So Much Absinthe: Firpo's Balloon

What is it about a full jigger of absinthe that so intrigued Charles Baker? While tastes have changed since the late 1930s, especially those regarding sweetness, Mr. Baker's fascination with all things involving heaping amounts of absinthe befuddles me. As someone who used recently learned to enjoy all things licorice-flavored, I can completely appreciate the beauty that hints of anise bring to so many classic cocktails, such as the Morning Glory, the Sazerac, or any Improved Cocktail. I can even understand the joys of a  Suissesse, Absinthe cocktail, Absinthe frappe, or any other cocktail that is wholly centered on the unique flavor profile of absinthe. But what I can't grasp is why anyone would make a cocktail with all these other substantial ingredients and then add so much absinthe to it that nothing else could be tasted. If you want an absinthe-based drink, have an absinthe drip.

Firpo's Balloon is one of Baker's more notorious drinks in this respect. Baker collected many extremely tasty libations like the Remember the Maine, the Jimmie Roosevelt, and the Hotel Nacional Special, which have turned many cocktail enthusiasts into hard-core Baker aficionados. But it is usually the Balloon, or one of the other drinks like it, that marks the time where the fascination begins to wane. Firpo's Balloon is one of those cocktails that creates skepticism, if not outright contempt. You don't even have to drink it to know something is wrong. The recipe provides all you need to know; we attempted it anyway.

Firpo's Balloon Cocktail (mildly adapted)

1 jigger rye (1 ounce)
 1 jigger sweet vermouth (1 ounce)
1 jigger absinthe (1/2 ounce)
2 dashes orange bitters
1 1/2 teaspoons egg white

Dry shake ingredients. Add ice to shaker and shake again. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Pray.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Pikesville rye, Martini & rossi vermouth, and Angostura orange bitters.

The original recipe calls for an entire jigger of absinthe. I just couldn't do it. The point was made just as thoroughly with half the amount. This cocktail smelled and tasted heavily of absinthe. None of the other ingredients could puncture this hard steel casing of absinthe. I wasn't surprised. But sometimes a drink can provide a cocktail geek like me with something beyond the mere exploration of flavors. It's hard to admit, but I have actually been looking forward to this drink for quite some time. For the nature of experimentation, I assure you. Before Firpo's Balloon, I had never tasted, or for that matter ever heard of, a cocktail that included egg white, and that did not also include some form of citrus. Egg white cocktails almost always call for some form of lemon or lime juice because the acids help stabilize that beautiful characteristic foam. I was very curious to see what happened when egg white was called for in a cocktail consisted entirely of, well, alcohol. Result: given the small amount of egg white, only a very little foam appeared. In contrast to most egg white drinks, the Balloon's texture was not velvety--in fact, it was quite grainy. And thus, our ultimate conclusions were: it tasted one-dimensional and the mouth feel made it undrinkable. Alas, a sink donation.

When I first really looked at the ingredients in an effort to salvage the Balloon, I felt very optimistic. Vermouth, rye and bitters--hello Manhattan variation. By significantly decreasing the absinthe, this drink is absolutely wonderful. In fact it could be considered a close relative of William Schmidt's Manhattan recipe in The Flowing Bowl. The differences are small but significant, my variation of Baker's Balloon will include some amount of egg white, and Schmidt uses gum syrup and maraschino. This similarity aside, a Manhattan with absinthe sounded fabulous to me. The question became--how much egg white do I use? I decided to see what would happen if I used the same amount of egg white that I would use in a whiskey sour.

Firpo's Balloon Cocktail (as adapted, trial #1)

2 ounces rye
1 ounce sweet vermouth
3 dashes absinthe
2 dashes orange bitters
1/2 egg white

Dry shake ingredients. Add ice and shake again . Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

The drink looked gorgeous, almost like coffee ice cream with a big layer of foam. The aroma smelled of anise mingling with the rich herbal notes of the vermouth. Each sip started with the flavors of the absinthe and vermouth, again herbal and rich. The flavor of the rye created the perfect foundation and rounded out the flavors. The orange hints and dryness of the bitters came through at the end before the vermouth and the absinthe mellowed into the aftertaste. The texture was the real star--a creamy, velvety Manhattan with a touch of anise. Unfortunately, it was too good to last. About halfway through, I noticed particles sinking to the bottom of the glass. As it turned out, with all of that booze, the egg white just wouldn't stay together. Back to the drawing board.

Firpo's Balloon Cocktail (as adapted, trial #2)

2 ounces rye
1 ounce sweet vermouth
3 dashes absinthe
2 dashes angostura bitters
2 teaspoons egg white

Dry shake ingredients. Add ice and shake again. Strain into chilled cocktail glass.

I didn't change anything except for the amount of egg white and the bitters. I went back to the original amount for the egg white and found that such a small amount is exactly what this cocktail needs. While it wasn't as pretty as the last--the color was not as rich and no real foam appeared--it did not separate. The smell and taste were very similar to that above. I did replace the orange bitters with aromatic on the fly, which was a welcome addition. The spiciness came through on the aftertaste and really brought the idea of the Manhattan to the forefront. The texture was still creamy and smooth, though less so, as expected. All in all, a worthwhile experiment, with a very tasty cocktail at experiment's end. Now I feel like Mr. Baker's words will work: "This is another one to watch cannily lest our pedal extremities fold up at some totally inappropriate moment." Indeed!


The Intersection of Gin and Rye: the Chauncey

Sometimes the most interesting cocktails aren't the ones that you discover on your own. In fact, many of my favorite drinks have come from the recommendations of others, whether that person is a bartender or just a friendly neighbor sitting on the next bar stool over. I often wonder whether the referral contributes in any way to my actual enjoyment. Sure, 95 percent of my decision depends on what is actually happening in the glass. But what about the other 5 percent? Perhaps that feeling of anticipation while watching the bartender pour out unknown measures and reach for unexpected ingredients somehow enhances the entire experience. It certainly adds context. And what about the spontaneity, could that be a factor as well? Could opting out of the decision-making process actual heighten an experience? Granted all of this supposition is inconsequential if that 95 percent is horrid. I do know that while letting a bartender just whip something up on the fly can be risky, especially if you don't know him or her very well, sometimes those risks are just worth it. You never know what you might end up with--it might be your new favorite.

Recently Tracy and I ventured out to the Rob Roy to sit across the bar from a couple of visiting bartenders from Portland, Dave Shenaut and Sean Hoard, before heading to the opera. After having a very tasty cocktail from their special event menu, I decided to place myself at the mercy of the bartender. After discussing such fundamentals as preferred base spirit (rye) and style (spirit driven, of course), the stage was set. What I received was wonderful and surprising, and therefore exactly what I wanted, though I would have never known it: the Chauncey. After I found out it was a classic, I just had to discover the whole story.

Originally published in the Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book in 1935, this curious little tipple certainly never jumped out at me. Even had I noticed it, I would have instantly discounted it. Combining old tom gin, rye, sweet vermouth, and brandy in equal parts, I would have doubted its flavor and its balance. Many old drinks just aren't that good, and maybe this explains its lack of popularity. The recipe for the Chauncey is not going to talk you into drinking it. But it is exceptionally tasty and smooth despite the fact that it is really just a big glass of booze. When I made it at home, I found the cocktail to be enjoyable enough, though a bit sweeter and richer than I usually care for.   

Chauncey (Waldorf-Astoria)
1/4 old tom gin (3/4 ounce)
1/4 rye (3/4 ounce)
1/4 brandy (3/4 ounce)
1/4 sweet vermouth (3/4 ounce)
1 dash orange bitters

Stir in an ice-filled mixing glass. Strain into a cocktail glass.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Ransom Old Tom gin, Paul Masson VSOP brandy, Pikesville rye, Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth, and Angostura orange bitters.

This version, from the Waldorf-Astoria, is not what I had at Rob Roy. It was obvious upon tasting. In addition to the Waldorf-Astoria, the next source I found the it in was Esquire's Handbook for Hosts, where its recipe was the same. Another recipe for the Chauncey is available on the Internet at cocktaildb.com, which means it was collected in Stan Jones Complete Bar Guide. It is mostly the same but with different proportions. I could not trace it anywhere in the intervening years. So at some time between the late 1940s and the late 1970s, as American tastes dried out, so did the Chauncey.

Left: Waldorf version; right: cocktaildb.com

Chauncey (cocktaildb.com)

3/4 ounce gin
3/4 ounce rye
1/2 ounce brandy
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
1 dash orange bitters

Stir in an ice-filled mixing glass. Strain into a cocktail glass.

Notes on Ingredients: I used the same as above except that the gin called for was London Dry, and so I used Plymouth.

This Chauncey was much dryer, and the taste of the herbs of the gin and the orange bitters were much more dominant. As it is a much crisper drink, its flavors pop.  But this recipe still did not match my memory of Dave Shenaut's Chauncey. The cocktail I remembered was in fact dry, but also extremely smooth and rich. So after I found a video where Mr. Shenaut actually constructs his version of the Chauncey, I could finally remake the drink at home.

Chauncey (Dave Shenaut version)

3/4 ounce rye
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
3/4 ounce gin
1/2 ounce brandy
2 dashes orange bitters

Stir in an ice-filled mixing glass. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

Over time the Chauncey went from  rich and slightly sweet to dry and crisp, to finally end up smooth, full- flavored and balanced. This path mirrors the ways that American tastes have changed. Bold cocktails that were rich or more on the sweet side during the Golden Age either became obsolete or were adapted to fit newer dryer tastes. Look at the martini--it was originally made with a ton of vermouth and a couple of dashes of orange bitters, and over time all of its flavor was stripped away until it was just a cold glass of slightly diluted gin. And then, as if rock bottom weren't low enough, it became a cold glass of slightly diluted vodka. But the pendulum has shifted, and bold flavors are back, though without the sweetness. Bartenders are re-fitting the classics, sometimes by just reintroducing the original proportions and sometimes by re-tooling them so they appeal to modern tastes. Thus, a historically sweet cocktail can be refashioned as dryer without sacrificing its big flavors. Dried out cocktails can reappropriate their stolen flavors. Dave Shenaut's version of the Chauncey highlights both of these trends and the result is a bolder cocktail, not too sweet or too dry. This Chauncey exists somewhere in between and yet somewhere completely new.


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.