that may well take some getting used to.

I also suggest using a relatively mild Scotch. Cutty Sark — which I bought because it showed up in at least one and possibly two or three of the movies (not this one) that I saw at TCM Fest — worked very nicely indeed. Perhaps better yet, the bottle of The Famous Grouse that I’ve been enjoying since a freebie of some months past, produced a drink that was almost as drinkable as it was intriguing. I was less happy, however, when I used the extremely smoky (some might prefer the term “peaty”) Laphroaig single malt. The smoke/peat added, I thought, an overly disturbing and abrasive note.

Overall, I like my little offbeat cocktail creation. However, since I was unable to share it with any willing guinea pigs here at DOTW Manor, it’s hard to be sure whether anyone other would agree with. I will say it makes me wonder for the millionth time why so few cocktails are made with Scotch. I actually tried this one out with brandy, which is consumed more frequently than whiskey by the cast of “The Keys of the Kingdom,” and it was kind of repulsive.The cabbage/pickley flavors just clashed horribly with it. Scotch was much better casting.

Speaking of good casting, it turns out that “Keys of the Kingdom” co-star Benson Fong was canny enough to know that the career of a Chinese-American actor was bound to be anything but stable. Inspired by a suggestion from Gregory Peck, he eventually began a successful chain of now long-gone L.A. area restaurants, Ah Fong. I assume it sold cocktails, though I’m sure none so outre as this one.