Drink of the Week: The Spicy Cerveza Cocktail

the Spicy Cerveza Cocktail.I’m sure that many will never forgive my decision last week to favor Derby Day over Cinco de Mayo which, alas and alack, passed us by last Tuesday. Still, this week I have been gifted by the PR gods of Big Cocktail with a drink so muy delicioso that it’s worth celebrating on el Ocho de Mayo, el Nuevo de Mayo, or pretty much any day of the year.

As the name implies to anyone with a basic Los Angeleno knowledge of the Spanish language, the Spicy Cerveza Cocktail contains, you guessed it, beer. While I’ve been messing around with cocktails combining brews with various hard liquors for some time, the combination of Hornitos Plata Tequila — last featured here back on el Cinco de Julio — and the good Mexican lager of your choice makes for a drink that manages to be flavorful, refreshing, and pretty strong. Kind of like a more macho variation on a really good margarita. Let’s get started.

The Spicy Cerveza Cocktail

1 1/2 ounces Hornitos Plata Tequila (“plata” means the clear stuff)
4 ounces Mexican lager
1/2 ounce lime juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup (2 1/2 teaspoons of superfine sugar will also work)
1 slice of fresh jalapeno
Salt

Start with a good sized glass — I had the best luck using a double rocks glass — rimmed with salt. Toss in your jalapeno slice and muddle it with a certain degree of vigor. Next, combine tequila, lime juice and simple syrup/sugar in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Shake very vigorously. Strain into your glass, which by now should be filled with sufficient ice…but leaving room for four ounces of your all-important cerveza. Top the drink with the beer, and begin to sip, but not too quickly.This is a drink that benefits from taking your time.

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This is also a beverage that develops as you drink it. If you’re the patient type, sip slowly. You’ll start out mostly tasting the beer but, as you go,you’ll get closer to the chewy tequila/lime/sugar/jalapeno center. The cool part is that the fizziness of the Mexican lager will still be there as you continue. If you’re impatient to get to the drink’s margarita center, though, feel free to stir it, but do so very gently.

Finally, this is a drink that can stand up to some variation. For my beers, I went with Corona and Pacifico, and both were just dandy. I suspect Dos Equis, Tecate, et al, will also be just fine. Since this drink comes to from the PR gods who have gifted me with a free bottle or two, I naturally recommend you use Hornitos Plata as your tequila and not just because I’ve been corrupted; its very slight sweetness complements the Spicy Cerveza Cocktail pretty beautifully. However, I did experiment with a very well known Brand X plata on one try, and the results were not horrific.

  

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Drink of the Week: The Grandstand Julep

the Grandstand Julep.The first week in May is always a dilemma in the making here at Drink of the Week Plaza as it actually pits two of the year’s biggest drinking excuses holidays against each other. Since tomorrow is Derby Day and Cinco de Mayo is in the middle of next week, I’m going to start with that and follow it up with a belated Mexican-themed cocktail for next week. Not ideal, I know. It is, of course, entirely coincidental that mysterious forces bribed gifted me with a free bottle of Wild Turkey 101 Straight Bourbon and this week’s intriguing, imaginative variation on a traditional Mint Julep.

Though I still have a spot soft for good Old Fitzgerald when you can find it, I have to admit that this expression of one of the best known names in American whiskey is about as good a high-proof bourbon as you’re likely to get for under $20.00 for a fifth. It offers a very nice balance of sweet and tough flavors that have made for plenty of good reviews and a number of good cocktails.

Which brings us to this week’s variation on the ultimate Derby Day classic. It pairs the bourbon with, of all things, an artichoke-derived amaro-style liqueur beloved of the cocktail cognoscenti. Can these two crazy ingredients have a shot at a long and happy life together? Let’s find out.

The Grandstand Julep

1 1/2 ounces Cynar
3/4 ounce Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon
1/2 ounce simple syrup
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
12 mint leaves
2 ounces soda water
2 dashes Fee Brother’s Grapefruit Bitters

Build this one in a julep cup if you’ve got one and a good size rocks glass if you don’t. (I don’t!) Combine the Cynar, Wild Turkey, juice, mint leaves (given the differing sizes of mint leaves, the number is an approximation at best), and simple syrup…you can also substitute two and half teaspoons of superfine sugar if that’s easier. Gently muddle the leaves in the liquid.

Next, add crushed ice, follow with the soda water and then top the whole thing off with the grapefruit bitters. Start to sip slowly and toast our equine friends. Alternatively, you can toast W.C. Fields, who is supposed to have said that horse sense is what keeps horses from betting on people.

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While you could theoretically try this drink with another bourbon (it better be a strong one), there isn’t much room for messing around with the main ingredients here. Mainly that’s because there’s only one one type of Cynar available and it’s made by the manufacturers of Campari.

The exception is actually your ice, which really does need to be crushed. I’m lazy and tried this drink several times with ordinary ice and found it tasty and relatively well balanced but bordering on cloying. Crushing the ice, while admittedly a bit of a hassle, opened the drink up and took the edge off the very sweet/very bitter flavors. My only other advice is not to drink this one too fast. You want to let that crushed ice melt a bit. Take your time with this one and leave the racing to the horsies.

  

Drink of the Week: The Reign of Terror (TCM Fest Salute #4)

The Reign of Terror.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.

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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.

  

Drink of the Week: The Countess Tracy (TCM Fest Salute #3)

The Countess Tracy.If you head over to Bullz-Eye’s James Bond Fan Hub, you may notice that the writer behind the painfully in-depth explorations of the Sean Connery 007 films is the same guy bringing you these beverage recipes week after week. So, of course, when I attended this year’s TCM Fest, I was going to make it a priority to finally check out the 2012 restored version of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” on the big screen.

Though originally regarded as something of a disappointment largely due to the replacement of Connery by George Lazenby, an unknown whose performance remains controversial (I’m not a huge fan), there is a small but growing community who argue it’s the best film in the entire series. My position is that it’s pretty great and very likely would have topped even “Goldfinger,” if only Connery had, in fact starred opposite the film’s actual leading lady, Diana Rigg, who very definitely is the greatest of all Bond girls.

Lazenby aside, OHMSS remains a mighty entertaining piece of work and by far the most faithful to any of the 007 novels, a most romantic and strangely melancholy tale for all its Bondian absurdity. (For more background information, feel free to check out my brother in Bondage Ross Ruediger’s fine ONHMSS exploration for Bullz-Eye.)

Today’s drink is devoted to easily the most complex and affecting leading lady in the Bond cannon so far. Teresa Draco, later the Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, and ultimately simply Tracy Bond. Especially as played by Diana Rigg, Tracy is no mere Bond girl. No, for all her girlish beauty, she’s really a full-fledged Bond woman who is more than capable of saving a superspy’s life after he saves her from death by suicide in the film’s opening.

My liquid take on OHMSS and Tracy Bond is an homage and update to the Vesper, Ian Fleming and bartender Ivar Bryce’s tribute to the first of Bond’s lost loves from “Casino Royale.” And, yes, the Countess Tracy features bourbon, not gin. In the novels, Bond drank it probably more than anything else, and that meant he drank an awful lot of it.

The Countess Tracy

1 1/2 ounces Basil Hayden’s Bourbon
1/2 ounce Campari
1/2 ounce Lillet Blanc
1/2 ounce Smirnoff 100 proof vodka
1 orange twist (desirable garnish)

Combine all the liquid ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice and, yes, shake this drink vigorously and never, ever, stir it. Ian Fleming hated ALL stirred drinks and his smirky, snobbish ghost will haunt you forever should you ever consider stirring any drink remotely related to him.

Anyhow, once you’re done shaking your drink as if being chased by the nefarious twosome of Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Irma Bunt, strain it into a chilled cocktail glass (coupe or standard martini style). Add the orange twist and toast Diana Rigg. The adorable and entirely first-rate actress who played Tracy and also, of course, the greatest of all filmic female superspies, Emma Peel.

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I selected Basil Hayden’s bourbon because A. I had it in the house and B. It’s a damned fine bourbon of which I’m sure Bond and Fleming would have approved. Though named for an 18th century distiller, the brand wasn’t introduced until about three decades after Fleming’s untimely death. It was nevertheless featured, I understand, in the 2011 James Bond novel by Jeffery Deaver, Carte Blanche.

My selection of Campari was directly inspired by the choice of beverage of Tracy’s beloved father, benevolent criminal mastermind Marc-Ange Draco. In the movie (and the book, if memory serves), he drinks the very sweet/extremely bitter liqueur straight while serving Bond one of his shaken martinis.

Finally, the Lillet Blanc and the 100 proof vodka are pretty obviously ripped off from my explorations of the Vesper. I believe David Wondrich assumed the original Vesper used 100 proof Stolichnaya. I used Smirnoff because, well, it was in front of me. Today’s Lillet is apparently a fairly far cry from the Kina Lillet of Fleming’s day, and is one of the many reasons a modern-day Vesper needs to be modified a great deal to work properly. However, Lillet Blanc is a very lovely product in its own right, and it adds needed sweetness and light to the Countess Tracy.

As for the drink as a whole, I think I did good this time. It’s a bittersweet and very tasty tribute to the only woman, save Moneypenny, James Bond ever truly loved. Like Tracy, it’s refreshing and bold, with more than a hint of darkness. It’s a drink for which, you might say, I have all the time in the world.

  

Drink of the Week: The Proud Rebel (TCM Fest Salute #2)

The Proud Rebel.I know from all too personal experience that creating a new cocktail is a lot easier than crafting a compelling film story. Yet, they’re not entirely dissimilar in that sometimes you need one final ingredient to bring everything together…even if that final ingredient is a bit of a cliche. Yes, just as the too-little known 1958 western/family drama “The Proud Rebel” kind of needed the slightly contrived gunfight that ends it to bring everything together for a satisfying conclusion, the cocktail it inspired in me never really became something to be proud of until I came up with the idea of topping the thing off with soda water. 0 points for originality, but I’d rather win ugly than not win at all.

I like my drink quite a bit but I like the recently restored and sincerely entertaining film I was lucky to see at this year’s TCM Fest even more. As a pretty obvious follow-up to 1953’s “Shane,” also starring Alan Ladd, “The Proud Rebel” doesn’t get a huge number of points as groundbreaking cinema but it’s big traditionalist heart more than makes for up for it.No disrespect to the great George Stevens, who I actually think is a better director than “Proud Rebel” helmer Michael Curtiz in many respects, but in this case I prefer the quasi-knock-off to the original.

The kicker here is that, instead of chatty Brandon de Wilde as the surrogate son of ex-gunfighter Shane, we have Mr. Ladd’s real-life son, David, forced to act almost entirely without words as the progeny of a former confederate soldier struck mute by the wartime death of his mother. The 10 year-old, who would eventually become a major Hollywood player as an executive and producer, performs brilliantly not only with his legendary dad, but the film’s equally formidable leading lady, Olivia de Haviland (“The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Gone with the Wind,” just for starters).

Oh, and there’s also a dog, played by two very convincing and charismatic canine performers (billed collectively as “King.”) And, yeah, I got choked up a couple of times. What’s it’s to you?

Sure, the movie has a somewhat disturbing undercurrent, as did many postbellum westerns, given that we’re told Alan Ladd character was once wealthy prior to the war and we all know what wealthy Southerners routinely did that, er, kinda sorta started the Civil War. Still, the drive of a father to help his son live a full life and the love of a boy for his dog pretty much transcends everything in a movie like this.

As for the drink, and yeah, there really is a drink buried in here, it’s kind of an Old Fashioned striking out out its own. This beverage lives up to it’s name. It does not back down and it takes care of what’s important.

The Proud Rebel

1 1/2 ounces Laird’s Applejack
1/2 ounce Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve
1 teaspoon Southern Comfort
1 teaspoon maple syrup
1-2 ounces soda water
2 apple slices
1 dash aromatic bitters

Muddle an apple slice in a shaker, it might take a little bit of effort, but the more juice you get out of it, the better. Next, add all of the liquid ingredients, except for the carbonated water, together with plenty of ice. Shake vigorously, and strain — just once, no need for any highfalutin’ double straining — into a rocks glass with ice. Then, add your second apple slice as a garnish and top off with soda water, stirring gently. Toast the basic yet crucial ties that can, in a really good story, make themes as potentially bland as family ties and simple human decency enormously compelling.

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I decided that applejack should make a return after being prominently featured in last week’s selection because, as I said last week, this might just be the most American of all base spirits…though many would certainly argue that rye or bourbon whiskey should have that honor. Splitting the difference, I’ve once again combined the two, this time spicing up my relatively mild blended 80 proof Laird’s with the 120 proof Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve, which I happened to have on hand because of the kindly gods of PR who send me free stuff.

As I said above, adding the maple syrup, Southern Comfort, and crushed apple slice, made for an okay modification of an Old Fashioned…but just okay. It really needed an ounce or so of carbonated water to push the thing over the top. And it fits the movie, too. Because Alan Ladd’s character really is a proud guy, too proud at times. And fizzy water is proud, too? Right? Well, it’s fizzy.

  

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