My Life in CocktailsReturn to previous page.
(Written July 2006)
When I was a child, there were no such things as cocktails in my world. There was NeHi soda for children in alarming atomic colors and whiskey and beer for adults.
Some times the whiskey and the beer were combined in a boilermaker. Boilermakers were great drinks for my relatives who drove fork lifts, ran collision shops and hung out at the VFW.
Pour a shot of scotch into a mug of beer
My parents had aspirations. They left Utica, New York and their families. My father wanted to be a white collar worker; he didn’t want to work in a steel mill any more; he didn’t want my mother to work. They went out to restaurants where a boilermaker would be frowned on. They started to drink highballs and their brothers and sisters in Utica started to mimic the trendy young couple.
A highball is any beverage served with carbonated water over ice.
1 ounce whiskey
Cold ginger ale
Twist of lemon peel
My father got a job as an executive. He traveled to New York. Sometimes we went with him. We shopped at B. Altman’s for Mom, Barney’s (the old Barneys on 17th) for Dad and F.A.O. Schwartz for me. They ate in fancy restaurants. My father would still drink highballs or whiskey on the rocks. But my mother started to drink crème drinks like stingers, alexanders and , of course, the grasshopper.
1 ounce green crème de menthe
1 ounce crème de cacao
1 ounce heavy cream
These are the first drinks I ever thought about. They were like parfaits made in martini glasses. I’d watch my mother drink them in swank New York restaurants like La Fonda del Sol and The Forum of the Twelve Caesars. Sometimes I’d get a sip. I never tasted liquor, only sweetness and sophistication.
When I turned 18 I could drink. I had no interest in drinking before that and now only drank when I went to a restaurant. I was particularly enamored of exotic drinks. My parents and I once went to Trader Vic’s in the basement of the Plaza Hotel. I had a sip of a Mai Tai. Once I could drink on my own, I decided that I would order Mai Tai’s. And I did, mostly in questionable Chinese restaurants with goldfish ponds, footbridges to nowhere and waitresses dressed in binding brocade. The restaurants had South Sea names like The Aloha. My friends Amy Presberg and Terry Benedict and I would frequently pay extra to have the drinks delivered in a Kon-Tiki glass which was more like a mug: brown, opaque and shaped into a fierce-looking stone face. If we were in a festive mood, we would order from a seemingly endless variety of rum drinks served in narrow Collins glasses with paper umbrellas protecting the general concoction
2 ounces aged rum
1 ounce Cointreau
½ ounce Grenadine
1 teaspoon almond syrup
1 ounce fresh lime juice
Tropical fruit such as pineapple or kiwi
I later found out that Mai Tais are surprisingly complicated even though they look and sound like lowest common denominator cocktails. Bartenders will order them in other bars because this is a drink that helps them assess other bartenders’ skills.
I went away to college. Some of my friends took drugs. I doubt that there was ever an opiate as agreeable as a Mai Tai. However, I did need a more sophisticated drink. Something current and Ivy League. My parents gave me a lot of money for discretionary stuff in college even though they did not have a lot. I had as much money as some of the rich kids whose older brothers had gone to college and abused expense accounts. These younger brothers were put on budgets. Their budgets were comparable to the money my parents gave me. We used to go to two places in New York for expensive dinners: L’Orangerie and The Russian Tea Room. At L’Orangerie I know I ate sweetbreads (grilled pancreas and thymus) but I don’t remember what I drank. It wasn’t wine. Wine wasn’t considered a real drink by us. But at the Russian Tea Room, I discovered the Black Russian. It was served in an “on the rocks” glass. I was 19 and pimply and drinking Black Russians in The Russian Tea Room. For dinner, we would order chicken Kiev and poke at it with forks to watch the butter gush out.
I had no idea.
1 ounce vodka
1 ounce Kahlua
In the summer I would spend as much time with Amy and Terry as possible at Terry’s family’s cottage on Silver Lake. Terry’s family drank variations on club soda or ginger ale mixed with gin or vodka. The drinks were served in plastic cups with a lemon or lime wedge in each. I would sit in a wicker chair on the porch and read Dickens. Their Dalmatian invariably came bounding in through a hole in the screen and tried to get me to stop reading. It seldom worked.
I became a Sixties intellectual. I opened the bookstore and met Jackie. Jackie had just returned from Nice. Jackie was not a highball kind of girl. One Thanksgiving she made a chestnut stuffed turkey for my parents and aunt and uncle. My uncle spit the stuffing out and demanded a hamburger. I started to drink wine. For special occasions, we started to drink champagne. Until I met Jackie, I only drank Andre’s Cold Duck which was $3 a bottle. Jackie liked to mix a dry white wine with cassis. I learned that this is called a kir.
1 tablespoon crème de cassis
6 ounces dry white wine
Twist of lemon peel
Jackie was dedicated to drinking wines rather than cocktails. We drank good, inexpensive wines mostly from France, then from Italy and finally from America. Jackie seldom drank anything else. She did discover fruit beers in Belgium called lambics. She is still particularly fond of a framboise lambic. Framboise translates as raspberry. It is delicious, but a bit too festive for a beer.
About ten years ago, I started to drink martinis. To me, the martini was always associated with the James Bond era. I didn’t really like them but they were cool. It was by now the 80’s, just on the cusp of martini bars. At Jackie’s sister’s funeral, I drank martinis at the bar of the hotel we stayed in. They had a separate martini menu that I stole and have some place in the house.
3 ounces gin
Dry vermouth to taste
Green olive or twist of lemon peel
James Bond Martini ( from the book Casino Royale)
3 ounces Gordon’s gin
1 ounce vodka
½ ounce Kina Lillet (vermouth)
Green olive or twist of lemon peel
I somehow found out that a martini could be made with vodka. I drank vodka martinis for a while, but they were just a little less tiresome. Then someone suggested I have a vodka gimlet. It’s really just vodka with a lot of lime juice but it sounds very tony. “I’ll have a vodka gimlet” said in a bored voice, is guaranteed to raise an eyebrow in a bar. You must always make sure you have it with lime schmutz. Just have the bartender scoop out some lime fibers and mix it with the drink. The viscosity and the fruit threading through it with the syrupy lime juice floating around like a lava lamp make it the most beautiful drink I know. It should be served in a BIG martini glass for full effect. Jackie makes a good vodka gimlet. Sara, Jackie and I like to drink them.
2 ounces vodka
¼ ounce Rose’s Lime Juice
Wedge of lime
And then the Mojito came into our lives. I think I had the first Mojito when I visited my friend Richard in L.A. His upscale fabric printing business had collapsed; his significant other had died and healthcare costs destroyed his finances I had not seen him for a while. He always has a Rolls Royce. He even had a Rolls Royce in college. He used to drive stockbrokers back and forth from Wall Street for a fee. Even though he was now broke, he still had a black and tan Rolls Royce.
Richard and I went to lunch at an upscale Cuban restaurant in Pasadena. He insisted I have a mojito. It’s THE drink, he said. I thought it was rather dull but I did like the large mint leaves that were stuck in the drink. They looked like they just fell out of the Amazon rainforest into the glass.
Richard opened a restaurant in Pasadena. It served ABC cusine (American, Belgian and Cuban. Talk about fusion! ) But the restaurant failed. On the last night of the restaurant, Jackie and I were in L.A. We drove up to Pasadena and he cooked for us all night. The restaurant was padlocked the next day. Jackie had a mojito. I decided that it was like a mint julep only global. Joe, our bartender, makes them with peach or watermelon essences.
We first met Joe Ellis at a restaurant called Karma in downtown Rochester. We were talking about the Jell-O birthday party I gave Jackie. We were with Richard and Lucinda. Joe was the bartender there and listened intently (especially the part where I searched for packages of Jell-O in institutional sizes) before chiming in that he supported himself in college making Jell-O shots and had he known Jell-O was available in institutional sizes he could have whipped up more and made more money. Joe was clearly not your average bartender.
Joe moved to Tastings, the restaurant owned by the Wegman’s supermarket chain. We started visiting Joe every few months for a drink for a special occasion. Sara and Phil have joined us there. I don’t remember what Sara had, maybe a mojito, but Phil had a Tequila Sunrise.
1 ½ ounces white tequila iced
4 ounces cold fresh orange juice
Dash of grenadine
Slice of orange
Joe is my chemist. I tell him a drink I want to try and he makes it. He’ll tell me practical tips, what kind of person drinks it and suggestions like substituting bourbon for rye which hardly exists in bars now anyway. Most drinks in the 20’s and 30’s were made with rye. Now they’re made with bourbon or blended whiskies.
I asked Joe once what drink suited me. He said a Sidecar. It was created by a bartender at Harry’s Bar in Paris around the end of World War I who made it for an officer who had a cold and arrived in a motorcycle sidecar asking for a drink to that would clear his head. It does the exact opposite. It is calmly hallucinogenic and imparts an enormous feeling of quiet and well-being. It is a good drink to have before an operation. I had a sidecar at Le Cirque in Manhattan. Theirs was not nearly as good as Joe’s. I told this to Danny Wegman at the bar at Tastings.
1 ounce brandy
¾ ounce Cointreau
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
I felt that before surgery I needed a special drink that I had never had before. I discovered The Monkey Gland. It was a drink that enjoyed a special vogue in the 1930’s. In fact it is featured in a song in the musical “Wonderful Town” by Comden and Green and Bernstein called” Conga” where it is rhymed with “hot dog stand”.
2 ounces gin
1 ½ ounces fresh orange juice
2 dashes Benedictine
2 dashes grenadine
Twist of orange peel
Pernod or Anisette can be used instead of Benedictine. I thought the Benedictine was just fine, though. It is indeed a rejuvenating drink. It looks like lovely, shirred organic material and could possibly be thought to have a touch of minced gland in it.
I’m looking forward to recovering from surgery so that I can drink more cocktails. Joe and I have several waiting in the wings: The Hi Ho, The Gibson, the Douglas Fairbanks and the Negroni. I plan to be drinking cocktails for a long, long time.