If Christmas is a movie directed by Frank Capra as in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” then New Year’s and New Year’s Eve is a movie directed by Billy Wilder as in “The Apartment.” One is a holiday about what’s really important: family, love, friendship, and being good to your fellow man. The other is a holiday about what’s really important: sex, drinking, and being able to look at yourself in the mirror after the sex and the drinking have run their inevitable course. I don’t think there’s any mystery why a drink named the Hanky Panky caught my eye as a possible New Year’s beverage.
One thing that’s certain about 2013 is that we’ll almost certainly have to take the bitter with the sweet, and so the Hanky Panky contains the time-tested but increasingly trendy cult beverage, Fernet Branca. An old time digestif that’s been discovered by those infernal cocktail hipsters, Fernet Branca is yet another of the beverages that came my way through the holiday miracle of publicity. It’s kind of thrilling to have it on hand, as I’d never tried it before just a few days ago.
On its own, Fernet is a beverage not for the faint of heart or even, I think, many of the fairly stout of heart. I’m not saying it doesn’t taste good — drinking it straight is, shall we say, a strangely invigorating sensory experience beyond taste. In my case, that invariably includes a few facial expressions reminiscent of Red Skelton selling Guzzler’s Gin. On the other hand, it’s basically used in this drink as bitters and, on that level, it’s mighty dandy. In cocktails, proportion is everything.
The Hanky Panky itself is a good to superb drink but also mighty stiff…so much so, you might consider cutting this one in half, or not, depending on your plans.
The Hanky Panky
1 1/2 ounces gin or brandy/cognac
1 1/2 ounces sweet vermouth
1/4 ounce Fernet Branka
1 orange twist (extremely necessary garnish)
Combine your liquid ingredients in a mixing glass or cocktail shaker. Stir vigorously — I never discourage shaking, but I stuck with stirring on this one for instinctive reasons — and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add your orange peel, being sure to twist it over the drink to express a bit of that elusive citrus oil I keep reading about into the drink. I really think the additional bit of citrus flavor added by the twist is crucial here.
Sip, toasting the New Year and Ada Coleman, the legendary Savoy Hotel bartender who created the Hanky Panky.
I tried this drink in several versions of the above. All were good and one version came close to knocking my socks off. We’ll start with that one, which turned out to be the least tried out version of the drink, which is usually listed as containing strictly gin but was, we are told, first made with Cognac.
While I’m too cheap to buy the finest Cognac, I used my sturdy and very reasonably priced fallback brandy of Reynal (with offices in the Cognac region of France) which you can buy for about $12.00 at Trader Joe’s and BevMo. The Reynal and the wondrous Carpano Antica I featured last week made such beautiful music together with Fernet Branca, I had to wonder at how this drink came to be pretty strictly identified with gin.
Well, gin is pretty much England’s official booze, give or take a Guinness, and the Hanky Panky is nevertheless quite good that way, too. It was very definitely a more pleasurable and interesting drink with the wondrous but relatively pricey Carpano (usually about $27-$30.00 for a big bottle), but it worked just fine with our old pals, Martini & Rossi (about $10.00 a bottle). There’s no point at all, however, on trying to skimp on the Fernet Branca. Love it or hate it, there’s no hanky and no panky without it.
The only version I can’t vouch yet, since I haven’t had a chance to try it, is brandy with the more proletarian sweet vermouth listed above, but I can’t imagine any version is particularly unlovable. After all, isn’t it true that, like pizza, even bad Hanky Panky is still Hanky Panky?
Since this post is for New Year’s, I want to end with an appropriate entertainment. The connection here is that Ada Coleman worked at the Savoy’s American Bar, which was the hang-out of the legendary D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. As hardcore musical comedy geeks, and everyone whose seen Mike Leigh’s 1999 smash “Topsy-Turvy,” knows, that highly dramatic opera company was widely associated with the work of W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, whose particular gifts for combining music and often rather silly comedy foreshadowed everyone from Cole Porter to those South Park guys. While the connection might not be immediately apparent, I can’t think of a more apt accompaniment to your Hanky Panky than the scene below. Happy New Year, everyone.
P.S.You can see a more orthodox production of the same G&S tune from “Topsy-Turvy” here.
Tags: Arthur Sullivan, Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth, cocktails, Drink of the Week, Gilbert & Sullivan, Gilbert and Sullivan, Hanky Panky, Happy Hour, Julie Kavner, Late Night Check Out, Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth, sweet vermouth, The Tracey Ullman Show, Three Little Maids from School, Topsy-Turvy, Tracey Ullman, W.S. Gilbert