I seem to have developed a new “hobby” over the last year or so. I was with my wife at one of the conferences at the JW Marriott in Washington DC in the winter of 2013. We had just flown in, tired and hungry we went to the hotel restaurant for dinner. Of course the first thing they give us was a drink menu. On the menu they claimed to be the hotel that served the first Gin Rickey over a century ago. I had recently read a book, “America Walks into a Bar”, and in it I learned something about how “cocktail culture” developed. Their claim sounded reasonable so I ordered one.
This shocked my wife. We joke about being a mixed marriage, she drinks wine and I drink beer. When I say I drink beer let me clarify, a six pack can last me a month. And I have had cocktails before. Dad made Mai-Tais for us kids on the holidays and mom’s “cold medicine” is better known as a Hot Toddy, but that was the first cocktail my wife ever saw me order. She still should not have been shocked. I bought a bottle of cognac when we got married and occasionally drank a shot of it. That bottle lasted almost a decade so the key word here is “occasionally”. We also, at times, had vodka and bourbon in the house. My wife made a killer Cranberry Vodka Pork Chop and her Bourbon Sweet Potato Pie is the best anywhere. I occasionally had a shot of the bourbon or made someone a Hot Toddy when they were sick but no one would have said we were into cocktails. Good liquor, I said, should be enjoyed straight.
That Gin Rickey was great. Even my wife agreed. So when we got home I went and got a bottle of gin, a bottle of lime juice, and one of club soda and I mastered the Gin Rickey. The same conference this year was in San Diego. My wife had lived there when she was fresh out of high school and she took me around town to see the sights. We had a late lunch in Old Town and the waiter asked if I would like some Tequila. At first I said no, but I had second thoughts about that. We had ridden the train and walked to get there. One shot was not going to be a problem and after all, where else could I expect to get good Tequila? So I told him to bring me a shot. When he asked what brand I confessed to him that I had never tried it before and asked him to pick something good. I wish I had paid attention to what brand he picked, it was good. (He stood there and watched me take the first sip, I think he was expecting a reaction from a “non-drinker”. If that was the case he went away disappointed. I may never have had tequila but I grew up in the land of bourbon.) The next day at a restaurant near the museums in Balboa Park I decided to try something else new to me, a martini. It was nasty, all sugary sweet, no bite, and, no taste except sweet. When we got home I started thinking about how bad that martini was. Would James Bond drink something like that? Not a chance.
I remembered that, in our collection of cookbooks, we had two about cocktails. A 1984 printing of Mr. Boston’s Guide and a 1934 book titled “Charles’ Book of Punches and Cocktails”. There are also a lot, a lot, of free and low cost apps about mixing cocktails that I found when I started looking there. So I started looking, reading the little recipes, some sounded horrible, some sounded interesting. I decided to have the kids, and their kids, over for a Labor Day party where I would let them try some of the different concoctions. Even the teenage and younger grand-kids got into the act with Shirley Temples, Arnold Palmers, and Roy Rogers, all non-alcoholic drinks. I think we all had a good time and I am planning a Halloween get to get together with drinks with names like Zombies.
Now that I am paying attention I notice that I am not the only one looking into the cocktail culture. In August I learned that I was to review “Of All the Gin Joints : Stumbling through Hollywood History” and recently I heard the author of “The Curious Bartender: The Artistry and Alchemy of Creating the Perfect Cocktail” interviewed on NPR. I have seen articles on “shandys”, drinks for when beer is too heavy, for example, one part lager beer and one part fruit juice. Another one on making your own bitters was more surprising. There is even a book devoted to bitters, “Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-all”. I have not even gotten far enough into mixology to use bitters. These days, around 8:00 in the evening you can find me mixing a cocktail, one I have never tried or a “revised” recipe of one that did not seem as good as it should be.
Bond was right, martinis can be very good when done right. Trying these recipes can be a bit of an adventure. In the older books measurements are vague or even optional. Thankfully with Google I have a hope of learning how much a “pony” or a “wine glass” is supposed to be. (1 ounce and 4 ounces) Unfortunately dashes and splashes are still just as vague as they were 80 years ago. Some of the drinks I have tried I should have known better, a White Plush, equal parts whiskey and milk, is not going to be a modern hit. Some are much better than their names suggest, an Ambassador or a Cincinnati Cocktail for instance. If you are feeling thirsty you might try my newest favorite, an Incider. One part Bourbon with six parts Apple Cider. Just pour the whiskey over ice in a rocks glass and top off with the cider. When I offered my wife a sip of my first attempt at this cocktail I never got the glass back.