Drink of the Week: The White Lady

The White Lady.Mad Men” begins it’s final season on Sunday night, and I think it might be fair to say that no television show has done as much for the cultural profile of cocktails in our time. This is despite the fact that serious cocktail cognosecnti will be quick to inform you that  the early 1960s was a good four or five decades on from the tail end of the first true heyday of cocktails, and they’ll no doubt add that the late 1960s was one Harvey Wallbanger of a lowpoint.

Even so, people who watch the cast of Matthew Weiner’s brilliant tragicomedy-cum-high-end soap quaff their Martinis, Manhattans, and Old Fashioneds with some envy aren’t wrong. “Mad Men” is, in fact, about the final last gasp of an era. While there were many things about this old era we’re all better off without, it was also the last time people knew what an Old Fashioned was without being educated on the topic by Don Draper.

It’s not that people ever stopped drinking, it’s just they became more aware of the fact that alcohol was a drug they could use among many other drugs and the fact that it was also a food, of sorts, kind of got lost for about 30-40 years. In fact, let’s face it, at their booziest Don Draper and Roger Sterling might appreciate a well crafted beverage, but both of them would take Sterno if they had to.

This week’s drink is something I think Don and Roger would appreciate as it’s dry enough and boozy enough, but I think it might also appeal to Peggy Olson, Joan Harris and, perhaps most of all, the much maligned Betty Draper. It’s refreshing enough to help you relax on a hot New York State afternoon, boozy enough to forget your every dysfunction, and low-calorie enough not to knock you off your diet. Oh, and the name….

The White Lady

2 ounces London dry gin
1/2 ounce Cointreau or triple sec
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1 egg white

Yeah, I know, egg white again. If you read me enough to get tired of reading that, then you know the drill already but here we go. We’re going to do what is known as a “dry shake” to emulsify the egg, which we’re going to combine with the gin, orange liqueur and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker by, obviously, shaking it a bit. We’re then going to add what we moderns might refer to as “a buttload” of ice and then we’re going to shake it again.

Next, we’ll strain it into a cocktail glass and we’ll toast, I imagine, Betty Draper. We will attempt to politely avoid any racial connotations, but we will fail.

***
Yes, while the White Lady’s name might put you in mind of a Dave Chappelle routine if you say it with a certain cadence, the drink itself really is pure elegance. This is a very dry drink and very tart too, but the egg white smoothes everything over far better than any “Mad Men” character attempting to paper over a sticky emotional situation. Yeah, I know I’ve sung this eggy song before, but it’s really true.

I tried this drink with three different gins and two orange liqueurs and all were, in their own way, aces. Bombay Dry Gin and Cointreau was archly classic, a bit understated. Switching to sweeter triple sec took off every sharp edge for a mellower concoction. No. 3 London Dry Gin with Cointreau put the Juniper and citrus peel flavors of a class dry gin forward in a way I really liked. Cointreau with Plymouth Gin, however, produced a shockingly disappointing result. Something just didn’t blend right there. Keep your gin dry and Londony…though Hendricks, which is actually from Scotland, might possibly work very well with this. (If anyone out there tries that, please drop me a line like a good little reader, okay?)

That’s it. I could lie and tell you all I’ll be seeing “Mad  Men” on its first broadcast with you all on Sunday night, but I’ll actually be enjoying the tale end of the Turner Classic Movies annual film festival right around then. The hope is I’ll find a way to unite my passions for cinema and cocktails there. Stay tuned!

  

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Drink of the Week: The Bijou

The Bijou. Last week, I invoked the literal spirit of Will Rogers to deal with the insanity that seemed to be sweeping our nation’s capital. As I begin writing this week, it’s starting to appear that some sanity is returning. That’s something we’ll be drinking to this week, with a genuine antique that’s approved of by many of the cocktail cognoscenti. I just wish I loved this one a bit more than I do.

I stumbled over the Bijou in my increasingly well worn copy of Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book, but it’s history goes back to turn of the 20th Century, we are told, when it was included in a manual by bartending legend Harry Johnson. On this political week, it’s worth mentioning that it also got a big shot in the arm back in 2009 when cocktail loving MSNBC icon Rachel Maddow made one for Jimmy Fallon. Alas, I never saw that segment and it’s been pulled from Hulu for some reason. (I blame the Koch brothers.)

I, therefore, have no way of knowing if the woman who accompanies many of my dinners — and whose old Air America radio show helped me to discover the classic cocktail spirit — introduced some twist in her preparation which made the drink sing a bit more for her and Fallon than it does for me. The version I’ve been making is worth is worth a try even if I didn’t love it to death.

The Bijou

1 ounce Plymouth Gin or regular London dry gin
1 ounce Chartreuse
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 dash orange bitters

Combine your ingredients in a cocktail shaker or mixing glass, stir fairly vigorously, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. This week, let’s consider a toast to pure, sweet sanity as we down this complex semi-treat.

****

The key ingredient in today’s drink is Chartreuse, also called Green Chartreuse to distinguish it from the milder Yellow Chartreuse. First featured here in star bartender Julie Reiner’s Shamrock Sour, this 110 proof liqueur beloved of cocktail aficionados and, apparently, Quentin Tarantino, is a prime example of a little going a long way. It’s a very herbal, very sweet, and very complex little bugger and gin doesn’t really stand a chance against it.

Since this is one of the 23 recipes in the Savoy book specifically calling for Plymouth Gin, I tried it that way a couple of times. Most recipes, however, call for the usual London style gin. I used Bombay Dry, which is what I have on hand these days, and I found it a bit crisper and more brash that way. Really, though, I  liked the drink about the same with both gins.

You may want to experiment with various garnishes. I tried a cheap maraschino cheery once, which didn’t hurt. Rightly renowned cocktail guru Robert Hess, who is obsessed with presentation to a point I tend to disagree with, calls for an elaborate orange peel, which does look pretty and probably wouldn’t hurt the flavor. I do have to reluctantly admit, however, that this drink really doesn’t benefit from shaking. Don’t ask me why, though I’ll never buy Hess’s argument that “clouding” drinks with ice crystals by shaking them is some kind of cocktail fate-worse-than-death.

Hess is also one of many to point out the word “bijou” means jewel in French, which to him means the drink is supposed to look jewel-like and, yes, be completely unclouded. Movie geek that I am, I associate the term with the frequent name for old theaters. Despite being namesakes, Robert Hess and I clearly don’t think that much alike, though he is absolutely correct when he adds the Bijou is extremely Chartreuse forward.

Some things really are kind of inarguable.Up is not down and day is not night though, as we’ve all learned, you can stop some people from claiming just that. I don’t know about you, but after everything we’ve been through, I could use a drink, any drink.

  

Drink of the Week: The Will Rogers

The Will Rogers. Cowboy comic, movie star, and political commentator Will Rogers was a genuine superstar in his day — think a combination of Jon Stewart and Tom Hanks — but  it’s his quotations that really sing to us right now. There’s something about the basic sanity of these little packages of genius that is a little bit extra poignant in a political moment where nothing seems to be on the table other than economic and political suicide.

“I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” I borrow that one a lot, but it seems like the rival party could pick that one up very soon.

“There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.” Remind you of anyone?

And here’s one that’s a bit more relevant to our topic here at Drink of the Week. “Why don’t they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as good as Prohibition did, in five years we will have the smartest people on earth.”

And so, for this truly, madly, deeply meshugganeh moment in American politics, I bring you a quite decent cocktail right out of the pages of the Prohibition-era classic, The Savoy Cocktail Book, named after a man who was a little bit better than decent. He was sane. The drink isn’t bad, either.

The Will Rogers

2 ounces gin, preferably Plymouth Gin
1 ounce fresh squeezed orange juice
1 ounce dry vermouth
2 teaspoons orange curacao

Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a cocktail glass. Toast comedians, for they are the only reliable source of political wisdom on our small planet.

****

Wikipedia tells us that this Plymouth Gin is featured in exactly 23 cocktail recipes in The Savoy Cocktail Book where, in fact, I first found today’s recipe. Leaving my decades long membership in the cult of the number 23 aside (thank you Robert Anton Wilson and William S. Burroughs) I admit to having been a bit confused by whether Plymouth was a style of gin or a brand of the gin.

Turns out the answer is, “yes.” Ever so slightly less dry and more fruity than the London dry gin most of us know, it’s made in Plymouth, a town about 190 miles from London from whence came our turkey-and-cranberry eating Puritan forebears. While there was once more than one brand of the Plymouth style of gin, today there is only Plymouth Gin; the brand and the style are now synonymous. At 82.5 proof, it’s relatively gentle compared to most premium gins, which are often closer to 90 proof or above, but stronger versions are manufactured. It’ll cost you more than even some very good brands of gin; I shelled out 28 smackers at an outstanding discount emporium out here in glamorous Van Nuys.

I made the Will Rogers using a good London style gin as well as the pricier Plymouth variety, and I have to say that extra expenditure might be worth it for cocktail perfectionists. Using very good, but more reasonably priced Bombay Dry, it was fine, but the Plymouth version had just that extra bit of, er, zazz to it. It’s a technical term for, er, tangy complexity, or something.

On the other hand, whatever you do, stay away from the alternate version of the Will Rogers which I found floating around a number of cocktail sites. That one contains 1.5 ounces of gin, half an ounce of dry vermouth, a mere tablespoon of orange juice, and a dash (let’s say half a teaspoon) of triple sec instead of curacao.  Yes, I have met a cocktail I didn’t like.

  

Spotlight on Booze: Gin

It’s lost some commercial ground to vodka over the decades, but the revival of interest in classic cocktails has given gin a boost lately. In any case, this venerable liquor remains the standard clear alcohol among serious cocktail aficionados, who strongly prefer its more complex flavor and swear it’s the only true main ingredient in a martini.

Gin is distilled from grain, usually wheat or rye, and starts out as a fairly plain spirit probably not so different from vodka. After that, “distilled gins” are then distilled a second time with various flavorings. That slightly perfume-like aroma you’ve noticed comes primarily from juniper berries. That’s only for starters, as gin manufacturers use a pretty vast assortment of herbs and other botanicals ranging from licorice root to grapefruit peels. Some ultra-cheap brands are “compound gins.” These gins are not redistilled, but simply have tiny infusions added — they’re basically gin-flavored alcohol.

Most modern gins are “dry” and manufactured in England; these gins legally may not contain any added sugar and that aids in the liquor’s superb mixability. As far as we can tell, however, there isn’t much predictable difference between “London dry, “extra dry,” and other similar designations. “Plymouth” gins technically only have to come from the coastal town, but they tend to have a somewhat more complex, pungent, and slightly sweeter flavor profile. Largely produced in Holland and Belgium, genever is a less strong gin variant popular in central Europe. With plenty of added sugar, you can still find very sweet “old Tom” gin if you look hard. Speaking of sweet, you’ve likely had a slurp or two or of “sloe gin,” actually a liqueur made with gin or cheaper neutral spirits mixed with sloe berries. Most brands of gin are between 84 and 92 proof (42-46 percent alcohol), but a number of less upscale mass market brands are available at 80 proof or even less.

Like all types of booze, gin is available in a number of price levels, but there’s not really any such thing as a super premium gin. While you can easily spend $150.00 or much more on a bottle of small batch bourbon or single malt Scotch, if you find a bottle of regular size bottle of gin selling for more than $50.00, you’re probably paying mostly for ultra-fancy packaging. Some of the best and/or most popular premium gins include Tanqueray Ten, Plymouth (a brand as well as style of gin), and Bombay Sapphire. Just as good or better, in our opinion, are the mid-priced premiums, available in some states at discounters like Costco, Bev-Mo and Trader Joe’s. These include Tanqueray, Bombay Dry Gin (less heavy on the perfumey juniper berries than Sapphire), and Hendricks, an increasingly popular Scottish gin we like quite a bit. A bit cheaper, still quite good, and very rich in “Mad Men”-style classic street cred, is Beefeater.

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