Mixology Monday XXXVIII: Superior Twists

Another month, another MxMo! I actually managed to get one together this weekend (and posted it while wheezing and hacking, home sick today, bleh), and it’s a subject dear to my heart. No, not who cuts prettier citrus garnishes, but twists on classic or otherwise established cocktails. Tristan Stephenson of the United Kingdom is our gracious host this month, and details his current cocktail desires as ones “that for one reason or another do an even better job than the drinks upon which they are based.”

This is a basic concept of any serious cocktail nerd’s explorations (not to mention those of a professional bartender), because once you start substituting ingredients for others you learn how drinks work, how proportions work, how balance works, and it all begins to make sense. You see it laid out for you in the wonderful charts Gary Regan put in The Joy of Mixology, you see it when you realize that a Margarita is a variation on a Sidecar, that you can take a Manhattan and turn it into a Rob Roy or an Emerald just by changing the whiskey. You see the principle in how good bartenders train their barbacks.

When my interest obsession with cocktails began about 10 years ago, one of the first things I started playing with was substituting ingredients in found classic recipes. In what was probably my first drinkable original, I found a recipe in a vintage barware book that had a punny name; it looked wrong-but-interesting, and some digging revealed the true recipe, which at the time scared me because it had vermouth in it (and now, of course, I have a fridge full of different kinds). As it was already Lillet-based, I thought vermouth was superfluous, substituted Cognac, substituted a tangerine liqueur on hand for one that wasn’t available locally and ended up with the Lillet Tomlin — even punnier, and to this day still not-bad. (I used this one in MxMo XXIV: Variations a little over a year ago.)

The classic twist came up in email recently with my friend Michael, who had gone to one of New Orleans’ newest cocktailian bars, Bar Tonique up on North Rampart. They’ve been open for eight months or so, and I didn’t get an opportunity to go while I was home for Christmas, but I’ve heard good things. (“It straddles the line between a neighborhood hangout and a serious cocktail bar, and it leans more one way or the other depending on who is bartending,” he said.) Another place to get not only a decent cocktail but a great one in the city is a milestone, of which I hope there will be many more. (Bar Tonique, now Cure, who’ll be next?!) They were served a drink there called the St. Claude (great name for a drink, wish I had gotten there first), which he described as an Aviation with white rum swapped for the gin. That sounded pretty good. I’m not sure if that’s exactly what it was, but I tried making an Aviation with rum and … it was okay. I was a bit underwhelmed, so I suspect there was something else going on. I’ll either try to find out what it really is, or start playing with that one myself.

One of my favorite examples of a twist on a classic comes from a drink that’s … not a classic classic, but certainly a modern classic to some. Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh has created many fabulous original cocktails, pretty much all of which I’ve loved. One of his originals is called the Delmarva Cocktail, which is a great name. While it might sound like it was named after a glamourous Hollywood ingénue of the 1930s, it is in fact named after the states of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, where Doc first tasted three of the cocktail’s ingredients. (I’m still on the lookout for Vera Delmarva, though.) The original recipe called for a base of rye whiskey (which always gets a cheer from me), then dry vermouth, lemon juice, and … crème de menthe.

Now, this cocktail has its fans, people with refined palates, and Doc certainly knows how to make a great (and balanced) drink, and this is certainly that, but … for the most part, with very rare exceptions, I can’t stand crème de menthe in cocktails. Fresh spearmint, juleps and mojitos, sure. Crème de menthe, not so much. I don’t like pepperminty flavor in drinks; it reminds me of being sick to my stomach as a kid, as my mom always gave me peppermint oil to soothe my stomach. It’s entirely a personal thing. (“It’s not you … it’s me!) I can occasionally maybe possibly have a Stinger, if it’s made with Rumpleminze instead of crème de menthe (drier and higher proof), but other than that, get it away from me.

Gary Regan liked the drink, and thought the basic proportion would hold up to lots of entertaining play with various liquors. He came up with this variation, which I have to say is right up my alley.

The Delmarva Cocktail No. 2
(Adapted by Gary Regan from Ted Haigh’s original)

2 ounces rye whiskey.
1/2 ounce dry vermouth.
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice.
1/2 ounce créme de cacao.

Combine with ice in a shaker; shake for 10-12 seconds. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a fresh mint leaf.

I love this. Just one little substitution, and it’s completely different from the original. The spicier the rye the better for me; I like to make this with Rittenhouse 100. The chocolate flavor plays beautifully with the rye, reminding me of one of my favorite desserts — a glass of whiskey and something very chocolatey (even just a square of Valrhona 71%). The bit of tartness from the lemon provides balance, and the vermouth helps integrate them all. The recipe calls for white crème de cacao, but I’d go ahead and use dark — you get a heftier color along with the whiskey, and more of a chocolate profile that stands up to a big rye (use the white if you’re using a less spicy base spirit). Try to find the Marie Brizard product if you can get it, as it’s far superior to most liqueur makers’ overly-sweet brands. I have to confess I like the No. 2 better than the original. (Sorry, Ted!)

Gary also does a No. 3 in which the liqueur becomes amaretto, with the lemon bumped up to 3/4 to provide better balance. This is pretty good, but the No. 2 is still my favorite.