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.
The obscure Zazarac is not a misspelled Sazerac. It’s a drink unto itself. Its obscurity likely derives from the fact that nobody who makes it once is likely to do so again
One of the most obscure drinks I’ve blundered across is the Zazarac.
That may seem like a misspelling of the Sazerac, that otherworldly classic that comes to us via mid-19th century New Orleans. And some will argue that the Zazarac was the same drink, spelled differently as a litigation dodge.
But there are better reasons to believe that the Zazarac, as captured in certain editions of Harry Craddock’s definitive-for-its-time The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930), is its own thing.
And what a peculiar thing it is.
Zazaracs: Not just a spelling difference
Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails, the definitive scholarly exhumation of defunct cocktails, mentions two versions of the Zazarac, which he found typed in a 1930s bartender’s pocket notebook.
I’ve lined them up below, adding what I’m calling #3, which appears in Harry Craddock’s book.
As you can see, the household comprises one perfect child and three black sheep.
The Sazerac and Zazaracs #s 2 and 3 all abide by the classic definition of a “cocktail”: Base spirit, sugar, and bitters. All share absinthe. But from there things get hairy.
Z1 omits bitters, flouting the “cocktail” definition. It adds sweet vermouth and Amer Picon [a dark, bittersweet, fragrant French apertif, a bit like Italy’s Averna]. It tosses in curacao, an orange liqueur similar to Cointreau or triple sec. So it goes in pretty deep with orange.
Z2 uses Peychaud’s, sure enough, but then tosses in orange bitters and Amer Picon — again, an unusual commitment to orange.
Z3, explored below, adds white rum as a second base spirit [!], and anisette, a sweet licorice-flavored liqueur whose anis-y power essentially doubles down on the absinthe. It retains a hint of orange only via the bitters.
It seems unlikely to me that any of the Zazaracs were attempts to produce the Sazerac and avoid legal trouble with the New Orleans Sazerac House importer, the French maker of Sazerac cognac, or any number of taverns nationwide with the same name.
At best they are heavy-handed riffs, at worst original desecrations.
And since all versions add to rather than replace ingredients of the Sazerac [excepting the swap of bitters in #3], it seems unlikely that early American supply chain issues drove these variations.
Nope. These Zazaracs are not legal dances to stay out of court. For better or worse, but mainly worse, they are purposeful creations unto themselves.
The Sazerac and the Zazarac have as much in common as a lucid dream and your kitchen junk drawer.
The Zazarac recipe presented here is a modified version of what appears in Wikipedia.
I know that’s lame, but bear with me. There’s a lot of confusion here, and the Wikipedia one appears to hunker pretty closely to one in the Savoy book, which became the reference recipe going forward.
Anyhow: Let’s grab a pair of tins and shake things up.
Actually we should stir them up, but that’s another twist in this odd little tale.
Zazarac Cocktail recipe [via Craddock, I think]
1 oz rye
Or Canadian whiskey — Canadian Club if you want to get specific. Canadian whiskeys skew more rye-heavy, so this alternative makes sense.
.5 oz rum
I used Bacardi white, which aligns with several recipes I dug up.
.5 oz anisette
I used pastis, a French version of that family of licorice-flavored beverages. To be more historically and culinarily accurate —and I know how deeply important that is to you— you should use Sambuca or Ouzo. It’s a maceration vs. distillation thing, and an anis vs. licorice thing, for what it’s worth.
.5 rich simple syrup
“Rich” simple syrup mixes sugar to water 2:1. The original called for gum arabic, aka gomme syrup, an even sweeter elixir.
3 dashes absinthe
Yeah, I know. Absinthe + anisette. Anisette — pastis in particular — is often used in place of absinthe. Why use both in the same drink? Who knows? Worse: Many Craddock follow-ons call for .5 oz absinthe.
1 dash each Angostura and orange bitters
Shake, strain into an Old Fashioned glass, garnish with lemon peel.
The recipes all say to shake, though there’s no citrus in sight. Maybe that’s a relic of the days when gummy gomme was used, which may have needed more agitation. Beats me.
Tom Waits no longer drinks. This didn’t stop me from creating a beverage inspired by his characters and stories. Warning: Things get a little weird
If you’re acquainted with Tom Waits — the most important and breathtakingly talented songwriter and performer of his generation I-don’t-care-what- you-say-because-if-you-disagree-you’re-wrong — you’d think it would be easy to come up with a Tom Waits drink.
Many of Waits’ early songs are exquisite, heartbreaking, often hilarious soundscapes where the main characters have been, to put it generously, over-served. Just a few titles illustrate: “The Piano has Been Drinking.” “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.” “Gin-Soaked Boy.”
Until he met his wife Kathleen Brennan in 1987 and together they embarked on a remarkable journey of musical exploration that too few people know about, Waits says he lived a lot like the Bowery-bum scoundrels and layabouts that populate his songs.
Essentially the product provides little bits of some of the botanicals often found in gin. You plop them into your Gin & Tonic to add additional flavor and scents and whatnot.
This kit ($6.95) contains pink peppercorns, juniper berries, cardamom pods, and hibiscus flowers.
Gimmicky? Sure! But it’s a pretty nifty way to dress up an often samey standby.
First, the visuals are great — vivid, colorful little things either stirred below the ice or resting on top, or both. As the minutes pass the hibiscus bleeds off some of its crimson hue, creating a floaty red smudge.
Flavors? Less so, but still usefully additive.
The cardamom provides a surprisingly nice nose. [On my second experiment I gently broke the shell of the pods and the effect was enhanced. In time the pink peppercorns add some bite. The juniper? Seems redundant, and I’m not sure you need to turn up that flavor in a gin.
I know what you’re thinking. [I always know what you’re thinking. How do I do it?] Can’t you just buy the spices and and save a lot of money?
Tell me what this thing is, and win it for your collection of pointless cocktail curios.
So I posted on the Twitter machine a photo of one of the more pointless pieces of cocktail paraphernalia in my growing collection.
My offer: Identify this device, explain what it’s used for, and it’s yours. I will timely send it to you by US mail, and within a cheerful civil servant will deliver it to your door with a smile. You can start using it for _______________ immediately.
I like to think of it as paying it forward. Or debiting it forward, if you like.
So: On the menu I see a Ramos Gin Fizz [ca. 1888, New Orleans], a hard-to-spot classic I’ve been warned to order only when in good hands. It requires the fairly obscure ingredient orange blossom water, for one thing, and between 3 and 12 [!] minutes of vigorous — even “violent,” as some recipes say — shaking.
So much shaking, in fact, that 19th century accounts report that the tins were passed among multiple bartenders, as no man working alone could possibly produce the amount of agitation required.