Drink of the Week: The Saratoga

The SaratogaA couple of years back I was in a restaurant bar in L.A.’s Chinatown known for it’s Tiki-style specialties. Not sure what to order, I asked the bartender, an older gentlemen who clearly knew what was what in that venerable Asian-American enclave, what cocktail he liked most to make. “Beer,” he told me, utterly straightfaced. Forget it, Bob, it’s, well, you know where.

In my experience, most bartenders aren’t really big on offering up suggestions that go beyond the best known drinks. That leaves it up to more adventurous imbibers to suggest something a bit different. The only problem is that it’s kind of hard to remember the ingredients and exact proportions of most great cocktails. Not so with today’s slightly unusual but also highly symmetrical dual-spirit concoction. If you can remember “equal parts brandy, rye, and sweet vermouth and bitters” you’ve got this drink mostly down.

My Good Friday 2012 drink is also about as classic as they come. It dates back to 1887 and the second of Jerry Thomas’s seminal 19th century cocktail guides. The name, I gather, comes from Saratoga Springs in Upstate New York. Once upon a time, the town combined spa-like resorts, natural beauty, and also a healthy business in gambling, and not only at the famed race track. In any case, the drink is an outstanding variation on the Manhattan and so simple even the most distracted and busy bartender should be able to manage it — well, assuming the bar even stocks rye.

The Saratoga

1 ounce rye whiskey
1 ounce brandy or cognac
1 ounce sweet vermouth
2 dashes aromatic bitters
1 thinly sliced lemon wheel (borderline essential garnish)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Combine the rye, brandy, vermouth and a dash of two of bitters in a cocktail shaker with lots of ice. Stir or shake it vigorously, and strain the results into a chilled cocktail glass, preferably with the lemon wheel already sitting it in it — not perched on the side of the glass. Sip and contemplate how much harder it must have been to get a hold of the large quantities of ice necessary for good cocktails in 1887.

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I used Rittenhouse Rye which, being 100 proof, stands up really well to the combined sweetness of my beloved Noilly Pratt red vermouth and the wonderfully value priced Reynal brandy. I found the lemon slice to be an essential component. It’s one garnish that really does kind of make the drink, for me anyway. You might also want to give lemon peel/zest a try.

I did do a little experimenting. At the suggestion of a 2009 post on the Alcademics blog, I tried it with some Scotch (the Glenrothes). It was nice, but not quite as nice as with rye. I also tried it with some very good bourbon (Buffalo Trace) which was, however, a bust as bourbon is probably about as sweet as brandy.

  

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Drink of the Week: The Whiskey Smash

The Whiskey SmashThe Whiskey Smash is probably one of the clearest examples of a drink rescued from complete obscurity by the ongoing classic cocktail revival. Although the modern version featured in a growing number of retro-friendly bars differs enough from the recipe written up by cocktail pioneer Jerry Thomas in 1862 to be an entirely different cocktail, the more polished and slightly more elaborate version below is certainly a classic of sorts.

As it stands, the Whiskey Smash is a close relative of the Mojito and the (I swear upcoming) Mint Julep. It’s outstanding for a warm day or in a bar so crowded if feels like a warm day. Certainly if you’re a fan of whiskey, lemon, mint,  and heavy muddling, this is your drink.

The Whiskey Smash

2-3 ounces whiskey (bourbon, rye, Canadian, etc.)
1 quarter lemon, cut into four or more pieces
5 or more mint leaves
2-3 teaspoons superfine sugar
3 dashes of bitters
1/2-3/4 ounce water (optional)
1 mint sprig (semi-optional garnish)
1 maraschino cherry (very optional garnish)

Combine your whiskey, lemon pieces, superfine sugar, mint leaves and, if you like, splash of water in a cocktail shaker. (The water is really only there to approximate the 1/2 to 3/4 ounces of simple syrup most recipes call for instead of sugar, but I found the results about the same whether or not I included it.)

Muddle it all rather intensely, paying special attention to give a good mushing to the lemon pieces — this is a “smash” after all. You can take it a bit easier on the mint if you like. Make sure, however, that your sugar is dissolved in the liquid, which should happen without too much effort if you’re using superfine sugar and not cheating with ordinary table sugar.

Add lots of ice — cracked or crushed ice is probably better — and shake vigorously. Strain into a well chilled old fashioned glass with a few ice cubes in it. Because of all the lemon, mint, and crushed ice you may have to exercise a bit more patience at the straining stage, but your forebearance will shortly be rewarded. If you’d like an extra dash of sweetness and color, add a maraschino cherry along with the semi-obligatory mint-spring.

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I found the results remarkably consistent regardless of which whiskey I used, though I found using Buffalo Trace bourbon resulted in a slightly more mellow and interesting smash than the super-reasonably priced Evan Williams I picked up for a ten spot. 100 proof whiskeys seem to work well here, and I had good luck using my standby Rittenhouse Rye as well as the hard to find 100 proof Canadian Club I’m lucky enough to have. (You can buy it online here.) I also found that this one drink that worked very nicely not only with traditional aromatic bitters like Angostura, but also with the bottle of Fee Brothers Celery Bitters I recently picked up. (Speaking of revived classics, as I understand it, celery bitters pretty much disappeared between sometime in the middle of prohibition and, believe it or not, 2008.)

I’ve also noticed there’s something of a fetish among bartenders not to end up with bits of mint in the final, strained drink. It happened to me a lot of the time, and it wasn’t a problem  either in terms of taste or aesthetics, in my view.

And just a reminder that you will really need a good, solid muddler suitable for lemon smashing as described so long ago in our guide to bar implements. If you don’t have one, you can improvise but you want something solid. A freshly washed hammer used with extreme caution, perhaps.

 

  

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