blithe spirits

Jen-Luc-Piquant1 We are diehard fans of Nick and Nora Charles here at the cocktail party, for obvious reasons: check out the science-themed cocktails in our sidebar. The Thin Man showcased the glamor of the American love affair with the cocktail better than any film since. In fact, we first meet our protagonists in a swanky hotel bar, as Nick Charles — the wise-cracking former detective who married a lanky brunette heiress with a "wicked jaw" — demonstrates to the bartenders the correct method for shaking a perfect martini. Whereas a Manhattan should be shaken to the tempo of a foxtrot, he insists, "A dry martini you always shake to Waltz time." Nora makes her entrance shortly thereafter, and insists on lining up six martinis to catch up with her inebriated spouse. It was a harbinger of all the spirits to come: Nick and Nora were hard drinkers when hard drinking was cool — and this being Hollywood, never mind that their real-life counterparts, Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, were raging alcoholics.

We now live in an age of twelve-step programs and stringent moderation — I'm a one-or-two-drinks, maximum, girl myself — but the cocktail is more popular than ever. It's just that the emphasis is more on quality rather than quantity. A perfectly balanced classic martini is a sign of sophistication and a refined palate: to H.L. Mencken is was "the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet, while E.B. White rhapsodized that a martini is "the elixir of quietude." Perhaps that is why it's the drink of choice for that suave British agent, James Bond (although Ian Fleming originally had Bond drinking a version called the Vesper). Of course, as the Spousal Unit and any number of other martini aficionados will tell you, Bond's martini preferences would not meet with the approval of the "purists." He insists on a vodka martini, for starters, when gin is the preferred spirit for the purists, and usually requests a twist of lemon instead of the typical olive garnish.

While Bond and Nick Charles might like their martinis shaken, the debate still rages among bartenders as to whether this is the "proper" way to prepare the drink. Many consider it an abomination, like W. Somerset Maugham, who declared, "Martinis should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously one on top of the other." (If it comes down to fisticuffs or a duel at dawn, Jen-Luc Piquant's money is on Bond.) The claim is that shaking "bruises" the gin — the Spousal Unit says this is nonsense, and per Wikipedia, it seems the notion actually relates to how not bruise the mint leaves while preparing a mint julep. There are lots of "citations needed" in this particular entry, though, so the matter isn't 100% settled.

What's the difference? Well, the pro-stir crowd prefers a delicate blending to a rapid shaking, although the latter technique is great for cocktails with ingredients that are harder to mix (eggs, dairy, fruit juices and the like). Shaking also tends to make the drink cloudy due to something called a "chill haze": a shaken drink is colder and particularly in the 19th century martini, this would cause certain compounds in the vermouth to separate and form droplets in the glass. And David Wondrich, author of an excellent new book on the history of mixology called Imbibe, claims that "Shaking introduces a plethora of tiny bubbles that disrupt the silken, thick texture that results from stirring." The Spousal Unit shakes his martinis, preferring a bit of aeration and a good chill. That said, the trend toward stirring didn't arise until 1910 or so, when casual elegance was favored over showy techniques while mixing. Shaking is just so labor intensive when it's so much easier to mix with a flick of the wrist.

So there's definitely a science to the art of mixology, and right now that science is hot. Heck, even that venerated science museum, San Francisco's Exploratorium, is holding an evening event later this month on the science of cocktails, where it will explore the pressing issue of shaken vs. stirred, among other topics. (The event is already sold out, but we look forward to the planned online exhibit to come.) As with food, a good cocktail is about achieving the perfect balance between different tastes and flavors: not too sweet, not too bitter, not too dry, etc. Take the evolution of the martini, which is traditionally made with gin and vermouth. Per the Spousal Unit:

Original martini recipes called for nearly equal proportions of gin and vermouth, and only later did experimentation reveal that a much smaller proportion of vermouth made for a more successful drink. Four-to-one is about right, although there is room for variations in taste. But this worthy discovery has devolved into a pointlessly macho competition about whose martini is the driest.

Bartenders now regularly splash vermouth into their shakers and then pour it out before adding the gin, leaving behind a helplessly thin coating of the original spirit. The next step is to simply pour chilled gin into your glass while doing a Google image search for “vermouth.” There is a name for the resulting drink: it’s called “gin.” It’s not a cocktail, it’s just a straight spirit, one step removed from doing shooters of grain alcohol.

The Spousal Unit is one of those martini aficionados who likes to taste the vermouth (his co-blogger Mark Trodden is another). Apparently Winston Churchill begged to differ, preferring to only get as close to the vermouth bottle as to "look at it across the room." The martini is one of the oldest cocktails, so opinions are bound to range widely.

Where did the martini come from? Legend has it that during the California Gold Rush, a miner struck it rich in 1849 and stopped off in a bar en route to San Francisco. He wanted champagne to celebrate his good fortune, but the bartender said he had something better (or possibly he was just fresh out of champagne). He made the miner a "Martinez Special," and the miner liked it so much, he tried to order the drink again when he finally got to San Francisco. He had to tell the bartender how to make it: one part very dry Sauterne wine, three parts gin, stirred with ice and garnished with an olive. And word continued to spread; over time, the name was shortened to the martini, and the wine was replaced by  vermouth. It's a nice story, but the other prevailing theory is more likely: the name comes from the vermouth, specifically the dry white version created by Martini & Rossi in 1863 (as opposed to the sweet red Italian variety of vermouth).

Actual cocktails date back a little bit farther. Wikipedia says the first printed use of the term "cocktail" can be found in a succinct note contained in the April 28, 1803 issue of The Farmer's Cabinet: "Drank a glass of cocktail — excellent for the head…. call'd at the Doct's. found Burnham — he looked very wise — drank another glass of cocktail." Clearly the author is a kindred spirit of Nick and Nora Charles. The first written definition of a cocktail, according to both Wikipedia and this Website, occurred in the May 1806 issue of an American magazine called The Balance and Columbian Repository, along with a snide bit of political commentary:

"Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters — it is vulgarly called a bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said, also to be of great use to a Democratic candidate because a person, having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else." (Jen-Luc Piquant sez: "How times have changed. Now it's Republicans bringing on the crazy and never letting actual facts get in the way of a good conspiracy theory." Thankfully, we still have cocktails to see us through.) Jerry thomas-thumb-250x191

The person most responsible for the spread of the cocktail's popularity, however, is Jeremiah (Jerry) Thomas, known as the father of mixology. He was a bartender who started out working in California during the old rush, then opened a saloon in New York City. He even toured Europe for a spell, equipped with his own silver bar tools. Nicknamed "professor" because of his exhaustive knowledge of all things related to mixing drinks, Thomas may well have been the bartender who first introduced the Martinez to the lucky miner during the California gold rush.

In 1862 Thomas published the seminal collection of cocktail recipes: The Bartender's Guide, also known as How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon Vivant's Companion. It contained recipes for the Martinez, the Tom Collins, the Brandy Daisy, the Fizz, the Flip, the Sour, and so on. Thomas was also a bit of a showman, able to juggle bottles behind the bar, for instance. And what could be showier than fire? His signature drink was the Blue Blazer, which involves lighting whiskey and passing it back and forth between two whiskey glasses, then sweetening with a bit of suagr and serving with a piece of lemon peel. Thomas was skilled enough to pass the burning liquid between glasses as much as a meter apart, creating a long blue arc of flame between them. Sadly, he lost his fortune toward the end of his life through failed speculation on Wall Street, and was forced to sell his most famous New York City saloon, located on Broadway between 21s and 22nd Streets. (Go there today and you'll find a Restoration Hardware on the site.)

The first bona fide cocktail party took place in St. Louis, Missouri, in May 1917, at the home of one Mrs. Julius Walsh, who invited 50-some guests to her home for a tipple before lunch was served. But then came Prohibition, driving folks to drink in underground speakeasies. Cocktails surged in popularity in part because the mixing helped disguise the fact that the speakeasies served inferior quality alcohol. Tastes also shifted from whiskey to gin, because it was easier to make the latter illegally (it didn't require aging). "Bathtub gin" was a staple, and more than one person was poisoned by a bad batch during this period. Then Prohibition was repealed, and the Age of the Happy Hour, the Rat Pack, and three-martini lunch (featured on the hit series Mad Men) was born. In the 1960s, all the young Bohemians moved away from alcohol into marijuana, LSD and other drugs, but cocktails still reigned supreme among suburban professionals.

By the 1980s and 1990s, cocktails became hip again, and serious bartenders were looking to invent their own concoctions, such as the "Cosmopolitan" that became the drink of choice for the ladies of Sex and the City. (Don't even get the Spousal Unit started on those frothy sugary concoctions that pass for "martinis" on cocktail menus around the country. Slapping a "-tini" suffix on something does not a martini make, although if someone invented a "Higgs-tini," we would gladly feature it in out spiffy sidebar.) Bartenders also hearkened back to the good professor, Jerry Thomas, and fostered showy mixing skills so that customers could be entertained. Check out Tom Cruise's killer mixing moves as he does the "hippy hippy shake" in this scene from Cocktail (1988):

And just so the ladies don't feel left out, Coyote Ugly (2000) dispensed with the art of the cocktail altogether to focus on raunchy dance moves on top of the bar served up with pints of beer and shots of tequila, even the occasional bit of arson. No sissy designer cocktails here, no sirree! And may the Flying Spaghetti Monster have mercy on your soul should you have the audacity to ask for water.

The whole point of movies like this is to make everyone feel like they're missing out on the party. (I've been to the original Coyote Ugly, and believe me, it was pretty tame in comparison — certainly nobody set the bar on fire.) But as much fun as the odd Dionysian revelry can be, it's not really about the cocktail. Nowadays mixologists are respected professionals, resulting in a surge of nifty new concoctions, as well as a return to the classics. That means I now have a shot at getting a decent sidecar in Los Angeles. (I once sent back a purported "sidecar" on the grounds that it tasted as if it had been made with Tang. Lesson learned: if the bartender has to ask you how to mix your favorite drink, order something else.) My favorite version is the infused sidecar served at the Bellagio's Baccarat Bar in Las Vegas, although the pisco sour tasting trio can match it in smooth complexity and balance.

The Los Angeles Times recently ran a feature on some of the hot new designer cocktails featured at hip bars around town. The Blood Sugar Sex Magic served at Rivera downtown features straight rye whiskey, agave nectar, chili pepper, lemon slices and basil, and the result is an evenly blended mix of sweet, citrus (sour) and spice. The same mixologist also created the Barbacoa, which blends tequila, lime juice, red jalapenos, red bell peppers, chipotle puree, ginger syrup, and agave nectar, garnished with beef jerky — really, why order food at all? I've also had the well-nigh perfect pisco sour at Bar Centro in the Bazaar in Beverly Hills (it's chef Jose Andres' signature restaurant in LA, housed in the SLS Hotel). CocktailsLL2304_243x267

Andres is part of the molecular gastronomy crowd — the use of scientific tools and techniques in cooking — and thus it's not surprising to find that his bar/restaurant in Los Angeles is also one of several cities at the forefront of the new field of molecular mixology. New York is the epicenter, naturally, but Boston has STIX and its beverage director, Paul Westerkamp. He's invented such delectable concoctions as the 10 Cane Raspberry Sashimi, served in a Bento box and looking for all the world like slices of raw fish — except it's slices of 10 Cane rum gelatinized with raspberry puree. With that kind of presentation, it's almost worth the $15 price tag. Almost. It's certainly not the kind of drink you just gulp down without thinking about it. If you're looking to get soused, STIX might ot be your best bet.

But if you're intrigued by creative flavors and textures, and the application of innovative new techniques to mixology, a night at STIX or similar bars could be a lot of fun. Grant Aschatz, who owns Chicago's Alinea, invented something called an Anti-Griddle, which basically flash-freezes sauces and purees to sub-zero temperatures. It's perfect for turning liquor into a crepe-like concoction. Liquid nitrogen, dry ice, gelatin, even Pop Rocks, are staples of the molecular mixology movement, along with foam. In fact, Moet & Chandon now has a line of champagne drinks with foams and caviars. Providence here in LA serves mojito "spheres" made with sodium hexametaphosphate), while NYC's WD-50 restaurant (home to chef Wiley Dufresne) serves a Cape Codder where the vodka and cranberry juice are transformed into edible pearls.

London's gotten into the act as well, according to this article in New Scientist, featuring Tony Conigliaro, mixologist at 69 Colebrook Row in London. He uses sous-vide techniques (Lee blogged about that technique earlier this year) to create rhubarb-infused gin, raspberry-infused tequila, black currant-infused gin, even getting essence of rose petals into vodka. Should the Spousal Unit find himself in London sometime in the coming year, I guarantee he'll want to sample Conigliaro's take on the dry martini. Knowing that the tannins found in red wine, for example, have a mouth-drying effect (apparently they react with proteins in saliva), Conigliaro used vacuum equipment (a rotary evaporator usually used to remove volatile solvents from a substance by heating it under a partial vacuum) to extract nearly pure tannins from grape seeds. Then he pipettes 150 microliters of the stuff into a bottle of vermouth. Why might the Spousal Unit be pleased? This recipe calls for more vermouth to produce a "dryer" drink — you get the dryness, and you can taste the vermouth.

That, I think, will the ultimate legacy of molecular mixology once all the trendy excitement dies down: using what mixologists learned about making cocktails, taking the best new techniques and equipment, and using all of that to get back to the basics: good, clean, well-balanced flavors that tickle the palate. There's a place for experimentation, a place for showmanship; I can appreciate the novelty of mojito spheres, or jellied gin and tonics. But in the long run, give me a perfect classic sidecar or pisco sour, and hold the hype.

7 thoughts on “blithe spirits”

  1. I used to drink in Kudos bar, owned by Paul Martin, holder of several world records for cocktail mixing…in an article in a magazine, he claimed I was “the world champion Old Fashioned drinker”…anyway, one night we set out to improve the Martini. After some significant,er,”research” ..we ended up with a mixture of gin, a couple of drops of angostura bitters, and – instead of vermouth – we used a similar amount of Chinese distilled rice wine, from a bottle which also contained two entwined dead lizards. Stirred, not shaken. This, we both agreed, was the first ever advance on the dry Martini, and – in honour of the reptiles who had sacrificed their lives as flavour was christened the “Godzilla”!!

  2. Oh crikey…no more angostura? This is truly the End of the World. Then again, a large bottle of it was probably a lifetime’s issue..heaven knows how old mine is. Wonder if the aromatics deteriorate even when sealed?

  3. How fascinating and wonderful that you would write a nice big piece, literally about cocktails! Thanks. Anyone heard of exotic new mixes being offered? Something to celebrate the “new” decade and get over the mostly horrible aughts, or nillies or zilchies as I have called it.

  4. How fun to see someone else (besides me and my indoctrinated children and people who were born a generation before I was) who knows about Myrna Loy and William Powell. Oh, and who likes physics, too. Neat article; fun Winston Churchill take on dry vermouth’s place in the martini.

  5. Robert Frank, Associate Prof. of Music Composition and Theory, physics geek, and martini lover.

    After a few brief calculations, in a 10″ shaker, to create a 2G force sufficient to induce full liquid flow around the ice without stagnation at the end of each oscillation, the mixologist should shake at a tempo of 7.54 one-way shakes per second. Since the shake includes both an up and down motion, and most people will determine the tempo based upon each “downbeat” shake, this results in a shaker tempo of approximately 226 shakes per minute. As researchers in music cognition have discovered, the mind tends to fuse high rate beats (such as this) into groups of two, so a perceived tempo of 112.5 beats per minute would require it to be in shaken in eight notes to create the coldest martini.
    Given that a dry martini contains a higher alcohol content, a slower tempo would suffice, as it would cool at a slower rate.
    A standard foxtrot is in the range of 120-160 beats per minute, while a standard ballroom waltz is typically in the range of 90-120.
    SO, indeed, a dry martini could be shaken at a slower tempo, but perhaps the ideal tempo for shaking the coldest martini might be the Polka (192-232 beats per minute). Polish Polkas are generally on the faster side while German polka tends to favor the slower, and if mixing a vodka martini with Polish potato vodka, this might be the ideal music for this drink (further ethno-musicological research in this area is needed). An alternate might be the Quickstep (188-208 bmp) for extremely dry martinis.

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