Perhaps the rarest of all experiences in my cocktailian explorations is discovering a new base spirit to build mixed drinks around. After all, most of us who drink to any extent have made at least a passing acquaintance with vodka, whiskey, rum, tequila, gin and brandy, and usually in about that order. With cocktails, you basically start out with at least some knowledge of most of the basic building blocks, so it’s definitely a kick to find a strong liquor that isn’t one of these.
This week’s drink is built around kirschwasser, also called kirsch. I first learned of its existence at a pretty advanced age the first time I saw Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s masterpiece of English cinema, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.” If you’ve seen it — and you probably haven’t, so go use your Amazon Prime membership to correct that error now! — you’ll remember that career soldiers Clive “Sugar” Candy (Roger Livesey) of Great Britain and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) of Germany bond over kirshwasser during a series of increasingly cordial social meetings in the company of their respective ladyfriends.
Given the genteel setting, I always assumed that kirsch was a sweet but complex cherry brandy that was more like a cherry liqueur. In fact, it’s a species of what’s called eau de vie, unaged fruit brandies. It’s no sweeter than whiskey or cognac and pretty strong stuff — one of the brands I used for this was 90 proof — but the cherry notes are definitely there. The Rose is a classic cocktail featuring kirsch that’s appeared in a number of early cocktail texts, including “The Savoy Cocktail Book” and the revivalist booze bible, “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails.” Having now tried it many times, I honestly can’t tell you why this drink is less popular than a martini or a Manhattan except for the fact that most of us have never even heard of its most important ingredient.
Let’s start changing that now.