The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2


Stone woke up on the black leather sofa of his office, not entirely remembering what he was doing there. He had an apartment on Southside, but judging from the snare drum blasting through his skull, he’d had about twelve too many the night before and had been unable or unwilling to walk that far. It all started flooding back to him—the murder of the professor, the blonde bartender groupie that everyone suspected but nobody had seen, the expensive bar tab he hoped he had remembered to pay. He opened the cabinet at the bottom of the side table and pulled out a bottle of Fernet Branca, an Italian herbal liqueur that was supposed to prevent or cure hangovers. It didn’t always work, but he tried to always keep a bottle within arm’s reach of anyplace he was likely to crash for the night, whether it be his office sofa, office chair, his actual bed, or his bathroom floor.

When the Fernet had had a few moments to seep in, he began to sort through the recipe rolodex in his mind for something uncomplicated and fresh, and he decided on a Corpse Reviver #2, a workhorse that originated in The Savoy Cocktail Book from 1930, a copy of which he kept handy on the bookshelf above his liquor cabinet. With equal parts dry gin, Cointreau, Lillet Blanc, and fresh lemon juice, as well as a dash of absinthe for zing, it was just the thing to bring him back to life after the events of the night before. He always kept fresh lemons and limes in a mini-fridge in case the need arose.

As he was squeezing the lemon, Stone’s thoughts were interrupted by a note slipped under the door. It was a flyer for some sort of poetry reading happening later that night called Nitty Gritty Magic City. It was free, and maybe there would be drinks. He folded the paper into his wallet so he would remember to look at it again later. They call Birmingham the Magic City. To the locals there’s no worse cliché, but to a stranger in town, this enigmatic epithet provided a certain understanding and attraction that would otherwise elude. When Stone lived in New York, party people would ask him, “Birmingham? What’s that like?” He would sigh… as if such a question could be answered without summarizing a hundred years of violent history. So he would simply say that they call it the Magic City and leave them to wonder about it.

The poetry reading would be held in a storefront in the basement of an old Masonic lodge in the old Woodlawn neighborhood, just east of downtown. Nitty Gritty was a good descriptor for this part of town, a formerly middle class neighborhood that had gone to seed, though in recent years a few people had been trying to build it back up, filling the empty buildings with useful things like art galleries and recording studios. By day, the store hosting the poetry reading posed as a purveyor of survival supplies, though it was actually the headquarters of a creative writing and tutoring center for area kids. It was a cute idea, and an ideal space for writers to utilize at night for events.

The last drops of his Corpse Reviver #2 slipped down his throat like honeyed butter on roller skates. His office door was open just a crack, and when someone knocked on it, it creaked open. The warthog silhouette of Detective Gatlinburg of Birmingham’s finest stood lingering in the doorway, backlit by the frazzled fluorescent bulb in the hallway that buzzed off and on, day and night, like a broken strobe in a hellish discotheque. Stone wasn’t fond of overhead light of any kind, so his office was lit entirely by floor and desk lamps, casting a warm amber glow over whichever part of the office needed visibility, which was currently his liquor shelf.

“Holy Christ in a cannoli shell, Detective. What brings you over here at this early hour?”

“I hear you were at Collins last night. I thought you might give us some help with the case, like you did with that case over in Avondale last year.”

“As I recall, I was the primary suspect in that case until some random junky fessed up to the murder. I don’t know that I did your case any good. Come on in and close the door. You look ominous.”

The detective stepped into the softer light so his porcine facial features were more prominently on display—still not a pleasant sight but easier for Stone to focus on. His lower teeth gleamed like polished tusks. “You remember right, Coldwater. You may also remember that I never really believed you were innocent in that case and still don’t.”

“Am I a suspect now?”

“Don’t get tough with me if you know what’s good for you. You’re a person of interest, to use the technical term.”

“When I decide to get tough, you’ll know it. Word on the street was that you had that girl, Ashley Rose, pinned for it.”

“One. Can’t find her anywhere. No known address. Two. Witnesses say she never said a word to the victim last night, and I have no evidence that connects them. Three. You were sitting next to Hornbuckle at the bar all night, and I know you go back. You were juvenile delinquents together back when I was a rookie working the beat on Southside.”

“So, I smoke weed with a guy twenty years ago, and somehow that means I killed him? I barely talked to him myself last night, and I was in the john when the deed went down.”

“The bar manager couldn’t vouch for your whereabouts.”

“Feizal wouldn’t vouch for me, eh? I see how it is,” Stone said. “Are you taking me in, or can we do this here? Want a drink?”

“It’s ten in the morning, and I’m on duty. You always drink this early in the day? Have a guilty conscience perhaps? And to answer your other question, I don’t need to bring you down to the precinct yet, assuming you’ll cooperate.”

“I’ll answer your questions, but try to make it quick. I have to go across town to feed my cat.”

“The elusive Captain Fancypants, amiright?”

“You have a good memory.”

“I’ve still never seen that cat.”

It was true that when they had previously collaborated, Stone had fabricated the cat as an excuse for being in a place where he wasn’t supposed to be. He had a bad habit of being elusive with Detective Gatlinburg even when it wasn’t necessary. However, since then, he had acquired an actual orange creamsicle tabby whom he called by the name that had spontaneously popped into his head that day two years before, Captain Fancypants. For the next hour or so, he did his best to answer the detective’s questions about the night before, though some of it was rather fuzzy now in the light of day. For his part, the detective didn’t give up any interesting information about the case to Stone. When he finally left, Stone took another shot of Fernet to fortify him for the walk across town to shower, change his clothes, and, of course, put out a can of cat food for the Captain.


Read Part 4

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The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 2

Read Part 1 Here


Uniformed police and EMTs pushed their way through the crowd gathered in the smoking area just outside the Collins Bar. At the epicenter of the excitement was the body of the professor—most people who knew him called him by his last name, Hornbuckle. Within seconds, the rumors starting flying around like sparrows—whispers that Professor Hornbuckle was stabbed, that it was that blonde girl, Ashley Rose, who had been sitting at Josh’s station all week and now mysteriously wasn’t. All Stone could think about was how he was going to insert himself into the case to work alongside the police. Screw waiting for a client.

Back in the late ’80s, Stone had been a punk teenager with a foot-high green mohawk, hanging out with the other freaks of the day by the fountain in Five Points. His friends from back then often didn’t recognize him in the grey or black suits he wore today. The professor had been one of those teenagers also. They’d known each other from a respectable distance for two and a half decades. That Hornbuckle had become an English professor was no surprise. Because of his habit of reading enormous tomes and dressing in second-hand tweed jackets, they had called him the Professor as a nickname long before he became an actual professor. More of a shock was that Stone had become a detective, though it was sort of the family business.

Stone’s grandfather had started as an investigative reporter for the paper in Tupelo, which had led him into a second career as a gumshoe. His pop had started his own agency in Birmingham, but he’d vanished without explanation right about the time Stone was sporting that green mohawk. There had been some press back then about the old man’s disappearance—speculation that it might have been related to a case he was on or it might have been a dame, or both. He’d resisted the call to the order of shamus until he was in his thirties, when, after failing at being an artist and a lothario, he finally found that he wasn’t qualified to do anything else.

Meanwhile, the rumor that Hornbuckle had been stabbed was confirmed. The rumor that it had been Ashley who stabbed him was not, but she would most certainly be a person of interest. There were varying stories about why she did it and where she went afterward, and Stone didn’t believe any of them. It just didn’t seem to hold together. It was like somebody whisked her out just before it happened. In short order, the police kicked everybody out of the bar other than a few people who had claimed to be witnesses, so Stone stumbled down Second Avenue North with the rest of the crowd, thinking about having a martini for a nightcap.

He was very particular about his martinis. A martini had to be made with gin for one thing. Just how a vodka martini had come to be a thing, he wasn’t sure. It had to be stirred, not shaken, and the garnish should be a nice thick slab of lemon peel, not an olive, and for godsake not a pickled onion. The vermouth was important too. It couldn’t be one of the cheap brands that you can buy in any grocery store, and there should be enough vermouth in the martini that you could taste it. Because you shouldn’t put anything in a martini that you wouldn’t be willing to drink on its own, and if you go to the trouble and expense to use good vermouth, it should damn well be noticeable in the drink. Plus it keeps you from getting malaria, and in Alabama in the humid heat of a summer night, one feels the need for that kind of protection from nature. The thought of a “dirty” martini made his skin crawl. Above all, a martini should be clean, refreshing, like a dip in a cool swimming pool on a scorching day.

He ended up at Carrigan’s Pub. The pub sat in an old masonry warehouse down on Morris Avenue, the brick-lined street by the old railroad tracks that marked the center of town. It was cloudy, so nobody was sitting at the tables outside where globe lights were strung like a canopy. Stone was lucky to find Eric Bennett behind the bar and asked for a classic martini with Plymouth gin, Dolin blanc vermouth, and orange bitters. Eric happily indulged him.

“You hear what happened at Collins earlier?” Eric asked. His dark almond skin contrasted with the bright white shirt he was wearing. His square jaw was outlined by a square black goatee that gave him a sinister air.

“I was there, but I didn’t see much of anything. Cops made everybody leave.” Stone took a sip of his martini. It was as advertised.

Eric said, “That Ashley Rose, she’s been making the rounds. Kind of a bartender groupie. It was just a couple of weeks ago, she was doing the same routine with Hamrick over at Saturn, and before that, it was me. It started with Angel, of course.”

Most Birmingham bar stories did start with Angel Negrin. He had been instrumental in starting cocktail programs at several places in town and worked at Collins on the weekends. Since it was Wednesday, Angel would be working at Lou’s Pub in Lakeview. It was too late and too far of a walk for Stone to go down there tonight, but he’d try to catch up with Angel later. Angel was the kind of fellow who noticed things, and he might have noticed more about this girl than most of the others.

“Do you have an angle on this thing?”

“No,” Stone replied. “I’m just curious. It’s really not my business.”

He was still looking for a reason to make it his business. Stone found it interesting that Eric had already heard so much about the incident. Some of the crowd that had been at Collins evidently walked—and talked—faster than he did. He heard Pat Floyd and Will Batson with a group of unknowns at a table behind him snickering like mischievous elves. Either of them would have gladly brought the gossip down the block. He was pretty sure they had been at Collins also.

IMG_20150609_174446He’d already finished his martini and found himself ordering one of Eric’s originals, the Wisp of Judgment. It had a bourbon foundation, enhanced by the bittersweet pungency of Chartreuse, Byrrh, and Aperol. The eponymous wisp came from a smoky hint of mezcal that gave his nose a suspicious glare with each sip. Christ in a Chrysler, it was powerful, and perhaps Stone was beginning to personify the ingredients a little too much. Maybe it was the mezcal, but he was feeling a little paranoid. He realized there was something he hadn’t asked Eric.

“Did you know Hornbuckle? The poor sap that was stabbed?”

“Forty-ish English professor? Brown and stir?” Stone nodded affirmation. “He came around here sometimes, mainly early or on slow nights. He didn’t seem to like crowds. But we never talked that much. I don’t know what Ashley Rose could have had against him. Maybe she was a student of his.”

Like everyone else, Eric seemed to take for granted that Ashley Rose was the guilty party. However, Stone knew she was not in police custody, and there were at least a dozen other possible suspects. Any of the staff at Collins could have had opportunity, if not motive. But if the motive was to frame Ashley Rose, there could be some bartender jealousy at work. It was curious. Stone downed the remains of his drink and paid his tab. He said goodnight to Eric and the vaguely familiar faces who were lingering until closing time.


Read Part 3

Ginger Bitters Part 2: The Cocktails

Last time, we were telling you about the amazing ginger bitters and bitter ginger liqueur we made. Now it’s time to put these ingredients to work in some interesting cocktails. First of all, the ginger bitters work great in simple drinks like an old fashioned or champagne cocktail. But we made time to try some more complex ideas and came up with a few winners.

Ginger is associated with the Caribbean, and we just knew our bitters would be great in virtually any rum drink. Most rum drinks involve citrus (usually lime juice), and many are sugar bombs. We wanted to get away from those patterns and create something in a little more of a classic, pre-prohibition style.

Ginger Pirate 1The Ginger Pirate

  • 2 ounces of a good aged rum (we used Flor de Caña 12-year. We recommend you use something aged at least 8 years)
  • 1/2 ounce Luxardo maraschino liqueur
  • 1/2 teaspoon absinthe
  • 5-6 strong dashes of the ginger bitters

Add ingredients to a mixing glass filled 3/4 with ice. Stir and then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime twist, because rum and lime really are inseparable.

We also just knew these bitters would go well with bourbon. We chose Maker’s Mark because its sweet, wheat-heavy flavor would counter the ginger spice better than a bourbon that uses rye, which is already spicy itself. We used Sandeman tawny port with this, which is pretty good stuff. We can’t guarantee the same results with a cheaper port like Warre’s, but there’s only a small amount, and it really serves to bind the other flavors together. Just make sure it’s a tawny port and not ruby.

Spring Step 2The Spring in Your Step

  • 2 ounces of Maker’s Mark bourbon
  • 1/4 ounce St. Germain elderflower liqueur
  • 1/4 ounce tawny port
  • 3-4 strong dashes of ginger bitters

Add ingredients to a mixing glass filled 3/4 with ice. Stir and then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Just to shake things up a little bit (that’s some bartender humor for you there), here’s a variation on the classic martini that uses my bitter ginger liqueur.

The Ginger Avenger

  • 2 ounces London dry gin – we used regular Bombay
  • 1/2 ounce bitter ginger liqueur
  • 1/2 ounce Cocchi Americano
  • splash lemon juice

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a sliver of ginger root.

 

Hornbuckle’s Ginger Bitters

It may be out there, but we have not personally seen a commercially available ginger bitters, so we had to make one ourselves. Ginger is one of our favorite flavors, and we think it’s extremely versatile. Plus, after we’d made all of the recipes in Brad Thomas Parson’s Bitters book, we also thought it was high time that we had a signature bitters that we could call our very own. We’ve tried some other original recipes. Some were interesting (I’m looking  at you, dill bitters), and others flat out failed.

The ginger bitters are a creation of which we are extremely proud.

In our first batch, we used Everclear (pure grain alcohol) for our base, but we are starting a new batch this weekend that uses 151 rum. We’ll let you know how that goes. You might also experiment with using a different sweetener instead of regular sugar. We suspect molasses or demarara syrup would work really nicely with this.

Ginger Bitters 1Ingredients you’ll need:

  • Three 32-ounce mason jars
  • 24 ounces of Everclear or 151 rum
  • 2 thumbs ginger root – sliced
  • 1 teaspoon dried orange peel
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorn
  • 1 teaspoon cassia chips
  • ½ teaspoon devil’s club root
  • 4 cardamom pods
  • 3 stars anise
  • ¼ cup sugar

Step One:

  • Combine all ingredients (except sugar) in the first mason jar
  • Let this sit for 2 weeks in a cool, dark place
Step Two:
  • Strain out solids with cheesecloth or mesh strainer
  • Conserve the alcohol solution in one of the other mason jars and set aside
  • Put solids in a small saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil
  • Remove from heat
  • When cool, add contents of saucepan to one of your empty jars
  • Let this sit for 1 week

Step Three:

  • Strain out solids from the water mixture with cheesecloth or mesh strainer
  • Mix the two liquids together
  • Strain it one more time for good measure and then let this sit for another three days

Step Four:

  • Make a simple syrup with the sugar (1:1 water and sugar)
  • Add to mixture in mason jar and shake
  • Funnel into dropper bottles

Bonus Bitter Ginger Liqueur

The first time we made this recipe, we  added too much Everclear in step one and filled up the entire mason jar. This, of course, would have left us no room to add the water solution or simple syrup in the following steps.
So, what to do?
We separated those extra eight ounces of gingery liquor and added an equal amount (8 ounces) of simple syrup. Tada! Bitter Ginger Liqueur!
Join us soon for part two where we post some original cocktail recipes using the ginger bitters and the bitter ginger liqueur.