Friday, July 23, 2010

Beaux Arts Cocktail

Time for something different. One of my other hobbies is making classic cocktails, and I don't have anywhere to write about that, so I've decided that I'll occasionally say something about it here.

Tonight I leafed through one of the most famous and respected cocktail books, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, by David Embury, looking for inspiration. Embury's book was out of print for many years and was selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay until it was reprinted in a very handsome edition by a new publisher named Cocktail Kingdom. I was lucky enough to find a battered paperback a couple of years ago just before the republication, but I'm referring to the new edition.

Embury was a lawyer with a rather personal take on cocktails... very opinionated and detailed. He describes ingredients in terms of parts, which the uninitiated may find a barrier. The average recipe calls for ounces or tablespoons, which is accessible; or awkwardly in "measures", "jiggers", "shots" or "wineglasses" depending on the age of the reference. Parts are flexible, however, because you can scale the cocktail up or down in size, or mix a bunch for friends if they're handy and thirsty.

However, I am but a humble professor in the social sciences, so math ain't my bag. There's a reason I went to law school instead of studying something useful, don't you know. So recipes that use sizes other than the classic cocktail from the mid-20th century, with which I'm most familiar, are a mild problem. Sometimes one looks at five parts of this and three of that and the brain grows fogged and one decides to make a Martini or a Manhattan, because one has made a good many of those and already knows the proportions.

But sometimes one wishes to experiment, and I'd never made a Beaux Arts Cocktail. With a name like that, it has to be good. In Balian's world, anything not constructed with an eye toward the Gothic ought to be either Classical or Beaux Arts. As far as I'm concerned, everything else could usefully be blown up so we can build something appropriate. Well, Arts and Crafts style houses are ok, too. But I digress.

The ingredients are not extraordinarily difficult (although I had a bad moment when the pineapple juice wasn't where I thought it was, after everything else had already been added). Indeed, there is only one ingredient that is even faintly unusual, and it can be found in any decent liquor store. And you ought to have it... doesn't it sound intriguing when it appears in one of the Godfather movies? (See, Breac, I do get a few popular culture references!)

Here are the ingredients: six parts gin; 1 part dry vermouth; 1 part sweet vermouth; 1 part pineapple and orange juices, half and half, as Embury puts it. And finally, a dash of Anisette (that's the one that gets mentioned in a Godfather film; a guest asks for it, if I recall... Marlon Brando's character requests a glass of Strega when he is told of his eldest son's death, I believe. I'd require some brandy at just such a moment, myself, but no doubt the Godfather is made of sterner stuff than I; and that completes my store of Godfather trivia).

First, let's consider the proportions. Cocktails have grown in size over the last century. They were about two ounces or so in proportion to begin with, before Prohibition, and were served in a three ounce cocktail glass... quite small by modern standards; they generally had about three ounces of ingredients by mid-century, and were served in a four ounce glass. They've gotten bigger since then. Don't expect to find proper cocktail glasses at the store, I'm afraid. Try antique and thrift stores. The seven to twelve ounce or even bigger cocktail glasses one is apt to find in stores today are more suitable for constructing a hazing incident, not a cocktail. Those are punchbowls, not cocktail glasses.

Since I'm most familiar with the mid-century three ounce cocktail, I naturally attempted to put the proportions into thirds. Easy, as it turns out: there are a total of nine parts, so that divides easily into three ounces. Six parts of gin is two ounces; the other three parts become thirds of an ounce. A dash needn't be considered... you just add that at the end. See? Even we JDs can do a little math when necessary. Making cocktails is an important task... one must strain the little gray cells for such vital matters! (No, I didn't have to use my fingers. Be nice. I occasionally even use algebra on my econ students... although it helps not to tell them that's what it is.)

Now, frankly, this is a fussy cocktail by the standards of a property mixed drink. Three or four ingredients are usually quite enough. Some would turn up their noses at a drink with six, or suggest snidely that such lists of ingredients are best left to the world of faux tropical, or Tiki drinks. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But there is a practical matter. Two ounces of gin are easy to measure. One third of an ounce of two different vermouths each aren't too bad, but that last third of an ounce has to be measured patiently: a sixth of an ounce is orange juice and a sixth is pineapple juice. A well made cocktail should be measured carefully... a little two ounce angled measuring cup from Oxo is best, as you can see from above when you've hit the mark. Don't try just pouring by sight. Maybe a professional bartender knows what he's doing with that... just dashing in six ingredients by sight for this cocktail would likely result in a mess unless you were very lucky. Think about it... is a recipe calling for a sixth of an ounce of something precisely going to work properly if you just slop some pineapple juice in and call it good?

At the end, there is a dash of Anisette. This is an anise-flavored liqueur, and is basically performing the function that bitters often serve in cocktails. It would take over the drink entirely if you add too much. But how much is a dash? If you have something in a bitters bottle, it's no problem... you literally just dash a bit of liquid into the shaker and that will be right. But Anisette comes in a regular bottle. The sources describe the quantity of a dash differently, but let us say that it should be no more than an eighth of an ounce as a rule. For some ingredients in some cocktails, it may work to go big. For something as distinctive as anisette, a very cautious and minimal bit of liquid at the bottom of the measuring cup, well under an eighth of an ounce, seems wise.

A cocktail with fruit juice is traditionally shaken, not stirred. Add ice to the shaker and shake well. Many people are afraid to shake for very long... they don't want the drink to get too diluted. While most cocktails should be strong, remember that a little melted water from ice is accounted for in the recipe. You want to get the thing cold. Shake a little longer than you think is right at first. A fair rule is to shake until your hand hurts a bit from the cold on a metal shaker.

The cocktail glass has been retrieved from the freezer... the glass should always be pre-chilled by this method or by letting it sit with ice in it (discard the ice if you do this)... and finally the drink is strained into the glass.

So how does it taste? Well, it's pretty damn good. The best cocktails are more than the sum of their parts. And believe me, your average bar guide is filled with blah drinks that you won't want to repeat. But not in David Embury's book. He would have scorned to include anything merely ordinary. The Beaux Arts doesn't quite taste the way you would imagine picturing gin with the familiar vermouths. The fruit juices round it off, they don't make it fruity. You end up with a flavor that is difficult to describe. It tastes like a Beaux Arts, one is forced to conclude. The Anisette is just barely there... just enough to remind you that this is a drink for grownups, not a sweet concoction to hide the gin.

Brands? Gordon's for the gin, but if I make it again, I think I'll upgrade to Beefeater. Martini and Rossi for the dry vermouth; Cinzano for the sweet. (These are simply the standard vermouths I stock and suit my taste. I actually prefer Noilly Prat for dry, but they changed the formula last year and I'm saving my last few bottles of the old stuff.) The Anisette is Mr. Boston's. Liqueurs you use once every six months are a problem. Going high end is exorbitant when you'll want dozens of different flavors eventually. Some liqueurs are a false economy if you do that, of course... the best triple sec you can afford is wise, for example. The orange juice is a good-quality commercial blend of 100% juice. In theory, fresh squeezed is better, but for oranges, I find that the taste profile is too unpredictable... you know what you're getting with Simply Orange. Dole's canned unsweetened pineapple juice is what everyone uses in cocktails. I wouldn't do any of this with a recipe that called for lemon or lime juice, I hasten to add.

Well, there's a cocktail for you. As you can see, it is the sort of thing you can put a lot of thought and care into, like any hobby. Does it make the cocktail taste better, my reader might wonder?

Yes, it does.

No comments: