It is 10 PM, I am in a cabin, and sipping my third Negroni from a coffee cup. No, this is not the typical evening. Let me explain.
It was a very good night on the dock. Panfish were plentiful, and a couple of bass also hammered the popper I chucked with my fly rod. To surprise, my stationary rod —a beat-up Okuma spinning combo I got years ago— had not landed a channel catfish, as it had in days before. No, a snapping turtle chomped on the cut bluegill I had put out. I probably have made 100 casts to this corner of the lake. Never had I caught a turtle. And here it was clomping across the boards and hissing at me with a hefty circle hook half out its vicious beak.
All in all, the night felt like a culmination of my fishing experience at Punderson Lake, 150 acres of beautiful water and cut into the earth by a glacier thousands of years ago. So why not celebrate with a beverage?
The beer was gone; likewise the tonic. The only elixirs in the fridge were mostly empty bottles of gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. I had had gin on ice straight the previous night. A Negroni it was. Again.
Mmmm, breakfast. What appeals to the mouth and stomach at the early hour when the birds are singing and the sun’s rays are spraying over the horizon? Something starchy, like toast? Perhaps some protein — eggs and bacon sound right. And perhaps a cup of coffee or tea to help shake the spell of Morpheus. That what the body needs, right?
So how is it that the Bloody Mary — usually a concoction of tomato juice, vodka, black pepper, Worcestershire sauce, a stalk of celery, and a bit of lemon juice — became a famed breakfast go-to? Like much in life, it is anything but clear.
We don’t even know who invented the drink. “Popular Bloody Mary legend points to Fernand ‘Pete’ Petiot, at bartender at Harry’s New York Bar in the 1920s,” writes Brian Bartels in The Bloody Mary: The Lore and Legend of a Cocktail Classic, with Recipes for Brunch and Beyond (Ten Speed Press, 2017). But seeing as the bar’s head, Harry McElhone, didn’t list the Bloody Mary — or any tomato juice drinks — in his 1927 cocktail recipe book, this hypothesis is suspect. New York comedian George Jessel asserted in his autobiography that he created the drink in 1927 after an all-night bender. Another theory is that Petiot created the drink shortly after Prohibition. Petiot had moved from Paris to new York City, and was slinging the Red Snapper — vodka, tomato juice, citrus juice, and spices — at the St. Regis’ King Cole bar. So maybe Jessel came up with idea and Petiot refined it? Who knows?
Nor do we know why it was named the “Bloody Mary” or how exactly it moved from one watering hole to becoming a staple of bar menus around the world. But it did, and at least two factors explain why.
First, the food industry got into the canned juice business in a big way in the first few decades of the 20th century. This created year round bar and restaurant access to juices with long shelf lives. Juice-makers fostered consumer interest by heavily advertising the healthful effects of gulping juice in the morning. (Is acidic orange juice really what the stomach wants bright and early?)
Second, despite its ingredients — the Bloody Mary is delicious. Especially if one is a little hungover. (When really wrecked, no food or drink appeal.) The viscous tomato juice fills the stomach, the black pepper soothes its disturbances, and the whole amalgam invigorates and helps the consumer convince himself he feels fine and can endure the day before him.
Like so many good things in life, the Bloody Mary has evolved. An early version has only three ingredients (vodka, tomato juice, and lemon juice.) Recent versions have become more baroque — one might find wasabi or a pickle in the glass. Bartels himself created the “PB&J & Mary,” which is made with peanut-infused vodka (or tequila!), strawberry jam, Cholula hot sauce, and more. And some of drinks being called Bloody Mary’s are miles from the original. The “Pirate Mary,” another Bartels invention, is a luminous yellow-green rum and pineapple drink.
My own preference is for a Bloody Mary with the standard ingredients: a belt of vodka, tomato juice, dash of lemon juice and Worcestershire, a little horseradish, and a stalk of celery. And a few pieces of crispy bacon. The awakening body does need protein.
Comcast cable was knocked out by 90-something degree heat. No TV, no phone, no Inter-tubes (except via cell). So, might as well make a Dark and Stormy (3 ounces of rum, 3 or 4 ounces of Ginger Beer, and lime slice) and read a novel. Maui Dark is fine stuff. (See our review here.)
While this is a splendid choice, there are other options. Maui Dark Rum, made by Haleakala Distillers, is a terrific option. (Rating ****1/2) It is inky black and shows hearty flavors that comport nicely with the cocktail’s crisp ginger and lime components.
Another intriguing way to go is to use Sea Wynde Rum. It is a BIG rum from Guyana and Jamaica that oozes charred barrel flavors and usually is best taken neat and in small sips. (Rating ****1/2) Using it in a Dark and Stormy requires a small modification of the usual proportions. Instead of pouring 2 ounces of rum and 3 ounces of ginger beers (and 1/2 ounce of lime juice), one needs to dial back the rum to 1 ounce or dial up the ginger beer to 6 ounces.
It has been a grand day—we worked hard, jogged 45 minutes in the blazing midday heat, and prepared a fine dinner of corn-black bean salad and ciabbatas topped with olive oil, mozzarella, tomato, and basil. (Heineken and Stella Artois paired nicely with this chow.)
Now the time for the day’s end cocktail draws nigh. We are going with the Dark and Stormy recipe from Esquire. (See here.) We are using Gosling’s Black Seal Rum and Fever-Tree Ginger Beer—which comes in a seven-ounce bottle meaning that we can make two Dark and Stormies!
A common complaint about craft cocktails is that a drink that once took two minutes to make now takes ten.
Well, I’ve stretched that out to five months.
Barrel-aged cocktailing is one of the latest trends in drink making. Now, this isn’t simply mixing up a sazerac with your favorite barrel-aged rye. After all, you can’t have whiskey without the wood (regardless of all that white whiskey nonsense). No, barrel-aged cocktails are drinks that are mixed together, poured into a barrel and allowed to age for weeks or months.
The result is as obvious as it is surprising.
About a year ago, a friend bought me a small, 2 liter barrel that I aged a blend of white spirits in to produce a rather potent rye whiskey. Once I removed the whiskey, I needed to put something back in to prevent the wood from drying out, which would ruin the barrel. Lacking any ideas, I fell back on an old favorite: I filled the barrel with Early Times Kentucky whiskey.
Although aged Early Times is spectacular, I wanted to try something else. That something else ended up being a barrel-aged Manhattan.
The key to this process is picking elements that have spent time in a barrel or would benefit from it. With a Manhattan, you’re looking at whiskey and wine, both of which have spent time in wood and were better for it. A Rob Roy–the Manhattan’s Scottish cousin–would also work, naturally. On the other hand, a barrel-aged Tom Collins would be appalling. Gin does just fine without the barrel-aging process.
With a cocktail recipe and barrel-appropriate libations in hand, the only other thing you need is time. Well, time and a barrel, which are easy to find online. For the Manhattan, I began by aging 2 liters of Early Times for three months. Through evaporation and absorption into the wood, in which the Early Times mingled with the rye blend that preceded it, the volume of whiskey reduced by about a third, or about .6 liters. That works out to be the better part of one 750 ml bottle of Dolin’s sweet vermouth (after topping off the barrel, you’ll have enough vermouth left for a celebratory, mid-aging cocktail).
Knowing if the whiskey has reduced enough is as much an art as a math test. Every few weeks, I checked the barrel’s weight by picking it up, and by the three-month mark I noticed that it felt considerably lighter. So I poured the whiskey back into the original 1.75 liter Early Times bottle and measured the volume of liquid. A full 1.75 liters works out to about 7.4 cups of liquid. After the initial three months of aging, I had about 1.15 liters, or just under 5 cups, which is two thirds the original volume. And as Mr. Boston will tell you, a Manhattan is two parts whiskey and one part sweet vermouth. I knew it was time to add the wine.
Once I topped off the barrel, I plugged the bung, swirled the whole thing for a minute or two and then let the concoction sit for another couple months (swirling the barrel every now and then). Although I planned to let the mixture sit for three months, I pulled a sample after two (periodic sampling is critical) and knew it was ready.
Five months and 2.5 liters of whiskey and vermouth later, I had the makings of the best Manhattan cocktail I’ve ever made or paid for.
After co-mingling in the barrel, the whiskey and vermouth blend into a single spirit. It’s a sweet whiskey with additional notes of caramel and vanilla from the wood. The color is lighter than a traditional Manhattan, more liquid amber than deep maroon.
Intuitively, the results make sense. Blending whiskey and other spirits is as old as distilling itself, and infusing spirits with everything from bacon to peaches is pretty common. Yet, the outcome of the barrel-aged Manhattan project is still a surprise. This whiskey, this spirit that now lives in a bottle in my basement tastes like a Manhattan.
Straight from the barrel, the blend is certainly fine enough to drink as is. But to be a Manhattan cocktail, you need only a few dashes of Angostura bitters, a quick stir in an ice filled shaker and a brandied cherry. Simple steps after a long wait.
Sure, a perfect Manhattan could take 10 minutes in a good bar, but a spectacular one is worth waiting a much, much longer time for.
3 oz. of barrel-aged whiskey and sweet vermouth
3 dashes of Angostura bitters
1 brandied cherry to garnish (I prefer Les Parisiennes)
Fill a cocktail shaker half full of ice. Add the aged whiskey and vermouth blend, and three dashes of bitters. Stir to chill and pour into a cocktail glass. Garnish with the brandied cherry.