Notes on a Cocktail

Cocktails. I don’t usually make them. Given an opportunity, I like to drink them. And not surprisingly, I have some strong opinions about them. Fresh orange peel, cucumber infusion, muddled mint, Pimm’s, Hendrick’s, sugar cubes, a little float of beaten egg white. Not all in the same drink of course, but that’s the direction I run in: fresh, fruity, herbaceous. Complex without too hard an edge. My idea of a perfect cocktail speaks to something specific: spring, Christmas, elderflowers, cucumbers. I like to imagine a good cocktail is a flavor essay, a barman’s exploration of an idea.

So when the party committee I’m on met for a pre-party cocktail tasting a few weeks ago, I came prepared with a few ideas. I hoped we could come up with a simple but elegant cocktail that would be appropriate for a group of 40-ish moms. Someone brought a stack of those little plastic cups used for measuring out children’s Tylenol, so we could have many small tastes without drinking too much. Hilarious and so smart. One elegant guest brought a colorful bottle and said all we had to do was add some vodka. — This will be so easy, she said, My sister told me this makes quite a decent cocktail. After tasting it we all laughingly agreed with the comment — It kind of tastes like cough syrup. Then someone suggested Cosmos – That’s what the committee chose last year – but aren’t Cosmos a little passé? Too Sex in the City?

On committees, strong opinions can sometimes be a liability; other times, they come in handy. I’d brought bottles of chilled Prosecco and St. Germaine. An orange and a little orange zester to make the curl were wrapped in a tea towel in my purse. (I think that darn zester is still lost in the bottom of my handbag.) Anyway. I quickly mixed up the cocktail. It was a little heavy handed. Next time I do this I’ll slip the jigger in with the zester so I can measure properly. Still, we all agreed it was pretty lovely, cold with a subtle floral perfume. Especially compared to the cough syrup and vodka number we’d sampled previously. That’s how I ended up in charge of the cocktails at the party we were throwing. Which is kind of a joke because I never make cocktails; I only order them.

So yesterday, I went out to get my ingredients. I didn’t even know that the liquor store doesn’t open until 11. I had to stand outside in the ridiculous wintery rain for 20 minutes. Sigh. What if it didn’t really open when it was supposed to? Then at 11 on the dot, the lights flicked on and the door opened.

Wow. I couldn’t believe it. The same old guy. I’ve only been here a handful of times in the past 7 years and it’s always him. He’s vast and almost troll-like. He has small warty eyes. Many warts. Stringy grey long hair in a pony tail. His shirt is too large. His pants are too long and not exactly clean. Really he’s a toad of a man. Usually I run in and out of the liquor store. It’s not the sort of place that inspires lingering.

I asked him – So can you tell me about the Creme de Cassis. We’re having this party. Champagne Cocktails, Kir Royale. Can you recommend —

— Oh I can recommend something! He cut me off, not unkindly. He hurried to another display — I know which one you should buy. It’s a little pricey though — a thoughtful smile on his face.

He waved me over and took down a small bottle with pale green leaves and black currants on the label. A long and slender bottle from an artisanal distillery in Oregon. The liquid inside the blackest purple and gently viscous. I tipped it sideways and looked at the color, admiring the pretty label.

—Tell me about this one, I said. How is it different? (From the other, much larger bottle, half the price over there on the wall.)

He peered at me intently. I could see by his expression he was reliving some taste memory and wanting me to be there with him. I actually think I was there with him, kind of. – Let me tell you what I do with that stuff. Don’t waste it. I make these sugar cookies — he mimed how he carefully held the cookies with his fingers — So thin. So delicate. The sugar gives the perfect crunch. They shatter then melt in your mouth.

(Are you kidding me?! Delicate. Shatter. Melt.)

Then he says — I serve them on a very rich vanilla ice cream, with the vanilla bean flecks in it and then I carefully drizzle just a very tiny amount of this blackcurrant over the ice cream. It’s perfect.

(You sir, in your own peculiar way, are perfect too.)

Wow. — My grandmother liked her ice cream that way too. With a little purple-y liqueur drizzled on top. Only she just used Pepperidge Farm Chessmen. That certainly sounds very delicious. I will buy a bottle of that for myself. Imagine it swirled into a little Prosecco with a strip of orange peel! I will sit on the little bench on the patio, sipping Kir Royale, surrounded by sage, oregano, chives and Shasta daisies, taking it all in. For the ladies of the preschool however – all sixty of them – I think the big bottle will do just fine.

That guy totally made my day.

A Trio of Champagne Cocktails

If you can chill the Champagne glass, that would be very nice. For sixty, I doubt that I will.

Kir Royale

  • 1/2 ounce Creme de Cassis
  • cold Champagne
  • a curl of orange peel from an organic navel orange

Pour the Creme de Cassis into the cold champagne glass. Pour Champagne  to nearly fill the glass. Squeeze the orange rind over the drink, then drop into the glass.

Champagne St. Germaine

  • 1/2 ounce St. Germaine (a French elderflower liqueur)
  • cold Champagne or prosecco
  • a curl of lemon peel from an organic lemon

Pour the Champagne into a cold champagne glass. Stir in the St. Germaine. Garnish with lemon.

Classic Champagne Cocktail

  • 1 sugar cube
  • angostura bitters (I actually use blood orange bitters)
  • Champagne
  • orange or lemon peel (as above)

Soak the sugar cube with bitters and place in Champagne glass. Pour champagne over the sugar cube. Garnish with lemon or orange peel.


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