Drink of the Week: The White Elephant (a la Wondrich)

the White Elephant.I sing now, for the umpteenth time, of the raw egg white, feared by many, adored by classic cocktail aficionados, and a sure way to get me to sit up and pay attention to almost any cocktail.

That’s a good thing, because this week’s drink could definitely use a little love. I stumbled over it at the massive bevatorium assembled by David Wondrich for Esquire and was immediately grabbed by the drink’s eggy simplicity. I was also struck by the immense terseness of the usually voluble Wondrich’s eight-word take: “A wet martini with a head; see the Hearst.”

What could a drink do to be both worthy of inclusion, yet apparently unworthy of sufficient verbiage — or even a reasonably accurate graphic? Was both Wondrich and the Esquire art department tired and on deadline? Was he forced to grudgingly submit to pressure to include this drink from the vast and shadowy gin-sweet vermouth-and-egg-white-industrial-complex?

Finally, why was every other cocktail I could find on line called “White Elephant” a completely different concoction that usually involved ingredients like coconut milk, white creme de cacao, heavy cream, white rum, and other things that are very, very white and nothing but white? This drink, as my brilliant photographic work reveals, is not precisely white, as elephants go. What gives? Who knows, but clearly the first thing to do is try the damn drink.

The White Elephant a la Wondrich

2 ounces gin
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 egg white
1 cherry (garnish)

The drill is basically the same as for every cocktail involving egg whites or eggs. Combine the gin, vermouth, and egg white in a cocktail shaker, but with no ice. Shake well to emulsify the egg, then add ice and really shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass or reasonable facsimile. Add a cherry for a bit of extra sweetness and color, and toast the pachyderm of your choice.

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I have to say that while I thoroughly enjoy this drink and find it nicely refreshing yet neither too sweet nor too anything else, I can see what it maybe hasn’t taken off and has become, yes, a white elephant of a mixed drink. It’s not really sweet enough for the sweets lovers, nor is it boozy, complex, bitter, or tart enough for many a cocktail snob. It’s nevertheless got plenty of booze in it, and the combination of egg white, liquid, and ice guarantees it all goes down in the most delightful way. A wet martini not only with a head, but with a wonderfully comfy ova cushion.

I did try messing around a bit with ingredients and proportions. Lowering the amount of gin by half an ounce didn’t really hurt the drink, but the increase in sweetness turned out to be minimal. The results using both of my two fall back sweet vermouths, Noilly-Pratt and Carpano Antica, were just fine, though this time I leaned ever so slightly towards the lighter touch of Noilly-Pratt. Still, the only really wrong move I made was adding bitters. So often, bitters can really save a drink; sometimes, however, it’s just the reverse.

So, why is the White Elephant so benighted that even a chatty cocktail historian has almost nothing to say about it? I think it’s the name. Not only is it unflattering, it’s inaccurate. This elephant is not white. It’s another color entirely.

  

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Drink of the Week: The Cosmopolitan

the Cosmopolitan Ready for a change of pace? Last week, we were going over an actual creation by Mr. James Bond. Today’s post-Thanksgiving refreshment is most commonly associated with Carrie Bradshaw of “Sex and the City.” Now, I’m probably not quite the most macho member of the very manly gang at this here online men’s magazine, but something about that show has made me want to avoid it at all costs. While I’m far from averse to watching 1940′s “women’s pictures” and I love a good romantic comedy a great deal more than the next guy, somehow I could never bring myself to check out more than a minute or two of the HBO hit-cum-franchise.

How shocked was I, then, to find, a couple of years back, that the drink most associated with that show, and which I had assumed to be a super-sweet catastrophe, was actually kind of delicious? Pretty shocked. At least that was clearly the case when made correctly at a nice restaurant/bar like the sadly closed down Culver City outlet of Fraiche.

And so it was that I found myself looking for something that was somehow appropriate for the post-Turkey Day weekend, and the fact that I had a bunch of unsweetened cranberry juice sitting in my refrigerator from a prior adventure. After making Cosmopolitans a bunch of times this week, I will say that while a drink that only goes back to the mid-1980s wouldn’t usually be called a classic, I think the Cosmo just may be a real contender for boozy immortality.

The Cosmopolitan

1 1/2 ounces vodka
1 ounce Cointreau or triple sec
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1/4 ounce unsweetened cranberry juice
Twist of lemon or orange (garnish)

Since you’re probably still getting over your turkey, pie, and warm beer hangover, you’ll be happy to know that this is a pretty darn easy drink to make, once you’ve gathered the ingredients. Simply combine the listed liquids in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice and shake as vigorously as Carrie Bradshaw would try to shake off a sub-par boyfriend, or something. (Remember, I never watched the show.)

Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and enjoy, secure in your masculinity or femininity, or whatever combination thereof may be apply.

****

I found that both the pleasant, but very sweet, Hiram Walker triple sec and the vastly more pricey and less sweet/slightly bitter Cointreau I used counterbalanced the tartness of the lime and unsweetened cranberry juice beautifully.  At least that was the case when my base spirit was good ol’ reliable Sky Vodka. The Cosmopolitan proved much less successful when I tried it with some 100 proof Smirnoff. With Cointreau it was, for lack of a better word, a bit nasty. With the sweeter triple sec, it was sweeter — but still nasty.

As for the garnishes, I recommend lemon peel to counter the sweetness of the triple sec if that’s what you’re using. Also, since The Cosmopolitan was, according to some, originally invented to be used with Absolut Citron and is still often made with lemon-infused/flavored vodkas, a touch of lemon flavor may be in order. Still, I loved the orange peel with my more upscale Mr. Big-budgeted version with Cointreau.

I have noticed, however, that some versions of this drink actually call for Rose’s sweetened lime juice instead of fresh squeezed, and I’m sure people are using super-sweet cranberry juice “cocktails” in this drink. Don’t.

  

Drink of the Week: The Vesper

The VesperThis was the recipe I’d always planned to do right around now. By “now,” I originally meant before the release of the first James Bond movie in several years and/or right around the 50th anniversary of the 007 film series. Even so, I managed to miss the fact that the opening weekend of “Skyfall” was last weekend and not this weekend, so we’re a bit late.

This despite the fact that I and my Bullz-Eye compatriots have spent — and are spending — a fair amount of time actually writing up the Bond films for this very blog. (Check out the Bondian fan hub here.) Fortunately, the movie is turning out to be the most successful film in the uber-franchise in a long while — how long probably depends on whether you bother to adjust for inflation — so it’s going to be around awhile. That means the Bond celebration will also continue.

The Vesper, I should say, is a tricky and ironic drink among late period cocktail classics. Since it debuted in the very first James Bond novel,1953′s Casino Royale, and was created for 007 author Ian Fleming by his friend, Ivar Bryce, a fellow real-life spy, the supercool authenticity factor is off the charts. The scene in the 2006 film version where Bond finally orders the drink some 53 years after it was first invented was a special treat for diehard spy fans and cocktail lovers, and I’m both.

The downside here is that there are issues relating to the ever formulating changes in booze brands that has made the idea of the Vesper a bit more enthralling than the actual drink usually is. We’ll get to those, and a bit more history, after the very, very strong recipe below.

First, however, a word to wise boozer. If you drink a whole Vesper, you really should be done for the night. Mere mortals should not drink like functioning dipsomaniac superspies. You may want to consider cutting the portions here in half or pouring this drink into two glasses for you and a friend.

The Vesper

3 ounces gin (90 proof or above)
1 ounce vodka (100 proof or close, probably)
1/2 ounce Lillet Blanc
1-2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 lemon twist (garnish)

Combine your ingredients in cocktail shaker with a sufficiency of ice. Though heretical cocktail snobs will tell you to stir, this is an Ian Fleming cocktail and Mr. Fleming would certainly have you shake the drink. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass or, if you really want to be classical, do as Bond asked the barman in the novel and serve it in a deep champagne goblet. Add your lemon twist, sip and surrender your car keys to the nearest trustworthy soul. Watch out for double agents.

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In the scene in the novel (included in the wiki I linked to above), CIA agent Felix Leiter expresses some skepticism about the as-yet unnamed Vesper, which Bond later names for the first of his two true loves, Vesper Lynd. It is a very big drink and not for pikers. It also a drink that, as cocktail historian David Wondrich and many others have admitted, hasn’t aged terribly well for a number of reasons.

First of all, all the ingredients have changed. Bond specifically requests Gordon’s Gin. Though it’s no longer considered on the high-end of the gin scale, I actually quite like today’s value-priced Gordon’s, but the flavor of today’s version can’t be the same as was back in ’53. Gordon’s is now only 80 proof. Back then, it was a higher proof and most, Wondrich included, now suggest using Tanqueray. This time around, I used the similarly high proof Beefeater, which seemed a bit more classical.

As for vodka, Wondrich and others seem to assume it would have been 100 proof. At $26.00 a bottle, I’m simply too cheap to buy 100 Stolichnaya, so I went with the $16.00 100 proof Smirnoff. I’ve never really been sold on Stoli and I doubt Bond or Mr. Fleming would have drunk a communist vodka.

Moving down the list of ingredients, I love Lillet Blanc. In fact, maybe my favorite thing about the Vesper is that it introduced me to this intriguing aperitif wine and occasional cocktail ingredient; it tastes like dry vermouth and sweet vermouth made love and birthed an independent-minded female child. However, it also apparently isn’t what it once was. Mr. Bond’s original recipe calls for the now long-gone Kina Lillet, which we are told had a bit more quinine than the present day Lillet Blanc.

That leads us to the use of the bitters, which are an attempt — some would argue a rather lame attempt — to compensate for the low level of quinine. Folks with more time and money than I have been known to actually purchase quinine powder. Since I’m not fighting a case of malaria right now, I chose not to.

So, what do I think of the Vesper? I’ve made this drink probably 10 times over the years and ordered it a few times in bars and, with a couple of exceptions, I’ve been disappointed in the taste while always enjoying the effect. A regular martini, either of the gin or vodka variety, will usually go down more pleasantly. Even so, if you want to drink the one drink that James Bond created on the spot, well, you’ve got no other choice. You’ll drink it and, by the time you’ve finished all that booze, you’ll like it.

In any case, it’s only human to want to try the drink James Bond made up.

  

Drink of the Week: The Mai Tai

Mai TaiAs I begin writing, the winner of the U.S. presidential election is not yet known for at least another 12 hours, and people across the political spectrum are going a little insane. Well, I’m happy to say that, wherever you fall on the political spectrum, we have a drink that will help take the edge off a loss and intensify the joy of a win — at least assuming your spiritual beliefs allow you to drink alcohol. It’s also the first of the post-WWII Tiki-inspired cocktail classics I’ve dared to take on here. Wish me luck.

I owe part of this week’s column to the good people at Cruzan Rum. Along with the tasty spiced rum we featured last week, they were kind enough to send me a bottle of their Cruzan Black Strap Rum to play with. My search for an appropriate cocktail led me directly to cocktail historian David Wondrich, whose all-dark rum-based version of this ultimate South Seas inspired classic seemed a perfect vehicle for the stuff.

I also, however, deemed it necessary to try another brand of dark rum. I went with my usual reasonably priced but tasty fall back, Whaler’s. I think this recipe, which is borrowed pretty heavily from Wondrich, minus an Esquire-mag typo or two, works pretty well with both rums — but with significant differences. More about that after the recipe.

The Mai Tai

2 ounces dark rum
1 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice
1/2 ounce orange curacao
1/2 ounce almond syrup (aka orgeat)
1/8-1/4 ounce simple syrup
1 mint sprig (highly advisable garnish)

Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with lots of ice. Shake like crazy and pour the whole thing, ice and all, into a well chiled Tom Collins or large rocks glass. Enjoy with or without a lovely tropical breeze. Toss in a sprig of fresh mint, if you’ve got it, and maybe one of your spent lime wedges, too.

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The Mai Tai was not, we are told, invented anywhere really close to Tahiti but in the not-so-very tropical land of Oakland, California at the original Trader Vic’s and presumably by Mr. Vic’s himself. As presented here, it’s a lovely concoction but I can also say that your choice of dark rum will yield a considerable difference.

To be specific, Whaler’s Dark Rum is quite sweet — not quite like a liqueur but not far from something like Old Tom gin. A mai tai made with it is a lovely thing that will make you popular with a large crowd and will go down your own gullet very, very easily. On the other hand, Cruzan Black Strap Rum has a lovely molasses flavor and bouquet, but is much less sweet. The result is a more sophisticated and complex mai tai. It’s very nice, indeed, but sometimes a little sophistication goes a long way, so I’d consider upping the simple syrup quotient, though lord knows this thing has enough calories.

One more experiment you can try is toss in a very small amount of vanilla extract. The original mai tai was made with something called rock candy syrup, which was basically regular simple syrup with a tiny amount of vanilla flavor in it.

Oh, and as I finish this post, I know how the election turned out. It’s enough to drive an old bleeding heart like me not to drink, but I think I’ll have another mai tai anyway.

  

Drink of the Week: The Cliquet

The CliquetIn French, “Cliquet” literally means ratchet but can also refer to something that’s looks an awful lot like a screwdriver to this highly un-handy man. Well, the cocktail called the Cliquet looks an awful lot like the orange juice and vodka highball we all know. Let me tell you, though, appearances can be highly deceptive.

The Cliquet is a somewhat mysterious classic. While the exact derivation of the name remains apparently unknown, it’s a perfect summertime drink and about as easy to make as anything you can honestly call a cocktail. After finding it to be all but indestructible through a number of iterations, I’m honestly a bit surprised that this drink isn’t as well known as it’s Anglicized screwdriving cousin. It’s also one of the very few decent cocktails that can actually travel easily in a thermos or other container, but more about that below.

The Cliquet

2 ounces rye, bourbon, or Scotch whiskey
4 ounces orange juice (fresh squeezed or “not from concentrate”)
1 teaspoon dark rum

Build your drink in an old fashioned or a Tom Collins glass. Combine ingredients with plenty of ice. Stir. Drink — no need to toast anyone special with this one, just enjoy it.

***
There was a time in my life when a screwdriver was one of my go-to drink order when I couldn’t think of anything else to ask for. Had I only known that switching out the vodka for whiskey and adding a tiny amount of dark rum could have made such a difference, I’d probably have developed my interest in good cocktails a bit earlier in life. I really am learning to love this drink.

One of the things that’s most lovable about the Cliquet is how easy it is to make and serve. While I enjoyed the versions featuring the fresh juice I personally squeezed from good ol’ California Valencia oranges — which were actually developed just miles south of the current address of Drink of the Week Central — I later found that I got results that were very nearly as good, and somewhat more reliable, using a decent brand of store bought OJ.

That ease of creation proved to be a godsend when I needed an easily portable beverage to bring to the annual Drive-in-Movie outing hosted by world famous film blogger Dennis Cozzalio of the legendary cinephile blog, Sergio Leone and the In-Field Fly Rule. I had hoped to bring the fresh squeezed Cliquet, but simply didn’t have time to squeeze out umpteen oranges. I was delighted to discover that it almost didn’t matter and was pleased to see that I was correct in that the ingredients could be easily premixed and then poured over ice on site into a plastic cup without losing its appeal. At least that’s what Dennis and I thought.

A few words about non-orange juice ingredients. As you might expect, using my beloved 100 proof Rittenhouse Rye yielded a slightly kickier concoction, while 90 proof Buffalo Trace bourbon yields sweeter, though not much less punchy results. My mom’s caregivers — and if anyone can use a drink, these hardworking ladies certainly can — seemed to prefer the version I made with some of my very nice 10-year old Glenrothes single malt Scotch. At 80 proof, I think they found to be a bit less threatening and somewhat smoother than the rye-laden version I brazenly tried out on them previously.

You should definitely feel free to experiment with different proportions. Indeed, mega-cocktail guru David Wondrich’s recipe simply calls for “a small orange juice,” whatever that may mean. Many recipes call for an almost as vague “juice of one orange” and a slightly smaller amount of booze. In any case, there’s no reason not to, yes, ratchet the quantities up and down a bit.

Wondrich also considers the Cliquet mostly appropriate for brunch, but not so much for other times. I’ll have to try actually having a Cliquet before noon on my next big vacation or small lost weekend. I have chosen an occasionally dangerous hobby, I fear.

  

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