Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Checking In and Checking Out on VIP Drinks

About a year ago Paul Dickson, a longtime acquaintance and highly prolific author of more than 50 books, including one on all the synonyms for drunkenness, suggested that he and I collaborate on a volume dedicated to alcoholic drinks bearing the names or provenance of famous people.   In contrast to the blizzard of drink books on the market, including some listing celebrity-linked cocktails, Dickson emphasized that our book would be the one truly authentic VIP drink book.

Easier said than done.  As we struggled to research the subject, it gradually dawned on me that there were three basic types of VIP drinks:  1) From historical personages,  2) from contemporary famous people (20th & 21st Century), and 3) from fictional characters.  Each category presented its own set of problems.

1.  Historical Personages.
  This turned out to be the easiest group to survey.  Over time biographers and historians have often recorded the drinks invented by their famous subjects.  Moreover,  many authors have in their own writings recorded their preferred beverages.  For example, the famous English essayist Charles Lamb (1775-1834) in his book “Popular Fancies,” provided his recipe for foaming punch:   “I retire to a solitary corner with my ingredients already sorted; they are as follows, and I mix them in the order here written.  Sugar, twelve tolerable lumps; hot water, one pint; lemons, two,the juice and peel; old Jamaica rum, twos gills; brandy, one gill, porter or stout.  half a gill; arrack, a slight dash.  I allow myself five minutes to make bowl in the following proportions, carefully stirring the mixture as I furnish the ingredients until it actually foams and then Kangaroos!  How beautiful it is!”   Lamb is shown here in portrait.

The English novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870), known for his love of conviviality, taverns and drink, was visiting America where he prepared for his hosts a series of drinks called “cold cup,” leaving the recipes in his own hand.  Published later they include a “cider cup”: “Put into a large jug, 4 or 6 lumps of sugar (according to size) and the thin rind of a lemon.  Pour in a very little  boiling water, and thrust a napkin into the top of the jug so as to exclude the air.  Leave it to stand ten minutes, then stir well.  Add two wineglasses of sherry and one wineglass of brandy.  Stir again.  Then fill up with ice.  If there be any borage, put in a good handful, as you would put a nosegay into water.  Stir up well before serving.”  Dickens is shown as photographed during his visit to the U.S.

Although the foregoing examples are encouraging building blocks of a “truly valid” VIP drink book,  they are not commonly discovered.  Virtually every President of the United States has had his beverage choices examined and described.  John Quincy Adams (1769-1848), shown here, is credited with a drink called “sangaree.”  The recipe is: “Simmer in water eight cloves, a cinnamon stick, ten whole allspice and some nutmeg for 20 minutes.  Strain and add eight teaspoons of white sugar to the liquid.  Cool.  When ready to serve add four cups of a choice claret and pour over a block of ice in a punch bowl decorated with grapes and grape leaves.”

But did John Quincy actually invent this drink or did he merely taste some and fancied it?   American political figure Henry Clay (1777-1853) often is credited with inventing the mint julep.  But President John Tyler (1790- 1862),  Clay’s contemporary, also is credited with concocting a mint julep.  Who’s to know?

2.  Contemporary VIPs.  The problem gets even more complicated the closer one comes to our own times.   During the last century and into the current one, as the mixed drink came more into fashion, bartenders across America began to name drinks after celebrities.  The ideas was to give a VIP panache to a specific blend of spirits and thus increase sales.

Among them was the Marlene Dietrich Cocktail, named for the incredibly popular film star of the mid-20th Century.   This is the recipe:   “Ingredients, 3 oz rye or Canadian whiskey,  2 dashes of Angostura bitters,  1/2 oz orange curacao.  Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with ice cubes.  Shake well.  Strain into a wine glass.  Squeeze orange and/or lemon peel on top.”   This libation, according to one source, was sipped by Marlene at one point and described as “good.”   But she did not invent it, that honor probably belongs to some Broadway bartender.  Similar  dubious origins can be found for the Douglas Fairbanks Gin Cocktail, the Jean Harlow Rum Martini, and the Mary Pickford Cocktail.

One movie personality and for a time a favorite American humorist was Irvin J. Cobb (1876-1944).   Just after the end of National Prohibition in 1934, distillers rushed into print a number of booklets advertising their products that also included the directions for making cocktails,  possibly figuring that 14 years between drinks had dulled the memories of their customers.   Cobb was tapped for that duty and rapped out “Irvin Cobb’s Own Recipe Book.”   While he names several drinks after their originators, he claims none for his invention. He featured the “gin rickey,” shown here. He identified it with Col. Joe Rickey, whom he describes as “an old-time Washington character.”

Cobb got it only partially right.   Joseph Rickey (1842-1903), a well known DC lobbyist, actually invented the “rickey,” but using rye whiskey, at a famous Pennsylvania Avenue hangout he owned called Shoomaker’s.   Rickey never liked the substitution of gin in the drink, which now has become the official cocktail of the Nation’s Capitol.   By order of the DC City Council the recipe is:  “Into a tall glass, 1.5 oz. of gin, .5 oz of fresh lime juice, soda water, garnish with lime wedge and/or sprig of mint.”

No discussion of celebrity drinks would be complete without a nod to the American novelist Earnest Hemingway (1899-1961), whose reputation for heavy drinking was every bit deserved, has been credited with inventing a number of drinks, including his own martini.  Several drink book have been written with his drink preferences highlighted.
There is an Ernest Hemingway majito cited by the “Hemingway and Bailey’s Bartending Guide,” compiled by a relative of the author. This majito reputedly was invented at La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, Cuba, where Hemingway drank them.  The recipe: Ingredients: 6 fresh mint sprigs, 1 oz. lime juice, 3/4 oz. simple syrup, 2 oz. light rum; lime wedge.  Crush 5 mint sprigs into the bottom of a chilled highball glass. Pour in lime juice, simple syrup, and rum. Fill glass with crushed ice. Garnish with lime wedge and remaining mint sprig. Sometimes a splash of club soda is added.

3.  Fictional Characters.  Early on Dickson and I decided that fictional characters would be allowed into the “authentic” VIP  drink recipe book.  There is Mr. Micawber’s Christmas punch, the James Bond Martini,  and, ala Harry Potter, the Albus Dumbledore Vodka Cocktail.  One favorite of mine is  Homer Simpson’s “Flaming Moe,” which began this way, according to Homer:  “I decided to mix the little bits that were left in every liquor bottle. In my haste, I had grabbed a bottle of the kid’s cough syrup. It passed the first test:  I didn’t go blind . . .  I don’t know the scientific explanation, but FIRE MADE IT GOOD.”   Receiving inquiries about the exact ingredients of Homer’s Flaming Moe, the Fox Network issued this recipe:  “4 oz. tequila, 4 oz. peppermint schnapps, 4 oz. creme de menthe and 2 oz grape soda.  Mix ingredients into a shaker.  Strain into a glass.”  Fox Network did not want folks chugging cough syrup so substituted grape soda.  For additional safety the producer also took “fire” out of the mixture.

In the end, Dickson and I had  about 100 VIP drink recipes of various sorts and validity, attributed all the way from Shakespeare to Bill Clinton.  In the end we never had to do the hard work of validating or describing them.  Our research had revealed the literally dozens of cocktail recipe books that litter the “remaindered” shelves of booksellers.   More important, we could not find a publisher that thought another such book,  regardless of authenticity,  was a good idea.   But in the writing game, nothing is ever lost.  The experience made possible telling the story for this post and for sharing at least a few VIP drink recipes.

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