Spirits


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.

Dear friends, it’s Christmas Eve, and I want to tell you a story. dickens.jpeg
In the early 1990s, we met Jack Mayer. He was originally from Memphis but had long been away, operating art galleries, first in Paris and then New York. Elderly and ill, he had returned to Memphis, where he now lived alone in a garden apartment filled with books and art; a few relatives lived in the city and took care of his needs. He no longer drove and led essentially a solitary existence.
We visited Jack a few times. He was intelligent, witty, self-deprecating, lonely, a little irascible and largely, as far as we could tell, stoic about his fate, because he knew or suspected that he did not have long to live. Though his doctors had put him on a limited diet and he was forbidden alcohol, Jack clearly appreciated fine food and wine. We decided to have a small dinner party, with Jack, the two of us and two friends who had also gotten to know him.

Because of Jack’s strict regimen, we planned a simple menu: roasted chicken, scalloped potatoes, a salad. For those who could partake of wine, I had a bottle of Leroy Bourgogne 1989 on the table. Our friends picked Jack up and brought him to our second-floor apartment, helping him slowly up the stairs.

As usual, Jack regaled us with tales of the art business in Paris and New York, artists he had know and worked with, meals he had eaten. He was a gifted raconteur. He kept glancing at the bottle of Bourgogne, and finally, about halfway through the meal, he said, “Let me have a sip of that wine. Just an inch or two.” LL and I looked at each other and she nodded and I said, “Of course, Jack, I’m sure that a sip of wine wouldn’t hurt.”

I poured what he had requested, an inch or two of deep ruby wine that glinted in the candlelight. Jack held up the glass and gazed at it for a moment, sniffed deeply of the bouquet as a seasoned imbiber would, and drank the wine in a single, throbbing swallow.

There was a long silence, and then he said, “God in heaven, that’s good. Bless you.”

Jack Mayer died not long after that dinner, to which he brought us, as his hosts, the funny bottle of Armagnac you see pictured here. Does anyone make such an eccentric product as this anymore? Rustic, individual, earthy, old-fashioned, brandy_01.jpg endowed with jollity and savoir-faire and history? I mean, I can see Moliere pouring himself a swig of brandy from just such a bottle in a tavern in Paris.
We have had this Armagnac for 12 or 13 years. I forget about it for stretches of time, it has moved with us to a second apartment and then a house and now another house, and occasionally I will discover it again in the liquor cabinet, usually when I’m looking for something else, as happened recently. The bottle is dusty and holds about an inch of brandy.
LL and I are having Christmas Eve dinner tonight. Beef rib roast and Yorkshire pudding and roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts with a bottle of Chateau Leoville-Barton 1996 and, with the cheeses, the Quinto do Vesuvio Porto 1990. Yes, the whole Merry Old England thing.
I think we’ll finish things off by finally emptying this funny old bottle of its last remains of Armagnac, toasting to a man who knew how to live and how to die.

And that’s why we drink wine.

Let’s nip this little trend in the bud right now.

Our January issue of Food & Wine magazine arrived Saturday. The main feature is “100 Tastes You Must Try in 2007,” an extension of the magazine’s annual attempt at “hip and happening” that’s so pathetic it’s almost cute. They actually write about “groovy” restaurants and “power couples” and “the next baby lettuce.”

I couldn’t help focusing, however, on Trend No. 14: “House-Infused Bourbon.” The writer says: “Bartenders have been infusing vodka for years; now they’re joyfully” — joyfully? — “infusing bourbon with everything from black cherries to bacon. Chris Beveridge from 12 Baltimore in Kansas City, Missouri, favors apples, cinnamon and vanilla.”

I guess everything’s up-to-date in Kansas City.

The recipe that follows calls for “3 cored and quartered medium Granny Smith apples, 4 cinnamon sticks and 2 whole vanilla beans.” The bourbon? A bottle of Woodford Reserve. That’s where I say, “Say what???” bourbon_01.jpg
There’s a reason why vodka manufacturers create and sell millions of cases of fruit or spice or herb-infused vodka. The whole point of vodka is that it possesses no distinguishing quality except pure, glacial characterlessness. You can distill vodka seven times if you want, make it from the finest mountain waters never lapped by humans or animals and filter it through an Escalade packed with diamond dust and it will reflect nothing except high alcohol and formidable neutrality. So sure, hell yeah, go ahead, stuff it with rose petals, mangos and truffles for all I care.

But Woodford Reserve is one of the finest of the hand-crafted bourbons that appeared on the market over the past 10 or 15 years. Reading this squib in Food & Wine led me to break out my bottle, pour out a couple of fingers of the golden-amber ambrosia and have a few sips of smooth, mellow, sweet liquid naturally tinged with wood, orange rind, toffee and allspice from its time spend meditating in oak barrels; it rolled over the tongue and down the throat like warm money.

O.K., infuse a bottle of Heaven Hill if you want, but the last thing my Woodford Reserve needed was a soul-destroying infusion of apples and cinnamon and vanilla. I mean, we’re not talking about a Thanksgiving pie here.

I will say, just to be nice, that we use recipes from Food & Wine constantly, often going back to favorite dishes we cooked from the magazine years ago.

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