Drink of the Week: The Improved Poppy Cocktail

The Improved Poppy Cocktail.Today’s drink is very possibly the most obscure cocktail yet that we’ve explored from Harry Craddock’s post-prohibition classic, “The Savoy Cocktail Book,” and I sense that most of the people who care about such matters would say it’s obscure for a reason. In fact, they would probably agree that the Poppy Cocktail, which contains no poppy or poultry products, is nevertheless pure poppycock.

Here’s the thing: cocktalians may occasionally be alcoholics, but they are rarely chocoholics. I, however, love chocolate. In fact, I’m having some right now. So, when I stumbled over a chocolate flavored drink that, lacking any heavy cream or non-liqueur sweetener, was actually also not horrifically fattening, I was not easily dissuaded.

Nevertheless, I had to reluctantly agree that, as written, the original recipe — two parts gin, one part creme de cacao — was simply bleh, lacking any backbone. Still, perseverance payed off and I figured out a way to make it pretty darn good with just a dash of the right product. I’m sure many of you might have already guessed where I’m taking this, but let’s get started anyway.

The Improved Poppy Cocktail

2 ounces gin
1 ounce creme de cacao (brown or white)
1 or probably 2 dashes chocolate bitters

Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Say a silent prayer of thanks to the Aztecs for using cacao to make, what else, an alcoholic beverage!

****

So, yes, we can’t really blame Harry Craddock for not thinking of using chocolate bitters in his Poppy Cocktail as they were likely not widely available or perhaps were not even really an idea back in 1930. Nevertheless, they are absolutely what’s needed to save the Poppy Cocktail from entering the scrap bin of cocktail history. For one thing, they actually turn this drink into a proper cocktail in the strictest sense because it now contains bitters. Vastly more importantly, they give it the balance it requires to be a decent drink for grown-ups.

I often compare bitters to the bass in an audio sound mix. A few year back, I found myself growing vaguely disenchanted with my Yamaha home theater system until I realized I was forgetting to turn on the subwoofer. The sound was tinny and lacking depth without it, but with it, my music and movies sounded just about right. The same is true of a Manhattan, an Old Fashioned and, very definitely, a Poppy Cocktail, when it comes to adding bitters.

My bitters, by the way, were Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate, but I did experiment with plain old Angostura. The cola-esque flavor of the default non-chocolate based bitters didn’t quite hit the bulls-eye, but it was way better than using no bitters at all. I wonder why Harry Craddock didn’t think of that.

As for the base spirit, the Improved Poppy Cocktail worked well with Gilbey’s and Bombay Dry Gin, though I’d give a slight edge to the slightly less dry Plymouth Gin. More important was my choice of a creme de cacao which, like creme de menthe, is pretty much just flavoring and alcohol. There’s nothing wrong with my white Gionello’s, but my dark Hiram Walker Creme de Cacao doesn’t only look more chocolatey, it’s tastes that way too. Not surprisingly, it further improved the Poppy Cocktail.

 

  

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Drink of the Week: The Commodore

the Commodore.

One fact of boozy life that is both a source of endless fascination and constant befuddlement is that there isn’t a single cocktail recipe that is even remotely agreed upon, much less set in stone. Some may insist that an Old Fashioned is always made with exactly one teaspoon of water or club soda, one sugar cube, and two dashes of Angostura bitters. However, no one’s going to stop me from muddling an orange slice and/or cocktail cherry and maybe adding a bit more water and liking my version a bit better.

This week, I’m extra befuddled and feeling vaguely guilty. That’s not so much because of anything having to do with today’s drink but because this post is appearing just a few hours before the start of Yom Kippur and vague guilt is just a the natural state of being for ultra-secular Jews like myself.

Leaving all that tsuris aside, I can tell you that the Commodore is a worthwhile classic/pre-prohibition beverage with a softer edge, but I can’t even tell you which version I personally prefer. So, this week you get two recipes for the price of one, even if you’re really not supposed to be handling money on the high holidays. Did I mention that you’re also reading this on a Friday the 13th?

The Commodore

1 1/2 ounces bourbon
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
1 ounce white creme de cacao
1/4 teaspoon grenadine

OR

2 ounces bourbon
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
3/4 ounce white creme de cacao
1/4 teaspoon grenadine

Whichever recipe you choose, combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker, shake vigorously, and strain into a chilled champagne flute or cocktail glasses. Drink and toast our nation’s maritime armed forces or Dabney Coleman of “Boardwalk Empire.” (I’m at least two seasons behind so, please, no clues on the Commodore’s ultimate fate, please.)

*****

Allow me to explain the nature of this week’s cocktail cockup. Returning to the scene of the crime that was my recent Clover Club triology, my first try at the Commodore was a recipe taken almost exactly from Robert Hess’s The Essential Cocktail Guide, the second of the two recipes you see above. Made with Four Roses bourbon from a nearly empty bottle, it was pretty wonderful, with the chocolate from the creme de cacao doing a merry dance with the bourbon and citrius as the grenadine added just a hint of additional color. (The one change I made in Hess’s recipe is rendering his “dash” of grenadine as a quarter teaspoon.)

Subsequent research, however, provided me with two discoveries. Firstly, there are actually a number of barely related classic-era cocktails called “Commodore,” including one with rum and egg white I might well be trying pretty soon, and a version from The Savoy Cocktail Book that is basically just a super simple Canadian whiskey sour. Secondly, I discovered that the Hess recipe was actually a refinement of a somewhat less boozy cocktail from an era when good bourbon was probably a little harder to find than in these times of alcoholic plenty.

So, that led me to the first recipe of the cocktail you see above. While I found that I enjoyed it well enough, one of my in-house guinea pigs found it a bit over-citrusy and I had to admit it wasn’t quite the subtle taste treat I remembered from my first try at the Commodore. I found, however, that when I switched out the lighter 80 proof Four Roses I started with for some 100 proof Knob Creek, I liked that version a lot better.  Still, that first drink, the one with more whiskey and less lemon, was so strong in my memory that it would still just have to my recommendation to the denizens of DOTW land.

That, however, went all to hell when I tried the Hess recipe again. A super-boozy attempt using two whole ounces of Knob Creek was, to my mouth, a bitter tasting non-starter which I tossed out.  I then went with what I thought would be a sure thing — Basil Hayden, which is both 80 proof and an absolutely outstanding bourbon that usually mixes superbly. For whatever reason, using it with the Robert Hess recipe was okay but far from spectacular. Since I’m out of Four Roses, it’s hard to know whether my love of that first Commodore was just the thrill of the new, or a repeatable phenomenon, as long as I stuck with just the right bourbon. So, despite being a bit citrusy and overtart, I think I’ll have less to atone for, and will  have a slightly better chance of being inscribed in the Cocktail Book of Life, if I steer readers towards the older recipe I listed first. Got that?

Shana tova, everybody.

  

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