If you Google “improved cocktail,” you will find a number of somewhat differing drinks featuring the most venerable of the base spirits (i.e., whiskey, brandy and gin) or genever, aka “Holland gin.” That’s because, as Michael Dietsch puts it, improved cocktails are more of a template and less of a recipe. Still, I’ve just found that the “improved” model is a pretty amazing template with which to build a recipe.
If the name seems odd to you, it’s important to remember that the actual meaning of the word “cocktail” has changed since the Gilded Age heyday of 19th century bartending. If you walk into a bar today and ask for a cocktail, your confused bartender is likely to say, “Sure, which one of the hundreds of thousands of potentials drinks do you mean?”
If, however, you walked into ur-bartender Jerry Thomas’s bar circa 1876 and asked for a cocktail, you’d find yourself with what we now call an Old Fashioned, a base spirit with sugar or syrup, bitters, maybe a bit of water and a garnish. That was a cocktail. Drinks that didn’t contain bitters were not yet considered cocktails — they were just mixed drinks, and some cocktailians still prefer that terminology. Specifically, if you had ordered last week’s drink at Mr. Thomas’s bar, you would have likely asked for a Holland Gin Cocktail, the once popular term for the spirit thatevolved into the dry English-style gins we all know. When you started adding other forms of booze to it, you were getting a bit fancy. Hence, the Improved Cocktail.
For the last four years or so I’ve had the privilege of attending the annual TCM Classic Film Festival. It’s been great and I’ve been able to cover it from a few different angles, both as a classic film loving cinephile and, last year especially, as a cinema-addled boozer.
This year, however, I’ve come up with a slightly different approach and will be covering the festival right from DOTW. For the next few weeks, rather than simply stealing drinks from elsewhere and trying them out myself as per usual, I’m going to be whipping up my own creations, all inspired by some of the amazing films I was lucky enough to see projected on the big screen in my native Hollywood. I’m not promising they’re all going to be cocktail classics. I’m not even necessarily promising they’ll be any good. I’m definitely not promising that they’ll be terribly original or unique. I am, however, reasonably certain that it’s a great excuse for me talk a little bit about a few remarkable movies.
I’m happy to say, the first drink of our series surprised me by turning out to be very drinkable indeed. In fact, I think I’ll have an easier time persuading many of you to try the drink that than to watch the film. That’s because, our selection is a tragicomic masterpiece about an elderly couple who are forced to separate by the behavior of their selfish, but all too understandable, adult children.
I know nothing I’m going to say that will persuade you that watching Leo McCarey’s sneaky, awe-inspiring 15 hankie tragicomedy, “Make Way for Tomorrow,” goes down nearly as easily as this rather lively variation on the oldest of popular classic cocktails, but it’s that good a movie. The drink isn’t too terrible either.
Make Way for Amaro
2 ounces Rittenhouse Rye (100 proof)
1/2 ounce Amaro CioCiaro
2 teaspoons soda water or club soda
1 sugar cube
1 orange or grapefruit slice
Garnish with an additional slice of citrus twist
Muddle the sugar cube and citrus slice with the soda water in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add the Rittenhouse Rye and Amaro CioCiaro – one of a number of bittersweet Italian after-dinner liqueurs – and plenty of ice. Shake vigorously and strain into the smallest Tom Collins or Old Fashioned glass you can find. (The one in the picture is too big, but it did okay for me.) Toast your mom and your dad. In fact, if they’re alive, give them a call – before you have a second drink.
Unless you’re a member of the Cinephile American community, you’ve probably never heard of Leo McCarey’s 1937 masterpiece. Though “Make Way for Tomorrow” has nearly as many well-earned laughs as tears – McCarey is legendary as a director of comedies like “The Awful Truth” and “Duck Soup” – it was a failure at the box-office. It could hardly have been a surpise. With subject matter like this, it would be a tough enough sell on today’s arthouse circuit.
Even so, the film takes a surprising and, at least temporarily, more upbeat turn at what might have been its most maudlin moment as the aged parents break free of their offspring and find themselves in the hotel where they enjoyed their honeymoon 50 years prior. A kindly manager suggests a cocktail and, despite that the fact that the Beulah Bondi character comes from an era when “nice” females never drank in public, they decide on “two Old Fashioneds, for two old-fashioned people.”
Aside from being the height of bittersweet comedic drama, the scene is interesting for cocktail geeks. The Old Fashioneds the couple enjoys actually look nothing like Old Fashioneds you’d get today. They are served in the kind of teeny-tiny glass that was once standard for cocktails – in this case a sort of mini-Tom Collins – and it’s not on the rocks. It’s presumably served up and with a long, spiral orange peel like you’d get in a classic Horse’s Neck.
Even so, I started out making this drink in the usual Old Fashioned fashion by building it in the glass and serving it on the rocks, but the results just didn’t come together. The amaro, which I’m using largely, though not entirely, in the place of the bitters, just kind of held the drink down. Shaking it and serving it in a chilled glass, however, added the kind of lightness to the drink that brought the whole thing together. It’s a bit glib to compare shaking a cocktail to the ample humor in an essentially tragic film, but it really did kind of feel and taste that way.
Finally, though I usually try to make my drinks as non brand-specific as I can, it’s hard enough to come up with a new cocktail in three days if you’re not an absolute souse and have a day job. I will say that I leaned towards the oldest school brands I could. I went with rye instead of bourbon, and the wondrous Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond over a fancier newer brand because it’s just possible that that’s what Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore might have been served way back in 1937. Like the movie, you might be surprised but it packs at least as much of a punch today as it must have 77 years back.
Don’t believe me? See for yourself and watch the whole movie right here. I guess modern ways aren’t entirely for the birds.
I know this will probably drive me out of the cocktail writers’ club, but this week’s recipe-centric DOTW was preempted by a cold. I know this will make me sound a bit wussy to some of you, but I personally do not find that alcohol “kills the germs.” It’s more like granting them superpowers. Moreover, when I’m sick, some generic Alka-Seltzer Plus more or less does me just fine. In short, liquor has not passed these lips in over a week.
On the other hand, being sick also allowed me to wipe my DVR clean of “Mad Men” episodes…including episode 12, “The Quality of Mercy,” which my device decided to turn off about 1/3 of the way through the episode. I tried recording it again last night, but the show my DVR thought was “Mad Men” turned out to be CSI or NCIS or SVU or something else with letters or what not. I’m sure I’ll catch up with it all by next Sunday. The point is that “Mad Men” is whipping up more controversy and hysteria than ever, and it’s lovable/hatable alcoholic antihero/hero, Don Draper, has done more than his share to revive interest in classic cocktails in general and one ultra-classic, in particular, the Old Fashioned.
If you want a recipe, as such, you can find not one but actually two if you read my last look at the Old Fashioned closely. That was just a little over two years ago, but the two approaches to the drink in it remain pretty close to the way I often make it now…except I’m slightly more open-minded about the use of soda water. Still, I say keep it minimal if you use it at all.
On the other hand, that’s not quite what Mr. Draper does in this memorable scene from a long-ago season when he makes a new and short-lived friend in Conrad Hilton by making him an Old Fashioned. Yes, we’re breaking the format this week and in lieu of a recipe, you’re getting this legendary moment in televisionary cocktailing.
Now, watching this again, it occurs to me I’ve never made an Old Fashioned precisely this way. Don uses a bit more soda water than I would prefer. And note how he doesn’t really stir it, but just sort of dashes the bar spoon on the ice cubes a couple of times. On the other hand, his wetting of one sugar cube per glass (they look like rather large brown sugar cubes to me) with Angostura bitters and then muddling them is absolutely classic. The fact that he includes a cheap, bright red, non-Luxardo maraschino cherry in his muddling would, on the other hand, horrify many in the crafty cocktail set, but I don’t think it’s a problem.
No, if I were drinking tonight, I’d probably make pretty much exactly that drink, though I’ve never been a big Old Overholt guy. This rye has become the craft bar standard recently — I can’t speak for its popularity in 1963 — but I prefer my bonded Rittenhouse Rye or Don Draper’s favorite not-quite-rye, Canadian Club. (CC, by the way, sponsors a brief tutorial with their version of an Old Fashioned as an extra on the Blu-Ray/DVD of “Mad Men” Season Five.) Right now, I’d be using Bulleit’s Rye, because that’s what I’ve got. I’m sure it would be decent.
And that’s actually the thing about an Old Fashioned — even more than a Martini or a Manhattan, it’s sturdy and flexible. Paradoxically, it’s also easy to foul up completely, as most non-craft bars do, if you use too much sweetener, water, or even whiskey. One teaspoon for two ounces of whiskey is pretty much the right proportion, and it’s definitely also the maximum if you’re muddling fruit. Also never, ever, use the syrup that comes with the sweet-supermarket maraschino cherries as your sweetener. Don’t.
Still, like I said, there’s that a lot of leeway with your Old Fashioned. You can make the very severe kind with only a teaspoon full of soda water, a sugar cube, bitters, and not very much ice — or, the fashionable craft bar favorite, one giant and slow to dilute cube — or you can make the lusher version I mostly lean towards, in which I muddle an orange slice and maybe a cherry, too, while throwing in a splash or two, or three, of plain water and enough ice to fill my rocks glass.
There’s an idea out there that there’s one way to make a perfect Martini or Old Fashioned, and I’m here to tell you that’s balderdash. I’ve mad dozens of these drinks in dozens of ways — I’ve even served an Old Fashioned up, shaken, as if it was a Martini or Manhattan — and it nearly always works, at least a little bit.
At bars, I’ve had two truly great Old Fashioneds. One was for probably $15.00 at a very high end joint in Century City on November 4th, 2008 and used Michter’s Rye (or maybe Bourbon). The other was a $3.00 happy hour beverage with the well bourbon (Evan Williams, I think) by a nameless bartender at the Hudson in West Hollywood several months back. I’m sure they were made in completely different ways.
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that these recipes — all of them — are guidelines. I’ve veered between the various poles of making Old Fashioneds and I’ve yet to find a consistently great way to make the drink, but some of my tries have been very good. Some have also been disappointing. I still think the official recipe I wrote two years back is the most reliable, but my results always vary.
It’s pretty much the same way as it goes with a great television series like “Mad Men.” Maybe the season closer will be a real humdinger, or maybe it won’t. We should all just relax and let it be whatever it is.
Unless, of course, the nuttier online tea-leaf readers are right and the Manson Family or stand-ins really do end up killing Megan Draper. That, my friends, would be more stupid than sweetening your Old Fashioned with two tablespoons of the cheap maraschino cherry syrup.
It is time to correct an old oversight this Friday the 13th. It seems that way back on the second DOTW, in which I dealt with that sturdiest of classic cocktails, the Manhattan, I failed to mention one of the most important of the classic variations. The Dry Manhattan eschews the usual sweet vermouth in favor of dry vermouth for what amounts to a very sophisticated drink that is essentially a whiskey martini for true cocktail snobs sophisticates. As far as I’m concerned, it’s nothing but good luck for whoever drinks it.
The occasion for me revisiting this drink at this time is bottle of the very hard to find 100 proof version of Canadian Club that was very kindly sent to me by my personal good whisky fairy employed by Hiram Walker. It’s good stuff, maybe the best base I’ve found yet for this particular drink. We’ll get back to that later. First, the drink itself.
The Dry Manhattan
1.5 ounces whiskey (Canadian, rye, or bourbon)
3/4 ounce dry vermouth
1 dash Fee’s Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters or Angostura
Lemon twist (garnish)
Pour your whiskey, dry vermouth (as always, Noilly Pratt is my personal default choice here), and bitters over ice cubes into a shaker. Shake or, if you simply can’t abide clouding, stir very vigorously for as long as you can stand it and pour into a chilled martini or wide-mouthed champagne glass. Rim the glass with a lemon twist and toss it into the drink. Best enjoyed with Dinah Washington’s rendition of Rodgers and Hart’s “Manhattan.”
Okay, let’s talk ingredients. First of all, I haven’t tried it this way lately, but I’m pretty sure this would also work with Scotch, though that would actually be a dry Rob Roy. Still, I’m of the opinion that Canadian whiskey in general and Canadian Club in particular might be better than bourbon and possibly even rye.
I will say that the stronger, slightly more complicated and oaky flavor of the 100 proof version of Canadian Club might possibly work best of all. I’m really liking this stuff in general and I can’t wait to try it in a sweeter type of Manhattan. However, you should be aware that, at least here in the States, this stuff isn’t easy to come by even at your local big box beverage retailer. You can, however, purchase it online from select vendors, and I was able to find it just now for an extremely reasonable price at the website of Denver-based Argonaut Liquor.
Of course, this drink will also work with the 80 proof stuff just fine. Especially if you’re going that route, you might well want to round up the portions to 2 ounces of whiskey and 1 ounce of dry vermouth. In that instance a second dash of bitters might not be the worst thing if you’re a bitters sort of person.
Speaking of bitters, you’ll note that instead of suggesting the traditional Angostura brand of aromatic brew, I’ve given preference to the lesser known Fee Brothers brand. I recently picked up a bottle of this on a whim when I was visiting an unfamiliar liquor emporium far away from my usual digs and have kind of fallen in love in love with it. For my money, it’s flavor, though still apparently dominated by angostura bark, is a bit more subtle than its venerable competitor. It’s definitely tailor made for a drink like this which can’t stand up to too much straight bitterness, though regular Angostura will still work. I found using Regan’s Orange Bitters, however, to be a somewhat overpowering citrus experience when combined with the lemon peel.
One final variation, if you’re as mad for olives as I am, you can really go the whiskey martini route here and using an olive or two or three as your garnish in place of the lemon twist. It won’t be anywhere near as good as this drink in terms of sophisticated complexity, but it will be olive laden. Sometimes, that’s all I need.
There was a time when calling a drink a cognac sazerac would have been close to calling a certain sandwich a “beef hamburger.” However, New Orleans’s magnificent contribution to classic cocktails has changed over the years. Today, it is almost always prepared with rye whiskey but, as I pointed out in my prior post on this great beverage, it was originally a cognac-based drink.
The occasion for my welcoming in 2012 with a reconsideration of an old favorite was the kind and savvy decision of the Hennessy company to send me a bottle of their relatively young, but still very drinkable, Hennessy VS Cognac. I’m not a huge cognac or brandy connoisseur at this point, but I’m starting to see what all those rappers and the late Kim Il Sung saw in the stuff. In fact, I sort of accidentally mostly polished off the bottle sooner than I meant this last Christmas Hanukkah when I got overenthusiastic making Sidecars — with Cointreau, at last — for family. I also tried one of their recipes, the Hennessy citrus, which wasn’t bad but was kind of sour for my taste. I think the addition of a bit of egg white. as in this variation, might have helped.
Nevertheless, I had enough Hennessy VS left to revisit what I might actually argue is the more readily enjoyable version of this great cocktail. Harder edged drinkers may prefer the whiskey based drink, but I’m here to tell you this one may well be preferable for those with softer taste buds.
The Cognac Sazerac
2 ounces cognac
1 teaspoon superfine sugar or 1 sugar cube
1/2 ounce of water
2-3 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
1 teaspoon Herbsaint
Start by chilling a rocks glass, either by filling it with ice or leaving it in the freezer or, ideally, both. Dissolve a teaspoon of superfine sugar by stirring it in a cocktail shaker or room temperature rocks glass with unchilled water, whiskey, and bitters. (If you want to go super traditional, leave out the superfine sugar and muddle a sugar cube into the same mixture instead.) Once the sugar is dissolved, add plentiful ice. If you want to conserve water, and you should, you can use the same ice you’ve been using to chill your rocks glass.
Take your now well-chilled glass and add a teaspoonful of Herbsaint, a very sweet but strongly anise flavored liqueur. Swirl the liquid carefully, holding the glass sideways. The idea is to coat it with the Herbsaint. Then, turn the glass upside down over a sink, dumping out any remaining liquid. Now it’s time to grab your cognac and fixings filled shaker and shake it very vigorously. Strain the result into the chilled and Herbsainted glass.
Then, take your lemon twist and run it along the edge of the glass. Twist the lemon peel over the beverage to magically deliver lemon oil to the drink. Drop it in. Sip while listening to the New Orleans music of your choice.
A few notes about ingredients and practices. For starters, It’s actually more traditional to use absinthe but, having just purchased my first bottle of the once illegal stuff, I wasn’t wowed. Both liqueurs are heavy on the anise, but absinthe has a bitter edge that I was not too thrilled by. So far, at least, I personally prefer the kinder, gentler, and cheaper sweetness of Herbsaint in a sazerac. There is also a shaking vs. stirring debate here to some degree, but I don’t get why you’d want to stir it. Froth is your friend in a sazerac, I say.
Also, though I really did enjoy the Hennessy VS Cognac, feel free to use your favorite straight-up brandy. Most regular brandy is to cognac as champagne is to sparkling white wine. It’s basically the same, just made from grapes grown in a different part of the world.