If there’s something that unites film geeks and cocktail enthusiasts, it’s an interest in the aged and the obscure. Yes, a lot of lost old movies and cocktails were lost for a good reason — not everything can last beyond its time. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of buried gems and few things in life are more fun for any kind of enthusiast than unearthing one of them.
So it is with the final film in my set of cocktails inspired directly by movies I saw at this year’s Turner Classic Movies festival. Newly restored and salvaged from footnote status, 1949’s “The Reign of Terror” is also known as “The Black Book.” The latter title describes the film’s McGuffin, a book of men marked for death which will bring about the destruction of a powerful criminal mastermind, if only it can be found. The fact that the perp in question is named Maximilien Robespierre and the setting is not postwar L.A. or NYC but 18th century Paris might give you a clue about how unusual this directorial effort from cinephile favorite Anthony Mann (“T-Men,” “Winchester ‘73”) really is.
At this point, Mann was chiefly making low budget film noirs. However, the Walter Wanger production company had a bunch of period sets left over from the big budget “Joan of Arc” starring Ingrid Bergman. In the interest of thrift, they decided that it made sense to capitalize on the vogue for darkly themed and lit expressionistic crime films by making a cloak and dagger noir drama that just happens to be set during the most murderous portions of the French Revolution.
“Reign of Terror” stars the usually affable Robert Cummings as a hardened operative of anti-terror forces and Arlene Dahl as the woman he doesn’t really trust to help him in his efforts to prevent Robespierre from appointing himself dictator of France. Very wisely, no French accents are attempted and noir super-cinematographer John Alton transforms 15th century sets into 18th century ones by using black and white cinema’s most powerful weapon: darkness. It’s a dandy drama that anyone who digs expressionistic cinema must check out when they can.
Oh, you wanted a cocktail, not a film review? I get it. So, here we go with a drink that was kindly whipped up for me by Ian, ace bartender at Tonga Hut, my neighborhood hang and one of L.A.’s oldest surviving tiki bars. Ian elaborated on my idea that the Reign of Terror cocktail should contain some Fernet Branca, arguably the most terrifyingly bitter and astringent of cocktail makings, and made me a dandy drink. I spent the rest of the week getting the proportions down and making one doubtful improvement. Here is the result.
The Reign of Terror
3/4 ounce brandy
3/4 ounce gin
1/2 ounce Fernet Branca
1/2 ounce Benedictine
1/2 egg white
1/2 teaspoon absinthe (very optional rinse)
1-2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
1 lemon twist (important garnish)
Combine all the liquid ingredients, except the absinthe, in a cocktail shaker. Since this drink has some egg white, you’ll want to dry shake (shake without ice cubes) first…though that may not be 100 percent necessary if, like me, you’re using prepackaged pasteurized egg white. Next, add plenty of ice cubes, shake again, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass which, if you want, may have been rinsed with absinthe as you would with a Sazarac. (Extra fancy coupes like the one pictured may be especially appropriate for this beverage.) Add the lemon twist. Sip and toast anyone who can figure out why it’s not nice to decapitate people just because they disagree with you.
The goal with the ingredients was to be a little bit terrifying and a little bit French. I’m not quite sure I quite made it on the latter point. For starters, it’s just occurring to me right now that Fernet Branca is actually Italian in origin. As for the brandies we used, Ian chose a cognac, which is always from the Cognac region of France, but then I went with the Hartley brandy I had on hand at home, which turns out to be from Italy also. I later opted for Reynal, my value-priced default brandy, which is bills itself as “rare old French brandy.” Gin is usually from England, of course; I used Tanqueray, Gordon’s, and Nolet’s, which sounds French but is actually Dutch. Peychaud’s bitters is more Creole than French. In other words, my cocktail is not so French as I might like, but then the movie “Reign of Terror” is about as français as a French dip sandwich.
I will say, however, that the drink has perhaps a slight hint of terror but also enough sweet smoothness to be very drinkable thanks to the Benedictine (which is French) and the egg white. On the down side, I’ve grown increasingly negative on the one big change I made to Ian’s recipe, which was the absinthe rinse. More and more, I think it just gets in the way of the almost chocolatey flavor of the Reign of Terror. Maybe give it a try both ways — assuming you’ve got the absinthe on hand in the first place — and see what you think.
Getting back to that half an egg white, I can see where that would be pretty terrifying for would-be bartenders since no one sells half-eggs. The solution is to either make two cocktails at once and double up on all your ingredients, or to use 1 1/2 tablespoons of packaged egg white. Not so terrifying, really.