Drink of the Week: The Presto Cocktail

The Presto Cocktail. I have to admit that, for a cocktail blog, we haven’t been super-festive here at DOTW Central lately. Last week, I failed to make any mention of the then-upcoming Superbowl Sunday. This week, I’m ignoring both Valentine’s Day and President’s Day. It’s not because I have anything against drinks that celebrate either romantic love or our nation’s commanders in chief, it’s just that I’ve feeling a bit more workaday in my beverage choices of late.

This week we’re doing a drink that’s a more or less complete obscurity from Harry Craddock’s oh-so-canonical “The Savoy Cocktail Book.” It’s not a bad booze twist on a sweeter Manhattan variation, especially for those who like their drinks heavy on the citrus and who don’t mind a little bit of an anis-spiked absinthe kicker. Indeed, just a few people seem to have tried this drink online, most-notably blogger at his now-suspended Savoy Stomp blog back in 2009. So, anyone who tries this is among a proud and lonely few.

Beyond that, I don’t have any stories to go with this week’s drink and no heavy duty cultural references to make, so let’s get right into the recipe.

The Presto Cocktail

2 ounces brandy
1/2 ounce fresh orange juice
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
1/8-1/4 teaspoon (1 dash) absinthe

We’ve got a simple one here. Just combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice, shake, and strain into yet another one of those chilled cocktail glasses you always need to have laying around.

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I tried this with two brandies and two vermouths, and I’m tempted to say your choice of a vermouth may be at least as important as your brandy selection this time out. Indeed, I was downright disappointed with my first attempt, which used Maison Rouge Cognac — the best brandy you’re likely to find at my place — and Martini sweet vermouth, which should be good enough for most drinks but really wasn’t here. Substituting Cocchi Vermout di Torino worked wonders, however, even when I was using Pierre Duchene Napoleon Brandy which, the outdated yet highfalutin name notwitstanding, is kind of a cheap ass product. I think the Presto Cocktail requires a more complex, bottom-heavy vermouth to keep it balanced.

Other than that, clearly the biggest difference came down to how I defined the term “dash” when it came to the absinthe. Admittedly, I used the appropriately named Absinthe Ordinaire — the only stuff I could find for under $50.00, but it’s actually been doing the trick for me since I bought my bottle some years ago now. Nevertheless, reducing my “dash” down to 1/8 of a tablespoon still provided enough anise flavor to give the drink an edge, but without getting in the way of the ingredients that I actually like enough to consume on their own.

  

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Drink of the Week: The Japalac

The Japalac.If the first thing you think of when you see the name “the Japalac” is an unfortunate racial slur that is now fortunately mostly relegated to old movies about World War II, you can be forgiven. Cocktail historian Ted Haigh unearthed the drink earlier this century and calls its name a “gut-level red herring” because it was actually named for a type of varnish produced by the Glidden company. Jap-A-Lac was named for Japan drier, a product still in use that Wikipedia tell us that borrows its name from the term “japanning,”  “the use of drying oils as an imitation or substitution for urushiol based Japanese lacquer.”

While these kind of terms make us think of the sort of cultural appropriation that followed back in the day when non-European countries suddenly emerged into the Western cultural context to be pop-culturalized in all sorts of fascinating and problematic ways, there’s no getting around the fact that the Japalac carries some odd associations. Still, I think we can find a way to enjoy without offending either people of Japanese ancestry or, for that matter, myself, since — at least in the broadest possible outlines — I was once arguably a Jewish-American Prince.

Well, that’s enough backstory, let’s get to the drink which really ain’t bad at all, though your choice of ingredients can make a more enormous difference than usual.

The Japalac

3/4 ounce rye whiskey
3/4 dry vermouth
1/2 ounce fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon raspberry syrup
1 orange twist (garnish)

Combine the whiskey, vermouth, juice and syrup in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously and strain into chilled, relatively small, cocktail glass — this is a drink of the sensibly modest size that was once the standard. Add the orange twist and sip relatively slowly and quietly. Remember not to  say “Japalac” too loudly in a public place, lest you be misunderstood.

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First of all, I was forced to depart from Ted Haigh’s recipe…in a sense. For starters, it calls for “juice of 1/4 orange.” I have a bone to pick with such non-specific instructions since oranges come in all sizes and levels of juiciness, so I settled on 1/2 an ounce…which turns out to have required about a fourth of the particular oranges I was using, so I guess Haigh’s not completely insane.

The possibly bigger departure was that I used Torani raspberry syrup, which is typically used for coffee-house style Italian sodas as well as cocktails, and it worked out just fine. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention that, as I learned last year, Mr. Haigh typically prefers the sort of raspberry syrup that was traditionally used as a substitute for grenadine, and which is made by companies like Smuckers and more closely resembles jam without any fruit. Alas, four visits to area markets reveals that there appears to be some kind of Smucker’s Raspberry Syrup drought out here in the San Fernando Valley area, though boysenberry and strawberries flavors are easy to come by, if that’s your thing.

In any case, while I tried the Japalac with four different types of rye — Rittenhouse, Bulleit, Alberta Dark Rye, and George Dickel — the really big difference was apparently made by the orange. Indeed, my first attempt was pretty much ruined by my choice of a grapefruit-esque cara cara orange. Later attempts with some very sweet navel oranges changed the tenor of the drink completely, making it more of a sweet and fruity treat. I think I liked the Alberta Dark Rye/navel juice version the best, though George Dickel Rye, and a slightly less sweet navel orange was almost perfectly balanced.

Finally, let’s get back to the name. While it’s true there was no anti-Japanese malice that we know of in the naming of today’s DOTW, the term “Japan drier” from whence the Jap-a-Lac varnish got it’s name, clearly harks back to late 19th century, when the West and East Asia were engaged in the beginning of a long love-hate relationship. The result of the early honeymoon period was at least two operas, Puccini’s tragic “Madama Butterfly” and Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic “The Mikado.” I’m more of a comedy guy, so let’s drink to the topsy turvy folks who gave us that one.

  

Drink of the Week: The Stinger

The Stinger.During my pre-cocktailian days, I’d often get tired of my usual scewdrivers, Bloody Marys, and dirty martinis and ask the barkeep if he or she could think of anything good. The answer was, nearly always, a blank stare. The fact that not a single one ever suggested a Stinger to me is something of a minor crime.

Here is a drink that is about as easy to make as any decent cocktail I’ve ever had and not lacking in some sweet mass appeal. It’s also got some sophistication to it, but it can be delightfully good with the cheap stuff. It is definitely one of the great  mass appeal drinks perfect for the truly lazy or over-stressed bartender, which means you can try ordering this at your local dive or TGIF-type bar and it might even taste good.

The Stinger

2 1/4 ounces brandy
3/4 ounce white creme de menthe

Combine in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass and consider what you’ll do with the all the time you’ve saved on this drink.

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Unless you make your own, it seems like there’s not a whole lot of alternatives when it comes to creme de menthe, and the seriously inexpensive DeKuyper product I was using is pretty much the standard. So, with this drink it’s the choice of brandy that can make a big difference, though I have to say I never had a bad Stinger.

Even so, the best brandy seems to yield the best results. So, my best Stinger was made with a reasonably priced bottle of Maison Rouge Cognac. A surprisingly close second was a downright cheap bottle of Pierre Duchene Napolean Brandy from Trader Joe’s, which is actually cheaper than my usual TJ default, Reynal, and most would say less good. I still thought it worked very nicely. A not at all poor third place was E&J VSOP, which I would never consider drinking on its own, but was still fine in a Stinger.

I also had a very nice Stinger (pictured above) when I found myself near my Orange County digs at the pricey but lovable Antonello’s in Santa Ana. I went all Ian Fleming on our waiter, demanding a drink that was 2 parts brandy and a half part creme de menthe. I have no idea whether or not Antonello’s followed my instructions, or what brands they used, but it definitely came out as as a sweetly sophisticated treat, all sweet and winey but with a backbone.

Before I go, I have to add that today’s recipe is pretty much a direct steal from David Wondrich but, in any case, the Stinger is a drink that allows for adjustment to personal taste. For starters, if you find measuring out 2 1/4 ounces too precise and annoying, feel free to just go with 2 ounces of brandy and 1/2 ounce creme de menthe and, if that doesn’t float your boat, feel free to mess around with the proportions. I will say, however, that you should be reasonably sparing of the creme de menthe, whatever you do.

Also, if you’ve only got the green kind of creme de menthe, it’s probably okay to use that. Robert Hess, however, says you should only do that to a Stinger during the holidays. What’s the next holiday?

  

Drink of the Week: The Pall Mall Cocktail

The Pall Mall Cocktail. Since I generally write pretty favorably about these Drinks of the Week, you might be forgiven if you assume that I am like the proud daddy who loves all his boozy children equally. That, my tippling brothers and sisters, is simply not the case.

Among newer drinks — especially drinks that have been pitched to me by the alcoholic industrial complex — I try never to steer you towards anything that I wouldn’t gladly make for myself. However, I am more inclusive when it comes to older drinks. Heck, someday I might even try out recipes for some very well known drinks I personally dislike, such as the highly-effective but (usually) mildly disgusting Long Island Ice Team or the incredibly over-sweet Harvey Wallbanger.

Those drinks hail from the 1970s — a golden era for most film lovers but the very nadir of the dark ages for cocktailians. Today’s drink, however, comes to us from the 1930s or earlier and is yet another of the thousands of recipes featured in “The Savoy Cocktail Book.” It might be named after the cigarette brand, it might not.

It does, however, introduce me to a cocktail ingredient that, as far as I can remember, I have never previously tasted. I speak of creme de menthe, a liqueur  that is basically just mint and/or mint flavoring, alcohol, and sugar. As you might guess, it tastes like a liquid candy cane. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, I’ll be figuring that one out over the coming weeks.

In the meantime, let’s get started on this week’s drink.

The Pall Mall Cocktail

1 ounce Plymouth Gin (standard London dry might not be a sin)
1 ounce dry vermouth
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 teaspoon white creme de menthe
1 dash orange bitters

Combine all the ingredient in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Prepare for a surprisingly minty experience and drink up!

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I have to admit that my first go-round with the Pall Mall Cocktail was more than a little alarming. The only creme de menthe I had on hand, from an airplane bottle bought at a bargain price, was of the bright green variety, which you are not supposed to use in Pall Mall Cocktail and for good reason. The result was in a drink that looked only slightly better than what happened a day or two later when my sink backed up. It tasted slightly better than it looked, but that was obviously no great praise. The bittersweet notes in Carpano Antica also seemed to be a big problem. My housemate/guinea pig liked it even less than me.

Subsequent tries with a more standard Martini sweet vermouth and DeKuyper’s white creme de menthe, proved a lot better, or least more inoffensive. Make no mistake, however, that little teaspoon of creme de menthe dominates the flavor of this drink, and it doesn’t always play well with the herbal flavor in the gin and dry vermouth, especially.

Finally, a note on gin. This is one of a bunch of recipes found in The Savoy Cocktail book that call specifically for Plymouth Gin. These days, that refers to both a style of gin and a brand, as the only brand of Plymouth style gin these days is, in fact, Plymouth Gin. (It’s herbal flavors are probably every so slightly fruitier than what you’ll find in the kind of gins you’re likely used to.) So, I mostly used Plymouth when making these drinks. However, using Bombay Dry Gin didn’t ruin the drink, at least assuming it wasn’t ruined to begin with.

  

Drink of the Week: The Miner’s Son

The Miner's Son.I have no idea why Minneapolis bartender Marco Zappia chose to name his drink the Miner’s Son. The closest thing I can find to a cultural reference in the name is that it’s also the name of a restaurant in North Bay, Ontario — so maybe that’s it, and maybe it isn’t. I do know, however, that Zappia’s concoction makes very nice use of a mixer I haven’t really explored at all.

I like tea probably slightly more than the next person, so I guess it’s somewhat surprising that I haven’t really been on top of the not-really-new trend towards using both hot and cold teas in various mixed drinks. Don’t ask me why I’ve been so remiss, but at least I was finally nudged along by a gloriously free bottle of Famous Grouse Scotch, the best selling Scotch in the UK, paired with something called Owl’s Brew The Famous Mint Tea, a very tasty product designed to be combined with the aforementioned whiskey.

I have to say that I agree with apparently most of the population of the British Isles that the Famous Grouse is an extremely likable Scotch. I just might start using as a default here at Casa de DOTW, and I already mentioned that the Owl’s Brew Mint Tea is pleasant on the tongue — it’s also extremely sweet. However, I’m not at this point 100% sold on combining it with Scotch on its own, as the Owl’s Brew bottle suggests. It’s not bad, it’s just that this mysteriously named recipe, which adds a bit of lemon and seltzer to the mix, is what really seems to bring out the best in all these good products.

The Miner’s Son

1 1/2 ounces The Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whisky
3/4 ounce Owl’s Brew The Famous Mint Tea
1/2 ounce simple syrup
1/3 ounce fresh lemon juice
2 ounces seltzer water
1 lemon twist (garnish)

Combine all the liquid ingredients in a Collins glass, though I think a double rocks or perhaps a smallish highball glass will also work in a pinch. Stir, and add your lemon twist, which Mr. Zappia would like you to properly express, I suspect. (Here are some good instructions on that score, though I would argue us non-pros are just fine using a vegetable peeler and dispensing with the fancy knife work.)

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The weather is about as cool as it gets out here on the West Coast right now. Even so, the Miner’s Son makes for a nearly irresistible libation and it’s appeal will only increase when El Nino finally makes his exit. It’s a blend of sweet, tangy, minty, and, uh, tea-y flavors that’s pretty darn hard to resist.

On the theory of not fixing what ain’t remotely broke, I dispensed with my tradition of trying the drink out with a Brand X base spirit. I did, however, try it with half a tablespoon of superfine sugar in place of simple syrup. Despite having exactly the same amount of calories, that came out slightly less sweet …and, arguably, a bit better.

On another experiment, however, I found that, while the terms “seltzer,” “club soda,” and “soda water” tend to be used almost interchangeably at times, in this case it might be best to stick to the strict meaning of seltzer water, which is simply plain carbonated water. Club soda, by contrast, contains some additional sodium. Using it seemed to throw the balance of the drink slightly off. Sometimes tiny differences aren’t all that minuscule.

  

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