Colleen Bawn

As I’ve already said, I think maybe more than once, it was in Boston that I learned how to drink. The bar that was singularly instrumental in teaching me was Green Street Grill in Cambridge.

It was the kind of bar people go out of their way for. Fortunately for me, I lived about 35 seconds from it, and it was there I had my first Old Fashioned, first taste of Fernet Branca, first flip, fizz, Collins, sour, etc., etc., etc. And it was there I had my first Colleen Bawn, then a fixture on their extended cocktail menu.

We ordered so many of them that winter that the bartenders used to groan when they saw Vikki’s bright red coat walk in the front door, because they knew they would be forced to make at least one egg drink. Eggs, you see, are a giant pain in the ass. You have to shake them once without ice and then once with, and with the ice you have to shake them forever, and you usually have to garnish ornately, artful dashes of bitters or hand-grated nutmeg or other such annoying flourishes that take up valuable doing-other-things time.

It’s worth noting, however, that we didn’t care about their groaning then, and I have even less sympathy for it now that I work with eggs myself. Never let a bartender make you feel bad about ordering a drink. If like Amaretto Sours, order an Amaretto Sour. I don’t care if you like Splenda Mojitos in January: you want what you want, and our job is to make it for you. Unless, of course, you order Ramos Gin Fizzes on a busy weekend night, in which case you can go fuck yourself.


The Colleen Bawn (meaning “fair girl,” from the Irish cailín bán) is the name of a play from 1860 by Dion Boucicault. It dramatizes the true story of Ellen Hainley, murdered at 15 by her wealthy husband and his servant. The murder of a beautiful young commoner and indictment among the aristocracy caused something of a stir, as you might imagine, and the story became about justice overcoming social class. Both men were hanged, and Hanley was interred under the inscription:

“Here lies the Colleen Bawn
Murdered on the Shannon
July 14th, 1819”

Once again, the connection between this cocktail and its name eludes me — my best guess is that it’s named after a “fair girl” because it’s so lovely, but who the hell knows? What we do know is that  it shows up in 1904 in Edward Spencer’s The Flowing Bowl, and it’s as good today as it was then:

Colleen Bawn
1oz Rittenhouse Rye
1oz Yellow Chartreuse
1oz Bénédictine
1 full egg
Shake without ice to whip the egg; add ice and shake with hearty vigor; strain into cocktail glass; garnish with grated nutmeg and/or cinnamon

Yes, I realize I’m advertising a cold weather drink with pictures of sunshine. I live in San Diego. Deal with it.

The egg combined with the saffron in the Chartreuse gives the drink the color of custard, which texture-wise is not so far off. It is creamy with egg, smooth and a little thick. The rye, big as it is, is more for infrastructure than flavor; the liqueurs, as with the wonderful Widow’s Kiss, mix perfectly together. Individually, Yellow Chartreuse and Bénédictine are both full, pungent, herbal French liqueurs, and it seems kind of silly to put them together save for the fact that it works.

This is a drink of strange opposites: it’s highly complex but not difficult, it’s a little sweet but also a bit bracing. While it’s good any time, the thickness of the egg and the sweetness of the liqueurs (also that one cocktail is the equivalent of 3.2oz of 80 proof liquor) make the Colleen Bawn perfect as the last drink on a cold night.

Midnight Stinger

I have long eyed the “Fernet About It” on The Lion’s Share’s menu and was getting excited about it when the gracious & handsome Has suggested another drink he’s been really enjoying lately, the Midnight Stinger, something he picked up on a recent trip to Death & Co. in New York City.

The Stinger is a classic dessert cocktail with brandy and creme de menthe. It is sweet. So sweet in fact, that this is one of the very few all-booze drinks that one should shake (as opposed to stir) in order to mitigate how cloying it can be… and while this “Midnight” version is also suitable for post-meal drinking, that’s more or less where the similarities end:

Midnight Stinger
1oz Elijah Craig 12 year bourbon
1oz Fernet Branca
0.5oz lemon juice
0.5oz simple syrup
Shake, strain over crushed ice in a double rocks glass; garnish with a bright little mint sprig.


I’m really starting to like these fractioned sours. This cocktail was damn tasty and, to my great surprise, not difficult to drink. You’d think it would be… an ounce of Fernet? It seems a bit rude for mint to RSVP only to have Fernet Branca show up, but as I’ve learned in my life, showing up with bourbon is a good way to be welcomed in the door.

I think it’s the sour template and the crushed ice, but this was a surprisingly easy, herbal drink. It’s a great option for someone who wants some of that peppermint oil in the back of their throat but not a full blast of the Branca’s devil potion. I’d actually give this as an intro drink to anyone curious about Fernet. Great before or after or even during dinner. Delicious.

I’ve still never had any of their menu drinks. I love that place.

Don’t Give Up The Ship

In the late afternoon of June 1, 1813, as he lay dying, Captain James Lawrence could tell by the shouts on deck that the British had boarded his ship. The USS Chesapeake was battered and outgunned but Lawrence was a military man, and he gave what would be his stoic final order: “Don’t give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks.”

His command was universally seen as an act of valor, despite the obvious fact that he had quite a bit less to lose than his men, considering that he was, at that moment, already bleeding to death. But that’s not the point. The Chesapeake was ultimately given up, within the hour even, but that’s not the point either. The point is that “Don’t Give Up The Ship!” became the rallying cry for the fledgling U.S. Navy, who ultimately overpowered the British and (spoiler alert!) won the war of 1812.

Now. What any of that has to do with gin, Fernet Branca, orange liqueur and Dubonnet is anyone’s guess, but it does. Not everything is explainable; enjoy the mystery. What best I can tell, a cocktail by that name first appeared some 130 years later in Crosby Gaige’s Cocktail Guide and Ladies’ Companion in 1941, but twiddled its thumbs in obscurity until sometime around 2004, when it was unearthed and reanimated, like so many other greats, at Seattle’s Zig Zag Cafe.

It was first made for me by Dave Kinsey at Craft and Commerce, who told me he picked up the recipe from Sam Ross. I immediately fell in love with this drink. Fernet Branca is such a problem child that getting it to play nice is a treasure in itself, and the flavors layer perfectly … it hits clean and bright, with the Fernet sparkling like a firecracker on the finish. It’s beautiful.

But, when I looked up the recipe online (here or here or pretty much anywhere), it was different than the one I was given. Not entirely different, but different enough that it would change not just the flavors but the character of the final drink. Mine had a half ounce each of Cointreau, Fernet Branca, and Carpano Antica; the original subs Dubonnet Rouge for Carpano, and halves the liqueurs down to 1/4oz each, subbing Grand Marnier for Cointreau.


Clearly an extensive round of experiments was in order. Which is like my favorite thing. I made 8 incarnations, learned quite a bit about the mechanics of this particular drink (as well as Dubonnet and Grand Marnier), and came up with what I think is the definitive recipe. I’ll give you that first (if that’s what you’re here for), then below I will — as we used to say — show my work.

Don’t Give Up The Ship (The Best Version)
1.5 oz London Dry Gin
0.5oz Cointreau
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Fernet Branca
1 dash Angostura Orange bitters
Stir over ice for 30 seconds; strain into chilled cocktail glass; garnish with a orange peel.


But why should we believe you? (a.k.a. Nerding Out w/Cocktails)

Because I got good and drunk over two nights just so I could tell you these things.

Also, please don’t take my gin choice to say that I think it’s the best for this drink. It’s just what I had lying around.

Attempts 1 and 2:

1: Craft and Commerce/Sam Ross/The One I Initially Fell in Love with

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Cointreau
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)


2. Same ratios, switch out Cointreau for Grand Marnier

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Grand Marnier
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

The only difference is the orange liqueur, and my god is it a difference. The original recipe calls for orange curacao and most people sub in Grand Marnier, which is way, way worse. Maybe changing to Dubonnet as well will somehow change that, but I doubt it. Not only is the entire drink out of balance, no harmonies to speak of… but the finish, where the Fernet should fizzle, instead there’s all these oaky vanilla flavors from GM’s cognac base. The flavors don’t fit at all, and actually makes me wonder it’s possible that Grand Marnier could ever fit in this drink.

Attempts 3 and 4, reducing the liqueurs from 0.5oz to 0.25oz:

3: Original ratio, with Cointreau

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.25oz Cointreau
0.25oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)


4. Original ratio, with the (seemingly more traditional) Grand Marnier

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.25oz Grand Marnier
0.25oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

This is interesting… this echos the original recipe that has only a quarter ounce of orange liqueur and Fernet Branca. Where before (with 0.5oz each) the Cointreau was perfectly balanced, taking away a quarter ounce of Fernet and Cointreau renders the cocktail effete and kind of waifish. … and it should be noted, this is a problem that the weighty force of Grand Marnier solves nicely. #3 is too light, #4 restores balance. I still don’t think the cognac flavors belong there, but let’s see what happens with Dubonnet.

Attempts #5 and #6: Enter Dubonnet

5th Attempt: The Classic Recipe

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Dubonnet Rouge
0.25oz Grand Marnier
0.25oz Fernet Branca

Thinner, a bit oaky, but the near-fruity brightness of the Dubonnet mixes incredibly well with the Grand Marnier. This is totally delicious. The dissonance is fascinating. Definitely a different drink than #1. This may be a Happy Gilmore/Billy Madison situation (you prefer the one you saw first). Perfectly balanced with high complexity. I can’t get over the bright/heavy thing with the Dubonnet/Grand Marnier. Great.


6th: Craft and Commerce recipe with Dubonnet instead of Carpano Antica

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Dubonnet Rouge
0.5oz Cointreau
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

I feel like in a way this is a drink without a country. Dubonnet has less richness than Carpano, a richness the drink really needs to balance the crisp punch of Cointreau. Very interesting. The lightness makes the Fernet almost toothpaste-y, plus with a mess of jaunty flavor wisps on the back end. It just misses. Flavor waves don’t line up. One of five stars. Would not buy again.

Final Test: #1 against #5

I guess I could’ve just skipped straight to this, but I wanted to understand the mechanics and now I do. The classic with Dubonnet and Grand Marnier is a lower tone, more restrained. Sitting around a fire, maybe. Craving warmth. The vanilla and oak flavors certainly dictate the overall feel. #1, on the other hand, is bright and cheery, cleaner and crisper. It showcases the Fernet. It’s a modern drink – bright, complex, full. I end with what I started with. #1, with a bullet.

Attempts #7 and #8: Postscripts & Curiosities

7th: Can I switch out a citrus-forward new gin for the juniper-forward London Dry?

1.5oz gin (Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength)
0.5oz Cointreau
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

Miller’s Gin is on the other side of the spectrum: fuller, and much more citrus/less juniper. The answer is No, no, you can’t mess with the gin. Use London Dry, something crisp and juniper forward. It’s actually pretty amazing how much the cocktail fell apart with the Miller’s. Heavy, unpleasant bitterness. Don’t even bother.

8th: How about the new ratios with the classic liqueurs? 0.5oz of everything but with GM and Dubonnet?

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Grand Marnier
0.5oz Dubonnet
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

No way. Way too much. This is a jumbled hodgepodge of messy flavors all trying too hard to get noticed, like the cocktail equivelent of watching The Bachelor. Curiosity satisfied. I don’t need any more. We have our champion.


In this business you hear a lot of origin stories about classic cocktails, but rarely get to experience them. That is to say, you rarely get to (1) actually go to the room in which it was invented, and (2) get one that is as good if not better than it is anywhere else. But if you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself in Venice and have that special mixture of historical reverence and financial irreverence, well, then you get to go to Harry’s Bar and drink a Bellini.


On Calle Vallaresso, a block west of the Piazza San Marco at the mouth of the Grand Canal sits Harry’s Bar, much as it has since the 1931. A small bit has changed since then — they’ve expanded upstairs, and international fame has driven their prices into the ionosphere — but such is, we’re told, the cost of history:

In the 1930s, Venice was a favorite destination of the cream of European society, and Harry’s Bar thrived under the hospitality of owner and barman Giuseppe Cipriani. It also didn’t hurt that its name attracted anglophiles, and was extremely — though coincidentally — similar to another world-famous bar of the time, the unconnected Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. But no matter: it had the staying power of quality, and was a favorite among rich locals and well-to-do tourists, then of visiting movie stars and other such celebrities. Once Hemingway chose it as his favorite spot in 1949, Harry’s officially became legendary. Which I guess is what makes it ok for them to charge €10 for eight ounces of Coca-Cola.


Sometime in the late 30s, Cipriani was stuck with a glut of seasonal white peaches and no good way to store them. After what must’ve been a whisper from the muses, he whipped up a puree and added it to some prosecco, and the world’s greatest sparkling wine cocktail was born. His drink, popular though it was, went unnamed for almost a decade. It wasn’t until 1948 when Cipriani christened it the Bellini, after he saw the drink’s pink hue echoed in a painting by the homonymous Renaissance artist.

From Harry’s own website:

When making a Bellini, everything (the glasses, Prosecco and white peach puree) should be as cold as possible. The general rule is to use one part white peach puree to three parts Prosecco. Use fresh frozen white peach puree when you can, but when making your own puree, never use a food processor because it aerates the fruit. (Maurice Graham Henry often uses a cheese shredder, shredding the peaches and using a strainer to collect the maximum amount of juice.) Add a bit of sugar or some simple syrup if the puree is too tart or a tad sour.

6oz Prosecco
2oz White peach puree
Mix together in separate mixing tin or glass, stir with a spoon; then pour into flute, wine glass, or really whatever you’d like [coffee mug, dog bowl, etc.]. Serve without garnish.

Though each 7oz glass cost $21 (seriously), this is without doubt the best Bellini I’ve ever had. I find Mimosas boring and best prefixed with “endless,” but a Bellini is a elegant, classic drink. Gary Regan calls it “perhaps the most sophisticated Italian drink,” and while I don’t agree at all (against the Negroni? Is he kidding?), it is incredibly good. Bright, full, and harmonious. I sometimes find sparkling wine cocktails to be too thin and effervescent, but the 3:1 prosecco/puree mix hits perfectly.

A note on ingredients: don’t use champagne, get the prosecco. It’s a bit sweeter, which helps, and besides — this is a very Italian drink. If you live in a submarine or something and can’t get prosecco, then use a sweeter champagne than brut, something sec or demi-sec.

Oh, and never use yellow peaches. A pox on you if you use yellow peaches. They’re nowhere near as good.

Pink Squirrel

“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:

Pink Squirrel
1oz creme de noyaux
1oz white creme de cacao
1oz heavy cream
Combine ingredients in mixing tin; shake; strain into martini glass; no garnish.

Special thanks to the excellent bar at Hunter Steakhouse, the only bar I know absolutely for sure keeps a bottle of creme de noyaux.

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.


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

Up in Smoke

I was recently asked to make a beer cocktail (read: a cocktail featuring beer in some way) for a mini-competition at Sessions Public. The peremeters were broad and the rules few, and yet I’ve never had a more difficult time inventing a drink. It felt like coaxing blood from a fucking stone, I think mostly because I don’t have a huge amount of respect for the category. Beer cocktails always feel forced to me, more interesting than they are delicious — I’ll have one and find it intellectually satisfying, and not need another. I think that was true of the one I ended up making, and that’s in fact been true of every beer cocktail I’ve ever had, except for one:*

Up In Smoke
1oz Laphroig Islay Scotch
1oz Fuji Apple simple syrup
0.25oz lime juice
3-4oz Allagash Curieux

Shake the scotch, syrup, and lime juice over ice. Strain into collins glass half-full with ice. Top with beer. Garnish with apple slice, and serve.

The Up in Smoke has been on Craft and Commerce’s list since they opened, I believe a Phil Ward original (but I welcome corrections on that point). While it wouldn’t take much mental horsepower to pair, say, a dark rum (caramel and vanilla flavors) with a stout or porter (vanilla and coffee flavors), this drink is the exact opposite. This pulls flavors from all over the place.

The Curieux is a Belgian-style tripel aged in bourbon barrels for 8 weeks. The beer is full of malty sweetness and almost affects a fruity character, which is here compounded by the apple syrup and given a backbone of briny, smokey scotch, a choice as strange as it is successful. Belgian beers can sometimes be too rich for beer cocktails, but the acidity of the lime juice and tart echo of the apple bat it back down.

This is a marvelously creative drink. It’s both fascinating and completely delicious, a 7-10 split in the culinary world. In 100 years, I would never have thought to invent this. Though I’ve thought of drinking it twice this week, and it’s only Thursday.

*MITIGATING DETAIL: A very talented bartender named Adam at Sessions did come up with one that I thought was superb, a rum/ginger concoction with muddled strawberries and topped with Liefmans Fruitesse, a bright, sweet fruit beer from Belgium. This echos the best drink Nick Budrow has ever made me, which was muddled strawberries with Buffalo Trace, lemon juice, simple syrup and again the Liefmans. The sweet/tart, vaguely balsamic quality of sours and lambics lends themselves to mixing with cocktails, particularly when actual berries are involved. Not that it’s necessarily better than not, but they sit more comfortably within the spectrum of deliciousness.

Barrel Aged Vieux Carré (a.k.a. Ancien Carré) — UPDATE

I promised that I’d update with news of how the barrel-aged Vieux Carré (or “Ancién Carré”) turned out, so here we are.

The significance of barrel-aging comes from the interaction between the liquid and the wood. Which is tediously obvious, except that it has one corollary that is worth noting: a smaller barrel means that there’s a higher ratio of surface area wood to liquid. Which  in turn means that the adorable little barrel I had, 3 liters in volume and roughly the size of an adolescent cocker spaniel, ages things extremely quickly.

I checked it at 5 weeks, and it needed just a little more. Then something more engaging must’ve happened, because I forgot about it for a while, suddenly panicking at 7 weeks that I had forgotten and ruined the whole thing, but to my surprise, it was perfect.

Ancien Carré
2oz 7-week barrel aged Vieux Carré
1 cube of ice
1 lemon peel
Add ice cube; express oils of peel over the top of the drink; serve.

I very nearly over-aged this, which would’ve been tragic, but as it stands, it’s perfect. At first, I tried to properly chill it via stirring on ice, and the flavors completely fell apart. I thought I had ruined it, until I made another one and added just one big cube of ice, unstirred, and let time do it’s work. The result, if I may say, is kind of amazing.

The ingredients are top shelf, with such a long time in a small barrel bringing a new complexity and significant oak sweetness. The smell alone could end a war. It’s vanilla and fruit, the symphonic chord of cognac enhanced and deepened by the barrel with the rye adding just enough stiffness to be noticeable. The basic Vieux Carré is delicate and full as it is, and this takes that, plugs it in, and cranks it to 11. This is a phenomenal drink.

Tragically, I can’t give it to you, because we’ve already sold out. We started with a very small batch – if you remember, it was just going to be for me and my friends until I figured out how good it was – and the bar sold out of them already, so I can’t tell you where to get it. However, we are planning another batch (along with an exciting new barrel, if things work like they’re supposed to…), so either be good enough friends with me to have one of the 5 or so I’ve got left in my apartment, or look to URBN in about 8 or 9 weeks.

Mane of Needles

“…soft as a mane of needles…”
The Mars Volta
Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore — B. Pour Another Icepick

At URBN, we take a measure of pride at being one of the only places in North Park to get a proper drink. Regardless of their individual background knowledge or off-menu skills, everyone behind our bar can make a great Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Negroni, etc. No one could legitimately call us a cocktail bar, and yet we’re a bar that can make great cocktails.

This is a tool in our belt that I refuse to give up. I don’t care one fucking bit that the nuance and balance of our drinks are wasted on 99% of our clientele. We don’t maintain quality just for them; it’s for us too. Or, at least, for me. Tending bar is not an inherently cerebral activity, and craft cocktails, for me, are what forestall the fungal ennui that grows on everything that doesn’t progress.

In that spirit, we left one spot on the winter cocktail menu for an drinker’s drink, something whiskey and potent. That drink is the Mane of Needles. Of the 10 or so cocktails on the new menu, this is the one I really like, the one for the enthusiastic minority of our customers that share my taste. It’s the only one I’d happily make for Scott Holliday or Misty Kalkofan or Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli or any of the other Boston greats who introduced me to this world. Borrowing inspiration from the Violet Hour’s wonderful Autumn Negroni, I combined my initial goal of marrying Fernet Branca and Benedictine with the layered-bitter thing that they did so well, and thus:

Mane of Needles
2oz Bulleit Rye
0.75oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Campari
0.25oz Bénédictine
0.25oz Fernet Branca
1 dash Angostura Orange bitters

Stir ingredients in a mixing glass for 30 seconds; strain into a chilled cocktail glass; garnish with orange peel.

There’s something soft and accessible about Bulleit Rye, but at 90 proof it’s study enough to provide the infrastructure for this drink. I think of Carpano in this case as an emulsifier, with Campari’s robust bitterness playing against the sweet; the Bénédictine and Fernet, though just at a quarter-ounce each, are co-dependent enablers that play off each other to add spice and flourish. But it’s devil Fernet, with its peppermint oil and menthol, gives the Mane of Needles its name. The drink is, on the whole, soft and smooth with gentle bitterness and enough liqueur to make it silky, and yet while drinking it, the Fernet jumps up to offer little bridled pinpricks along the way.

This was also, of all the cocktails, the easiest to name. The experience of drinking it immediately reminded me of the Mars Volta lyric. It’s like petting a porcupine. But a delicious one.

Note: at URBN, we slightly modify the proportions to make it (1) easier to construct in a hurry, (2) less expensive for the consumer, and (3) not so much damn booze. The Mane of Needles (Album Version) is 1.5oz of Bulleit Rye, and 1.25oz of a 3:2:1:1 Carpano / Campari /Fernet / Bénédictine batch that we pre-make, with a dash of Angostura Orange bitters. This has the added effect of slightly increasing the ratio of rye to liqueur, which in the end makes the whole thing taste a little better anyway.

Trivia!“Soft as a mane of needles” is six words, which is the maximum amount of consecutive words you can quote from the Mars Volta — from any part of any of their songs — before you start getting strange looks. The full stanza, by way of proof:

“Punctuated by her decrepit prowl she, washed down the hatching gizzard.
Soft as a mane of needles, his orifice icicles hemorrhaged by combing her torso to a pile.”


Corpse Reviver #2

There aren’t, within any given field, a lot of things that are suitable for both novices and professionals. We generally refer to this gap as experience. Whether it’s tennis rackets or sex toys, kitchen knives or high explosives, the introductory item is something of easy pleasures that will, with time, get outgrown.

Not so with the Corpse Reviver #2. Such is its charm. It’s a fantastic introduction to both gin specifically and mixology in general, but it’s also a favorite of a good many of us who live in this cloistered little cocktail world.

Ted Haigh recounts, in the introduction to his book, how he first encountered the Corpse Reviver #2:

“To my amazement, it was the finest thing to ever pass my palate. I could taste every ingredient. It was subtle, it was fresh, it was complex, and it was delicious. My research and acquisitions continued with renewed vigor.”

Despite the fact that he writes like he’s dispatching from a 19th century ship, Haigh was on to something. This drink is delicious.

It appears originally in the Savoy Cocktail Book, Harry Craddock’s 1930 weighty harem of recipes. The “Corpse Reviver” was a popular style of cocktail from the late 1800s to around 1920, when prohibition knocked it out. It is, as you’d imagine, a morning drink. This particular one is tart, bright, and complex, light and unfilling, yet with enough punch to overpower even the worst hangover.

At Little Italy’s newly opened Prep Kitchen, they wisely put it on their brunch cocktail menu. It was Sunday morning, I had fallen asleep at 5:30am the night before, and while I would’ve loved to try something they invented themselves, I saw it on their list and couldn’t help myself.

Corpse Reviver #2
1oz gin
1oz Cointreau
1oz Lillet Blanc
1oz lemon juice
dash absinthe
Shake, strain into martini glass, garnish with a maraschino cherry.

I had two that morning, but because no one in this town measures their goddamn drinks, the first was great and the second was not. For this cocktail, the delicate balance is whole point. The stong lemon and Cointreau mix with the weak Lillet and gin and are all complemented by a shadow of absinthe, and when mixed correctly, it’s like a symphony. The overall impression comes tart at first, then fresh sweet orange and spices from the gin and absinthe with a drying finish of Lillet, but this is one of those drinks that you keep drinking because every sip highlights something new.

The Savoy Cocktail Book didn’t offer a garnish: most people drop in a maraschino cherry just for the pure aesthetic fuck of it, though Jeffrey Morganthaler, who’s almost never wrong, suggests an orange peel. Personally, I agree – the orange helps the Cointreau pop and generally enhances the flavors, while the cherry — pretty as it is —is just pretty.

Harry Craddock didn’t editoralize much; his was more in the vein of the “10,001 Recipes!” that we see so frequently these days. He only added one sentence by way of explaining the Corpse Reviver #2: “Four of these taken in straight succession will unrevive the corpse again.”

Trivia!: Corpse reviver #2, you say? What of the Corpse Reviver #1?

The Corpse Reviver #1 is 2 parts Brandy, 1 part Apple Brandy or Calvados, and 1 part Italian (sweet) Vermouth, also in Craddock’s book. This one is puzzling. First of all, it’s not terribly good. It’s not bad, but there’s a reason we all talk about #2.

My question is why anyone would think this was a good morning drink. Corpse Revivers were supposed to be hair-of-the-dog, and this is a thick, sweet, rich drink that I’d barely want after dinner. Who wants a big cup of brandy in the morning? Bizarre.

Old Fashioned


I remember the exact moment when I learned how to drink.

I was a Jack & Coke kid all through college. Tequila shots, Jameson rocks, Vodka Redbull. I’d get the cheapest single malt on the menu for special occasions. I learned to drink straight whiskey, but mostly because I wanted to be the type of guy who could drink straight whiskey. I once spent an entire night drinking Jäger bombs (never again), and was elated when I discovered that the dueling piano bar sold Long Island Ice Teas by the bucket. I looked down on Miller Light in favor of Bud Light. I believed in the idea of “ultra-premium vodka.” In short, I knew nothing.

It wasn’t until I left Los Angeles for Boston that I had a conversion experience. Winter hit quickly for those of us who’d just spent four years in southern California, and it was already brisk in early October when my sister took me out to the neighborhood bar, Green Street Grille, for a drink. Our bartender was Misty Kalkofan – Misty, half-sleeve tattoo, bellowing infectious laugh, with a M.A. from Harvard Divinity School and one of the best bartenders in the city.

I ask for a Jack and coke, but Misty tells me they don’t have Jack. I ask her what she has. She asks me what I like.

“Spirit forward or more drinkable?” she asks. I revert to my college mentality, one of cool and uncool, and order straight whiskey as if the syllables themselves are laced with pheromones.
“Jameson,” I say, “Neat.”

Bartenders deal with this chest-puffing horseshit all day long, and in hindsight, Misty treated me with a truly profound kindness.

“Have you ever had an Old Fashioned?”

This was pre-Mad Men, though I had heard of it but never tried one, and acquiesced. A couple dashes of those weird bitters things, a sugar cube, orange peel and rye whiskey, and that was it for me. I was sold on cocktails forever. I had never tasted anything like it.

I don’t remember the drink I had before that Old Fashioned, but whatever it was, it was the last time I’d take a drink without thinking about it. Without weighing it’s taste, complexity, and balance. I plainly didn’t realize drinks could be that good.

It’s been more than four years since then. It’s what turned drinks from object to subject, and what changed bartending from a job to a career. It is the drink I have the most respect for, one of the pantheon of cocktails on which, when ordered on the 4-deep, cash waving insanity of a busy Saturday night, I will never cut corners. It is what I order to test knowledge or skill of a new bar or bartender. The Old Fashioned – short for Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail – was, and remains, the best drink I’ve ever had.


When Humphery Bogart died and went to Whiskey Heaven, the bartender greeted him warmly, and slipped an Old Fashioned into his hand.

It is not a classic cocktail, it is the classic cocktail. To explain:

While the term “cocktail” might today refer as equally to a Sazerac as an Appletini, in the beginning, everything had an exact definition. There were Slings (spirit, sugar, and cold water), Toddies (spirit, sugar, and warm water), various citrus Punches and such, but no cocktail. It wouldn’t be until 1806 that the “cock-tail” was defined in print*. Then, it was “spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” Those four ingredients made a cocktail. Anything else, tasty as it may be, wasn’t a cocktail.

But over the next 75 years, people kept tweaking the cocktail, hanging ornaments on it. There was the “fancy cocktail,” with curacao. Then the “improved cocktail,” with maraschino liqueur and absinthe. Then “what if we throw some Chartreuse in there?” and “here’s a float of red wine,” and people started using pineapple sticks and raspberry syrup and muddling in fruit slices – what would be referred to, later, as “the garbage.” It’s an enormously malleable template, and can be mangled as many different ways as there are bottles on the back bar… and while it was likely all delicious, it was not a cocktail as it was originally defined.

So when a reference to “old-fashioned cocktails” appears in print in The Chicago Tribune in 1880, it’s not that someone invented a drink that felt quaint and homey, and named it an Old Fashioned. It was a curmudgeon with a healthy dose of grump and thirst to go with it, who wanted a cocktail, the kind he used to get. The Old Fashioned kind. The only change he’d accept from the original 1806 cocktail was ice. All else was heresy.

(It’s worth noting that any claim to have “invented” the Old Fashioned is absurd, seeing as it was being made for at least 75 years, as a “cocktail” before it earned its latter name. But extra bullshit points go to the Pendennis Club of Louisville, who maintain their paternity claim even though they opened their doors in 1881, a full year after it first appeared in print.)

As it was, so it is.

The Old Fashioned (Whiskey Cocktail)
2oz. rye whiskey (or bourbon)
2 dashes angostaura bitters,
1 small sugar cube, muddled or ~1/4oz simple syrup (a hair less for the inherently sweeter bourbon)
Add ice and stir briskly for 30 seconds or so. Express oils from a long strip of orange peel, drop peel in drink. Garnish with a maraschino cherry. Drink. Melt.

It should look like this: (and I’m sorry for the image quality of these pictures… I took them before this blog existed.)

*Nerd stuff: I have recently seen trustworthy evidence put forth by cocktail historian Jared Brown that “cock-tail” appears in print in 1798, a full eight years earlier than we originally thought. It is, alas, not defined, so the 1806 date remains, at least, not wrong.


There is literally nothing old fashioned about Southern California. In Los Angeles, they throw stones at anything older than 35, and San Diego roughly the same. Things don’t last here. Even Old Town feels new.

So it is with the Old Fashioned. With this drink, there are two rival camps, between whom there can be no peace. To garnish with the fruit, or to muddle it. One of them prefers the nuance and subtlety; orange oils accenting the whiskey, a little sweetness to wake it up, and a little bitterness to add spice and complexity, with minute variations in the choice or quantity of ingredients shifting the focus and balance for myriad incarnations. The other one prefers a swamp of pulpy fruit carcasses that add blunting sweetness, fibrous bits to get caught in your teeth, and a mess of trash in the glass. I won’t say which I am.

The good folks at Craft and Commerce know how to do it. Most of their bartenders, when asked for their favorite version, will use the drier, spicier, slightly more challenging rye whiskey, but the house Old Fashioned is with Bourbon. Buffalo Trace, a little bit of cane sugar syrup, angostaura bitters, stirred with both an orange and lemon peel.

At URBN, where I work, we do the same… it was with a single barrel Elmer T. Lee, until we went through about 100 bottles of it and all but ran out. So we, too use Buffalo Trace. Even though we took it off the menu, we still sell dozens of these things a week, and to all kinds of people. It’s something that gives me faith.

Sadly, some of the even very nice bars are muddling fruit. Kitchen 1540, in Del Mar, is one of the nicest restaurants in the area. They serve “craft cocktails” and yet an order for an Old Fashioned returns a very nice bourbon (he used the Van Winkle 12 year, definitely not their standard) and angostura orange bitters (not my taste, but a respectable choice), but sullied with a mashed cherry and dulled with a two-inch-tall hat of soda water.

And I don’t know where this morbid little voice came from, but drinking Haufbrau lager at the splendidly tacky Keiserhoff, in Ocean Beach, a place without computers where they make everyone dress like beer wenches from the German hinterland, something whispered to me that our 60 year old bartender, a consummate professional with more years of experience than I have years of life, that he might, just might, make a mean old fashioned.

I was wrong.

You have to go to a devoted craft cocktail bar to get it the right way. C’est la vie. Always a good excuse to go, I suppose.