A Not So Suprising Pair: Rye and Aquavit

Nostalgia and cocktails go hand in hand. I can't count the times I have witnessed it. Sitting next to a stranger, you watch as this faraway look creeps over his face, his tone shifts to somewhere between excitable and reverent, and the memories of that first Sazerac or first sip of whiskey pour out. The emotions are palpable, as are the details, both inconsequential and vague, as his mind is pulled inward stretching back to grasp those last little vestiges of experience. To experience it all again. To be present in that past. And then gone. Without a warning, the thinnest thread has run out and we are jerked back to the now with one foot still in the memory, as if frozen in midair after the rug has been yanked. It takes a minute to adjust, even for a casual listener. Who knows what the body and mind have experienced in that moment. Each sensation new and old, felt and then lost. Proustian indeed.

Nostalgia doesn't have to directly correlate with the contents of the glass. Almost any memory could be stirred up, a person, a place. The human mind is ever so complicated. Though modern usage has associated nostalgia with a reverence for an idealized past, the word also communicates feelings of loss, of yearning. The original Greek defines nostalgia as an ache or pain associated with a homecoming or returning home--a sort of homesickness, where home is a specific place at a specific remembered point in time. But as we all know, nothing is quite the same as we remember it and those past moments are hopelessly out of reach. Ah, the familiar echoes of melancholy--another emotion so interlaced with nostalgia.

It was the Old Bay Ridge that did me in. This variation of the old fashioned was created by David Wondrich to honor the original Irish and Scandinavian settlers of that neighborhood situated along the southwestern edge of Brooklyn abutting the Upper Bay of New York Harbor. Recently, I have been making a lot of my old favorites, and old as they are memories always seem to be attached to them. It's the season, you see. Winter has become a time for self-reflection, and I am no stranger to the bittersweet pull of nostalgia.
I first encountered the Old Bay Ridge last year, during winter, while looking for cocktail recipes with aquavit. Happily I stumbled across the recipe in a blog about all things Brooklyn. To be honest, the nostalgia started there before I had even opened a bottle.

About eight years ago--my how time has passed--I lived in Brooklyn, on the top floor of a three-story walk up on the edges of Park Slope and Gowanus. If I am completely honest, it was was closer to Gowanus. Every time I reminisce about those two years I feel the familiar jolt of the bittersweet, that twinge of  melancholy. It doesn't really make sense, but each year it seems to get stronger and more strange. Back then, I had a wonderful job, a terrible commute, and friends nearby. But in no way was I happy there; the city's relentless energy urged me to look west. Sometimes I felt urged to look in any direction. In hindsight, I was counting down the days before I knew the destination. But as I sit looking out at the cloudy night sky, the entire experience seems like it was a rite of passage, a necessary obstacle that needed to be hurdled. But what does this have to do with rye and aquavit, a bit of syrup, some bitters, a chunk of ice and a sliver of lemon peel--I have no idea. Ah, melancholy and winter. I think it's time for a drink.

Old Bay Ridge (adapted from David Wondrich)

1 ounce Rittenhouse bonded rye
1/2  ounce Linie aquavit
1/2 ounce Krogstad aquavit
1 tsp simple syrup
3 dashes Boker's bitters

Combine syrup and bitters in an old-fashioned glass. Add ice and spirits. Give a quick stir to mix and garnish with a lemon peel.

Notes on Ingredients:  If you can't find Rittenhouse, another high-proof rye, even Wild Turkey, would work here. The original recipe calls for one ounce of aquavit. I find the Krogstad, with its intense anise notes, too bold for this drink on its own. The Linie is softer, with a more striking caraway flavor, but its still too mild to stand up to the overproof rye. To find balance, I like to split the difference. But to each her own: for a more caraway-driven experience, use the Linie, for anise, the Krogstad.

Underneath the lemon oils wafting up from the surface lies the faint smell of an undecipherable herbal aroma. I couldn't quite put my finger on exactly where it was coming from but it was obviously associated with the aquavit combination. The caraway and anise of the warring aquavits welcomed me into the glass. But there was also a nice taste of grains from the rye and the Linie. The heat from the overproof rye was also apparent at the beginning though it smoothed out with the ice melt. The bold rye flavors showed up most on the end of each sip. The most active part of the sip occurred somewhere in between, though, when the spirits were busy overlapping, each striving for attention. What a natural pairing rye and aquavit make! The cinnamon and clove from the bitters came across late in each sip. But as the drink progressed, the spices in the bitters and the rye formed the foundation of the drink and the lemon oils, caraway and anise dominated the aftertaste.

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