A Rum Drink Just in Time for Spring: Bertita's Special

March--a trying month to be sure. As winter loses its grip, a great impatience flourishes inside me, a restlessness stemming from the wearisome months of dark sky and early night. Accompanying this is a longing for all things bright, shiny, and summer-related. All of this daydreaming is of course helplessly premature. In places that are pummeled with snow and brutally cold temperatures, I imagine this phase occurs in February, when burrowing under layers and inside houses exceeds most people's thresholds for being couped up, mentally as well as physically. Seattle's winter weather at worst functions by erosion--you don't quite feel the pressure of a constant barrage, but little by little it builds up. For me, rock bottom occurs in early March.

I often wonder if our cravings are linked to our view of the passing of seasons, or vice versa. First comes that curious urge for all things barrel-aged that accompanies winter. It is not an unknown phenomenon, colder temperatures and shorter days readily link up with winter warmers usually including whiskey in all its various incarnations. Personally, that usually means rye, though this year I did take a brief sojourn into blended scotch. But restless taste buds can only handle so much of the same. As the season waxed and waned and the temperatures strayed from their lows, giving us teasing glimpses of the Spring, I found myself craving gin in combination with various amari. But at some point it all reaches a head, and drinks that are dark and bitter aren't as satisfying as they once were. So here we are: the days are lengthening, the cherry blossoms are tinting the streets with brilliant dashes of pink, and winter jackets seem a bit too heavy and oppressive. It can mean only one thing: the time for rum, citrus, color and maybe a bit of silliness has arrived. Thus, I flipped the page to Bertita's Special at exactly the right time, when tropical flavors can ease the passing of the last days of dreariness.  

Bertita's Special comes from South of the Border, from the small city of Taxco located in the mountains of Mexico, where many artists and artisans from America took up residence during the early part of the twentieth century "for various reasons, & with varying success." Bertita's Bar, owned by Dona Bertha, has been more famously linked to the creation of another drink, the Margarita. At best, it is one vague claim among many. Bertita's Bar, as Charles Baker notes, is a "dingy, but mildly celebrated place" and he notes that this drink--I am sure it was not the only one--is "poured with a heavy hand," which, considering Baker's taste, is probably why it was included in his tome. I can't help but imagine Bertita's as a spectacular example of a dive bar, with the perfect mixture of local color and lack of polish that makes certain places an unpretentious joy to visit.

Bertita's Special Cocktail (as adapted)

3 ounces light rum
3/4 ounce lime juice
2 ounces orange juice
1 teaspoon grenadine

Shake ingredients briefly with ice. Strain into a chilled Collins glass packed full of crushed ice. Float 1 teaspoon Jamaican rum on top.

Note on Ingredients: I used Cruzan white rum, homemade grenadine, and Smith and Cross for the float. Appleton's Estate V/X makes a fine substitute where Smith and Cross is unavailable.

Baker's instructions called for shaking the ingredients with cracked ice, pouring the contents--ice and all--into a large champagne glass, and then adding the float of Jamaican rum. I decided to shake the ingredients briefly with cubed ice and serve it over fresh crushed ice. In fact, it was very enjoyable and didn't become incredibly watered down.The aroma was full of Jamaican rum, which make sense because it was sitting right there on top. The first taste was also filled with the unmistakable hogo stamp of the Smith and Cross. What a wonderful way to start! Once through the initial sip, however, the lime stepped in. This drink reminded me of a mellowed-out daiquiri--tart, brisk and dry with a good dose of rum. Perhaps it would be more accurate to liken this libation to a mellower version of the Bacardi cocktail, a simple daiquiri with grenadine in place of sugar. With only a teaspoon of grenadine, the orange juice tempered the strength of the lime. The grenadine did, however, provide a nice color as well as a light berry note that became more apparent as the drink warmed up.The rum thoroughly dominated the aftertaste. This cocktail was exceptionally refreshing and really fit with my March mood, but it would also be wonderful during the warmer months.


Between the Sheets, but with Gin

We are in a happy place with Charles Baker at the moment. With Bertita's Special, a nice Bacardi Cocktail variation, the notorious Between the Sheets, a riff on a Sidecar, and a pair of simple rum concoctions we have entered a safe haven for the moment, protected from the myriad flavor surprises that I am sure await off in the distance. But by no means does this equate to boredom; Baker still has a few tricks up his sleeve; nothing is quite as simple or easy as it sounds.

Fresh squeezed lemon juice, check. Glasses chilling in the freezer, check. Tools, check. Everything was ready to go. With my hands full of Cointreau, brandy and rum, I wandered into the kitchen ready to begin pouring. Tracy had already settled onto the couch awaiting her beverage. Happy hour snacks were spread out on the table. Even the cats were settled in for a relaxing break. But while rechecking the proportions, I noticed that all was not as it seemed. Baker's Between the Sheets does not contain rum, his is made with gin.

When I really sat down to think about it, it wasn't all that surprising that the recipe for a cocktail could go that way over time. Sure, white rum and gin don't taste anything alike. No doubt about it. But more often than not, they work with the same flavors. And since they both lack those barrel-aged flavors, it is not surprising that they might have some of the same flavor affinities. So, especially if your cocktail has citrus in it, you could probably substitute light rum if you were lacking gin, or vice versa. I can't really explain it, but it works. Look at the Bee's Knees and the Honeysuckle. The Daiquiri and the Gin Rickey. Even the Seventh Heaven loosely resembles the Floridita, and the Darby is quite close to the Nevada. 

The Between the Sheets is an old classic, or at least the one containing rum in it is. Dating from at least the late 1920s, it is a damn fine variation on the Sidecar, which was the first classic cocktail to really catch my attention. (It was my graduate school go-to tipple.) It is easy to see why the Between the Sheets really took off during Prohibition as it combines cognac, standard in the Sidecar, with easier to find ingredients like the often ubiquitous bathtub gin and illegally imported rum. Originally, the proportions differed as well, with equal parts rum, brandy, and Cointreau, and only a dash of lemon juice. That's one big glass of booze with a hint of lemon. Well, at least it's not on the menu today. Over time the proportions changed to match the equal parts of the cocktail below. There is even a variation in trader Vic's guide that calls for gin and rum, and the cognac is just suggested as a substitute, as well as a drink called the Between the Sheets in Esquire's Handbook for Hosts that combines cognac, creme de cacao, cream, bitters, sugar, and a lemon peel. For once, it seems that the Baker variation isn't the most insane. My mouth is very glad.  

Jerusalem's Between the Sheets

3/4 ounce brandy
3/4 ounce Cointreau
3/4 ounce lemon juice
3/4 ounce gin

Shake with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Paul Masson VSOP brandy, and Bellringer gin.

The orange liqueur and lemon dominate the aroma, though I thought I could pick up a hint of vanilla from the brandy. Tracy smelled pineapple, which though there was none, is not really surprising, considering the citrus and sweetness from the Cointreau. This cocktail was remniscent of the sidecar, and thus was pleasantly tart and refreshing. Initially, the flavors of the lemon and orange were most prominent. The gin showed up at the end, and the brandy added a pleasant richness to the drink. The flavors progressed from the tart lemon, to the richness and slightly sweet taste of the Cointreau and brandy, before ending with dryness of the gin. As the drink warmed up, the botanics of the gin combined to create a pleasantly subtle flavor. The after taste was filled with vanilla notes from the brandy. This libation is a nice change from the sidecar, but the original will always have a special place in my heart.


Adventures with Creme de Menthe: the Barry Cocktail

Some flavor combinations are beyond my understanding. Most of the time, I try it anyway, because that is how we learn, and sometimes learning is surprisingly tasty. Charles Baker has inevitably, though grudgingly taught me this. I never would have guessed at how well the combination of caraway and brandy works, though that pairing is not Earth shattering. Or honey, scotch and cream--I am actually very glad I tried that one. Generally, I would not be considered the most adventurous person when it comes to what I put in my mouth. So when Charles Baker says that he is only including it "through clinical mixing interest," the physical sensations of panic start in my knees and reverberate slowly upward. If the other weird things I have tasted were included sincerely, where do I put the cocktail that even Charles Baker doesn't want to drink? This man drank everything, or at least tried it. Hell, he was a real adventurer, not just a flavor adventurer.

In my copy of Jigger Beaker and Glass, the recipe for the Barry Cocktail is broken over two pages. You actually have to flip the page to read the second half. So I was there--totally there--when Baker was describing a sweet martini with aromatic bitters. I thought his statement regarding clinical mixing interest was included because the recipe was comparatively mundane and simple. Sometimes those cocktails are the best, and his description had my mouth watering. Sweet vermouth happens to be one of my favorite ingredients. But, with Baker you should always reserve judgment, both for good and evil--there is always a "but" and usually it is huge. True enough, when I flipped the page, my hopes were dashed with three little words: creme de menthe.

I don't particularly like creme de menthe. Maybe it's because most brands are notoriously bad, or because the drinks that call for it are usually incredibly sweet. Or maybe it's because once you drink creme de menthe, your taste buds are done--at least for a while. Nothing tastes the same. Well, that sounds like three strikes to me. But I digress.

The major problem with the Barry wasn't the ingredients. Are they surprising? Yes. Not particularly appetizing? Sure. But considering some of the other Baker cocktails, after the initial shock, all it registered was a shrug. A few sips never hurt anyone, especially for the sake of knowledge. The real problem was that I don't own any creme de menthe, and I really have no need to. And considering that I don't really like it, don't cook in general (no grasshopper pie for me), and realistically have no room for it, this was a very real issue. So off I went to purchase a mini bottle--after all I only needed a half a teaspoon. Washington state liquor stores, however, don't stock minis of creme de menthe. Malibu rum, check. But no creme de menthe. I was doomed to buy a bottle. But then something wonderful happened. As I was sitting next to a friend at the Zig Zag, and complaining about this very conundrum, my friend looked up at me with a smile and said, "I have some creme de menthe. How much do you need?" It is a wonderful thing to have friends who love cocktails.

Barry Cocktail (as interpreted)

2 ounces gin
1 ounce sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
1/2 tsp creme de menthe

Stir first three ingredients in a chilled mixing glass. Strain into a chilled coupe. Float (sink) creme de menthe. Twist a lemon peel over top and discard.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Plymouth gin, Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth, and Hiram Walker Green creme de menthe.

Baker does not supply any proportions for this drink: "It is exactly the same as a Martini, but using Italian vermouth instead of the dry French type." Martinis in 1926 were not constructed in the same way they are now. Vermouth was much more popular. I took a flying leap and decided to use a 2:1 martini recipe, which may or may not be too wet. Also, Baker didn't specify white creme de menthe or green, but beggars can't be choosers. I figured with such a small amount it wouldn't matter that much.

Because the creme de menthe sunk to the bottom, I had to practically drink the entire cocktail to really experience the range of flavors this drink provides. Getting there wasn't unenjoyable, either. But once I did sip my way into that waiting green pool--ew, and down the sink it went. Onto the specifics. The aroma of the lemon oils and the botanics of the gin greeted my nose. The juniper of the gin hinted with lemon dominated the first sip. Sweet vermouth was by far the most dominant ingredient. The juniper reappeared on the swallow, along with the heat of the alcohol. This libation reminded me of a London dry Martinez, of course missing the sweetness and funky notes of the maraschino. As I progressed, the taste of the mint started to creep into the flavor spectrum. This wasn't completely unpleasant, either. The mint played nicely off the herbals in a very delicate way, and even then mostly in the aftertaste. When I did reach the pool of green, the mint took over, much like a large dose of absinthe. The drink was completely unbalanced, which was a major flaw. But what killed this combination was the strong taste of mint, like gum or mints or even toothpaste, with the sweet vermouth chaser. Not good.
Barry Cocktail (as adapted)

2 ounces gin
1 ounce Punt e Mes
2 dashes Angostura bitters
5 drops mint bitters

Stir ingredients in a chilled mixing glass. Strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Plymouth gin and Punt e mes, because I ran out of the Martini & Rossi, and its what I like.

To update this drink I was hoping to highlight the flavors that I had found enjoyable in the original. At one point, I could have easily consumed the Barry Cocktail, if only its flavors had stayed consistent. I decided on a sweet Martini with additional mint bitters. But how much is too much? At first I tried 2 dashes but that tiny amount of mint easily undermined any balance. So I tried 5 drops. The nose was full of the lemon oils and the herbal wine smells of the Punt e Mes. The first sips accurately reflected up those aromas. The gin provided a certain dryness and even more herbal notes. The spice of the Angostura, as well as the mint flavors, came through at the end, with the mint providing a refreshing aftertaste. This drink was not just interesting, it was incredibly tasty. I would easily drink this again.

The one thing that this exploration of Baker's book has taught me so far is that you never know what combinations will work. Usually his initial recipes are a bit out there, but they always seem to open my eyes to some new flavor possibility. This drink made me nervous. But in the end, I discovered something about incorporating strong mint flavors, and I had a really enjoyable cocktail. Also, it made me even more thankful for my friends with stocked liquor cabinets.


A Vodka Experiment

I'm not usually interested in creating original drinks and will happily imbibe others' creations, whether they are old or new. But the truth is, vodka and I have hit a wall. I had every intention of giving the endeavor a fair shot. But after hours spent clicking my mouse down to the circuits, with the dry, bleary eyes of a video-game addict, I just can't take it anymore. I have searched the books in vain; the experts have no suitable answers, and I am tired . . . and thirsty. So, in the name of self-interest, I have decided to get up off the bar stool and brandish my own mixing glass. Just one pivotal question remains: How can I work vodka into a drink that is essentially brown, bitter and stirred?

Why lie? It has been the holy grail all along: a proper modestly dry, bitter cocktail that can really do what all the enthusiasts claim vodka can do. To boil it down, I want to fit vodka into my flavor sweet spot. All of my favorite libations are primarily dry, herbal, bitter and quite strong. Why should I expect anything less from vodka? Because it isn't usually used that way is not a good enough excuse. Because only a few people have dared to tackle this issue is not going to cut it. But why are there so few options, you ask, dear reader? Most people who drink cocktails that are primarily dry, bitter, herbal and quite strong are not only not interested in vodka, they absolutely abhor it. It's true, check the blogs. So, without a clear audience, the pattern of available recipes moves in a never ending cycle. Few drinks are made with vodka that are really interesting and challenging. Thus, nobody thinks a vodka-based cocktail is capable of being interesting and challenging. So, in turn, few drinks are made that are really interesting and challenging, ad nauseum. Someone has to begin.

Every cocktail enthusiast trying to salvage a place for vodka on the bar--albeit a very small place--repeats the same mantra: vodka is a blank slate that allows other bolder flavors to shine. It adds proof without getting in the way of whatever else is going on in the glass. These are not novel, bold ideas; vodka has been added to fruit juices for exactly the same reason for years. Herbal liqueurs have also been used to excellent effect in drinks like the Drink Without a Name (aka the Harrington) and the Gypsy. Vodka is performing the same way in all of these drinks. So why not use its famous attribute to create a drink even more out there, a drink that even I would be excited about drinking?

The hardest part is where to start. One of the most effective methods is to pick a classic and start substituting. Playing with a drink that is tried and true is much easier than formulating an entire cocktail from the ether. But which classic? It must be bold, bitter, and primarily stirred. The Don't Give Up the Ship Cocktail instantly came to mind and it seemed perfect considering its boldness and subtlety.  This wonderful little cocktail combines an amaro, a wine-based aperitif, and gin, with a little orange (both sweet and bitter) to round it all out. It starts out big, with the herbal flavors of gin and fernet, but then the orange and wine flavors of the Cointreau and Dubonnet peek out when you aren't paying attention. It seemed a good a place to start as any.

Don't Give Up the Ship

1 1/2 ounce gin
1/2 ounce Dubonnet
1/4 ounce Fernet Branca
1/4 ounce Cointreau
1 dash orange bitters

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

The most obvious first step was to swap out the gin for vodka. Since I had recently ran out of Dubonnet, I substituted Punt e Mes, another wine-based aperitif that like Dubonnet has more punch that regular sweet vermouths. Actually Punt e Mes is quite bitter, but it is my go-to vermouth these days. Considering that the botanics from the gin were absent and the vermouth's flavor was now amped up, I decided to also use a lighter amaro, the CioCiaro. Its mild sweetness and orange notes also worked as a replacement for the Cointreau, which would have made the drink too sweet. In hindsight, this substitution was probably unnecessary as I am sure the Fernet would have provided an interesting direction as well. After pausing to test this initial combination, it still seemed too sweet. I added a touch of Gran Classico and Angostura bitters to further dry it out. I am pretty pleased with the results.

Vodka Experiment
1 1/2 ounces vodka (Dry Fly)
3/4 ounce Punt e Mes
1/4 ounce Amaro CioCiaro
1 barspoon Gran Classico
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters (Regan)

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

So after almost a month of tinkering, this was what I came up with. The aroma was full of the bright lemon oils that glisten on the surface. The cocktail was very smooth and dry, herbal and bitter, with a touch of orange and spice. My kind of drink. Because the vodka is so subtle, this cocktail came across almost like an aperitif hiding inside a cocktail.

End note: About halfway through the creation process, I discovered Imbibe's cover contest. While it didn't exactly change my thought-process, I did start taking this cocktail a bit more seriously than I had at the beginning of this vodka experiment. I will be submitting this cocktail, since I think it would be perfect in so many ways for the cover. But we shall see if they agree.