South Central

I love it when I get a cocktail via text message.

Sadly, I don’t have a spiff new prototype iPhone which will take the texted recipe and use its built-in replicator to rez one on the spot. (“Cocktail. South Central. Cold.”)

My friend Garret recently moved back to New York City to go to gradual school and regularly excites/taunts me with reports from their amazing bar scene, including some recipes for drinks he’s managed to pry out of the bartenders. Since my iPhone won’t rez them just yet I have to make them myself — fun, and easy enough … if I can find the ingredients, that is.

The latest one he sent was one he encountered at Fatty Johnson’s, one of the newly trendy “pop-up” restaurants and bars, which will serve for a mere six weeks and then close, perhaps to move on elsewhere, or perhaps not. Fatty’s features a rotating cast of bartenders and mixologists, and recently featured Eben Freeman, head bartender at Tailor Restaurant in NYC, whose amazing cocktails range from perfectly-made classics to complex, modern cocktails employing molecular techniques from the restaurant kitchen, working closely with the chef in developing his cocktail program.

I’ve never met Eben nor have I had the opportunity to sit across the bar from him, but have been reading about his work for quite a while and have been quite eager to sample his concoctions. (His signature drink at Tailor is the Waylon, made from Bourbon with a smoked Coca-Cola syrup … wow.) The drink Garret had and texted me about sounded fantastic, but one specified ingredient was going to give me a bit of trouble.

The cocktail was called the South Central. I liked it already just from the name, having grown up in the south central part of the country, also growing up with our own version of Ma Bell in the form of South Central Bell plus being part of the title of an R.E.M. song I love, so the name rang a few … um, never mind. Two rums formed its base — one light, one dark. In the video below Eben says any light and dark rum will do; he named the drink not for any of the things that the named triggered in my memory, but for the South and Central American rums he mixed. The ones he was using at Fatty Johnson’s have very distinct flavors, though — the rums you choose to make this drink will definitely make a difference, and I wanted to try it the way he was serving it there. The dark one he specified is one of my all-time favorite rums, the rich, brown-sugary, caramelly, spicy, tropical fruity wonder that is Lemon Hart Demerara rum. The other was one I’d never heard of, and that I’d never seen locally — Banks 5 Island.

I looked up Wayne Curtis’ review of Banks rum from about a year ago, and it sounded fantastic. It’s a blend of rums from five different islands, if you pretend that Guyana (the source of Demerara rum) is an island and not a very continent-bound north-coastal nation in South America. Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados round out the actual islands, along with the Indonesian isle of Java. Yep, this blend of rums actually contains some Batavia arrack, the sugar cane and fermented red rice spirit that gives this rum some of the wonderful funk that Garret mentioned in his voluminous text messages. Wayne mentioned aromas and flavors that led him to believe there was an agricole rum in the blend, and was startled to find that there was none. The various rums are aged between 3 and 12 years, blended then filtered through charcoal, resulting in a crystal clear, nicely dry spirit.

I can’t WAIT to get my hands on some of this stuff, but I’ve had no luck locally so far — even the venerable Hi-Time Wine doesn’t seem to have any! I’m unaware of anyone in the L.A. area who’s carrying it at the moment. (Matt, please correct me if I’m wrong.) It is, however, mail-orderable from, from whom I order regularly, so I’ll have some on the way soon.

“This doesn’t do me any good NOW,” I whined night before last, because I was channeling Veruca Salt and wanted the drink NOW, Daddy! Furthermore, Eben uses his own cacao-mole tincture that he makes “with a crazy process involving liquid nitrogen,” Garret said. Impractical in my kitchen, to say the least. He recommended substituting Bittermens most excellent Xocolatl Mole Bitters, and I concur.

So, except for the housemade mole tincture, here’s the drink you’d get if you ordered it from Eben:

(adapted from the original recipe by Eben Freeman)

1-1/2 ounces Banks 5 Island Rum.
1-1/2 ounces Lemon Hart Demerara Rum, 80 proof.
1/2 ounce white crème de cacao.
3 dashes Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters.
Orange peel.

Combine with ice in a chilled mixing glass. Stir for 30-45 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Express the oil from the orange peel onto the drink and garnish with the peel.

First problem — no Banks 5 Island. Second … I was almost out of Lemon Hart. There wasn’t enough to make one drink, much less two, and the future of this brand was in question for quite a while.

If I was going to try this drink — which I really, really wanted to do — I was going to have to improvise and come up with something similar, but not the same. Since I didn’t have enough (or any, in the case of the Banks) I need to do some blending. What the hell, blending one, two or several rums into one drink is a classic Tiki technique, right? And stumbling into a more or less blind blend of rums in order to substitute for and approximate an unavailable rum that I’ve never even tasted before? Yes, that’s crazy talk, but I want a drink and I want it now. Let no man, beast or empty bottle stand in my way.

Given that the review had cited an herbal, vegetal agricole-like flavor, I thought of using a non-agricole cane juice rum like 10 Cane. Checked the rum stash, and … nope. Out of 10 Cane. Well, what the hell, let’s try for that vegetal, herbal, tropical fruity flavor from an actual agricole. And since the blend contained Batavia arrack for a little funk, let’s throw in a little of that. And because I love the funk and felt like funkin’ it up, let’s supplement the Lemon Hart with some magnificently funky Smith & Cross Jamaican pure pot still rum. (Garret used half Banks — available in NYC, and half Smith & Cross, but if I’m blending to try to approximate this other rum that I’ve never tasted I want some of the other described characeristics to come through and not be too funky just yet.) Then maybe a visit to our hometown run to help balance and tie things together.

Okay, okay … it wasn’t all that much alchemical cleverness. It was mostly me finishing up the last few drops of some of the rums I had because that’s what I had on hand, not unlike the chemistry student who says, “Hey, let’s mix some of this stuff together, and hope it doesn’t blow up!” or the explorer who plows into the jungle on heretofore unexplored Skull Island hoping not to become dinosaur or giant spider food.

There was a total of 2 ounces of Lemon Hart left (and that’s the end of my supply of the 80 proof until it’s reimported) and a scant ounce of Smith & Cross. I just needed something else to make up for what I was missing, and I needed to finish up some bottles that had a half an inch of spirit in them. I stumbled right into this one; fortunately, no explosions.

Do I really get to rename his drink? Probably not, but I’ll name this version anyway. Given that I’ve been wanting to name cocktails after some R.E.M. songs, one of the names I had already picked out to use for some future drink was so close to the one he chose for his original that it had to be used for this one. I want to make clear that this is still Eben’s drink, but with the slight variation of my wacky blend of rums. To paraphrase the namesake song, “The wise man built his drink upon the rums / But I’m not bound to follow suit.”

That said, I steeled myself before the first sip. “This is probably going to suck.”

(adapted by me from Eben’s original)

1 ounce Lemon Hart Demerara Rum, 80 proof.
3/4 ounce La Favorite blanc rhum agricole.
1/2 ounce Smith & Cross Jamaican pot still rum.
1/2 ounce Old New Orleans Crystal Rum.
1/4 ounce Batavia Arrack van Oosten.
1/2 ounce Marie Brizard dark crème de cacao.
3 dashes Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters.
Orange peel.

Combine with ice in a chilled mixing glass. Stir for 30-45 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Express the oil from the orange peel onto the drink and garnish with the peel. Just like above!

*sip* … oh my. No, this most certainly did not suck.

I was halfway through drinking this when Wes said, “You know, I think you have a keeper here.” Well actually, Eben has the keeper, I just switched the rums around a bit. Still though, he said I should write it up, hence this post. As the drink was already half-gone I wondered if I should bother with a picture, but what the hell … I grabbed my iPhone and snapped. Imagine a full glass — it’s a big drink.

This was one of those weird combinations of cocktailian effort — part trying to recreate someone else’s drink, part dumb luck and part total fluke. Fortunately it worked, and I hope this encourages experimentation! There’ll have to be more experimentation soon, though — that’s going to be the last Lemon Hart I see until Ed Hamilton completes his Herculean efforts to get Lemon Hart — both the 80 and 151 proof varieties — back into the States, and there’ll have to be yet another variation next time we try it. I have a couple of bottles of Lemon Hart 151 left, but that along with the navy strength Smith & Cross might just knock me flat on my arse. I may just have to do it Garret’s way with all Smith & Cross, or try it with 2 ounces of the Banks and one of the 151. It shouldn’t be too much longer before my Banks rum comes in; I am eager to try different variations, and will stock up on both varieties of Lemon Hart the instant I see them. This is indeed one hell of a drink, and I look forward to finally trying one as close to the original as possible.

I love it when I get a cocktail via text message, and I love it even more when it sends me on an adventure. Thanks to Eben for coming up with this superb drink, and thanks to Garret for sending it to me!

Next, stay tuned for a three-part series on delectable Negroni variations.

5 Responses to “South Central”

  1. Wesly said:

    Feb 05, 11 at 7:15 pm

    It’s all true. This was a truly fantastic drink. And he did whine. 😉

  2. Tony Harion said:

    Feb 08, 11 at 7:16 pm

    Must have been a great adventure to try to recreate this one. Not to mention the funny face + slap in the forehead upon looking at the rum shelf and saying: @#$ we are out of this one.

    It´s Crazy how far we can go after a little inspiration or sparkle.

    I bet this is indeed a great drink even without the power nitrogen tincture.

    I´m known to just mix rums and coffee liqueurs in small amounts when I feel lazy and need a simple cocktail (not your case here).
    I guess I’ll have to reach for Crème de Cacao more often now.

  3. Chuck said:

    Feb 09, 11 at 12:06 am

    The crème de cacao is a good thing, especially a quality one. I’m a huge fan of the Twentieth Century, just to name one. And … would you believe I’ve never had an original Alexander cocktail, the one with gin? I think it may be time to remedy that.

  4. Tiare said:

    Feb 12, 11 at 1:29 pm

    I want to try this with Mozart Dry chocolate spirit..

  5. Tiare said:

    Feb 12, 11 at 1:30 pm

    Oh forgot to say..the photo is absolutely gorgeous!