Is the cocktail sexier than wine or is it all smoke and mirrors. Maybe it's the word, cock-tail. Maybe it's the uniform; piercings or the tattoos or the little bar caps, or the unkempt historical beards. Maybe it's that tactile opportunity to hold a glass, or the sex-toy like bar tools. Perhaps its the flirtations with barkeeps, or the sultry whiskey voices. But in competitions --even in writing--the spirit (mixed or straight) is the victor. As I told Elin McCoy who lost the James Beard award to a spirit book a few years back, it's really tough for a wine book to win, the categories should be separated.
Not only is it for some reason sexier, but most consider spirit more accessible than wine. Geeking out about the history of the cocktail is seen as everyman while geeking out about pruning techniques or stems vs. destemming is seen as patrician.
I like a well-placed spirit. I delight in an Islay or Calva. But a mixed do? Concoctions are mostly too sweet and anything but refreshing. Mixologists, barchefs and bartenders rely too much on sugar the way chefs often fall back on fat, the cheap trick to carry flavor. I find the cocktail that can deliver what it promises is not unlike the politician who fails to deliver campaign platform when in office.
The roots for my discontent might go back to my early suburban days when all was well and Becky jumping over the fence
was enough to keep me cheerful. But on those afternoons, early sips of parental high-balls tasted insipid. Martinis tasted like shaving cream. I could never cotton to the vanilla candy affectation of the cigar dependent Manhattan.
With age and experience I added a few recipes to my quiver. I eventually warmed to the chilled martini, especially after Mr. Bowtie showed me the merits of drinking them wet, fifty/fifty, with aromatic vermouth. (One underappreciated drink if there ever was one.) My admiration of gin met my passion for champagne in the French 75. Love them. There was a time when I whipped up lip smacking margaritas . But ladies and gents, that's all.
While a little cocktail might be the perfect thing at the right time, I just don't want to sacrifice my liver to a potent (and caloric) cocktail when I want to save organs and calories for wine. So, if I have to bow to peer pressure, and start the meal with a cocktail, I stick with a low alcohol and bitter Campari and soda.
Sometimes fate has something else in store. That's when I met The Fall Classic at Gramercy Tavern.
There I was, drinking a big pile of crisp. burning leaves after dark. Drinking that adult cocktail, I was a kid kicking the dried leaves. Not a bad blowback for me, the cocktail denier. Not only that, but bourbon? Was this my gateway drug to the spirit?
After the second time I went back just to drink the Fall Classic I gave in to desire I emailed the Wine Director of Gramercy Tavern, the under-sung and uber-talented Juliette Pope, would she send me the recipe?
The Fall Classic. Juice and calvados. Where did this come from? Layering in the flavors. Made sense. I dug into cocktail books to find out its roots. My favorite cocktail guy, Gary Regan said, congratulations! You're writing about cocktails! He was so happy, I didn't want to tell him, no no, it's just a one off to see if it's sexier than writing about wine. (I've written about spirits, but never cocktails.) He sent me some pages from his essential tome, Joy of Mixology. While mixing calva and bourbon with citrus was common (he mentioned the Deauville from the '30's) the mixing with apple cider might have been a Gramercy T. original.
When looking at other similar recipes, like the Apple Sidecar, I realize that the GT version is far more sophisticated, the sweet flavors tempered by the dah or three of bitters.
Next step was shelling out the dough.
Gramercy recommended Bulleit for the bourbon. Looking for a good price I eyed the whiskeys at The Whorehouse (as The Owl Man used to call the Warehouse on Broadyway & Astor). I reached for the $34ish bottle and the guy next to me sneered, no.
Obviously he thought I had no taste. So much for the everyman of cocktail culture. But the Bulleit is less assertive, more about finesse than power, it was the right choice.
Over at Astor I was pointed to some dirt cheap calva but I thought, why not get something for ten dollars more that I want to drink after this cocktail flirtation.
Groult pays d'auge. ($38).
I needed Angustura. They had a huge bottle at $24. I was getting cheap. I'd hit the supermarket, that is if the shortage is over. I could not leave the store without pocketing the Domaine de la Chevalerie Bourgeuil, (Cassiopée) for under $14. So, you use it was my own fault that by the time I got the cider, the thyme, and the booze, I was nearing a $100 price tag and having a panic attack. When I got home there was a bottle of Angustra on my spice shelf! It was years old. But free. The price of the cocktail just came down by $20.
That was plenty elitist for an experiment and I felt extremely poor even if it was tax deductable. I tried not to fret or see myself homeless on the street, clutching my bottle of Bulleit and instead dusted off and scrubbed my shaker.
It's absolutely impossible for me to follow someone else's recipe, so I added more lime juice and cut back on the sugar. The thyme syrup is a lovely touch, and I topped with a dried apple. I liked it, my guests loved it. I dumped mine half way through it, (anyone know how long bitters stay fresh? That might have been my problem, after it all, it practically smelled like the tincture of gingko in my fridge.) and then reached for the bourgeuil, where fake it as I might, my passion really resides.
For me it was not as good as Gramercy's execution, theirs had more angles. Mine had more lushness. I prefer the angles. I added more lime juice, cut back the sugar. Hey maybe I didn't infuse my syprup with enough thyme. Maybe I underestimated the quantity of a bitter dash. My guests loved them, I dumped mine after drinking half. Then I pulled out my favorite bar tool, a corkscrew, and had myself an orgy.