Clearly, creating an Old Fashioned that looks like a Martini has its challenges
I was trying yet another spin-off of the Old Fashioned, this time using the lovely and potent Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and Angostura orange bitters to complement the rye. Not bad, as these riffs go, with some nice lathework by the maraschino and bitters smoothing the rye’s rough edges.
Sipping, I was moved to contemplation.
Say, [I mused], hadn’t I bought a bottle of unaged rye not long ago? And wouldn’t it be odd and [maybe] wonderful to use that clear liquor with the translucent Luxardo and the colorless orange bitters to make … a perfectly transparent Old Fashioned?
I had turned yet another suspect idea into a fool’s errand.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear
I was working with a bottle of High West Silver Whiskey OMG Pure Rye. It is not aged. Hell, it’s not even barrelled. In the bottle it is as clear as Fiji water.
I was encouraged by the prose on the label, which promised I could coax a range of aromas and flavors from the stuff: plum, Meyer lemon, clove, rosemary, and berries to name a few.
Easy to write on a label, not so easy for a middle-aged, hard working palate to sense. If there even was much to sense, as anyone who’s read a few yards of labelese should doubt.
Citrus? Easy, if slight. Cloves? Actually, maybe. Rosemary? Vanilla? Um, maybe a tiny bit? Geez, now I was talking myself into tasting this stuff.
Anyhow, the most distinctive thing about this silver whiskey was its rye bite, as strong as a Doberman’s. [The “OMG” in the product’s name supposedly refers to “Old Monongahela,” a wayback type of rye dating from the Whiskey Rebellion. It could easily apply to the rye’s teeth.]
Which would make sense. The mash is 80% rye, the High West label avers. And, as an overproof bottling, OMG drinks hot with ethyl.
So anyway I now had the bite and some of the flavor details of a decent rye.
I added a half ounce of Luxardo and some orange bitters, stirred, and expressed some lemon oil from a lip of garnish, which I promptly tossed out.
Regarding the bitters: Angostura orange bitters are completely clear. Those who think I’m cheating with the see-thru thing should toss a few dashes onto a crisp white shirt. No stain!
Full transparency: Tasting notes
So did I have a new-to-the-world Old Fashioned?
I did have something, however: A cocktail with the edginess of rye, the fragrant cherry of the Luxardo, the cheerful touch of orange.
This took a while to perfect. No, scratch that. It took a while to make it enjoyable.
The beauty of a traditional Old Fashioned is that backbone of mellow wood, strong enough to stand up to nearly anying a cocktaileur might throw at it.
The silver stuff is tougher to negotiate, more dependent on its modifiers to make it drinkable.
What the drinks needs is some wood. I suppose I could barrel it in one of those football-sized casks, but that would I think defeat the purpose here.
Fact is [repeat after me: “duh”] anything that’s unaged has no solid brown flavors, nothing nailing it to the floor.
The clear winner
Here was the best I could do. I consider it a work-in-progress.
2 oz High West Silver Whiskey OMG Rye
1/8 to 1/4 oz Luxardo maraschino liqueur
3 dashes Angostura orange bitters
Other brands of orange bitters are orange-brown and, strictly speaking, cheating.
Put it all in a mixing glass 2/3 filled with ice.
Stir 50 times. I’m serious. Dilution was the only way with this limited ingredient list to de-burr the high-proof rye without risking a gooey Luxardo overload.
Express the oil from an inch of lemon peel, run it around the rim, and toss it.
Savor the delicate pomelo, the sage, the green apple notes, the graham…OMG WTF, just drink the thing. It’s not bad and kind of interesting. It looks cool.
If I can say that about myself on any given weeknight, I’d be proud.
nb After all this tweakery, I decided to dash the recipe above with Fee Bros. Barrel Aged Bitters instead of orange. Strictly speaking, a big cheat. But: Boom. There was my wood. The drink took on only the slightest dusky hue. And it’s way better than the orange version. You can still fool others, if not yourself, with this deceitful variation. You can still see right through it. You still look cool.
This drink appears in one of the most esteemed cocktail books of the last century. It’s terrible. Please don’t make it
Sometimes the most valuable public service we can render here at A Measured Spirit Global Headquarters is harm reduction.
Do. Not. Make. This. Drink.
Hell cocktail recipe
Into a mixing glass, do not add:
1 oz cognac
1 oz creme de menthe
Do not shake or stir with ice. Do not strain into a small snifter or shot glass. Do not garnish with red pepper flakes.
Like I said, don’t make it.
Hell cocktail tasting notes
This drink is just fu*king horrible.
The creme de menthe swamps the cognac. The mouthfeel is gummy.
The pepper flakes transmit no heat. They merely get caught in your teeth.
Using equal parts brandy and creme de menthe is like serving coq au vin with Hershey’s chocolate syrup gravy.
Welcome to Hell
People who are fans of John Cheever, the novelist who pulled back the curtain on life among the affluent suburbanites of mid-century Connecticut, may recognize this as a nitwit cousin of the Stinger.
That drink mixes the same two liquors, but it favors the base spirit in 2:1 or 3:1 ratios. The effect is of a brandy tamped down with mint candy — a favored nightcap for the coupon-clipper too timid for a martini.
But if forced, a reasonable person can drink one without harm or lasting loss of self-respect.
But this fresh Hell thing — not so much. Do. Not. Make. It.
Whenever I’m eyeing the bottles behind a bar, I scan for Creme de Violette. An undistinguished looking cylinder of dark purple with a circumference of silver label, the bottle of CDV is a key signifier, as they say in sociology: It tells me that someone in the chain of custody is a fellow cocktail geek.
Bars that have it on hand use it almost exclusively to make a single drink: The Aviation.
The pre-Prohibition gin mix-up was first referenced in print in 1911, eight years after the Brothers Wright committed the act of flight in Kitty Hawk.
This is no coincidence. The Aviation takes its name from the dusky sky blue color the CDV paints the drink.
Where the Aviation gets its wings
The armature of the Aviation is essentially a gin sour: 1 part gin, 1/2 parts each lemon juice and a sweetener.
What makes the drink distinctive is the fact that the sweetener comprises Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and CDV. No simple syrup or sugar.
About the Creme de Violette: Many liqueurs can be taken straight, or thinned with soda to make a neat little sipper. Don’t try that with this gal Violette. She’s sweet to a fault and generic in flavor, maybe a bit flat from the flower petals used to distill it.
But properly measured, she brings some great fun to the party.
The Aviation cocktail recipe
Any mid-shelf London dry
.5 lemon juice
.25 oz Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
.125 [1/8] oz Creme de Violette
After shaking all ingredients, double-strain to sift out the pulpy lemon detritus. That’ll give you clearer skies, so to speak.
Garnish with lemon twist or a cherry.
The Aviation cocktail tasting notes
Properly balanced, the lemon/sweetener combo ticks the edges off the gin, the ingredients melding nicely into a very distinctive, sippable drink. The cherry notes bring a sort of sophistication to the party.
People get finicky about the right amounts of Luxardo and CDV. Both sweeteners punch above their weight, so you definitely want to avoid anything too close to a 50/50 split of lemon to the combined sweeteners.
I prefer the mixture above, which gives the maraschino the bulk of the sweetening role and uses the Creme de Violette mainly for color.
A few observations from the friendly skies
The most referenced version of the drink, found in the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, omitted the CDV. I tried it that way, edging up the maraschino liqueur to counterpunch the lemon. It was okay, if hard to balance. It was…a sweet martini. But it lacked that delightful sky blue.
In 2006 an American craft gin called Aviation was launched, designed in part to support this drink. I’ve tried it. Makes no difference.
In Punch, there’s a great piece of reporting explaining how the Aviation was a darling of 1990s first-generation craft-cocktail bartenders — the exotic ingredients, along with the storied history and exotic color, led the mixological cognoscenti to sky-dive. Then came the inevitable backlash, with some saying it tastes like hand soap and others even saying it was all an “Emperor’s New Clothes” phenomenon: It tasted ridiculous but everybody convinced themselves the royalty was right.
Ignore them. The emperor is fully clothed. And lookin’ damn good in sky blue.
At a Mill Valley restaurant, serve yourself and live large
Maybe I don’t get out enough, but this is the first time I’ve seen Margarita bottle service: At Playa restaurant in Mill Valley, California, $48 for a voluminous tankard of Margarita, iced and bucketed tableside in the fashion of an overpriced Chardonnay.
The thing is, the Margaritas were unnecessarily spectacular: tart and bright, with the kick of el burro. All glasses were Old Fashioned style, half the rim wearing a collar of salt and half plain.
I was as usual going to do the Intrepid Cocktail Geek routine at Playa and order some unthinkable mezcal/anisette/Asian-pear-tincture/espresso-rose-water-bitters/nitrogen-frozen-Kool-Aid-garnish thingy named after the chorus of some Guatemalan rap song.
Wisely, I deferred to our group’s preferences, and to my own curiosity about being served a whole bottle o’ cocktail fun.
It was so good we ordered it twice.
Seems like a brilliant mix of customer delight and business smart. Folks drink more when they serve themselves, the product is pre-batched, the wait-staff is freed from one-off re-orders and even from the salted-or-unsalted query.
And hey, it’s a rare chance to act nearly as cool as you wish you were.
True, it’s not like being a rapper in the red velvet room of a downtown club working through a case if Ciroc. But bottle service of high-power hootch, the vessel sweating in its metal bucket of ice as the gang tops each other off until — oops, gone already? ¡Uno mas, senorita! — is just a hoot.
nb: The food at Playa is so tasty it’s almost unfair to other Mill Valley restaurants.
A surprisingly drinkable mix of mezcal and rye. The presentation? Loco
Placed before me at a random mezcaleria in Healdsburg, California:
“Maybe that should be served up, without the ice cube?” said I.
The waitress baby-sitting the bar this early afternoon referred to the handwritten guide the head bartender had left behind the counter.
“No,” said she. “It says to serve with the big ice cube.”
“Maybe it should be served in an Old Fashioned glass?” I offered.
“No, he said to serve everything in a Margarita glass.”
When in Rome, etc.
Gamely, I took a sip. The ice cube brushed my nose.
The odd thing is, it was an unexpectedly arresting drink. It looked like a train-wreck on the menu — all those unrelated flavors in one place! — but it was at least a solid B, with extra points for originality.
I have no idea what it was called on the menu.
So I am naming it here.
La Nariz Congelada, or The Frozen Nose
1.5 z mezcal
.5 Luxardo maraschino liqueur
Stir in a mixing glass, serve up in a coupe with one big ice cube, because…well, WTF. Brandied cherry garnish.
Frozen Nose cocktail tasting notes
Mixes two base spirits and a liqueur, each with vivid, distinctive flavors.
The smoke of the mezcal, the grainy edge of the rye, the high-pitched sweet of the Luxardo…somehow balance themselves.
Instead of a bar fight, this somehow comes off as a slightly edgy barstool conversation among three very strong-minded people who’ve never met.
Which is to say: A fascinating entertainment, but slightly dangerous.
Okay, so I tried this in an Old Fashioned glass. Worked much better.
It’s time to give the humbly obscure kumquat its mixological due
The alcohol-industrial complex has concocted a bewildering number of horatory days, weeks, and months. There’s National Martini Day [June 19], National Bourbon Heritage Month [September], and National Liqueur Day [October 16]. Inevitably, this gets weird. In an act of collaborative mercy, Harvey Wallbanger Day and National Shot Day both happen on November 8. Because there is no god, there is now a National Rhubarb Vodka Day. And so on.
Which provides me all the justification I need to take the following action:
I hereby declare, with the authority invested in me by absolutely nobody whatsoever, National Kumquat Cocktail Fortnight™. Hereafter it shall be observed annually from February 25 through March 11 (March 10 on leap years).
Kumquat season, you say?
Kumquats — small ovals of citrus the size of an olive, sweet of skin and sour of belly, believed to be native of China — have a limited season, from January through March. This makes a fixed celebration during this period actually defensible. [I’m not sure the creators of National Rhubarb Vodka Day can make the same claim.]
This compressed availability issue may explain why, against all reason, the kumquat has failed to become a stable behind craft cocktail bars everywhere. It should.
Kumquats are pretty little things, easy to muddle, and fairly versatile for an exotic.
The miniature orange orbs are sharp and punchy, a frisky variation on – and easy collaborator with – the more familiar citrus flavors we know too well.
They have a funny name that invites a lowbrow leer.
You can probably find them from January through March at Whole Foods and similar high-fallutin’ food barns.
Like the very best people I know, kumquats are sweet, tart, and just slightly bitter.