Café Royal, London, England, 1937
Drinking seasonally just makes sense, and for my money in the winter months, there’s nothing like a brisk gin cocktail that matches the cold outside. Sure, hot drinks like Hot Buttered Rum, Irish Coffee, or Hot Toddy are comforting, but frosty-cold gin is reality-affirming in a weird way. Like walking through a snowy pine forest in shorts.
As the 19th century turned into the 20th, French aperitif wines known as quinquinas (say it “keen-keen-uz”) or kinas were all the rage. Similar to vermouths, they use cinchona bark (the source of quinine) for the bitter element in lieu of (or in addition to) vermouth’s wormwood. Quinine is the famous anti-malarial agent administered to British troops serving in India via healthy portions of Gin & Tonic (tonic being sparkling water spiked with a syrup of quinine and citrus peel). Although effective, bracing, and refreshing, the Gin & Tonic isn’t the friendliest flavor. Enter the kina: a sweet, citrusy aperitif wine delicious enough to enjoy on its own before dinner – with its sweetness tempered by just enough bitter quinine. The kina brand you choose will affect the sweetness of your finished cocktail: if you like it drier, go with Tempus Fugit’s Kina L’Avion d’Or. For a sweeter drink, try Lillet Blanc. Right down the center is Cocchi Americano. Like vermouths, keep kinas in the refrigerator after opening and use within a couple weeks. Also like vermouths, they’re great on the rocks before dinner.
This cocktail dates from the Café Royal Cocktail Book, published in 1937 – the height of the Art Deco movement. Apparently it was named by its creator, British bartender C.A. Tuck, for the luxurious 20th Century Limited passenger train that operated between New York City and Chicago. I can’t find any evidence the drink was actually served aboard the train as part of its cocktail program (it doesn’t appear on the dining car menus from the period), but it certainly would’ve fit. It’s similar to the Corpse Reviver #2 – sleek and mysterious, with a hint of chocolate on the back. Luxurious and sophisticated, I have yet to serve one to anyone who didn’t love it.
Hardware: Shaker, Jigger, Vegetable peeler
Ice: Ice cubes
Glassware: Cocktail glass
Spirit: London Dry Gin (recommended: Beefeater, Tanqueray)
Liqueurs: Kina (recommended: Kina L’Avion D’Or, Cocchi Americano, Lillet Blanc), Crème de Cacao (white) (recommended: Marie Brizard)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lemon juice, Lemon twist
320 Main, Seal Beach, (2012)
Good-tasting beer cocktails understand that beer is already a finished product, then look to enhance and support what’s already there. Same goes for champagne, sherry… hell, even good-quality sipping spirits don’t need an assist from citrus, sugar, or whatnot. But when balanced thoughtfully, beer cocktails work great. And thinking about balance is just what got Jason Schiffer at 320 Main going on one of their most popular original cocktails, the Detroiter. On paper, it doesn’t sound like it will work… but take that first sip and you’ll get it. A balancing act of bitter, sweet, and just enough tartness evoke the fall flavors of apple and spice without tipping into the obvious Pumpkin Spice Latte category.
I asked Jason what inspired this drink, originally called the Michigander and made without the beer component. He says, “I was missing my favorite time of the year back home in Michigan – remembering pumpkin-carving parties my Mom took me to when I was a kid, raking leaves, and making cider from the apples we foraged in nearby orchards. I had this picture in my mind with these nostalgic tastes and smells. Applejack was an obvious place to start, and it only seemed natural to gravitate toward Cynar to mimic the earthy smells of the fall leaves. This original drink was called the Michigander – it starts a little on the sweet side and finishes somewhat drier so it works. Then, the Detroiter was born when a couple guys came in asking for a beer cocktail. We didn’t have one at the time, so I figured the Michigander’s front-end sweetness should stand up to a nice, dry beer. I knew hoppy beers pair well with bitter spirits, so IPA it went. Adjusting the recipe a bit and bringing in the high proof of the bonded Laird’s apple brandy instead of their 80-proof ‘applejack’ zeroes out any possible unpleasant bitterness from the hops and the Cynar.”
The grapefruit twist garnish is essential – its mix of bitter, sweet, and tart echoes what’s going on in the glass and helps it all make sense. To hit the right notes in this drink, look for a good-quality IPA like Ballast Point’s Sculpin, Russian River’s Blind Pig, AleSmith IPA, or if you really like a blast of hops, Stone’s Double Dry Hopped.
Hardware: Jigger, Muddler, Barspoon, Hawthorne strainer (if using Boston shaker), Fine-mesh strainer
Ice: Ice cubes
Glassware: Rocks glass
Spirit: Applejack (Laird’s apple brandy 100 proof)
Mixers: Cynar, Beer (India Pale Ale), Honey syrup (three parts honey mixed with one part hot water)
Juice & Garnish: Lemon juice, Grapefruit twist
In an empty shaker, add:
1 oz Cynar
1 oz beer (India Pale Ale)
3/4 oz applejack
3/4 oz lemon juice
3/4 oz honey syrup
Dry shake briefly to blend and release some carbonation from the beer. Add ice and shake again to chill. Double-strain (to catch small bits of ice and citrus pulp) into a rocks glass over ice cubes. Add an extra:
1 oz beer (India Pale Ale)
Stir to blend. Pinch a grapefruit twist over the drink to express oils onto its surface, then lightly brush the twist around the glass exterior. Garnish with the twist.
You’ll just have to drink the leftover beer, darn the luck.
Sycamore Den, San Diego, CA (2013)
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s generally acknowledged the ’70s and ’80s were the Dark Times of 20th-century drinkmaking. Maybe cocktail culture just wasn’t high on the priority list: America had just emerged from a decade of radical upheaval and change: the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, the sexual revolution, the emergence of the psychedelic youth culture, and the best blues, soul, rock, pop, and country music ever created. The ’70s presented a new set of challenges: ending a war, firing a president, finding equality for gays and lesbians, running out of gas, and dealing with out-of-control pollution. The general question seemed to be, “so… now what?” The general answer (in the face of all this heaviness) seemed to be, “Have a Good Time.”
Drinks in the ’70s were all about stupid simplicity: Margarita (José Cuervo & Sour Mix), Rum & Coke, Screwdriver (vodka & orange juice). People didn’t go to bars for a culinary experience – they went to bars to get laid. Drinks functioned as alcohol-delivery systems to loosen libidos and, maybe, indicators of what lay ahead in the night: Margarita drinkers were partiers, Screwdriver drinkers couldn’t handle strong feelings (or flavors), Rusty Nail drinkers had fingers that smelled like an ashtray.
The original Harvey Wallbanger recipe, as promoted by Galliano, was a softer Screwdriver (that was already disappointingly limp): one ounce of vodka, six ounces of orange juice (most likely pasteurized, from concentrate) and a half-ounce float of Galliano, the herbal Italian vanilla-and-anise liqueur. Not a very interesting mix – but the seed of an idea is there.
San Diego bartender Eric Johnson is too young to have suffered the drinks of the ’70s, but he has an appreciation for “The Me Decade.” He designed the bar menu at Sycamore Den, a new hot spot in Normal Heights that celebrates the glorious awfulness of those days with diagonal wood paneling, a sunken “conversation pit,” macramé, and swag lamps. I’m convinced there’s a hidden “Dad’s rec room” somewhere on the premises with shag carpeting, a hi-fi, a bong, and a stack of vintage Swank magazines. The drinks at Sycamore Den are contemporary, though (you didn’t see too much mezcal, Suze, absinthe, or Aperol on ’70s menus)… with one exception: the Hardly Wallbanger. Johnson was curious about the original Harvey Wallbanger and couldn’t figure out what accounted for its popularity. Marketing can only go so far, you know. Johnson told me, “I definitely was loving Galliano and wanted to showcase the liqueur over the neutral spirit, vodka. I added vanilla to satisfy my sweet tooth and was thinking ‘Orange Julius’ after a couple attempts. I had the staff test it out and all were nodding or banging their heads in approval!” The Hardly Wallbanger chucks what’s bad about the original and enhances everything good – keeping its creamy orange-and-vanilla lightness, adding a subtle tartness, and shining a light on the recently-reformulated Galliano’s intriguing herbal blend.
Keep an eye on what oranges you use in this – Valencias will be sweeter, so you’ll probably want to dial down the simple syrup to a quarter-ounce. If you’re using the more common Navel oranges, stick with a half-ounce. Use real vanilla extract, not imitation vanilla flavor – even though it’s just a few drops, you’ll know the difference.
Hardware: Shaker, Jigger, Barspoon, Eyedropper, Cocktail pick, Straw (optional)
Ice: Ice cubes, Cracked ice
Glassware: Collins glass
Spirit: vodka (recommended: Karlsson’s Gold, Absolut)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Galliano, Simple syrup, Seltzer (or tonic water (recommended: Fever-Tree) or sparkling mineral water (recommended: Pellegrino))
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Orange juice, Lemon juice, Vanilla extract, Orange wheel, Cherry (recommended: Filthy amarena, Luxardo maraschino)
In a shaker about a third-full with ice cubes, add:
1 1/2 oz vodka
1 oz Galliano
2 oz orange juice
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz simple syrup
3 drops vanilla extract
Shake briefly to blend and chill, then strain into a Collins glass filled about two-thirds of the way up with cracked ice. Top with:
2 oz seltzer
Add additional ice as needed. Stir lightly to blend and garnish with an orange wheel and cherry pierced on a cocktail pick. Optionally, serve with a straw.