Cocktails


I have in my hand a menu from The Grill Room, a chain of high-end bar-and-grill style restaurants — a filet mignon is $42.95 — that started in Los Angeles. In the upper left hand corner of the menu is a list titled “Martinis,” and on that list you will find the Negroni, the Sidecar and the Cosmopolitan as well as various concoctions made primarily from vodka.

Now, let’s get something straight here. The Negroni and the Sidecar, noble drinks in the 20th Century’s bright chronicle of alcoholic beverages, and the Cosmopolitan, that fey, starry-eyed newcomer, are not martinis. In fact only the Martini is a martini: four parts gin, one part dry vermouth, stir — please! — with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist. Sorry, I’m not an olive man.

Notice that I wrote “cocktail glass.” That shallow, inverted cone-shaped vessel resting on a medium-length stem on a fairly wide cocktail2_01.jpg base — don’t want the thing to tump over — is now almost universally and mistaken referred to as a “martini glass;” even bartenders commit this error, certainly because of the wide popularity of “martinis” and “martini bars” in the 1990s and early 2000s. By what linguists call “back-formation” — “the creation by analogy of a new word in the false assumption that the existing word is a derivation of the new word, i.e., ‘to burgle’ from ‘burglar’” — the glass once known as cocktail, because cocktails were served in it, became tagged by its ubiquitous and multiplying contents. And in a further eroding of authenticity and integrity, all the drinks served in a “martini” glass are now, at least in some quarters, called “martinis.”

Woe is me.

Kids, language counts. In the beginning was the word, and if we don’t take care of words they will get all rubbed together, and jumbled together, and what we use them to name — the most important function of language — will be lost in the mists of far-off last year, poured out like dregs by marketers and flacks whose sole employ is altering what we name and what we know for commercial purposes. (Governments do this too; have you noticed?)

Hark to the poor Patagonian toothfish, an ugly and humble but useful fish for the kitchens of a million North American restaurants. “We’ll never sell a creature called the Patagonian toothfish,” some marketer said back in the late 1980s, and lo and behold, a new fish was born, the Chilean sea bass, and if you’ve eaten one of them, you’ve eaten a thousand. Didn’t know that the Chilean sea bass was actually the Patagonian toothfish? Pretty soon no one will.

Or take the lordly Portobello mushroom. Compare it to the smaller and more common button or Cremini mushroom in the grocery store produce aisle. Did you know that a Portobello, so prized for its flavor and meatiness, is simply a button (or Cremini) mushroom allowed to grow bigger? Or, to reverse the order, a Cremini is an immature Portobello? And by the way, Portobello is the correct spelling, ever though on the packaging and on restaurant menus we see the name spelled “portobella,” “portabello” and “portabella.” Hence (and awfully) button mushrooms are now marketed (at your market) as — “Baby Bellas”!

Enough. Let’s return to cocktails.

Here’s what I want you to remember:

1. Cocktails are alcoholic drinks, best consumed before dinner and usually composed of a base, a modifier and an accent. (The terminology comes from my favorite cocktail book, Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century, by Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead. Viking, 1998)

2. Cocktails are served in cocktail glasses.

3. A Martini is a cocktail, as is a Cosmopolitan, a Sidecar, a Negroni and several hundred (or thousand) of examples, many sidecar.jpg invented only yesterday in the increasing drive for splashy signature drinks in bars and restaurants.

4. Cocktails should be served very cold, very very cold.

5. Generally speaking, cocktails with fruit juices should be shaken and all others should be stirred, but it’s really a question of the crystalline clarity of the result that matters. A Martini of course should be stirred, so it reveals no trace of cloudiness whatever. We’re talking about elegance.

And now, here are recipes for a Sidecar and a Negroni, also from Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century.

Sidecar
1 and a half ounces cognac

Three-quarters ounce Cointreau

Three-quarters ounce lemon juice

Shake with cracked ice; strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon wheel.

Negroni negroni.jpg
1 ounce gin

1 ounce sweet vermouth

1 ounce Campari

Shake with cracked ice; strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange wheel.

The image of the cocktail glass is from acemart.com.

The image of the Sidecar is from epicurious.com.

The image of the Negroni is from drinkalizer.com.

Bad news, booze hounds, but it’s official — The New York Times said so — the capital of Cocktail Nation has migrated cocktail7.jpg from New York, specifically Manhattan, to London, where the swinging set indulges in swank Mayfair bars presided over by mixologists — and notice that we use the word nowadays without the irony of an arched eyebrow or raised fingers making invisible “quotation marks” — I say, where the mixologists tender their art in a style combining the best of British tradition with the most avant-garde of world beat concepts and ingredients.

cocktail6.jpg
No fair!

The cocktail revival started in Manhattan, was nurtured and practiced fervently, obsessively on that heady island of hopes and delusions and head-bumping realities, of glitter and glamor and gore, and now to come to this state of decadence and decline? My god, it sounds like a night of watery $25 drinks and stale Goldfish crackers, doesn’t it? Like a long taxi ride with a non-English-speaking driver that starts at 4 a.m. and ends where the Boulevard of Broken Dreams empties into Britney Spears’ underwear drawer.

But don’t despair, former Celebrity Mixologists of Manhattan — and there has to be a guild, right? A club? At least a debating society or choral group? — I have an idea.

Here I propose the names of drinks with which you may conjure the cocktails of the future. I don’t create the recipes; I merely give you the titles of the artful blends that will bring fame back to its rightful place in bars and watering holes of Manhattan, if you are clever — and visionary — enough to handle them. Here are the concepts; now you must let your imaginations run riot and create the cocktails that will send those Brits running for their muddling spoons and lemon zesters.

1. Sit, Boy

2. Mere Immortals

3. Absolutely, Positively One Night

4. Anger of the Modernists

5. The Dangers of Tyranny Lurk in Utopian Dreams, Yet Idealism and Decency May Survive in a Police State

6. Jane Eyre

7. The Rage of Abandonment

8. Happy Birthday, Sheryl Suzanne Crowe!

9. Self-Immolation of Developing Economies

10. Sexy Mousy

One stipulation. Please, don’t use squid ink or pickled okra, especially in the same drink.

For No. 5, apologies to separate stories in The New York Times.

Readers familiar with BiggerThanYourHead know that I am — damn my eyes! — a purist through and through, a position that isn’t always fun because it lets one in for a great deal of disappointment. martinix_01.jpg
But in reading the new “Platinum Edition” of Mr. Boston (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., $19.95), the bartender’s guide that’s been around in many editions since 1935, I was struck by this assertion by Anthony Giglio, who revised the book for this recent printing. He is recounting recipes for martinis as they existed a century ago and includes a recipe for what he indicates is a more authentic version of the martini than we consume so avidly today, that is too say, the dry martini, for among all other matters to which the 20th Century can lay claim, one, of certainty, is that the martini became progressively drier.

Giglio’s recipe is this: 1 oz. gin. 1 oz. dry vermouth. 1 dash orange bitters. Stir with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Giglio says: “Another difference you’ll see is what appears to be a massive amount of vermouth being used. The result is a drink that bears little resemblance to today’s Martini. Push your prejudices aside and instead focus simply on the overall taste of the drink itself, and you’ll find the vermouth is not only enjoyable but in perfect balance with the gin.”

Wow, I thought, this guy is as much a purist as I am!

So I did that. A couple of days ago I made LL and me each a martini following Giglio’s recipe. The result: Gack!

Sorry, I’m just a four (or 3.5) parts gin to one part vermouth person and there’s no getting over it. Is anything else in the world as clean as this nun of a cocktail, as pure, as chastening? We do use the lemon twist. I agree with Giglio, that “the olive brine affects the delicate balance of the drink.” Longtime devotees of Tanqueray, we also like the Scottish gin Hendricks, though some criticize it as too floral, and Junipero, from Anchor Distillery in San Francisco.

And it’s strange that Giglio, along with every other writer on cocktails and their history and preparing, insists that a martini be stirred, not shaken. Shaking is for fruity cocktails, all the experts agree; stirring is for cocktails that combine spirits. Yet go into any bar between the shining seas and order a martini and the bartender will put the gin and vermouth in a shaker with ice and shake the holy crap out of it, breaking up the ice, so that the moment the martini is poured into your glass it’s already diluted. You don’t have to be Werner von Braun to understand that this procedure is counter-productive.
When you ask bartenders why they do this, they inevitably reply, “So the martini will be cold.” No, the way for the martini to be cold is to do what I do at home: keep the gin in the freezer and the vermouth in the refrigerator. And it is, of course, of utmost importance that the martini be achingly, bone-chilling cold, because if it isn’t, in five minutes you just have a cute little glass filled with warm alcohol. Yum.

As to all the seemingly hundreds of variations on the “martini” that adorn “martini lists” through out the land, the less said of them the better. Vermouth exists for a higher purpose in life than to give an echo of character to vodka.
By the way, my favorite recent cocktail books are Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century by Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead (Viking, 1998) and New Classic Cocktails by Gary Regan and Mardee Haiden Regan (Macmillan, 1997), each in its way a model of history, lore, wisdom and imagination.

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