Breakfast in a Glass

IMG_20150709_094305Eggs in a cocktail? Raw? Preposterous! Well, no. It would be preposterous if the eggs were cooked perhaps, but there is a long history of eggs in cocktails. Lots of drinks, like whiskey sours, combine egg white with citrus to provide a frothy, creamy texture. When you use the whole egg, it’s called a “flip,” variations of which go back to the 16th century. Flips are mentioned in some of the works of Dickens. Jerry Thomas, in 1887, said that a flip “gives strength to delicate people.” Well, I was feeling a little delicate earlier this morning, and now I’m feeling as strong as a race horse. Of course, there is always some risk in consuming raw eggs. That’s our disclaimer. However, if you know where your eggs come from, that’s half the battle. We get farm fresh, free-range, hormone-free eggs every week from our CSA, and I try to pull out the smallest ones for cocktails.

One variety of flip that is still popular around the holidays is eggnog. A lot of people dont’ realize you can make eggnog by the glass with milk, an egg, sugar, and (optionally) the spirit of your choice (we like ours with brandy). But a flip can be enjoyed any time of year, particularly when you are hung over. Fortified wines are great in flips. These include sherry, port, madeira, marsala, and vermouth. Our favorite flip, is made with a combination of gin and sherry, and we make it thusly:

IMG_20150709_095020Solera Gin Flip

  • 1 oz London dry gin
  • 1 oz solera sherry
  • 1/2 oz simple syrup
  • 1 small farm-fresh egg

Put all the ingredients in a shaker and shake for 30 seconds with NO ICE. This will make it fluffy. Add ice and shake again. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with fresh-grated nutmeg.

A note on sherry: There are many varieties of sherry and also great disparity in quality. We picked solera sherry for this drink because it has a sweet, but not too sweet, nutty flavor that we enjoy.


The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 6

Read from the beginning

Nitty Gritty

Photo by Katherine Webb

After the car dropped him off, Coldwater was able to get the blindfold off just in time to see them race around the corner, down 55th Place, a quaint old Main Street type of block with a couple of recording studios, an art gallery, and some other shops that had come and gone. It had been a white Cadillac, vintage 1980s, and he made a note of the license plate number. When he first started his agency, he’d spent time practicing and gotten good at quickly memorizing numbers.

The Desert Island Supply Company stood in a storefront on the ground floor of an old Masonic temple in Woodlawn, a once-venerable neighborhood just east of downtown that white flight in the 1960s had left to rot. In recent years, some people had been trying to build it up again. Desert Island Supply, aka DISCO, ran creative writing programs for area kids but was disguised as a shop that sold supplies you’d need if you were in danger of becoming stranded in the South Pacific with only a volleyball as company. At night, they had other events, and this Nitty Gritty Magic City poetry reading was one of those.

When he walked in the front door, he was immediately confronted with a giant wooden pelican, the size of a cigar store Indian, facing the sky with its beak open in a state of creepy ecstasy. The front room was divided from the back by a large shelf where they sold Imagination Spray, empty wine bottles for sending messages across the sea, and an “Official Survival Kit” containing a pencil, notepad, compass, and other items. Against the east wall, next to a giant plank of driftwood, an unknown party was selling beer and wine, and (hallelujah) mixed drinks. Coldwater needed something badly and made his way to the bartender, a youngish fellow, prematurely balding on top, and tall, thin, and squared off enough around the corners to serve as a doorjamb. What hair he had was red, which matched his goatee. Only about half of the dozen people milling about had that long curly hair that English majors, both male and female, frequently seem to go in for. Coldwater asked Doorjamb what he was making.

“We call it the Nitty Gritty Cocktail. It was invented for us by a friend who died recently. It’s got rye whiskey, Fernet Branca, and tawny port in it.” A Manhattan variation. The stiff he was talking about had to be Professor Hornbuckle. Doorjamb said it was. “He used to make drinks for us. The reading tonight is, in some ways, a tribute to him.”

The cocktail was six bucks, a bargain, but it was a little heavy on the Fernet. Coldwater took a seat on one of the box-shaped stools in the back at a table that seemed to have been constructed from the door of an old ship. The room was infested with maps and globes, model ships, and other seafaring-related trinkets. A small p.a. system was set up underneath the formidable shadows of a swordfish and a hammerhead shark that were hanging from the wall. Everyone looked pretty gloomy, but a short-haired brunette with cat-eye spectacles sitting by herself in a corner looked gloomier than the rest. She was dressed more conservatively too, in a buttoned-up white blouse with a long, black skirt. The reading hadn’t yet started, so Coldwater moved over to the seat next to her.

“Do you mind?”

“Suit yourself,” she replied.

“I’m a private detective, and I have some interest in the case of Professor Hornbuckle. I’d like to talk to you if you have a moment.”
“What makes you think I have something to do with it?”

“Are you kidding? Among this bunch of hippies and hipsters, you stand out like a pink flamingo in a black velvet cape. My guess is that you loved him. Maybe he loved you. Maybe you know about some trouble he’d gotten into. Maybe he left out on you. Maybe you came here thinking you might get some answers.”

“You have some kind of ID that shows you’re a detective?”

He opened his wallet to flash his APIB license. Up until a couple of years ago, you didn’t need any kind of license to hang your shingle as a PI in Alabama. Now there’s a whole rigmarole of college courses and an examination and continuing education credits, and you have to shell out a couple of hundred dollars every two years to keep it current.

After examining the credentials, she said, “Shall we talk here, or do you have a better idea?”

“I got dropped off here. If you can give me a lift back downtown, I’ll buy you a drink.”

She looked at him slonchwise and pulled a smirk that knocked his necktie askew. “I’ll pass.”

“After the reading, of course. I wouldn’t want you to miss anything important.” He felt his phone vibrate in his pants pocket, but he didn’t want to disrupt the informative conversation he was having.

“Tell you what,” she said. “Let’s skip the poetry, skip the drink, and go straight to your place.”

“You’re being sarcastic.”

“You bet I am.”

“We can start here and figure out the rest later. First of all, maybe you could tell me your name.”

One of the curly haired English majors, a female who looked to be about 6’5”, took the mic. She thanked the audience for coming, etc. “Most of you know…knew Professor David Hornbuckle, who helped us out with this reading series from time to time by making some awesome cocktails. Tonight we have some of his friends, colleagues, and former students who will be reading work.”

Colleagues and former students made sense, thought Coldwater, but he didn’t know Hornbuckle had any friends.

“Some of these pieces,” the hostess continued, “were influenced by Professor Hornbuckle’s seminars on medieval poetry and medieval rhetoric; others are on topics that he was interested in, which ranged from basketball to beekeeping to the finer varieties of whiskey. Everyone here, I’m sure, has his or her own story to tell. We’ll start with someone who probably knew him better than anyone, also one of the most accomplished poets I know, his wife, Flora Hornbuckle.”

Coldwater felt a cold draft as the woman with whom he had been speaking quietly took the stage and pulled some folded sheets from her handbag. “Good evening, everyone. Thank you for being here. I know it would have meant a lot of David. For those of you who are interested, there will be a wake tomorrow at the Buck Mulligan’s in Five Points, starting at six o’clock. The poem I want to read for you is called ‘Hazel and Honeysuckle’. It references the tragedy of Tristan and Iseult, one of David’s favorite stories from Arthurian legend.”

She unfolded her packet of papers and began to read with a deep mellifluous voice. Coldwater wasn’t much of a literary critic, and he wasn’t familiar with the legend. He wished he had a hard copy to read along with. From what he could follow, the poem had to do with a kind of love triangle, and there were some trees growing out of graves. His ears perked up at the mention of “Lyonesse.” Obviously, there was something significant about this. It was what Hornbuckle and Ashley Rose had argued about at the Nick, but he still didn’t know what it meant. While he was still making a note about it in his pocket moleskein, the poem ended, followed by a steady stream of applause. When he looked up again, Mrs. Hornbuckle had already left the room.

Read Part 7

Independence Punch

Independence PunchFor your Fourth of July party, you might want to serve up a punch. The word punch comes from the Hindi word for “five,” and traditionally, punches have five ingredients. The five we decided to work with are bourbon, lemon, mint syrup, Pimm’s No. 1, and club soda. This is an extremely light and refreshing punch that’s not too strong. We wanted to use bourbon because it is the quintessential American spirit, and we are after all celebrating America’s independence day. However, we gave a little nod to our former overlords also by including the Pimm’s.

To make the mint syrup, cook up a normal simple syrup with equal parts sugar and water but add about 8 mint leaves, torn to release the oils. When the syrup starts to boil and sugar is dissolved, take it off the heat. After it cools, strain out the mint leaves and store in a jar. Whatever is leftover after you make the punch can be used in mint juleps.

Protip: As long as we are squeezing all these lemons, we went ahead and peeled them so we could use the zest to make limoncello.

Independence Punch (by the glass)

  • 2 ounces bourbon (we used Four Roses Yellow Label)
  • 1 ounce lemon juice
  • 1 ounce Pimm’s No. 1
  • 1 ounce of club soda
  • 1/2 ounce mint syrup

Combine all the ingredients except the club soda in a shaker filled two thirds with ice. Shake and pour into a Collins glass (the ice as well). Fill with club soda. Garnish with a couple of mint leaves shoved up around the straw so you get a good whiff of it with every sip.

Independence Punch (in bulk – multiply as needed)

  • 16 ounces bourbon
  • 8 ounces lemon juice
  • 8 ounces Pimm’s No 1
  • 8 ounce of club soda
  • 4 ounces mint syrup

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and stir to blend. Garnish with sprigs of mint and slices of fresh citrus.


The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 5

Read from the beginning

IMG_20150628_105107Stone came to on the floor of a dark, musty apartment. Based on traffic sounds outside, he placed himself on the second floor of a building close to a main thoroughfare. A train announced its presence at an intersection about five blocks to the north, if he could trust that his inner compass was still functional after whatever it was that hit him. As his eyes adjusted to the lack of light, the ponytailed thug he’d noticed at Rojo earlier came into focus, sitting on a stool with his arms crossed so his biceps bulged out like rippled boulders. Behind him was an impressive half-circle home bar with a black granite top and a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that was full of bottles. There was no other furniture in the place besides the bar and three backless bar stools with saddle seats. Ponytail whistled when he saw that Stone was awake. He could feel something on his face, a bandage. He figured he must have fallen forward right onto his nose when Ponytail knocked him out from behind. It hurt like a herd of buffalo had a knife fight inside his nasal cavity, and it made a susurrus sound when he breathed in.

As if carried by a beam of light, Ashley Rose herself strutted into the room, her tawny curls bouncing off her shoulders. Her skin was so pale, it practically glowed in the dark, and she didn’t seem shy about letting it be seen. She wore a low-cut black cocktail dress as if she were going out on the town, as if she hadn’t been holed up in hiding for the past two days. She smiled with her teeth bared.

“I apologize for the roughness, Mr. Coldwater. I patched you up as best I could. We didn’t want to take any chances of you knowing where we were bringing you. Bruce, make Mr. Coldwater a brandy cocktail, please. Make two.”

Ponytail Bruce stood, picked up a mixing glass and a bottle of cognac. His mouth was a flat line. Stone said, “Tell you what, Bruce. Just make it whiskey. I’ll just have a snort of that Redbreast I see on your top shelf. And you can call me Stone.”

“Bruce’s brandy cocktail is divine. Are you sure you won’t indulge me?”

“I’ll have a sip of yours. Why’d you bring me here?”

“Please join us at the bar, if you like. You can’t possibly be comfortable down there.”

He saw her point and made his way slowly to the central of the three bar stools. There was nothing on the walls, which hadn’t been painted lately, and there was a drab carpet with numerous bald spots and heavy curtains that blocked out the daylight. It was odd to have such an elaborate setup in a place where nobody seemed to live.
“I want to hire you. To prove that I’m innocent. You’ll be paid well for it.”

Stone laughed, but it rang out painfully in his head. “Christ on a cracker. You may not have killed that professor, but I can tell already you’re anything but innocent. Anyway, much as I’d like to take your money, the cops already told me they can’t connect you with Hornbuckle, despite the rumors going around.”

Bruce handed Ashley a coupe glass, filled with a golden-brown mixture, garnished with a generous and fragrant slab of orange peel. Stone could smell the citrus oil from across the bar, even with a busted up beak. Bruce gestured toward a cooler full of ice, and Stone signaled to give him two pieces. Up close, he could see freckles on Ashley’s shoulders and silver sparkles in her red nail polish.

“They will find a connection,” Ashley said nonchalantly. “They just haven’t looked hard enough yet. We were lovers, but not for long. I cut it off two weeks ago.”

“Okay, sister. You’re gonna have to level with me. Tell me the whole story and why you think you can’t just tell it to Detective Gatlinburg.”

It was a long yarn, and Ashley Rose was a sloppy knitter. Stone kept interrupting for repetitions and clarifications. The most straightforward part was on her relationship with the professor. The upshot of that was that she had been enrolled in Hornbuckle’s seminar on medieval poetry at the university where he taught. She had seduced him in an effort to improve her grade when she found that reading Chaucer in Middle English was beyond her ken. On her midterm essay, Hornbuckle had written a comment calling her writing “a curious exercise in stream-of-consciousness narration, but hardly an academic essay.” They thought they had been discrete about the nature of their relationship, but apparently they were found out because soon after, someone started blackmailing them both. The details of the blackmail weren’t so clear to him, but he’d get to the bottom of it. He’d ask her more about that later.

The more serpentine element of her tale was her own background. What Stone pieced together was that she was 26 and already had some sort of fine arts degree, but she was going back for an MBA. The lit class was an elective, and when Stone asked why she didn’t just drop it when she was failing, she said coyly, “Plan B seemed like a more fun route.” Her family had money and owned a string of restaurants out west. She and fun-boy were planning on opening a bar here in town, and her carousing with the best-known mixologists in town was a ploy to collect recipes and size up the competition. This pad was a test kitchen of sorts, rented under a false name so nobody would trace her.

“Tell me about Lyonnesse,” Stone said when she came to a stopping point. She looked away and started breathing through her mouth. “That’s what you and the professor were arguing about at the Nick last week wasn’t it?”

“That isn’t relevant,” she said.

“Well, ease my mind by telling me what it means.”

“It was just an inside joke, between Hornbuckle and me. A reference to one of the poems we discussed in his seminar.”

“I find it’s something else, I’ll be asking you about it again.” He decided he only had one more question he needed clarity on for the moment. “Tell me more about this blackmail scheme. What’d they have on you and what’d they want?”

“They threatened to expose our relationship, which wouldn’t hurt me, but the professor would have lost his job. They wanted me to pay to protect him. They had photos, copies of emails, text messages. I have no idea how they got all that.”

“So what would stop you from bumping him off just to get out of it?”


They blindfolded him, a little more gently this time, and then drove him around in circles in a rather lame attempt to disorient him. He could tell they hadn’t driven onto any major roads, and he felt the identical bump of a certain familiar railroad crossing no less than five times. When they dropped him off, he found himself on the corner of First Avenue South and 55th Street in Woodlawn. They must have known there was a poetry reading he planned on attending right around the corner.

Read Part 6

Deconstructing the Margarita

20150628_100341Margarita is the Spanish word for daisy. If you dig into the family tree of cocktails, you’ll find that the Margarita is the granddaughter of an older drink called the Daisy and another called a Brandy Crusta. The Daisy has undergone a lot of permutations over the years, but originally, it was similar to what we would today call a Sour: base liquor, lemon juice, simple syrup. Usually it would have soda water added, and it would be served in a large glass full of shaved or cracked ice and garnished with fresh seasonal fruit and mint. The Brandy Crusta was also a precursor of the Sidecar. It combined brandy, lemon juice, and sugar, and it was served in a glass with a sugar rim and a long spiral of lemon peel. When you bring in tequila as the base liquor, substitute lime for the lemon, and add salt on the rim instead of sugar, you have a Margarita.

Your basic Margarita is a sweet, tart, refreshing summer drink. The combination of lime juice, sugar, and tequila is a classic that even cocktail luddites appreciate, especially if it’s made fresh and with quality ingredients. Adding triple sec or Grand Marnier is the traditional way to bring a touch of class to the drink, and it does add both richness and sweetness, but it isn’t always necessary. Add salt on the rim, or not. Add a lime wheel as a garnish, or not. You can mess with it in a million different ways, and it’s still good.

Step 1: Selecting a tequila

First of all, you should NEVER EVER use a tequila that you wouldn’t drink on its own. ALWAYS use a tequila that is made with 100% blue agave—it should be printed clearly on the label. Don’t use Cuervo. If you like Patron, okay, but don’t put it in my Margarita. Our preference is Sauza Blue, but there are a lot of other good brands out there. Just read the label.

Traditionally, you’ll use a blanco or unaged tequila. To step it up, look for one that says reposado or anejo on the label. These are tequilas that have been barrel aged. Reposado means “rested” and indicates that the tequila has been aged for a shorter amount of time, between two months and one year. Anejo means “old” and indicates that the tequila has been aged at least a year. Extra Anejo means it has been aged at least three years. An aged tequila will be smoother and more complex because of the flavoring it gets from the barrel. Avoid “gold” tequila, as this is usually just a blanco tequila with coloring added to make it look aged.

Step 2: Selecting citrus

The citrus in a Margarita is typically lime because limes are popular in Mexican cuisine, and they naturally go well together. However, you can substitute lemon, orange, or grapefruit, or use a combination of them. As long as it’s freshly squeezed, it will be good. One caveat: because orange juice is so sweet, I would always combine it with a more tart citrus juice to offset the sweetness a little bit.

Step 3: Selecting a liqueur

What restaurants call a “top shelf” Margarita will have triple sec such as Cointreau or Grand Marnier added to the basic recipe. Try using St. Germaine (an elderflower liqueur) or Damiana liqueur (if you can find it) to add flowery herbal notes. For a spicy variation, use Domain de Canton (ginger liqueur). Chartreuse can also be used to good effect. Most of these can be a sub for the triple sec or can be added to the triple sec. It’s a matter of how sweet you want your drink to be. We’ve also had good luck using Cathead Honeysuckle vodka.

Step 4: Selecting a syrup

There are literally thousands of specialty syrups you can buy or make at home. We’ve done black peppercorn syrup, hot pepper syrup, cardamom syrup, and lots of others. You can infuse simple syrup with just about any kind of herb, spice, or seasonal fruit. Or don’t use any syrup and pick a second liqueur from the section above.

Step 5: Selecting your salt

Not everybody like the salt on the rim of a Margarita, but it you do, this is another area where you can play around. Experiment with combining salt with ground herbs or spices. If you like a spicy Margarita, you can add a little cayenne to your salt mixture. Many grocery stores have specialty salts that have already been infused with different flavors. Some favorites we found in the past were rosemary salt and hickory smoked salt. For an interesting variation, instead of doing a salt rim, just add a small pinch of salt to the drink itself.

Step 6: Selecting your garnish

Take some inspiration from the Margarita’s ancestor the Daisy and add some fresh seasonal fruit or herbs. In the spring and summer, we especially like to pull herbs from our backyard herb garden and use them to spruce up a cocktail. Sage, mint, or rosemary can work well in a Margarita and looks pretty in a glass, especially for guests. Before garnishing with an herb, clap the herbs between your hands to help bring out the oils and aromas. “Spanking” the herbs like this is essential for getting the most out of them.

A lot of these tricks would apply to cocktails other than a Margarita, of course, especially similar citrus-based drinks like Gimlets and Daiquiris. Use something from each section and make your Margarita something truly special.

Corpse Revivals

IMG_20150628_103144A Corpse Reviver is more of a family of drinks than an actual drink. As a category, it includes any of many cocktails that have been used over the decades as a hangover cure or eye-opener, such as the Bloody Mary, the Michelada, and tiki favorites like the Zombie. The name Corpse Reviver goes back to the mid-1800s, but the most famous recipes that go by that moniker are the two that appear in Harry Craddock’s 1930 bar manual, The Savoy Cocktail Book.

Craddock’s recipe for the Corpse Reviver #1 uses 1.5 ounces of brandy or cognac, .75 ounces of calvados, and .75 ounces of sweet vermouth. All the ingredients are shaken over ice and strained into a glass. Calvados—a type of apple brandy made in Bordeaux, France—is what makes it interesting. There are a couple of brands available in Alabama and a few other varieties that you can find in neighboring states (not that we condone bootlegging liquor across state lines, of course). If you can’t find calvados, Laird’s Applejack can be subbed to provide apple flavor, but it will be slightly different animal. While they are similar products, calvados is more subtle. Applejack, though technically also an apple brandy, drinks more like a whiskey. For the cognac, we’re not partial to a brand, but wouldn’t use anything except VSOP or XO.

It’s a very tasty drink, but the Corpse Reviver #2 seems to show up more often on modern menus. It uses equal parts of gin, lemon juice, Cointreau, and Lillet Blanc, with a wash of absinthe in the glass. The original recipe calls for Kina Lillet instead of Lillet Blanc, but that product is no longer made, and most people seem to think Lillet Blanc is a reasonable substitute. Cointreau is mentioned by name in the book, but any dry curacao liqueur will work. The Pierre Ferrand dry curacao seems to be gaining currency of late.

In The Bartender’s Bible from 1991, Gary Regan lists a drink called the Corpse Reviver that has 1.5 ounces of brandy, 1 ounce of white crème de menthe, and .5 ounces of Fernet Branca. Brave souls that we are, we have tried this and found it not altogether horrible. In fact, we are drinking one right now. If, for some reason, you have white crème de menthe at your house, this is a decent way to get rid of some of it. Top it off with a lemon twist if you’re feeling fancy. It’s really a slightly more drinkable variation on an old-style highball called a Stinger, which just uses the brandy and crème de menthe. The bitterness of Fernet helps to balance it out and make the crème de menthe less cloying.

The internets contain a plethora of recipes laying claim to the name of Corpse Reviver #3. Some are variations on Regan’s recipe. Others are similar to the recipe for Corpse Reviver #2 but with some kind of substitute. For example, we found one that subs Swedish Punsch for Lillet (a terrible idea, if you ask us). Another uses lime juice instead of lemon. Still another uses brandy, Campari, triple sec, and lemon juice. There seems to be no limit. The lesson here is: It’s fine to come up with your own corpse reviver recipe, but please PLEASE come up with an original name for it.

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

Meditations on the Martini

IMG_20150609_172925The Classic Martini is the godfather of cocktails. Although other drinks, including its cousin the Manhattan, predate it, the Martini is a yardstick by which we measure virtually all other drinks. It is likely that no other cocktail has been so misunderstood by history and bastardized by misguided trends. And yet no other cocktail shines with such simple elegance. I will first tell you how to make a proper martini, and then I will discuss the merits and demerits of its many variations.

First, a recipe:

  • 2 ounces of Plymouth gin
  • ½ ounce of Dolin Blanc vermouth
  • 1 dash of Regan’s orange bitters

Pour all ingredients into a mixing glass. Fill with ice and stir about fifty times, until at least 1/3 of the ice has melted. Strain into a coupe glass or small martini glass.

Cut a generous slice of peel (careful to avoid pith) from a fresh lemon, and rub the outside of it over the edge of the glass. Then squeeze the lemon over the glass so that a few drops of lemon oil float on top of the drink. Discard the peel, or twist it into a spiral to use as a garnish.

This is a proper Classic Martini. Note that it uses gin, not vodka. Note that it uses lemon peel, not an olive or an onion. Note that it uses a brand of vermouth that costs more than six dollars. Note that it uses bitters. These are all necessary to provide the crisp, clean, complex, refreshing beacon of light that the Classic Martini represents. When we want to enjoy a classic cocktail, it is like stepping into a time machine. The ingredients above are the best modern representations of the ingredients that would have been used when the martini was at the pinnacle of its fame, in the years just before Prohibition.

If you prefer a martini on the rocks rather than straight up, that’s your business. It isn’t our preference, but it’s acceptable in polite society.

Perhaps the most common variation is the “dirty” martini, which uses olives as a garnish and a splash of olive juice to give the drink a briny flavor. Unlike the erstwhile fictional detective Stone Coldwater in our serialized novel, this is not an abomination to us. It has its time and place. We are tempted to say that the time and place is in the 1970s at a golf resort or yacht club. Though not entirely offensive, it is rare that we are in the mood for a dirty martini these days, especially at a bar, where the state of the olives and olive brine may be questionable. Even at home, we have strayed away from this variation of late, although we used to enjoy them from time to time in the early days of our cocktail explorations. That being said, done well, a dirty martini can be reminiscent of a beautiful day at the beach, the salty scent and soothing roar of the waves, the clean air, the sand between your toes. Gaze through the haze of olive brine at the refracting light of your bar-side lamp, and you can imagine the sun setting gently behind the ocean.

Another variant is the Gibson, which uses a small pickled onion instead of an olive. We have never had any use whatsoever for this drink.

A variation that took hold in the late 20th century is the vodka martini. Vodka lacks the depth that gin gives the drink. The herbal and floral notes of gin play well with the herbal and floral notes of the vermouth, and the bitters tie it all together in a nice, clean package. The key word here is clean. We don’t mean to denigrate vodka, generally, but we respectfully don’t think it belongs in a martini. We especially don’t agree with the idea of an “extra extra dry vodka martini” which is really just chilled vodka in a glass. If there is no vermouth and no bitters, it isn’t a cocktail, and if it isn’t a cocktail, it isn’t a martini.

We will not speak of “fun”-tinis. Those really are an abomination, and we have already said too much about them by even mentioning them by name.

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

Tiki Talk with Joey Schmidt

11169177_10152724406181809_5293717125042818209_nA lot of folks, when they think of tiki, they think of overly sweet drinks served in novelty mugs with over-the-top garnishes. It’s all presentation, you might say, and not really about the drink. That’s not so, according to local tiki expert Joey Schmidt, also known as Joey from Leeds or JFL, who writes the Rated-R Cocktails blog. Tiki, in fact, is tremendously misunderstood and underrated by bartenders who are either too uninformed or too lazy to appreciate its true depth. When tiki is done well, it is as much of an art as any other craft cocktail.

WT: You were talking to me earlier about the five pillars of flavor in a tiki drink. What are those?

JFL: Just like any cocktail, you can break them down into component parts, but in tiki, you don’t necessarily pick out each and every flavor. You pick out a marriage of flavors—a beginning, middle, and end. Take, for example, Planters Punch, which is the building block of tiki drinks and the building block for Daiquiris as well. You have strong, weak, sour, sweet, and there’s a fifth pillar that you don’t see in that rhyme that’s in every article—spice. Spice is what makes it tiki over simply being Caribbean. The key component into making a tiki drink custom—and I think a lot of people have trouble with this—is you have to have all those elements in play, and you have to remember that a tiki drink should be more sour than sweet. It’s okay for it to be balanced, equal parts sour and sweet, but you should definitely not put more sugar in it than you have sour, unless you’re making a Painkiller, which breaks all the rules.

WT: Tiki drinks can often have 10 or 12 ingredients in them.

JFL: You can, but more ingredients doesn’t necessarily the better drink make.

WT: We know it’s a long story, but summarize for us, if you can, the origins of tiki.

JFL: To start off plainly, tiki is an evolved sour. No matter what you might think, a tiki drink has to have some form of citrus juice in it, which technically leaves the Piña Colada out (there are arguments about that).

Tiki started in the 1930s, just after prohibition, and bars were starting to open back up, but most of the bartenders had moved on to other careers or moved to Europe. So you had a lot of bar guides coming out of varied quality. One man, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt—or, as he later came to be known, Donn Beach—was in California at that point. His granddad ran rum during Prohibition, and he would go on the boat with him. So he got to try the Planters Punch and the Daiquiri and all these drinks from the Caribbean. He had a good knowledge of them, and he had gotten to try all these rums. He had knowledge that a lot of other bartenders didn’t have at that time because the Caribbean was not a big tourist destination then, other than Cuba. It was a dirty place where respectable people didn’t go.

Then, Don had the choice that he could go around the globe or he could go to college. Donn, being the beach bum that he was, went around the world, especially around Asia. So when it came time for him to open a bar, he had a unique idea. It was the law in California then that you had to serve food if you served alcohol. He didn’t know this, so at the last minute, they set up a burner , a wok, and a vent, and he got somebody from Chinatown to cook for him. And so thus we associate Chinese food with tiki drinks.

Eventually, it became big. He married a waitress named Sunny Sund, and she had a mind for business. While Donn was basically an artistic guy who loved making these drinks, she was a business minded woman. They bought a hotel that became Don the Beachcomber, with a gift shop and guest rooms. It blew up big. This was a hotspot for celebrities—Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich. It was top-hat and tails, black tie. This was the place to be in the ‘30s. Eventually, they got divorced. Sunny Sund got the rights to everything they had, and Donn left for Hawaii, which I assume was just fine for him. He opened places like Colonel Beach’s Plantation Steakhouse, so he got to keep doing his drinks over there. But it was because of him, and his knowledge of rum, and his knowledge of Caribbean drinks that we have tiki drinks.

In Potions of the Caribbean, Jeff Berry talks about how these Caribbean drinks were given a South Seas/Asian/Polynesian theme, when really there are no drinks from that area. The only spirit really is Cava, which is a chewed up root that’s spit back out and buried—not really that appetizing. So most Asian drinks are actually Caribbean drinks, oddly enough.

Then comes Trader Vic. Tiki had started becoming big. Trader Vic was an entrepreneur who was a real go-getter. That man was salty, salty to the core. He sat at Don the Beachcomber’s for a whole week and watched how they mixed drinks, and then he had the idea that “hey, I could do this.” But he had no idea how to make the drinks. So then he goes on a tour of the Caribbean and sits down at a lot of the great bars out there, like the Floradita.

WT: That’s the bar in Havana where Hemingway used to hang out.

JFL: Right. He comes back with the knowledge and puts his own unique spin on it. It’s still tiki, but you can definitely tell a Vic drink from a Donn drink, even though there’s this whole argument over which of them invented the Mai Tai, which I couldn’t care less about. Anyway, this continued on through World War II, and Hawaii becoming a state really gave it a huge boost. I think that the reason it became such a craze over the years is because people were fed up with horrible things, like the Depression and wars and atomic threats, that they just wanted to escape.

WT: Why do we use the word tiki? I know it has to do with the Polynesian theme, but what more can you tell us about that?

JFL: Originally, nobody used the term tiki. They were Polynesian drinks, the drinks you got at a Chinese restaurant, Polynesian Pop, I believe was a term used at some point. But tiki was a word that started to be used in the late ‘90s when tiki started to become a big thing again. And, by the way, I want to make clear that Jeff Berry is the reason why any of us are doing this. Without Berry, there would be a few forgotten Trader Vics and the Mai Tai and not much else. So we can really all thank Jeff for that. But tiki started to come about because in popular culture, like in some Brady Bunch episodes, the word tiki was used to talk about Polynesian idols.

WT: So there’s a nostalgic kitch association.

JFL: And you do see the word tiki in some drink books. Where umbrella drink became the pejorative word for beach drinks in the ‘80s, tiki became a word to separate out the two. They were once called exotic cocktails. One person coined the term tropikal with a k.

WT: Other than Jeff Berry, who are some of the modern writers we should read to learn more about tiki?

JFL: Phoebe Beach, Donn’s widow, put out a book with her new husband based on Donn’s notes. I wouldn’t use it as a Bible, but it’s a great reference if you’ve read Jeff’s books and want to branch out. Great pictures, great anecdotes. But the recipes kind of read like if my mother went through my notes after I died and tried to tell people how I made those drinks. It sort of feels like that. Outside that, Zombie Horde. It’s not a Bible either. There’s good stuff and bad stuff in there. There’s Rated-R Cocktails dot com. I hear that guy’s a sexy man.

Trader Vic wrote a lot of books. A lot of them are out of print. The one that’s out now is called Trader Vic Party something… you can find it on Amazon.

WT: Yeah, I have that book. There are some recipes that are a little questionable—using pre-fab mixes and things like that.

JFL: Vic was big into that, even in the ‘60s. He was one of the fathers of prefab mixes.

WT: Right, he marketed his own Mai Tai mix.

JFL: And Mai Tai blended rum. It’s hard to hate on Vic because I love reading his actual words. I was given a cookbook he wrote in the ‘60s (thanks to Kelsey Crenshaw), and it’s so great to read his writing. It’s so clear that he wrote it. It is so salty and so surly. And he was an experimenter. He would try stuff out, stuff that wouldn’t make it in the restaurant, he’d put it in a book to use as filler. I would definitely say go check out his book, even the Trader Vic Party book because once you’ve seen how some of these drinks come together, you can probably figure out what was in that mix.

Martin Cate from Smuggler’s Cove has done a series of YouTube videos, and one of them actually has Trader Vic’s Navy Grog, which is probably Trader Vic’s greatest creation aside from the Tortuga, in my opinion. This is one Jeff agonized over and couldn’t quite figure out. Martin had a really good version. The Don the Beachcomber version is out there too, and it’s excellent as well, but I think the Trader Vic’s version is better. It’s because of the great fruit allspice.

I would say, aside from reading, go seek out some of these great old tiki bars next time you have a vacation. A lot of them are in wonderful vacation spots: L.A., Fort Lauderdale… You can certainly pick a worse place to go on a trip. Spend a weekend in Fort Lauderdale and go to the Mai Kai. See the Polynesian show. They have fire dancers and everything, and while you’re there, really sit and enjoy the drinks they pour because that is the oldest tiki bar left standing in America, done by a guy who worked for Donn. You’re not going to get any more authentic than that.

Aside from that is Tiki Ti in Los Angeles, which is currently closed indefinitely for restructuring. Every tiki nerd out there is hoping they will get back behind the bar soon. Tiki Ti is a place I would be heartbroken to lose, especially some of those Buhen family recipes that are totally secret. Nobody knows.

Or go to Chicago. There are some newer places like Three Dots and a Dash, which was with Paul McGee, now Lost Lake, which is Martin Cate and Paul McGee. Both places you should check out in Chicago. Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, Martin Cate, a guy who worked for Trader Vic’s for a long time. Hale Pele in Portland, which is by B. G. Reynolds, who bottles some of his own syrups, if you’re too lazy to make your own syrups. And of course, there’s also Latitude 29 in New Orleans, which is Jeff Berry’s place.

WT: The Zombie is the quintessential tiki drink and the Mai Tai is the most famous, but what is your favorite classic tiki drink?

JFL: My first love was the Donn Beach Dr. Funk. I just love the way the absinthe and grenadine go together. It just makes this great summer refresher, even though it’s a super simple drink. Every time I go to Trader Vic’s, I start out with a Navy Grog. That’s definitely a personal favorite.

WT: What is your favorite original recipe?

JFL: They’re all my children. We recently did one called the Coral Snake.

WT: Right, that’s the one featured in Part 1 of The Whiskey Thief, the Novel.

JFL: That came out really well. Reaching back a little further, the Haunted Hut is one that I keep coming back to. It’s one of my first victories, and it was me getting over my writer’s block, so it’s very close to my heart. We did a Vincent Price drink this past October called Darkness Falls, which I wish everybody would check out. It didn’t get that many hits, but it is a majestic coffee tiki drink.

WT: Well, thanks for talking to us, Joey.

JFL: My pleasure.