Gender Roles, Brandy and Caraway

"Just why handsome women prefer sweet and creamy cocktails has always troubled us, but they do."
Charles Baker

One vaguely disconcerting, and vaguely hilarious, element of nearly all old cocktail books is the idea that there are cocktails for men--strong, boozy concoctions to put, or keep, hair on your chest--and cocktails for women--creamy, frothy libations that are typically very sweet and very absurd. Granted, there are some "ladies" cocktails that are strong,  boozy and tasty, but they are few and far between. How did these drinks become associated with women? Well, many are pink and tend to shy away from bold flavors. Who decided women don't like big flavor? When we find him we will let you know. As for color, some very tasty potables are pink, and I for one would never turn away a pink lady.

Reading about these gender stereotypes would be more palatable if we could lean back and laugh at the folly of the past. But those old-fashioned notions about gender appropriateness from the early twentieth century are still with us, though they have been under siege for decades now. Television shows, movies and the Internet flood our culture with silly ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman. It is really scary to consider just how well these ideas align with ideas about gender roles from the 1920s or even earlier. But, at least in the land of alcohol there are glimmers of hope. For example, I know far too many women who like whiskey, and not just the easy stuff, like Irish whiskey or corn-heavy bourbons like Maker's Mark. (Okay, I will admit it, you can never know too many women who like whiskey.) These women choose to stare down the cask-strength and drink it neat--hair on the chest be damned. I also know women who cringe when they hear the word whiskey. But these women still wouldn't be caught dead ordering a sweet, frothy cocktail--they drink martinis and tequila old-fashioneds and negronis. Nor would they be tempted by a cocktail simply because it has cream in it, or because it is pink. Whiskey or no, these women know how to handle themselves and they heartily embrace bold flavors. And if a bold-flavored drink just happens to be pink or have cream in it, so be it.

When Charles Baker writes that a drink is for "when ladies are present," I can't help but shake my head and offer a little sarcastic chuckle. It is easy to forgive him--the 1930s were a different time. But then again, perhaps not as different as we like to believe. Pink, sweet concoctions designed to cover up the taste of alcohol are still described with the word "girly." And I have been told, more than once, that I drink like an old man as if it were a bad thing. Perhaps the real difference is that today, for the most part, it isn't revolutionary to strip off that mantel of gender appropriateness. In Charles Baker's day, it wasn't quite so easy to treat a gender role like an accessory that matches your outfit. And maybe we should be glad that Mr. Baker includes "lighter" variations for the milder sex, whether we choose to interpret that as applying to a man or a woman. He could have just ignored women altogether, like so many others. On the other hand, we are now left with two suspicious beverages to worry about, instead of just one. So with a mild shudder, bring on the beverages!

The Balaklava Specials No. I and II explore the intersection of cognac and kummel. In No. 1, aside from a decorative sink of grenadine, there is not much more to it. The recipe for No. II  is similar except that cream and three distractingly fragrant, potent flavors have been added, all for the benefit of the fairer sex. Uh, thanks? I can understand the cream from a historic point of view. Back in the days of yore, supposedly women liked a creamy beverage. I can almost understand adding a sweetener, and please note understand not tolerate. But I am not sure how kirschwasser and absinthe, at 80 proof and 130 proof, respectively, are making this drink "girly" or even "girlier"? The mere thought is confusing and slightly frightening. Did he have to offset the fact that cream is non-alcoholic? Mr. Baker even issues this warning: "And for heaven's sweet sake don't think this snake-in-the-grass drink is a harmless and gentle lady's affair just because it has cream in it!" Ladies, hold on to your skirts.

Balaklava Special No. 1
1 jigger cognac (1 ounce brandy)
1 jigger kummel (1 ounce aquavit)
1 dash grenadine (1 barspoon)
(1/4 ounce simple syrup)

Fill a cocktail glass with crushed or shaved ice. Add brandy and "kummel" and carefully pour in grenadine so it sinks to the bottom.

Notes on Ingredients: I substituted brandy for cognac, used homemade grenadine, and since I didn't have any kummel, I sweetened Krogstad aquavit per the specifications I found on Underhill Lounge: 1 oz aquavit plus 10 ml syrup. Also note, I cut the proportions, just in case it was gross.

Caraway, anise and the undeniable smell of brandy were most apparent on the nose. Tracy, however, was sure she could smell the berry tartness of the grenadine as well. This strange drink had an extremely rich texture, and, despite that richness and an initial hint of sweetness, it was actually quite dry and surprisingly complex. The flavors of the brandy and caraway were strongest, and each sip was punctuated with anise. As we progressed, the grenadine grew in prominence. Though this drink really wasn't as bad as it initially sounded, I would never ask for it. I was actually surprised by how complimentary the flavors of the caraway and brandy were. As far as improvements go, I would try decreasing the "kummel," losing the grenadine, and adding aromatic bitters--in the guise of a caraway-flavored Japanese. Also, that crushed ice would just have to go.

Balaklava Special No. II (as close to what Baker stipulated as possible)

1 jigger kummel (1 1/2 ounces aquavit )
1/2 jigger absinthe (1/2 ounce)
1/2 jigger cognac (3/4 ounce brandy)
1/2 jigger kirschwasser (3/4 ounce)
1/2 tsp orgeat
1 1/2 tsp thick cream
(15 ml simple syrup)

Combine ingredients in a chilled shaker. Shake "briskly" and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

We actually did make this drink, though I confess--I used slightly less absinthe that the original. In my experience anything with more than 1/4 ounce of absinthe in it, will only taste like absinthe. This drink was no exception: it smelled of absinthe and tasted like absinthe. In addition to the anise madness, a hint of cherry came across in the aroma, and a hint of caraway and cherry was present in the taste. In spite of the cream and orgeat, the texture was quite dry. It was better than I thought, which isn't saying much. We still could only withstand about two sips each.

Balaklava Special No. II (as adapted)

1 1/2 ounces brandy
1/2 ounce aquavit
1/4 ounce kirschwasser
1/2 tsp orgeat
1 dash absinthe
1 1/2 tsp heavy cream
5 ml simple syrup

Dry shake ingredients to combine. Add ice and reshake. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. 

The smell of cherry was most prevalent in the aroma. Cherry and almond appeared first in the taste. Those flavors in turn blended into anise and caraway. The swallow was all brandy. This drink had a slightly creamy texture, though it still remained predominantly dry. Tracy and I agreed that the cocktail was much improved by changing the base from "kummel" to brandy and decreasing the kirschwasser and absinthe significantly. The flavors were more crisp as opposed to blanketed with absinthe. As these drinks highlight the overlapping of kummel and brandy, I chose not to severely reduce the "kummel." This was perhaps the downfall of my variation. The caraway never seemed to mesh with the others. A further reduction might have improved the cocktail, but any thread of the original would have been lost. Then again, maybe that wouldn't have been such a bad thing.

End note: of all three cocktails, Tracy and I agreed that we liked the version for when women are not present the best. I can't say I am terribly surprised.

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