A 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.
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.
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.