Vieux Carré

The elevator opens, and you’re met with the bright ecstatic cacophony of the city. Everyone up here is dressed well, but not as well as you. You’re a little early. You move easily through the crowd as a seat opens before you at the long mahogany bar. She’ll be a few minutes yet, so you look from your watch to the bartender, vest and tie over a shirt so white it must be new:

“May I offer you a drink, sir?”

[vc] through the sun

That’s what the Vieux Carré is to me. It’s a tailored suit. It’s jazz and a good cigar. Muscular and elegant, beguiling and complex,  it’s one of those cocktails that you look good ordering and you feel good drinking, as if you yourself are more sophisticated for being in its company. And while that would be enough, it also just happens to be really, really damn good.

The Story:

As with so many grand Manhattan variations, the cocktail is named after the neighborhood in which it was invented: “Vieux Carré”means “old square,” what they call the French Quarter in New Orleans. It comes to us from 1937 — one of the rare few classic drinks to be invented post-Prohibition — conceived by head barman Walter Bergeron at the famous Hotel Monteleone, which stands now, as it has since 1886, a block off Bourbon Street on the French Quarter’s southern end.

Today, the Hotel Monteleone is most famous for its somewhat curious Carousel Bar, what the website proudly boasts as “the city’s only revolving bar,” in which the bar and everything on it literally circles bartender at the manageable but still bizarre rate of  1 revolution per 15 minutes. The thought of a cocktail this elegant invented in a room that gauche kind of ruins my day, and it’s comforting to know that it actually wasn’t — in his time it was called the Swan Bar,  and wouldn’t be converted to an orbital experience for another 11 years.

This is a thoroughly New Orleans drink. Them Crescent City folks are unusually proud of their heritage, and any time you’ve got French cognac and liqueur, rye floated down the Mississippi, and the city’s own Peychaud’s bitters in a single drink, there’s really only one place it could come from.

[vc] glamour shot

Vieux Carré
1oz Rye whiskey
1oz Cognac
1oz Sweet Vermouth
0.25oz Bénédictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Stir for 30 solid seconds (if using Kold Draft, 45 seconds). Strain into cocktail glass, garnish with a lemon peel.

Ingredient Notes:

Rye: should be big and spicy. I find Rittenhouse 100 proof does the trick perfectly. Many insist on Sazerac Rye just to hammer in the New Orleans connection (despite the fact that the Louisiana-owned Sazerac Rye has been made in Kentucky for its entire existence), which works great if you can find it. Steer clear of bottles that are too soft or low proof. 45% minimum.

Cognac: I prefer V.S.O.P or better. Too young and you’ll taste the brandy’s funkiness, which still makes a fine drink, but it’s not ideal. The cocktail is at its best when the cognac is giving rich, supple, woody notes to balance the spicy rye.

Vermouth: I prefer Carpano Antica, because not much else can stand up to the rest of the ingredients while maintaining the complexity we’re looking for.

[vc] grid

Variations:

There’s some reasonable dissent on the sweetness (some say more Bénédictine, which is crazy; many say less, which is not), and whether or not to use a lemon peel (personal choice, though I think it’s begging for it), but I think the most fertile disagreement is whether to make this drink on ice or up.

This particular cocktail needs a lot of dilution. That sweetness can cloy if it’s not suitably chilled and diluted, which is why almost everyone chooses to make it on ice. It was definitely conceived that way, and I would never say a Vieux Carré on ice is in any way incorrect.

But it’s not how I like it. I mitigate the sweetness instead by stirring longer than other drinks, about 30-45 seconds, depending on the ice, to get a little extra water before straining it up. This is because one of the principle pleasures of this drink is how the herbal interplay from the vermouth and Bénédictine evolves as it slowly warms.

[vc] shot

The cocktail is deliriously good in almost any form, but my favorite part is how the herbal complexity— a background note at first, lumped in with the perception of sweetness — begins to take center stage as time goes on. The warming changes it and the change is half the fun, providing an axis point on which to focus.

It’s like a Manhattan but more interesting. What’s more sophisticated than that?

Trivia!: the Hotel Monteleone apparently offers publications the “official” recipe, which should never be followed by anyone. I’ve found two very similar, equally gross sounding versions:

A la The Georgetowner:                              A la Saveur
0.5oz rye                                                                 0.5oz rye
0.25oz cognac                                                      0.5oz cognac
0.25oz sweet vermouth                                    0.5oz sweet vermouth
0.25oz Bénédictine                                            0.5oz Bénédictine
3 drops Angostura bitters                               dash Angostura
3 drops Peychaud’s bitters                             dash Peychaud’s
Build in rocks glass. Lemon peel.                 Build in rocks glass. Lemon peel.
Served, ostensibly, in a thimble.                  Served alongside a shot of insulin.

Widow’s Kiss

“As the scene opens, you are up in your grandmother’s attic opening the dusty steamer trunk she brought from Europe in 1914. You reverently turn back layer upon layer of old lace and brocade … unveiling a packet of old love letters tied in silk ribbon. Ancient dried rose petals flutter down from between the envelopes.

This is what the Widow’s Kiss is like. Sweet, complex and darkly golden, thought-provoking and introspective. It is a cocktail of fall turning toward winter, and it wins [my] award as the most evocative drink ever. Have one by the fire.”

— Ted Haigh, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails

There’s something about the Widow’s Kiss that compels people write about it romantically. It’s not just that it’s delicious, though it is. And it certainly has one of the best cocktail names in history. But there’s something else… as with the lovely Colleen Bawn, this drink uses Yellow Chartreuse and Bénédictine, both pungent herbal liqueurs, which lock into each other like a vacuum seal. They work wonderfully together, full and rich and infinitely complex. Add the apple brandy at their base and some Angostura bitters to spice the apples, and the result synergizes into wistfulness like a half-forgotten memory, and seems to force people to write about it like this:

On a chilly November evening, post-Dallas, post-Watergate, post-Florida, post-9/11, and not-yet-post-Iraq, there’s no small amount of satisfaction to be found in a drink that calls up a honeyed past, and provides a moment’s distraction from the bitter present.

— Paul Clarke @ The Cocktail Chronicles

Or consider The New York Herald, in the 1890s, writing an article about the drink’s creator George J. Kappeler and his bar the Holland House, declaring:

[The Widow’s Kiss is] the most passionate poem which the liquor laureates of the Holland house hand out.

Facile alliteration aside, I think you catch my point. People just can’t seem to help themselves.

Not that I blame them. The Widow’s Kiss is a wonderful drink, in any of its forms. Everyone agrees on the principal ingredients: Apple brandy (either the clean American kind or the earthier French Calvados), Yellow Chartreuse, Bénédictine, and Angostura bitters. Most agree on the proportions, preparation, and technique, as well, though there is some reasonable dissent. Here’s the thing: it’s really goddamn sweet. Tastes have grown drier in the 117 years since this drink’s invention. So there are three things that people do:

  1. Reduce the proportion of the liqueurs. It’s traditionally 2:1:1, and some very reputable people, like Jim Meehan in the PDT Cocktail Book, go instead 4:1:1. This or something like it is similarly recommended by Savoy Stomp, Eric Felten at the Wall Street Journal, and others.
  2. Do your best to water it down. Some, like David Wondrich in Imbibe, stick with with Kappeler’s original instructions to shake this drink instead stirring it. Shaking is considerably more effective to dilute and chill than stirring (100 seconds of stirring ≈ 12 seconds of shaking), and it also aerates, making the drink thinner. Others, as with the Stinger (another all-booze drink that’s too sweet), advise crushed ice to deliver the extra water.
  3. Deal with it. Accept the drink as it is and only serve it after dinner, at the end of the night, or any other time a sweet drink is called for.

After an exhaustive and grisly round of experiments, I am firmly in camp #3. My favorite recipe:

Widow’s Kiss
1.5oz Calvados [French apple brandy]
0.75oz Yellow Chartreuse
0.75oz Bénédictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir over ice, strain into cocktail glass; garnish with nostalgia.

Notes on execution:

Insofar as calvados vs. apple brandy is concerned, go with calvados if you’ve got it. It’s a heavier spirit, more rustic and agricultural than American apple brandy, and it seamlessly fills the gaps left by the liqueurs and bitters. With calvados, use either no garnish or a neutral aesthetic garnish, like a cherry. If all you have is Laird’s Apple Brandy, or even worse, Applejack, feel free to make the drink but garnish with a lemon peel: the lemon oils offer a rather pleasant misdirection to compensate for the brandy’s lack of weight.

Whether to shake or stir (a.k.a. why above point #2 doesn’t really work): this kind of sweetness is only acceptable to the palate if it’s enrobed in velvet texture. Shaking makes it thinner, losing the silkiness and shoving the drink into diaspora: too sweet for a thin drink, too thin for a sweet drink. What I found curious about this experiment was that even though more dilution means less overall sugar/ounce, the shaken drink had an increased perception of sweetness. It needs the texture. That’s all there is to it. Stirring, for the win.

As for reducing the ratios of the liqueurs (a.k.a. How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Sweetness): maybe you shouldn’t try to mitigate the sweetness. Maybe you should just accept that this is a sweet drink. My feeling is that the Widow’s Kiss is a perfect after-dinner-on-a-brisk-winter-night drink. Apple, honey, cinnamon spice… what could be better than that? It’s strong and warming, with no ingredients under 80 proof. It’s pungent and herbal, with complexity that unfolds over time. The sweetness helps neutralize the strength, the thickness helps justify the sweetness, and the flavors help recommend it all. They lean on each other like a tripod, and changing one brings the whole thing down.

That’s the problem with the PDT recipe. It’s fine, but it adapts the recipe to be an average anytime drink, as opposed to an exceptional after dinner drink. It loses the magic, the fifth essence, that ineffable harmony that makes Wondrich write things like “we don’t know if Kappeler had any particular widow in mind. If he did, she must have been something.”

Old Fashioned

INTRODUCTION to the OLD FASHIONED WHISKEY COCKTAIL (PART I)

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.

“Whiskey.”
“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.

WHAT IS IT, and WHY IS IT SO DAMN GOOD? (PART II)

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.

OLD FASHIONED in SAN DIEGO (PART III)

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.