“Is there any alcohol in that at all?”
— Sam Seaborn
My grandmother’s go-to drink was whiskey & water. It was what she had around the house, and we her family used it sometimes as a weapon, deployed to mollify her late-afternoon grumpiness. I never did glean what her preferred whiskey was; it may have been Seagram’s 7, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t give a damn one way or the other. It wasn’t special. There was no ceremony. For her, whiskey & water was a kitchen table, Tuesday afternoon drink.
For special occasions, though, when the outfits were removed from their thick reflective plastic, and the nice jewelry retrieved from the ornate chest on her dresser… special occasions called for a Pink Squirrel.
I had always assumed that it was a flapper drink, ordered at speakeasies by women in stringy dresses, and served in gently-sloped martini glasses so to not discompose one’s cloche. But it was not so. Paternity credit goes to Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who claim the drink was invented there by the owner, Bryant Sharp, in 1941. I’ve not seen any evidence, but in the absence of either competing claims or more information, we’re rolling with it.
It enjoyed some popularity even through the mid 70s, shifting into obscurity not long after. They (Bryant’s) say it was originally with ice cream, but by the time it first showed up in print, in the 1966 edition of Old Mr. Boston, the dairy had morphed into heavy cream. And this is the recipe you’ll get pretty much anywhere. The original:
1oz creme de noyaux
1oz white creme de cacao
1oz heavy cream
Combine ingredients in mixing tin; shake; strain into martini glass; no garnish.
There are a couple problems with this, the first and most obvious presented as a question: What the hell is creme de noyaux?
Noyaux (noy-yew) is a French word for “stone” or “kernel,” specifically the kernels found inside the pit of stone fruits (peaches, plums, apricots, etc.) Creme de noyaux is a bright red liqueur made from these peach kernels, which taste strongly of marzipan and bitter almonds. So it is, at it’s most basic level, a liqueur that tastes like almonds, even though it has no almonds in it.
It’s all but extinct now, particularly in the U.S., though you can find it here and there. The problem is that these kernels contain a compound which gets converted into hydrogen cyanide upon digestion. Which is bad. In fact, of all the words to follow “hydrogen” in terms of digestibles, “cyanide” is among the worst. So even the bottles you can find are probably flavored artificially, which is way easier than neutralizing cyanic compounds.
Sometimes arcane ingredients get resurrected, like creme de violette and Old Tom Gin, but I wouldn’t bet on a Noyaux revival because the liqueur is the capitalistically grim trifecta of being difficult to make, somewhat expensive, and in incredibly low demand.
If you have creme de noyaux, artificial or not, go ahead and make that drink. Chocolate, almonds, and creme don’t need a cheerleader in me. For what it’s worth, I’ve never used heavy cream, opting instead for half & half or whole milk, pretty much whatever’s around. I wouldn’t go leaner than whole, but that and creamier will work fine. The faint bitterness of noyaux plays a small diplomatic role in mitigating sweetness, but be assured, this is bright pink dessert. It’s creamy. It’s sweet. It’s delicious.
If no noyaux, there are two alternatives. Well, three, assuming you’ve got a bucket full of peach pits and a heart full of danger.
(1) Make your own. A few intrepid bloggers have tackled the production, most notably Matthew Rowley, hydrogen cyanide be damned. I don’t recommend this, but do as you like.
(2) Use grenadine. Be advised, this makes an entirely different drink (often called Pink Squirrel #2). While it remains bubblegum pink, grenadine is chosen exclusively for its color, as the pomegranite/flower-water flavor has nothing whatsoever to do with bitter almond/marzipan of noyaux. A chocolate and pomegranate mixture has charms all it’s own, but a Pink Squirrel it ain’t.
(3) Amaretto. Noyaux’s shares the tastes-like-almonds-though-there’s-no-almonds characteristic with (most) amaretto. Though amaretto is an almond liqueur, it usually gets its flavor from apricot pits. Flavor-wise, it’s a good call. But amaretto won’t get you a pink squirrel, rendering instead a light brownish-squirrel.
C’est la vie. We do what we can.
If you (for some reason) want to learn more about creme de noyaux, there is a reasonably complete discussion here.
BONUS PERSONAL FACT:
A short story: at my grandmother’s 70th birthday, in 1996, the whole extended family convened at a bar in Detroit. My aunt managed to source a bottle of creme de noyaux, and the Pink Squirrels were flowing with heady abandon. I was 12 at the time and, mesmerized by the lurid martini glasses abound, demanded a taste of this mysterious candy-colored beverage. It was so much better than the gross wine and barfy beer that I had tasted before that I proclaimed, much to everyones drunken amuseument, that “when I turn 21, my first drink is going to be a Pink Squirrel!”
Eight and a half years and 2500 miles from that point, my mother conspiratorially tells this story to my friends, so it’s decided and enforced that my first legal drink has to be a Pink Squirrel. We first tried the W Hotel in Westwood, who blinked absently at our requests for either the cocktail or the noyaux, so 12:05am on December 6, 2004 found us in the basement bar of the Beverly Hills Hotel, Pink Squirrel in hand. I took a picture and sent it to my Grandmother, who responded with the same kind of overwhelmed happiness that she did every time any of her grandchildren did anything.
12/6/2004 and 9/15/12:
“What did you expect?” Úrsula sighed. “Time passes.”
“That’s how it goes,” Aureliano admitted, “but not so much.”
— One Hundred Years of Solitude