The Gratitude Cocktail

We were sitting here thinking what would be involved in the ideal Thanksgiving cocktail. Naturally, it would have to include Wild Turkey. We wanted something that would invoke the herbs, spices, and sweetness of a properly satiating Thanksgiving meal. It also made sense to add Applejack, one of our favorite add-ins for Autumn cocktails in general, and cardamom bitters would give us the spiciness we were looking for. We also remembered that we had some blackberry thyme shrub in the fridge still, and that would be the veritable cranberry sauce on the Wild Turkey.

As it happened, we had made a cocktail earlier in the evening using some fresh rosemary from the yard as a garnish, and we decided to leave the rosemary in the glass, more out of laziness than creativity. However, the nose of the rosemary, along with the thyme in the shrub, turned out to be the perfect herbal component for this Thanksgiving potion. A little Cynar, an artichoke-based apertivo, added some additional herbal bitterness we needed, and a splash of sweet vermouth tied it all together.

IMG_20131127_195030_305The Gratitude Cocktail

  • 1 ounce Wild Turkey 101
  • 1 ounce Applejack
  • 1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 1/2 ounce Cynar
  • 1 teaspoon blackberry/thyme shrub

Stir and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary.

This was honestly right up there with the best cocktails we’ve ever concocted. A great deal of labor went into the creation of each ingredient. We are grateful we had ready access to such rich, decadent fare. We are grateful for the cocktail education that led us to keeping each of those ingredients in our stock. We are grateful for the bounty of this drink. It has truly lived up to its name.

Fall Cocktails

Fall Harvest

In response to Joey Schmidt’s recent post about Pumpkin Spice tiki drinks (and the general pumpkin spice craze that seems to hit everywhere around this time of year), we are re-posting this story from last fall that includes our Pumpkin Spice Sour.

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While seeking inspiration for the Fall Cocktails seminar we taught last week, we thought of three things we definitely wanted to use: Applejack, homemade Old Tom gin, and pumpkin.

We’ve said before that we really enjoy using Applejack in our cocktails in the fall. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Applejack is technically a brandy made from apples, though it drinks more like a whiskey than a brandy. Before prohibition, Applejack and strong cider were the the primary products for which apples were grown. Applejack has been making a gradual comeback in recent years.

The Laird’s company of New Jersey is the oldest and most prominent distiller of this product. Their 80-proof blended Applejack is the only variety available in here in Alabama. Out of state, you can get several others including our favorite, the Laird’s Bottled-in-Bond Straight Apple Brandy. There are also a few other companies that make similar products. In France, they make an apple brandy called Calvados, which is quite different in character from Applejack, but it is interesting to switch them out in recipes to see how they play with others.

We paired the Applejack with an equal amount of our Old Tom, which you can find the recipe for here. We’ll spare you the “History of Gin” lecture here since you’ll get most of it if you follow that link. Our Old Tom is heavy with baking spices, especially cardamom and clove, with a hint of orange peel, making it an exquisite partner for the Applejack. We added Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, a little cranberry juice, and bitters to round out the drink, which we decided to call Autumn Spice.

Autumn Spice

  • 1 ounce Old Tom Gin
  • 1 ounce Applejack
  • ½ ounce Domaine de Canton
  • ½ ounce cranberry juice
  • 3 dashes aromatic bitters

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass filled ¾ with ice. Stir to desired dilution. Strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon peel.

We knew we wanted to make a pumpkin spice syrup. Everybody’s crazy about pumpkin spice these days, it seems. But unlike whatever is in your corporate cappuccino, we wanted to use actual pumpkin. We used a sugar pie pumpkin, baked the meat, and then pureed it in the blender. You can also use canned pumpkin puree, but where’s the fun in that?

Pumpkin SourPumpkin Spice Syrup (adapted from themessybaker.com)

  • ¾ cups water
  • ½ cup granular sugar
  • ¼ cup light brown sugar
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon ground clove
  • ¼ tsp ground ginger
  • 1/8 cup pumpkin puree

Add water and sugar to a small saucepan. Set over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally until the sugar has dissolved. Add pumpkin puree and spices. Whisk to combine. Reduce heat to medium low for five minutes, whisking frequently. Remove from heat and let sit to cool. Pour the mixture through a fine mesh strainer or cheese cloth. Bottle and store in the refrigerator.

We tried this syrup in a variety of drinks, but our favorite was a variation on a classic whiskey sour.

Pumpkin Whiskey Sour

  • 2 ounces bourbon
  • 1 ounce pumpkin syrup
  • ½ ounce lemon juice
  • ½ ounce egg white

Pour all ingredients into a shaker. Shake without ice until you feel pressure building in the shaker. Add ice and shake again. Strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice.

For more Fall cocktails, see here, here, and here.

The Library of Babel

I made this cocktail for the “speakeasy” theme at Birmingham Museum of Art’s monthly “Art After Five” event.

I had been looking through some old cocktail books and found references to a no-longer-available product called Hercules. Being a curious type of person, I started doing research and found that I wasn’t the first people to go looking for this product. To make a long story short, it was an aperitif wine that was flavored with yerba mate.

Now, I first heard of yerba mate when I was in college and read 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez for the first time. Characters in South American novels drink mate all the time, and I wanted to know more. Back then, it wasn’t an easy product to get, but I did find some at the local health food store, along with the hollow gourd and metal straw traditionally used to drink the tea after it is brewed. Now, you can find yerba mate at almost any grocery store.

I thought at first that I might infuse the yerba mate in an aperitif wine, but I thought it would be safer to make a syrup from it. Then, if it didn’t turn out well, I hadn’t ruined a good bottle of anything–just wasted some sugar. The syrup was so delicious that you could almost drink it by itself. In fact, since I have some left over from the event at the museum, I’ve been using it to make rum and tequila old-fashioneds at home.

To make the syrup, just do a simple syrup with equal parts sugar and water. When it comes to a boil, stir briefly and then let it cool off. While it is still hot, for each cup of water, add a tea bag of yerba mate and let it steep for ten minutes. Remove the tea bags, let cool, and bottle.

For the aperitif, I went with Bonal. Because of its pungent, earthy qualities, I thought it would blend well with the yerba mate. It was easy to imagine that the original Hercules product might have been similar to Bonal with yerba mate added in.

One of the yerba mate products you can buy now in many stores is a soda that includes grapefruit and ginger. I had one of these recently and thought it was a good flavor combination to try with my cocktail. My early experiments using ginger in this cocktail, however, didn’t turn out quite like I wanted them to, so I abandoned that and just went with fresh grapefruit juice.

Since the event had a speakeasy theme, I used gin as the base. When I think of the 1920s, I think of gin first. I used Bombay Sapphire because of the high proof and because the particular botanicals used in that product a great for herbal cocktails.

I named the drink after a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, another nod to the South American roots of yerba mate.

I’ll be making this again at the monthly Nitty Gritty Magic City reading series at Desert Island Supply Company next Thursday (4/12).

Library of Babel

  • 2 oz Bombay Sapphire gin
  • 1/2 ounce yerba mate syrup
  • 1/2 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
  • 1/2 ounce Bonal

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a slice of grapefruit peel.

The Road to Nowhere

We’ll be giving out samples of the “Road to Nowhere” at the Birmingham Museum of Art’s Art After Five event on Friday, June 2. The theme for this month’s event is “Road Trip.”

When we think of vacations, we think of rum. To be fair, we think about rum pretty much all the time these days, and especially in summer. The exotic combination of grapefruit, mint, and ginger stirred the old imagination. The tartness of lemon juice tamps down the sweetness. Just get in the car, turn on the radio, and see where it takes us. It doesn’t matter where we are going, and we could just as well be going nowhere.

This cocktail comes with apologies to Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. We couldn’t decide which of the “Road” movies to name it after, so we went with the Talking Heads song instead.

The Road to Nowhere:

Keep It Simple

20151231_131428Hopefully, everyone out there had a wonderful time ringing in the New Year. We are recovering from our annual NYE cocktail party here at the Whiskey Thief. We have a few resolutions, of course, one of which is to make sure we post here more often (pretty sure that was on our list last year as well). To start off the year, let’s turn to some frequently asked questions.

We got an email the other day asking about how we make, handle, and store simple syrup. A good number of the recipes we post involve simple syrup or flavored syrup, so we thought it would be a good idea to recap our process here for posterity.

Our go-to method is to combine equal parts sugar and water. Unless I’m bartending for an event or throwing a party, I’ll usually use a cup of organic sugar and a cup of filtered water. This yields a little more than a cup of finished syrup, which is just the right amount to fill the bottle that I use. It will last in the fridge for about six weeks, but I tend to use it up much faster than that.

Although we advocate for the 1:1 proportion of sugar to water, a number of bartenders we know prefer different proportions based on amount of sweetness versus amount of dilution added. For some, the proportion has a lot to do with the texture or “mouth-feel” of the cocktail. For more dilution, use more water. For more texture, use more sugar. We’ve had good success with 3:2, but mainly (as the headline says), we like to keep it simple.

Of course, there are different types of sugar out there, and they each have unique qualities. For some tiki drinks and pre-prohibition cocktails, we’ll make a rich syrup using demerara  sugar, which is a deep amber, large-grained sugar with a strong toffee flavor. A rich syrup doubles the amount of sugar you use in the recipe (2:1 instead of 1:1). Other recipes might call for turbinado or other types of sugar. You can also use other sweeteners. Honey mix (equal parts honey and water) is an essential for some classics like the Bee’s Knees and the Gold Rush. Maple syrup and agave syrup can also be diluted for use in cocktails.

For general use in your average home bar, equal parts of tap water and regular white sugar will serve you just fine. To make it:

  • Combine sugar and water in a sauce pan
  • Heat slowly on medium, stirring intermittently
  • Let it come to a boil and stir to make sure all the sugar is dissolved
  • After it boils for 30 seconds to a minute, take it off the heat.
  • After it cools, funnel it into a glass bottle and refrigerate

When I’m experimenting with syrup in a new cocktail, I start with a half-ounce of the syrup and adjust to taste.

Adding herbs, spices, fruits, and other flavors to syrups can add another dimension to your cocktails. I make most of these by adding the extra ingredients in with the sugar and water and then filtering them out after the syrup cools. For our New Year’s Eve party, I made a batch of regular syrup and three special syrups:

  • Rosemary and black pepper – I added two sprigs of rosemary and a tablespoon of black peppercorns. This is great for a variation of the Bengal Tiger, one of my most popular original recipes.
  • Cinnamon and clove – Great for the holidays, I put two cinnamon sticks and four whole cloves into the mix.
  • Hot pepper – I had some dry hot peppers of various sorts that I reconstituted, and then I used the water to make a syrup that is wonderful in margaritas and in my original cocktail the Yetaxa.

The Nitty Gritty Magic City Cocktails for August

IMG_20150812_093253In case you didn’t get the word on Facebook, we are taking a week or two off from our serialized detective novel to catch up on some writing and get ready for school to start. Munford Coldwater and the gang will be back before the end of the month.

Earlier this summer, we mentioned that we regular do cocktails for the Nitty Gritty Magic City reading series, which takes place the second Thursday or every month at Desert Island Supply Company and features local writers as well as travelling talent from across the country. We featured the series in chapter six of the novel, and then they promptly went on hiatus for the next two months. Well, it is back, and we are back, with two seasonal cocktails that we think you will like.

The fig tree in our back yard didn’t produce much this year, but our rosemary bush is doing just fine. We got some lovely figs at Whole Foods and made a fig and rosemary syrup. We used it to add some seasonal pizzazz to a simple (eggless) whiskey sour using Bulleit rye. A spear of rosemary for garnish brings out the rosemary in the syrup. We call it:

The Morris Avenue

  • 1.5 oz rye
  • 1/2 oz fig rosemary syrup
  • Juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • Rosemary garnish

We recommend shaking it and then straining it over fresh ice, as seen in the picture.

Next, we are doing a punch that uses local honey, house-made grenadine, and gin. A little Campari adds complexity to the flavor and keeps the sweeter ingredients from being too cloying. Soda on top makes it refreshing.

Downtown Punch

  • 1.5 oz gin
  • 1/2 oz Campari
  • 1/2 oz honey syrup (1/2 honey, 1/2 water)
  • 1/2 oz grenadine (we use Joey Schmidt’s recipe to make ours)
  • Fill will soda

Build in a tall glass full of ice and give it a stir. Garnish with something fun from your garden, or your neighbor’s garden.

The next Nitty Gritty Magic City is Thursday, 8/13 at Desert Island Supply Co. at 7:30 PM. This month’s readers are Kristi Houk, Jason Slatton, and Lynnel Edwards.

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 9

Read from the beginning.


Coldwater had to give Detective Gatlinburg the whole song and dance down at the station. If Ashley Rose was dead, there was no point in covering up the fact that she’d tried to hire him or how she’d gotten hold of him. The bruise on his face was still tender from that meeting. The car and house turned out to belong to a Bruce Manley, aka Ponytail, who was still missing in action. Coldwater learned that Ashley Rose had been strangled.

“Maybe you did it,” Gatlinburg had said. “Maybe she fought back. Maybe that’s how you got that bruise on your face.”

But he wasn’t a real suspect. Ponytail Bruce Manley was number one on their list. Coldwater tried to recall if he had seen Manley that night at Collins, but he had no recollection of seeing him before the incident at Rojo. Coldwater was pretty observant, he thought, and Manley was memorable. When the coppers finally finished raking Coldwater over the coals, they kindly dropped him off at his apartment. “Say hello to Captain Fancypants,” Gatlinburg said. “Maybe one day you’ll introduce me to that cat.”

“Come on up for a nightcap, and you can say hello.”

“Duty.” Gatlinburg drove off.

Coldwater was glad the detective refused his offer because he fell asleep with his suit on the second his head touched the pillow. He woke up late with the Captain sniffing at his facial contusion. “Alright, alright,” he said. After feeding the cat, he tried to go back to sleep, but the details of the case kept swirling through his mind. He pulled up the al.com, the website for the local paper, and looked up all the recent articles on the Hornbuckle murder, but there was precious little information other than what Gatlinburg had already told him.

He then looked up real estate records for unincorporated Pickens County and found a property that was registered to someone with the last name Manley. Could be a coincidence, but it could also be connected to Ponytail. To check it out, he’d have to borrow a car, and there was only one person he could turn to for that, his grandmother, Gustie. It had been Gustie’s stories about his father and grandfather that had inspired him to go into business for himself a couple of years back.

Gusty lived in an old folks home just a couple of blocks away. In the art deco lobby, several residents were playing cards or board games. The receptionist was a light-skinned African-American girl named Myrtle. She was wearing a blue flowered dress and her hair was done up in a flip.

“You again,” Myrtle scowled from behind the pages of what looked to be a lurid vampire novel. He wasn’t sure what he’d ever done to offend Myrtle. When he first met her, she’d been almost too nice, like she wanted to jump in his lap. Maybe he should have asked her out to dinner, but he was always broke. He tipped his imaginary hat to her and signed in on the registry.

Past the elevator, the rest of the first floor housed various administrative offices, designated by smoky glass windows labeled in a thick black Helvetica. “Director,” “Events Coordinator,” “Nurse Administrator,” “Family Counseling.” Coldwater elevated to the fourth floor and knocked on Gustie’s door. She answered “Coming,” in her smoker’s gruff, and he heard her footsteps padding in from the living room. “Oh, it’s only you, sweetie. I put out my cigarette for nothing. I thought it was Vanessa.”

A trail of cigarette odor had followed Gustie to the door, and the mist of Febreeze she’d sprayed to cover it still lingered as well. Vanessa was her nurse who came by three or four times a day to administer some sort of IV treatment and make sure Gustie took her other various medications, a cocktail of white, yellow, green, and purple pills in various sizes.

The apartment was spacious and sparse with 1970s style cross hatched furniture and monochromatic floral paintings. Gustie sat in her big beige La-Z-Boy by the window, cracked open to let fresh air in and cigarette smoke out. As he passed through the kitchen, he saw mason jars lined up on the counter, her various “tonics” steeping in them. She’d been making things like this as long as he’d known her: rock and rye, bitters, herbal infusions. She always had something cooking.

“What have you been up to this week?” she said, lighting another cigarette drawn from the pouch in the side of her chair. Her dyed-red coif was set in a mushroom-like poof with rigid hairspray. He was always afraid it would catch on fire from her lighter flame, always set higher than necessary.

“Working on a case.”

She beamed. “Oh, you have a client!”

“Not exactly. The client is dead. But I’m helping the cops out.”

“In order to keep yourself out of trouble, no doubt, just like last time. It isn’t that murder that happened downtown earlier this week?”

He shrugged his shoulders at her. “Related,” he said. Anyway, I need to borrow the car to go check out a possible lead in a little town called Lyonesse, in Pickens County.”

“You don’t say. Your grandfather had some relatives who lived near there, in Aliceville. I haven’t been back there in 40 years. From what I recall, there wasn’t much to see out there. Want a drink? I just finished up a batch of rock and rye that’ll set your hair straight.”

“No thanks, Gustie. No time for that today. I just need the car for a few hours.”

“Sure, sure,” she said. “Here are the keys. I should just give them to you. I almost never need to drive anywhere these days. Now, I know you have to go, but tell me real quick about the case. I read in the paper that this professor was poisoned and then stabbed when he was already dead.”

“That’s right,” he said. “They don’t have a toxicology report back yet. I’m hoping to get a jump by figuring out what kind of poison was used. I suspect it was something that was put into his drink that night.”

“Lots of things that could do that,” she said. “All these herbs and roots and things that I use for my tonics… Most of them could kill you if you take too much. But they’d take a while. You throw up, or you get the shits. You have convulsions. From what I read, none of that happened. Just boom, dead. Not so many things that could do that.”

“Any ideas on what it could be?”

She sucked on the cigarette thoughtfully. “You’re assuming it was a plant, but it could just have well been a chemical. Rat poison. Anything.”

“True, but this guy was really knew drinks. I’d think he’d be able to taste something like that. Or smell it.”

She got up without a word and fiddled around on the bookshelf for a little while, came back with a book called Poisonous Plants. “See if this helps,” she said. “Good luck. Come by for a real visit sometime soon.”

“I’ll do that.” He kissed her on the cheek and elevated back downstairs.


Read Part 10.

How We Beach

IMG_20150718_181102We went to the beach last week, and in the spirit of relaxing, didn’t write anything blogworthy. One thing we noticed down there is that everybody beaches a little differently. For example, some people just park themselves in the shallow water and let waves splash up on them all day. Others swim out to deeper water. There were people throwing footballs and playing other games. Some people build sand castles, and some people fish. We like to begin and end the day with a long walk. We tend to spend the rest of the daylight hours sitting in the shade and reading, with occasional breaks to splash around in the ocean for a while.

Almost every adult we saw was drinking beer, usually of the low-brow, mass produced variety. We like beer just fine, but we tend to get tired of it quickly. When it comes down to it, we can’t leave behind our cocktails for very long. In the picture to the right, you’ll see what we took with us. That’s just the liquor, of course. We also had lemons and limes, some fresh pineapple (pre-cut) and coconut cream for making pina coladas, sugar and honey for making syrups, a couple of shrubs, Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters, our top-secret homemade bloody mary mix, soda water, tonic water, and regular bottled water.

Most people know that they can save a lot of money at the beach by staying in, but a lot of people think that means you have to settle for junk food and cheap beer. We ventured out a few times for food and drink, but it was hard to beat what we could make ourselves, especially after visiting the local farmer and fisherman’s market to get some fresh local veggies and seafood. And with the small portion of our bar that we travelled with, we were able to have top notch cocktails, better than what was available at any of the bars we visited.

We were happy to find that the fridge in our rented condo made plenty of ice. We didn’t have to buy ice all week. The blender wasn’t all we hoped it would be, but it sufficed. Mornings, in addition to the obligatory coffee, we might have a shrub soda, a bloody mary, or an Americano with Ramazzotti amaro. Shrub soda was also a refreshing option for transitioning from the beach to the evening cocktail hour. For the beach, we batched cocktails in a pitcher, packing it in a cooler with ice and some plastic cups (and plenty of bottled water also). The pitcher might be filled with simple gin and tonics one day, margaritas another day, and fresh daiquiris on another day. In the evening, we might have a martini or a Manhattan before dinner (or a Sazerac, if we were feeling fancy).

IMG_20150720_105757Batch Gin and Tonic

  • Equal parts of your favorite gin and your favorite tonic
  • Juice of a couple of limes

We went ahead and threw the lime quarters in with the g&t in the pitcher. After a while, the lime peel infuses with the mixture, making it extra delicious. We could have gone with a fancier tonic brand, but we were on a budget.

Batch Beach Margarita

  • 16 ounces of tequila
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 6 ounces simple syrup
  • 2 ounces St. Germaine

Someone gave us a 2 oz sampler bottle of St. Germaine not long ago, which was great because we didn’t have to bring our big bottle from home. It was a perfect sub for the triple sec that we didn’t bring with us.

Batch Jake Barnes Daiquiri

  • 8 ounces of white rum
  • 8 ounces of aged demerara rum
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 6 ounces honey syrup
  • 2 ounces Luxardo maraschino liqueur
  • 1/4 ounce absinthe

This isn’t a true Hemingway daiquiri because we didn’t use grapefruit juice. The honey syrup was mainly because by the end of the week, we were running out of sugar, and it saved a trip to the store. It was delicious though.

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 8

IMG_20150709_204759Read from the beginning.


The storage room at the back of Collins Bar wasn’t exactly Coldwater’s idea of cozy, but Rachael did check on him before long and asked what he was drinking. He considered sticking to the Martinez, but he’d never had much luck staying with one kind of drink all night. Perhaps he had commitment issues. So instead, he decided to have Josh improvise something for him.

Coldwater had a tendency to get a little cute with his instructions for an improv drink. For his first one, he asked for something that with a medieval flare to it. He was thinking about the sunken city of Lyonesse from Arthurian legend and how it might be relevant to this crazy murder case. Josh didn’t disappoint. Rachael came back with a take on an improved brandy cocktail that involved absinthe, Hellfire bitters, and lavender. Detective Gatlinburg came waddling in behind her.

“This is my night off, Coldwater. It better be good.”

“If you’re off duty, why don’t you have a drink with me?”

Gatlinburg looked over to Rachael and grunted, “All right. I’ll have a sazerac.”

Rachael left to get the drink, and Coldwater commented, “Sazerac. That’s a pretty sophisticated drink for an illiterate like yourself, no offense.”

“You’d be surprised Coldwater. I went to school in New Orleans. I’m not as rustic as you might think. Now what’s this about?”

“Do you still have an interest in talking to the girl, Ashley Rose?”

“We still have some questions for her. Yes. Do you know where she is?”

“I don’t have the exact address, but I’m pretty sure it’s on 9th Avenue in Crestwood, somewhere east of 56th Street. You’ll find a white Caddy there, probably registered to a pony-tailed gorilla named Bruce something or other. I wasn’t able to get his last name, but I wrote down the license plate number.” He pulled a slip of paper from his wallet and handed it over to the detective, who didn’t look impressed.

“Where’d you get the information?”

“I bought it with my good looks. Didn’t you notice I don’t have them anymore?”

“You getting cute?”

“Does this big bruise in the middle of my face look cute to you?” Rachael came back with the sazerac, as rose pink as the detective’s pig-like face. It looked delicious. Coldwater decided he might have one of those next, or something like it. Gatlinburg reached for his wallet, but Coldwater stopped him. “It’s on Feizal. You’re doing him a favor.”

Rachael said, “I’m keeping a tab for you, Coldwater. I still don’t know what you’re doing here.”

“I’m a little confused about it myself, actually. All I can say is I doubt there is a whiskey thief in your midst.”

She crossed her eyes. “What does that even mean?”

Coldwater raised his hand. “If Feizal wanted you to know about it, he’d have told you himself.”

She shook her head and left again mumbling some sort of ancient curse. Gatlinburg called into headquarters and handed off the information Coldwater had given him about Ashely Rose’s probably whereabouts. He said that someone was going to investigate, and they should hear something before long.

“What do you know about this professor’s wife?” Coldwater said. “I didn’t know he had one, but I ran into her earlier this evening, and she struck me as an odd bird, a rara avis if you will.”

The detective sat back and sipped his drink. “Sounds like you’ve been doing crossword puzzles again. I can’t discuss the details of an ongoing investigation, Coldwater. You know that.”

“Oh, come on. I just gave you the blonde.”

“We don’t yet know if anything will come of it.”

“This is what I know. She’s an academic type like him, and also a poet. One of her pieces talks about a town called Lyonesse. Ever heard of it?”

“There’s a town by that name in Pickens County, a little west of Tuscaloosa. I have a cousin with a farm near there. Not much there to speak of but an abandoned train depot, a couple of old homesteads. A ghost town if I ever saw one. Why’s it important?”

“I’m not sure.” Coldwater wanted to keep something in his pocket, and the argument Ashley Rose and the Professor had about Lyonesse seemed as good a piece of information as anything he might be giving away.

“You working for somebody related to this case?”

“I might be, but if I were, I couldn’t tell you who. What kind of P.I. would I be if I didn’t keep my clients confidential?” In a strict sense, he could consider Ashley Rose his client, though he hadn’t gotten any money from her yet. She wanted him to prove she didn’t kill the professor, and she wanted to stay hidden until he had done that. However, he had other ideas. If she was in police custody, he might actually be able to help her. As things were, she was a liability.

“Okay, okay,” Gatlinburg said. “The widow, as you said, is an odd bird. But she’s on the up and up. Published a few books. She was out of town on a book tour when this all went down on Tuesday. She came back immediately, of course, and cancelled her other dates. She’s not a suspect, and she didn’t tell us anything that would lead to one. Happy?”

“Deliriously.”

“Oh yeah, and she’s also loaded. Independently wealthy, you might call it. Her great grandfather was one of those steel barons that built this town, and her grandpa and pops owned an insurance company.”

“I assume you have the knife,” Coldwater said. Gatlinburg gave him a blank look. “That the professor was stabbed with.”

Gatlinburg sat back in his chair, pulled a cigar out of his pocket, and started chewing on it, unlit. “Jesus, Coldwater. Don’t you read the papers? Sure, we have the knife, but Hornbuckle was already dead when the knife went in his back. Coroner said he was probably poisoned, but we still don’t know with what or how. The knife was just for show. This is all public knowledge.”

Coldwater said, “I’ve been a little out of it the last couple of days. I haven’t had time to catch up on the details.”

Gatlinburg’s phone whistled a tune at him, and he went outside to talk. Coldwater asked for another round of drinks from Rachael, another sazerac for the detective and a Vieux Carré for himself. He read back over the notes he had made on the legal pad, adding what Gatlinburg had told him about the widow, the poisoning, and about the ghost town in Pickens County. About then, Feizal returned.

“You changed,” Coldwater said. The bar manager’s checked red shirt had been exchanged for a white one.

“Very humid outside tonight. I had a shower before I came back. Any trouble here?”

“Quiet as a church on Thursday. Gatlinburg is outside on the phone.”

Feizal nodded and handed over two twenties. “Well, thanks anyway. You don’t know what help you’ve been.”

When Gatlinburg came back in the room, he looked troubled. He wiped his sweaty face with a handkerchief.

“We found the house,” he said. “We found the car. We found the girl. She’s dead. Don’t leave town, Coldwater. I have a few more questions to ask you.”


Read Part 9.

Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 7

Read from the beginning.


IMG_20150709_205404When the widow Hornbuckle did not return to her seat, Coldwater leapt to his feet and burst out the front door, only to be confronted with humid air that smelled of fryer grease. He walked around the side of the building and found a rear door that must have been where she had made her exit. If her car had been parked right outside, she could have gotten two blocks away before anybody noticed she was gone.

He pulled his phone out to call a cab and noticed he had missed another call from Feizal Valli. He had the cab first take him home, and he left the meter running while he went upstairs to feed Captain Fancypants. Then he had the driver drop him off at Collins Bar so he could check in with Feizal.

Meanwhile, during the cab ride, he took a moment to call Detective Gatlinburg and leave a message that he had some information for him, and that he could meet him later that night at Collins. After that, he started looking up information about this Lyonesse place. It took him a few minutes because he was unsure of the spelling, but thanks to the modern giants of industry that are Google and Wikipedia, he soon found something. The first thing he gleaned was that it had something to do with King Arthur stories. He’d read some of those as a kid, so that held his interest, but he still didn’t get the significance. Next, he read that Lyonesse was the home of a knight named Tristan, and in some stories, it was the site of the last battle between Arthur and Mordred. More interestingly, Lyonesse was a lost city, sort of a Celtic version of Atlantis. He still didn’t know how it fit in, but it gave him something to chew on.

Joey’s tiki sign and hula dancers were gone, but the swarm of paper airplanes was a permanent fixture. Lively europop played on the sound system, but the general mood in the bar was somber. Josh was working behind the bar, wearing a white button down shirt and a gray vest. Feizal, looking uncharacteristically cowboy in a red checked shirt, made eye contact and signaled that he’d be with him in a minute. There were not many customers in the bar; perhaps the recent tragedy had been bad for business. It might take some time. He sat at the far end of the bar, what he assumed was Feizal’s station for the night.

Before long, the cocktail waitress Rachael brought him something brown and stirred in a coupe glass.

“This one’s on the house. Feizal said you’re doing a favor for him.”

Her tone was not altogether cheery, like maybe she didn’t approve of giving away free drinks to detectives. She was blonde and thin—you might call her features elfin, which reminded him some of what he’d been reading on the way over. Her outfit was simple and practical—blue jeans and a pink t-shirt—not at all the dress of the sort of fairyland creature she somewhat resembled. She was also Feizal’s girl, so he tried not to gaze in her baby blue eyes for too long, lest he be accused of flirting.

“Possibly,” Coldwater said. “He hasn’t told me what the favor is yet. What’s this?”

“A Martinez. Josh made his own Boker’s-style bitters. Ransom Old Tom gin, Cocchi sweet vermouth, Dolin dry, and maraschino.”

“Sounds perfect,” he said, making a lame pun. “Any idea what your boyfriend wants me to do?”

“No clue. It’s been kind of crazy in here the last couple of days. The cops just left again.”

“Yeah, they’ll be back more than once, I expect. Any new action or just follow-up?”

“Follow-up, but I don’t think they found out anything they didn’t already know. Enjoy the Martinez.” With that, she faded away. She and Feizal both seemed to have a way of disappearing when you blink.

Josh saw him and came down to the end to shake hands and say hi, ask how he liked the Martinez. Coldwater had only just then taken his first sip of it, and it was the sort of drink you have to describe with a ten-cent word—grandiloquent came to mind—and Coldwater told him so. Josh had made it by the book, that book being The Bartender’s Guide by Jerry Thomas, the 1887 edition, where the venerable drink’s recipe was first printed. The Old Tom gin had a strong cinnamon and clove kick, tamped down and gently sweetened by the vermouths. Two careful dashes of maraschino liqueur gave it a velvety texture, and the Boker’s bitters, even with just a dash of the stuff, brought all the flavors together harmoniously while bringing an unmistakable note of historical authenticity. It was a masterpiece. He’d almost forgotten what he came there for when Feizal came sidling up and landed on the barstool to his right.

“Coldwater,” he said in with mock authority. “How are things?”

“Fine. I meant to call you back, but I ran into an immovable object.”

“That bruise on your face looks pretty nasty.”

“Josh gave me some medicine for it.” He held up the cocktail glass, dipped in the air in a cheers pantomime, and took another luxurious sip. “What’s on your mind?”

“Well you showed up just in time actually. I have some personal business to take care of, and I need someone to watch the shop for a couple of hours.”

“I’d think Josh and Rachael are capable of running the place for a couple of hours without you here. What gives?”

“You’re right. But they’re working, and they might get distracted. I need someone to keep a very close watch, if you know what I mean. What do you get usually?”

“Two hundred a day plus expenses, and I don’t know what you mean exactly.” Coldwater looked him over. There was no sign that this was a joke. It didn’t make sense.

“That’s right. I haven’t explained it to you yet. Come with me.” Feizal walked him to the back and unlocked the door of a storage room where they kept their extra bottles. There was also a small wooden desk and a couple of chairs. The bottles were arranged almost haphazardly, some still in boxes piled on other boxes. Others were out on shelves. “Somebody is stealing from me,” Feizal said. “I don’t think it’s any of the employees, but it always seems to happen when we’re pretty busy. What I suppose happens is somebody comes to get something and forgets to lock the door. Next thing I know, I’m missing inventory, always whiskey. Sometimes bourbon, sometimes rye, sometimes Irish or Scotch.”

“Well, this is easy,” Coldwater said. “Tell your staff not to leave the door unlocked.”

“There’s only so much I can control. Look, it’s just for a couple of hours. We’ll get busy around ten. If I give you $40 and make sure Rachael comes back here frequently with liquid refreshment for you, will you do it?”

“I suppose so, but I should tell you, I have a tentative appointment to talk with that Detective Gatlinburg tonight. I told him I’d be here.”

“Perfect. Two birds, one stone. I’ll have Rachael show him back here when he arrives.”

They shook hands, and Feizal did his disappearing act again. The room smelled of sawdust. Pine, specifically—what the shelves were made out of. With nothing much else to do, he took a legal pad he found sitting out on the desk and started making notes about the case, trying to make sense out of it all. Ashley Rose’s relationship with the Professor and her desire to prove her innocence even when she wasn’t under direct suspicion; the mysterious widow that Ashley Rose had forgotten to tell him about; the strangely ubiquitous references to a sunken city called Lyonesse; this bizarre and seemingly pointless security gig he was doing for Feizal. No matter which way he ran the numbers, something didn’t quite add up.


Read Part 8.