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.

WTFuck?

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.

Cheers.

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)

…vs…

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)

…vs…

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.

…vs…

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.

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.

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.

Bitter Giuseppe

After the Milano Swizzle, I wanted more salt in cocktails, and thought back to a drink my friend Addison had made me some six months ago, the Bitter Giuseppe.

There are a few different versions of this drink floating around. According to this blog, the drink was created by Stephen Cole of Chicago’s wonderful The Violet Hour, and then made salty by Kirk Estopinal of Cure in New Orleans. Estopinal’s recipe calls for Punt e Mes with salt, Cole’s original with Carpano Antica without, but both share Cynar’s artichoke heart. At Craft and Commerce, they (predictably) do it their own way.

Bitter Giuseppe
2oz Cynar
1oz Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
2 small dashes of salt
Combine ingredients in Old Fashioned Glass over ice.
Cut a lemon peel with enough meat to extract about 10-15 drops of juice
Squeeze juice into the drink, express peel oils on top, stir, and serve.

As detailed in a marvelous post on beta cocktails, the extra salt reins in the Cynar — this cocktail has twice the Cynar but only half the bitterness of the Milano Swizzle. Apparently while reading French scientist Hervé This’s dense & detailed volume, Molecular Gastronomy, Estopinal found that salt curiously tempers bitterness in liquids even more than sugar.

In this case, the salt blunted the bitter effect, allowing the liqueur’s component ingredients to showcase their otherwise overpowered flavors. The nose is a bit unengaging, but the taste offers a complex and pleasing barrage of herbal notes (orange and artichoke, to name two of several) and deep salted umami that fades into soft and lingering bitterness at the finish.

Milano Swizzle

Every great once in a while, a happy accident aligns our schedules and all my best friends have the same afternoon off. Tuesday was such an afternoon, and never one to beat a dead gift horse, we all immediately descended upon Craft and Commerce for some sunshine cocktails.

It was gorgeous outside – we’ve had more summer this winter than we had all of last summer – so I plucked the Milano Swizzle off the menu for something bitter and refreshing before my embarrassingly bourgeois meal of bacon-wrapped corn dogs.

Milano Swizzle
0.25oz lemon juice
1oz Cynar
1oz Beefeater London Dry Gin
1oz Carpano Antica
pinch of cracked salt
Fill with crushed ice, swizzle or stir until glass frosts;
garnish with lemon peel.

I’m fairly confident that this is unrelated to Tony Abou Ganim’s Milano, and shares the Italian city only as a source for the lovely potable bitters – in this case, the earth and artichoke of the Cynar. This is essentially a Negroni with a different bitter and a bit of lemon juice. What really excited me about this drink was the salt, still a stone relatively unturned in my cocktail experience and used deliciously here.

The drink started tart and led to a complex orange and earth herbaceous that the salt made almost savory, with the alchemy of the ingredients intensifying the Cynar for a sharply bitter finish. The salt was mostly undetectable but for the savory effect, and definitely makes me want to play with it more.

Our bartender Ryan commented that salt and Cynar enjoy each other’s company. Drinking it, you can clearly see how it can be taken too far, but you can also get a glimpse of its potential.