Apr 152014

Reminder: As part of the blog’s gala tenth anniversary week, Down the Hatch is only 99 cents through midnight tonight, PST. Use your Amazon credit and pick up a copy while it’s cheap. And feel free to leave a review once you do.

Once upon a time this website was far more film-oriented, with lots of half-baked semi-recurring features like Remake Rematch (in which I watched multiple versions of a film and declared a winner) and Burt With A Badge (decades worth of Burt Reynolds as a cop, for absolutely no reason). The Operation Travolta pieces were easily my favorite. I did one on Sandra Bullock that, if I say so myself, was prescient. This one on Michael Keaton, which originally appeared on September 23, 2004, was the first. I still hold out hope for the actor, who has what promises to be his best role in years in the new film from Alejandro González Iñárritu; a 2009 post on The Merry Gentleman, Keaton’s directorial debut, would land me a mention on Canadian public radio. Ironically John Travolta, after whom the feature was named, is in need of another such procedure. Maybe it can be done more than once, like Tommy John surgery.

Look fast in the ads for the Katie Holmes comedy First Daughter and you’ll see Michael Keaton as the President of the United States. From the gonzo heights of Beetlejuice to playing the dad (albeit the First Dad) in a teen comedy. Keaton deserves better. So I’m issuing a challenge to filmmakers: give the actor a role worthy of his talents, the way Quentin Tarantino revived John Travolta’s career. (Hence the name of this occasional feature.)

Keaton has a special flair for conveying all-American guy-ness. Genial and decent, with a wariness underneath. He has a uniquely hyper way of moving, like a one-time athlete who still hasn’t figured out what to do with his excess energy. It’s a live-wire quality that charges the screen.

It’s obvious that the man has great comic chops, which come through even in sitcom-style fare like Mr. Mom. (Here’s where I confess my affection for the 1984 gangster parody Johnny Dangerously. I even like Joe Piscopo in it, for God’s sake.) Ron Howard made good use of Keaton in Night Shift, Gung Ho and the underrated The Paper. But it’s really in his collaboration with Tim Burton that the actor bloomed. His fearless performance in Beetlejuice is as potent today as it was in 1988. And he remains the only actor to have brought anything to the role of Batman, which as the screenwriter William Goldman points out is “and always has been a horrible part.”

1988 was also the year of Keaton’s greatest dramatic triumph, playing a drug addict in Clean and Sober. There’s a scene in that film – he calls his elderly parents and tells them he’s doing great while trying to persuade them to mortgage their house so he can have the money – that captures the essence of the addict’s psychology better than any other. The whole movie is Keaton’s show.

The ‘90s weren’t so good to him. But neither were his films. (Speechless? Multiplicity? Did anybody like those movies?) There were hints of a comeback when Keaton played Elmore Leonard’s cocky DEA agent Ray Nicolette in two movies, Jackie Brown and Out of Sight. Rumors circulated that Ray would get his own feature. I’m glad that didn’t pan out, because the character can’t sustain an entire story. But Keaton was perfectly cast, as he was in the recent HBO film Live From Baghdad.

So what’s on tap for the actor? Playing opposite Lindsay Lohan in the remodeled Herbie, The Love Bug. That ain’t right, people, and you know it. Where’s Wes Anderson or Dylan Kidd (Roger Dodger) when you need them?
 Posted by at 6:11 pm
Apr 142014

Short version: Down the Hatch is on sale this week, so you should buy it and leave a review.

It’s strange to note that this Friday marks the tenth anniversary of this blog, when so many others I follow have closed up shop recently. A decade isn’t quite the eternity it once was in internet time, but it’s still a long damn run.

Blogs, I’m told on a regular basis, are a thing of the past, their DNA subsumed by social media. Whenever something is being continually eulogized, you can make two deductions about it: it is, in fact, still alive, but it isn’t doing very well.

Confession time: I’ve thought more than once about shutting the blog down, hanging up my shingle on Twitter and Facebook, and calling it a day. I don’t post anywhere near as often as I once did, and when I do it’s on a narrower range of subjects. Much of what I used to write about now turns up elsewhere, like my Noir City column. I’ve taken on more responsibilities and assignments, have miles to go before I sleep, etc., etc.

But the ol’ homestead continues to kick for several reasons. Foremost among them, I like to ramble – see the first line of this post – and sometimes 140 characters aren’t enough. Those longer pieces can have a surprising ripple effect. You never know when you’ll be quoted in a term paper, or receive an email from the son of a well-known author thanking you for a review of his father’s book, or become one of the world’s leading authorities on a movie you don’t actually like.

Nothing but good has come from staking a claim to my own corner of the web. This site has directly or indirectly created opportunities and led to close friendships. Over the years the blog has evolved; now, it’s primarily about cocktails. And even that may change. I’m nearing another landmark, the 100th Cocktail of the Week post, and haven’t figured out how much longer I’ll keep the feature going. But rest assured something will surface here on a semi-regular basis. I owe the website too much to shut it down now.

My book Down The Hatch, a collection of the first year’s worth of cocktail posts, is the most lasting consequence of the blog. To celebrate the big 1-0, I’ve put it on sale at Amazon for the week. It’s a mere 99 cents today and tomorrow, then $1.99 on Wednesday and Thursday. Why not buy a copy for old times’ sake? And if you do buy it (or already have), please do me a favor and leave a review at Amazon. Cracking double digits is my modest goal for the sale.

For the rest of the week, I’ll be posting some favorite pieces from the last ten years. And on Friday, the actual anniversary, expect your next Cocktail of the Week. It’s the least I can do.
 Posted by at 6:13 pm
Apr 132014

The new issue of Noir City is out, bearing word of changes at the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation. FNF honcho Eddie Muller will now be editor-in-chief as well as publisher, assisted by the estimable Steve Kronenberg as editorial director of classic noir coverage – and yours truly as contemporary kingpin. When the Czar of Noir asks you do to do something, you do it. (That’s true of any czar, when you get right down to it.) Planning has begun in earnest, and we have some terrific features coming your way.

Plus plenty to feast on in the current issue. F’r instance:

  •  Steve’s appraisal of the hommes fatale of noir
  • An in-depth survey of the career of one of the best of these smooth operators, Ray Milland
  • Down these mean hallways: a look at the high school noir of Brick and Veronica Mars, including an interview with Mars star Enrico Colantoni
There’s also my take on TNT’s big-budget epic Mob City and the latest installment of my column Keenan’s Korner, with reviews of new crime novels by Theresa Schwegel, Lawrence Block, and Kim Cooper’s The Kept Girl, in which Raymond Chandler turns detective. We’re on a Chandler kick this go-round, as I demolish the atrocious gimlet recipe he set down for the ages in The Long Goodbye while Eddie sizes up Benjamin Black’s new Philip Marlowe novel The Black-Eyed Blonde. Spoiler alert: Eddie finds Black’s knowledge of imbibing every bit as dubious as Chandler’s.

How can you deny yourself this treasure trove any longer? Make a donation to the Film Noir Foundation and all this can be yours. Do it now, so you can be sure to get the rag by the time I start throwing my weight around.
 Posted by at 8:34 pm
Apr 112014

From a post dated roughly a year ago:

It’s too easy, spotlighting the Income Tax around April 15. I should have thought outside the box and featured the Millionaire instead. But I don’t have any apricot brandy on hand. There’s always next year.

I take these pledges seriously, even if you don’t. And as of last month, I finally acquired a truly first-rate apricot brandy. Rum and limes, check. All I needed was some sloe gin. About which I knew little. So I did what I always do: asked at the Zig Zag Cafe.

“If I wanted to buy sloe gin –”

“Plymouth,” Ben Perri told me. “That’s your only choice. The rest are so sweet they’re practically simple syrup. Plymouth. Definitely.”

Remember that. Because I didn’t.

Version #1. Do not let the color alarm you.
Sloe berries are produced by the blackthorn shrub, a sturdy plant often used in hedgerows. In her book The Drunken Botanist, Amy Stewart calls the berries a “small, sour fruit” not particularly pleasant to eat on their own. The solution, dating back to time immemorial: soak ‘em in hooch. Stewart catalogs a host of variations like the Basque patxaran, in which sloes are macerated in anisette. Sloe gin remains the best known version, described by Kingsley Amis as “the only all-English liqueur. Traditionally drunk at meets, you know, before going off to hunt the jolly old fox. I can think of nothing better to brighten up a wet Sunday after lunch. Within reason, that is.”

The liqueur factors in several classic cocktail recipes of the 1920s, but fell into disuse. That fate largely came about because, as Brother Perri advised, commercially available sloe gins were heavily sweetened to counter the berries’ severe taste, to the point where they crossed the treacle threshold. It also didn’t help that most modern cocktails with sloe gin, aside from the Sloe Gin Fizz, have idiotic names. I’m not even talking about the bachelorette party specials like the Alabama Slammer, the Hot Flash and the Panty Dropper. Leave us consider the simple concoction of sloe gin and orange juice. That’s practically a Screwdriver, hence it shall be dubbed: the Sloe Screw. This single entendre begat the Sloe Comfortable Screw (the preceding plus Southern Comfort, vodka, and reserved confessional seating the next morning), which begat the Sloe Comfortable Screw Against The Wall (all of the above, plus Galliano and a living will). Up next was the Sloe Comfortable Screw Against The Wall On A Waterbed, With Maybe A Little Grand Funk Railroad In The Background, but then cable TV started and everybody kind of forgot about it.

Fortunately, no spirit is neglected in the cocktail renaissance. Sloe gins that preserve the essence of those tiny, angry berries are on the market again, and I had the name of the best. Plymouth. Definitely.

Too bad I couldn’t find any. After trying a few places I ventured into the largest liquor store in Seattle, where I’d had luck before. Nothing. So I asked a clerk.

“Well,” he said dubiously, “we do have one kind ...”

The first thing I noticed about the bottle he led me to was the fine layer of dust on it. Clearly this stuff wasn’t flying off the shelves.

The second thing I noticed was the brand name. Mr. Boston. As in the first bartender’s guide I ever owned, still possess, and rarely consult. A liquor line not lionized for its quality product.

The third thing I noticed was how the product was identified on the label. A strategically placed ampersand and a word in a smaller typeface revealed that I held “Sloe & Gin Cocktail.” Truth in advertising; all sloe gins are liqueurs. Still, it was alarming to be confronted with such stark evidence right there on the dusty bottle.

The fourth thing I noticed was the price. It was uncommonly low, even in a state where recent deregulation has sent liquor costs spiraling.

So of course my initial reaction was: “How bad could it be?”

Why did I buy the stuff, against the advice of a learned professional and the results of the eyeball test? Because I promised I’d make you a Millionaire, dammit. If anyone’s at fault here, it’s you. You know where to send your checks.

I brought the bottle home, careful not to let the label show; I have a reputation to protect. I opened it and inhaled the aroma, redolent of the finer marker pens of my youth. I tried a small amount. The unalloyed sweetness of cough syrup made me think I’d be better off whipping up a batch of Flaming Moes. Not seeing the point in suffering alone, I offered some to Rosemarie.

Rosemarie: It tastes like NyQuil.

Me: I know. It’s pretty bad.

Rosemarie: I didn’t say it tasted it bad. I said it tasted like NyQuil.

The telltale ampersand.
By now I was regretting the entire enterprise. I’d refrained from buying an inferior apricot brandy, holding out for Giffard’s Abricot du Rousillon. Now I was going to subject its ethereal Gallic charms to some Southie roughneck? Hell, I didn’t even want to waste my few precious remaining limes on the project. Lousy drug cartels. But a promise is a promise.

Because sloe gin predominated in the Millionaire’s original recipe, David Embury wrote in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, “I do not regard it as a true cocktail.” Ted Haigh (Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails) doubled the quotient of rum: problem solved. Haigh’s version is the one I made. He suggests Myers’s Original Dark Rum. I went with Appleton, a sound Jamaican.

Verdict: it wasn’t completely terrible.

You could taste the rum. You got a sense of the lime. You couldn’t avoid the hypercharged sweetness of the sloe gin. It was the apricot brandy that suffered. It was present, but as a distant memory, like the sloe gin had dinner with the apricot on a cruise once, and thought the apricot was super nice, and they exchanged email addresses and totally meant to keep in touch, but never actually did.

Me: So I’m going to get rid of this sloe gin stuff.

Rosemarie: Yeah. (beat) Or you could just put in the back of the liquor cabinet.

And so I did. And there it will sit, until the post-pandemic scavengers find it. And, odds are, leave it untouched.

About a week later, I wandered past a liquor store I’d blown off on my search because this outlet never stocked anything worthwhile. On a whim, I ducked inside. Guess what I found? Go ahead. Guess.

Version #2. Plymouth. Definitely.
There’s no pandering to the palate at Plymouth. Those good people didn’t attempt to sweeten their sloe gin. The aggressive, almost prickly taste of the berries registers in all its unfettered glory, assailing you at the start of each sip, soothing you at the end of it. And an important lesson is learned: try to blunt this effect in the bottle, as Mr. Boston does, and you will lose a vital element you will never regain. Better to keep the ingredient in the raw and let the lime and apricot brandy work on it in the glass.

The Plymouth Sloe Gin Millionaire was a world away from my first attempt. It had a lingering sweetness that was natural, adult, sophisticated. If my maiden Millionaire was like a giggling sorority sister, the other was a woman of the world. And thus did the sloe & gin cocktail get pushed even further back into the liquor cabinet. It’s there if anybody wants it.

Note that there are several drinks called the Millionaire. This one appears as the Millionaire #1 in the Savoy Cocktail Book, #2 in Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual, and #4 in 1937’s The How and When, where Haigh unearthed it. Many spirit historians view the whiskey-and-egg-white Millionaire as the true bearer of the name. We’ll get to that one next week, when you’re flush with cash from that tax return and ready to celebrate.

The Millionaire

Ted Haigh variation

1 ½ oz. rum
1 oz. lime juice
¾ oz. Plymouth Sloe Gin. Plymouth. Definitely.
¾ oz. apricot brandy

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a lime wedge.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at
 Posted by at 6:22 pm
Apr 042014

If you’ll open your hymnals and turn to the initial selection …

Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book is a veritable Bible of booze, and the Abbey is the first drink named in its sacred pages. Considering it’s batting leadoff, you’d think I would have gotten to it long before now.

The Savoy recipe calls for one-half gin, one-quarter each Kina Lillet and orange juice, and a dash of Angostura bitters. While Lillet Blanc is now used in place of the discontinued Kina, that ratio has remained unchanged – except in some corners of England, where the aperitif is omitted and the denizens of that scepter’d isle are left sippin’ on gin and juice. (Snoop Dogg raps about the Abbey on import versions of Doggystyle: “With my mind on my monks and my monks on my mind.”) Innovation has been limited to the bitters. gaz regan says Peychaud’s also works well, while bitters guru Brad Thomas Parsons favors the orange variety and also a cherry garnish, which I heartily endorse.

Speaking of garnishes, King Cocktail Dale DeGroff recommends finishing off the Abbey with one of his patented flaming orange peels. This step entails expressing the oils of the fruit’s rind through a lit match, which caramelizes them and subtly alters their flavor. A fine idea, but that kind of flash is why I go to bars and have drinks made for me. Plus open flames are a violation of my lease.

I did try another DeGroff suggestion, placing an orange slice into the shaker before the other ingredients, bruising the fruit’s meat and skin with a muddler, then applying some extra elbow grease to the shake. It worked wonders in boosting the citrus flavor – a flamed peel would just be showing off at this point – but it made me glad I’d recently started double-straining cocktails.

One other modification undertaken on my own initiative: using Cocchi Americano in place of Lillet Blanc in the same proportion. This substitution is now standard practice for me, given that the snap of cinchona bark in Cocchi Americano renders it closer to Kina’s now-lost flavor. Little surprise that the Abbey is heralded as a reliable brunch cocktail; most OJ drinks are. But the additional bitterness of the Cocchi Americano proves an equal match for the sweet pop from the juice, making a drink spry enough to break out of that Sunday morning ghetto and cause trouble in the twilight hours.

The Abbey

1 ½ oz. gin
¾ oz. Cocchi Americano
¾ oz. fresh orange juice
2 dashes of Angostura bitters

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a cherry.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at
 Posted by at 5:54 pm
Mar 282014

A few years ago, prior to one of my periodic trips back to New York, I stopped by my usual haunt to ask the crew where I should bend an elbow. They suggested one bar in particular. Good drinks, good people, lots of buzz. Then they asked me to prank the place.

“Go in, tell them we said hello,” I was instructed. “At some point, a round or two in, order a Liberal.” The cocktail is made with Amer Picon, the bitter orange liqueur from France which regular readers know can be tough to acquire. Said Big Apple bar had a bottle of Picon prominently displayed on their shelf.

And there, I was told, it would stay. “It’s just for show. They refuse to open it because they’re afraid they won’t get any more. So go in, ask for a Liberal, and tell us what they say.”

Subterfuge on behalf of my home away from home. Who was I to say no?

I entered the bar in question and spotted the Amer Picon exactly where I was told it would be. I began with a superb house drink. A highly competent bartender asked, “What’s next?” Ice water in my veins and nary a quaver in my voice, I suggested a Liberal.

The highly competent bartender didn’t bat an eye. “That’s a good one. The Zig Zag makes those beautifully, don’t they? But they use a very specific type of bitters and we’re out of them. Let me fix you something like it I think you’ll enjoy.”

He did, and I did. In Seattle I relayed my report, which was met with nods of approval. “Blaming the bitters? That’s a smart play.”

Now that Bigallet’s China-China amer is being imported to the United States, Amer Picon is no longer the problem. It’s the rest of the Liberal that’s giving me fits.

The recipe as it first appeared in George J. Kappeler’s Modern American Drinks (1895) couldn’t be simpler: “one dash syrup, half a jigger Amer Picon bitters, half a jigger whiskey ... a small piece of lemon peel on top.” Maybe too simple; half whiskey and half Picon isn’t the modern version. We’re a bit closer by the time of Albert Stevens Crockett’s 1931 Old Waldorf Bar Days, which drops the syrup, adds a crucial missing ingredient – the drink is now half whiskey and half sweet vermouth – but scales the Picon down to a mere three dashes, which hardly seems worth the trouble of flying back from Marseilles with several bottles taped to your chest.

The China-China burning a hole in my liquor cabinet, I set out to find an acceptable contemporary variation and was flummoxed. Rye had become the default whiskey choice, but aside from that the recipes frequently contradicted each other. One called for equal parts rye and vermouth while preserving Crockett’s minimal quantity of Picon. Another was spirit-forward but boasted equivalent, hefty portions of vermouth and amer. The whiskey was too dominant in my initial attempt. What was the formula for the lovely, balanced cocktail I’d enjoyed in the past?

So I did something I’d never done before. I reached out to the man who’d made many of those cocktails and contributed mightily to the Liberal’s revival, bartending icon Murray Stenson.

Professional that he is, Murray replied to my question with more questions. Bourbon or rye? Which sweet vermouth? Amer Picon or ... ? The ryes I favor are robust, so Murray suggested an equally sturdy vermouth like Carpano Antica Formula. Which, naturally, I didn’t have. That meant only one thing: trial and error.

My next Liberal paired James E. Pepper’s 1776 straight rye whiskey with Cocchi Vermouth di Torino. It was a very good drink, but these elements were almost too similar. Their spiciness echoed each other and overwhelmed the China-China, even with a dash of orange bitters to bolster the citrus notes.

For Liberal Number 3 (a phrase previously only heard on the MSNBC version of The Dating Game), I opted for Rittenhouse bonded rye and a vermouth with some feistiness, Punt e Mes, along with Angostura bitters. Result: pay dirt. The Angostura provided a solid foundation, the cleaner taste of the rye giving the amer room to run. Murray told me the Liberal recipe “just depends.” But with the master’s formula in hand, you can continue to experiment.

Unless I’m pranking you. Or he’s pranking me.

The Liberal

Murray Stenson variation

1 ¾ oz. robust whiskey (rye)
¼ oz. sweet vermouth (Murray suggests Carpano Antica Formula)
¼ oz. Bigallet China-China amer (in place of Amer Picon)
1-2 dashes orange or Angostura bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at
 Posted by at 7:01 pm
Mar 262014

You Must Remember This: Life and Style in Hollywood’s Golden Age, by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman (2014). You know you’re getting a true inside Hollywood perspective when your guide ends an appreciation of the home owned by longtime friend Harold Lloyd by remarking “I shot episodes of Switch and Hart to Hart there.”

Robert Wagner has lived in Los Angeles for 75 years. His new book (co-written with Eyman, whose biography of John Wayne is out next week) represents an attempt “to document a way of life that has vanished as surely as birch bark canoes. And I want to do this before the colors fade.” The colors aren’t fading for Wagner yet; he can still recall what he paid for his cocktails at a host of now-shuttered Tinseltown night spots, including an exorbitant dollar fifty for a French 75 at the Trocadero, and conjures up his first meeting with Judy Garland, singing at a party at Clifton Webb’s house, with immediacy.

Wagner keeps the book light but also laments the press’s current adversarial relationship with their celebrity subjects and how, with the emphasis on the bottom line, “the movie business has been converted from a long game to a short game.” But there’s little room for grousing when there are parties to attend and polo matches to play. The names from a bygone era he casually reels off – Chasen’s, Ciro’s, the Brown Derby – are still, for some of us, an incantation charged with magic, and Wagner knows how to cast the spell. He has a gentleman’s eye for refinement and strikes an effortlessly rueful tone, a pleasing combination. The book is like uncorking a bottle of wine and having one of TV’s most debonair presences regale you with stories.

Sorcerer (1977). Director William Friedkin’s adaptation of the novel that inspired Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear had the misfortune to open a few weeks after Star Wars and never recouped its budget. It fared no better critically at first, but its reputation improved over the decades; I know plenty of people who prefer it to the Clouzot film. This change of fortune came about in spite of the fact that for years Sorcerer was essentially out of circulation, with no decent print available.

Thanks largely to legal action by Friedkin against the studios involved, the situation has improved. A 4K digital restoration of Sorcerer is in limited release prior to its Blu-Ray debut. Seeing the film on the big screen confirms that Friedkin’s take on the tale of four outcasts forced to ferry volatile explosives overland is one of the most intense films ever made, with the justly-celebrated rope bridge sequence easily a masterpiece of action. It’s almost unfair to compare Sorcerer to Wages as the two are so different, but if pressed I’d give the nod to Wages – with the proviso that Sorcerer has a much, much better ending.

Stranger by the Lake (U.S. 2014). Henceforth, whenever I’m asked to provide an example of Aristotle’s unity of time, place and action – it happens more than you think – I’m pointing to this film, which won the Un Certain Regard directing prize for Alain Guiraudie at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Unless my interlocutor objects to repeated shots of the male orgasm, in which case we’re going to have a problem. Every scene unfolds along an isolated stretch of beach where gay men come to cruise. Franck (César award winner Pierre Deladonchamps) is drawn to the spoken-for Michel, lingering to watch him – and witnessing him murdering his lover. But knowing Michel’s secret only heightens the attraction. Guiraudie turns the limited locations into an advantage, using the arrangement of parked cars not only to convey exposition but heighten suspense. Highsmith meets Camus with copious male nudity in a thriller that mesmerizes down to the calculatedly oblique ending. Here’s the trailer.

 Posted by at 6:49 pm
Mar 212014

Nothing like paging through an old cocktail book and chancing upon a drink that sounds like it would suit your palate – and for which you possess all the ingredients. The quencher in question is the Honeymoon, the tome Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual. Only it isn’t.

The Honeymoon is one of a host of cocktails that first appears in a 1916 book with the pedestrian title Recipes for Mixed Drinks by Hugo Ensslin. Ensslin toiled behind the stick at the Wallick House in Times Square, described by David Wondrich in Imbibe! as “one of New York’s second-rank hotels.” While Ensslin may have lacked the chops to “earn him a place in the oral tradition of New York bar lore,” he performed a far greater service. He recorded how bartenders prepared drinks in the period prior to Prohibition, knowledge that would have otherwise been lost. Among the cocktails he preserved for posterity are the Aviation and the Deshler. The treasure trove of tipples he left behind greatly influenced Duffy and Harry Craddock of The Savoy Cocktail Book fame, both of whom plundered Recipes wholesale.

Despite its New York origins, the Honeymoon became a fixture on menus at Los Angeles’ Brown Derby restaurants, an impressive accomplishment considering they had their own signature cocktail. There’s a drink with the identical recipe called the Farmer’s Daughter. I want to say it’s named after the funky chalet-style hotel on Fairfax, but the dates don’t work.

An apple brandy sour with dual sweeteners, the Honeymoon has partisans who insist it be made with calvados. No doubt that’s an impressive version, but bonded applejack hasn’t disappointed me in this drink yet. The spirit-forward recipe below is from Jim Meehan’s PDT Cocktail Book. The apple’s crispness predominates, but is pleasantly modified by notes of citrus and a potent blast of sweetness courtesy of Bénédictine resulting in a fuller, rosier flavor. The Honeymoon is a blushing bride of a cocktail, a smart, tart beverage worthy of the attention given to many of the other drinks Hugo Ensslin remembered for us.

The Honeymoon

2 oz. apple brandy
½ oz. orange curaçao
½ oz. Bénédictine
½ oz. lemon juice

Shake. Strain. No garnish.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at
 Posted by at 5:54 pm
Mar 142014

One of the joys of buying a new bottle for the home bar is the opportunity to recreate a perfect memory. Two years ago, I visited San Francisco’s temple of rum Smuggler’s Cove. There, I savored one of the finest cocktails I’ve ever had. With the purchase of some apricot brandy, as discussed last week, I was finally able to try my own hand at the drink.

Wil P. Taylor was the bar manager at the Waldorf-Astoria when Prohibition forced him to ply his trade in warmer if not more temperate climes. He assumed the same role at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana. Charles H. Baker, Jr., singing his praises in The Gentleman’s Companion, said Taylor was at his post in 1933 when the Cuban army “mighty near blasted a marvelous hotel off the map” in order to capture officers loyal to deposed president Gerardo Machado. Taylor, Baker notes, “kept right on managing just as if it had been old times!” In 1946, the Nacional would be the site of an infamous gathering of Mafia chieftains including Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, who would eventually strike a deal with Cuba’s president Fulgencio Batista to take over part of the hotel and open a casino there.

Taylor’s reputation was made with a cocktail perfected during his stint at the Nacional, which Baker would immortalize as “one of the three finest Bacardi drinks known to science.” It’s a daiquiri variation – in some circles it’s known as a Nacional Daiquiri – but what a variation. A few words on the ingredients.

Rum. Recipes call for either an aged or a white rum. Aged, obviously, is preferred. I used white.

Pineapple juice. For the most part, canned pineapple juice is viewed as an acceptable substitute in cocktails. I’d make an exception for the Hotel Nacional Special, where that intense flavor is the entire point. Hold out for fresh juice.

Apricot brandy. Again the question is raised of whether to use apricot brandy (read: a sweet apricot liqueur) or a drier eau de vie. Taylor, in his original recipe, specified “dry apricot brandy,” which would indicate the latter. I don’t have an eau de vie, so the choice was easy. Besides, the liqueur’s additional sweetness is far from an obstacle here, blending with the pineapple’s fulsomeness in splendid style.

Simple syrup. Reliable sources endorse using pineapple gomme syrup, a sweetener made with gum arabic, which combines the simple and the pineapple juice into a single element. I cannot speak to that innovation myself, but regular simple in conjunction with fresh pineapple juice worked magic.

Lime juice. Just regular fresh lime juice. Nothing to see here. Move along.

My rendition of the Hotel Nacional Special didn’t match the one served at Smuggler’s Cove in terms of sheer transcendence – they frothed a pineapple right in front of me, for God’s sake – but it was still a roaring success. The luxuriant taste of the pineapple crossed with the apricot’s sweet earthiness isn’t a memory any more. It’s only a few shakes away.

The Hotel Nacional Special

2 oz. rum
1 oz. pineapple juice
½ oz. lime juice
½ oz. simple syrup
¼ oz. apricot brandy

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a lime wheel.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at
 Posted by at 6:21 pm
Mar 112014

A lot of irons in the fire these days, kids, so posts may be even more sporadic than usual. In the meantime, here’s an oldie but a goodie, an essay I wrote for Ray Banks’ late, lamented film site Norma Desmond’s Monkey in September 2011.

Now that the independent film cycle of the 1990s has receded into the mists of time, the truth can be told: the bulk of the movies it spawned simply don’t hold up. It’s true of any creative boom in which the inmates, however briefly, run the asylum. For all the splendors of the auteurist flowering of the 1970s, many of the films made during that period come across now as druggy and self-indulgent. The moral is don’t kick against the pricks, artsy types. A lot of you need a firm hand on the reins.

The Sundance craze of the ‘90s was ultimately co-opted by the studios with the result that the Coen Brothers stable of players turns up in the Transformers movies and the reward for demonstrating vision on a budget is being handed a superhero franchise. Independent film’s true legacy – intimate storytelling that isn’t afraid of dark places or protagonists – isn’t in theaters but on cable television. I will even posit that it was worth sitting through all of those grainy coming-of-age tales and different-drummer comedies so episodes of Louie could be pumped into millions of homes each week.

The truly interesting work in any movement is done in the margins, and no genre is more marginal than the crime comedy. Aside from the fact that Quentin Tarantino raised the form’s bar ridiculously high, there are too many opportunities for lazy transgression. Make the main character a hit man, as plenty of ‘90s filmmakers did, and you risk putting bigger fish in a smaller barrel.

Bringing us to Coldblooded. The movie wafted briefly into theaters in late summer 1995. The biggest name attached to the production was producer Michael J. Fox, who also surfaces in a cameo. It didn’t make much commercial impact, but I remember it with affection. A more recent film brought it to mind anew. Forget this year’s Jason Statham/Ben Foster update. Coldblooded is the actual remake of The Mechanic, replacing the original’s vaguely Mansonesque vibe with coffee shop quirkiness. And yet somehow it works.

The film was written and directed by M. Wallace Wolodarsky, who without the initial earned a place in comedy heaven for his work with partner Jay Kogen on the first four seasons of The Simpsons. (There’s a ‘90s staying power test. What would you rather rewatch, any Sundance prizewinner or “Lisa the Greek”?) Jason Priestley stars in an example of an indie film benefit I wouldn’t mind having back: the casting of recognizable TV actors in unlikely roles. One year later, Priestley’s Beverly Hills 90210 cohort Luke Perry would deliver the performance of his career opposite a sensational Ashley Judd in John McNaughton’s neglected low-budget true-crime tale Normal Life.

Priestley pushes deadpan to dangerous levels as Cosmo, a man-child who is essentially the ward of an unseen gangster. He’s perfectly content working as a bookie, seeing perfunctory prostitute Janeane Garofalo on the company dime, and living in the basement of a retirement home. (Cosmo’s dire digs are a triumph of production design, from the outdated appliances to the hideous mossy green stairs.) But when Cosmo’s benefactor dies, he’s forced into a new role in the organization: trigger man. The transition starts with an internship at the feet of the current holder of the position, the affable Steve (Peter Riegert).

Riegert is the rare actor who can mine humor out of being the voice of reason. Every few years he uses this gift to deliver a peerless comic turn. Local Hero will forever be the best known of these, but in Coldblooded he offers one of the great lost performances of the 1990s. His Steve is a cheerful tummler, eager to have a protégé to whom he can pass along his wisdom even though he knows it will mean his eventual replacement. He’s forthright about his profession, complete with little jokes he’s worked out – “Guns don’t kill people, we do,” followed by a used car salesman’s hearty chuckle – and helpful hints offered in front of victims. Riegert relishes the details of Steve’s middle class life: the procession of sports shirts that are a shade too gaudy, the petty grudges against the organization’s other men, the obsession with his car. To this day I recall Riegert’s precise pronunciation of “Cadillac Sedan de Ville” and his line about occasionally reading the newspaper behind the wheel in his driveway. But additional grace notes trace Steve’s slow unraveling, culminating in an authentically disturbing drunken late-night phone call with Cosmo that Steve can’t recall the following day.

Cosmo’s efforts to deal with the stresses of the position – including his natural aptitude for it – lead him to yoga and an instructor (Kimberly Williams) who needs to be rescued from loutish lover Josh Charles. Priestley plays his character as a down-market version of Peter Sellers in Being There in these scenes, Cosmo’s inexperience with women rendering him perfect boyfriend material. Case in point: his surrendering the TV remote to his paramour, the contemporary equivalent of a knight laying down his sword.

Coldblooded unfolds in a strangely depopulated Los Angeles reminiscent of a hipster hit man film from an earlier generation, Murder by Contract. The small cast, including Robert Loggia as the new capo, forces the plot to become somewhat mechanical. And no professional killer would use his own car on jobs, especially when, like Steve, he has everything in his ride set just the way he likes it. Coldblooded may ultimately seem like a slight film. But its easygoing charm and Priestley’s moving, minimalist performance coupled with Riegert’s richly nuanced one give it more heft than many of the trendy favorites of the era.
 Posted by at 10:28 pm

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