A Further Ode to the Corpse Reviver: Introducing Pisco

Many moons ago, but not too many, I was sitting on a bar stool at Rob Roy opposite guest bartender Jackie Patterson watching her measure and pour as a bartender is wont to do. When it was my turn, I ordered "bartender's choice" and told her I was looking for something refreshing. The sun was high in the sky, and a slight breeze could be seen fluttering the leaves on the trees lining the streets of Belltown; it was one of those perfect Spring days in Seattle. The kind of day that makes you almost believe we will actually have a summer. What I received was bright, citrusy and fizzy--indeed all essential elements of a refreshing beverage. Though I no longer remember all of the ingredients, what stood out to me was that the drink combined two ingredients I had never experienced in the same glass, Lillet and pisco. This pairing isn't mind-blowing and in no way requires a double-take or anything extreme like that. Lillet goes well with a lot of things. But it does match up extraordinarily well with pisco.

Only a couple of weeks before this Lillet-pisco revelation, I had been introduced to the Odd McIntyre, the Corpse 2's brandy-based cousin. So, seated at the bar in Rob Roy I had a sudden brainstorm--citrus, Lillet, pisco. Would pisco work in a Corpse Reviver No. 2? In my mind, the Corpse 2 is the ultimate Lillet drink, second only to the Vesper. It doesn't matter to me whether Cocchi is used instead of the softer Lillet, it's the thought that counts. No matter how you break it down, the inclusion of that orange-y aperitif is one of the defining elements of that drink. (Well, that and the absinthe rinse, but we'll save that for another post.) And if brandy could be swapped for the gin, why not pisco? After all, pisco is a type of unaged grape spirit that would be similar to an unaged brandy. Ever since that moment, I have been mildly obsessed with the Corpse 2.

As the onset of summer quickly filled up many of my weekends, it took me weeks to figure out the basic formulation for this drink. I tried to adhere to the original proportions, but the equal parts left the pisco buried under a weight of lemon juice. Bumping up both the Lillet and pisco really helped those flavors stand out more. The decisions were harder after. Absinthe rinse or no absinthe rinse. Or to put it another way, Corpse Reviver No. 2 or Odd McIntyre. After all besides the brandy substitution, the loss of the absinthe is the other difference between the two versions. In the end, I decided to keep the absinthe rinse, but something was still missing. Subbing lime juice for lemon was similarly tasty, but still incomplete. Going back to the drawing board, I started looking at other Corpse 2 variations for hints. The key was hidden in Zane Harris's Stone Fruit Sour, an excellent variation of the Corpse 2 that I found on Imbibe magazine's website. In that cocktail apricot brandy replaces the Cointreau, and peach bitters stand in for the absinthe. And it was those bitters that solved my pisco riddle.

Pisco Reviver

1  ounce pisco
1  ounce Lillet
3/4 ounce lemon juice
3/4 ounce Cointreau
1 dash peach bitters
1 dash absinthe

Shake ingredients except absinthe with ice. Strain into a chilled absinthe-rinsed cocktail glass. Garnish with a brandied cherry.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Fee's peach bitters, Piscologia Pisco, and Absinthe Verte de Fougerolles.


Tequila and Sherry Together Again: La Perla

Old drinks can be a lot of fun. Retracing a drink's history means uncovering obscure details about more than just ingredients and techniques from the past. Understanding the way that cocktails, and alcohol in general, impacted not only American culture and social practices but those worldwide situates current trends within  a larger historical context. Regardless of whether a cocktail has stood the test of time, each mixture of disparate ingredients has a story, true or not, and a place in history, large or small. Unearthing these fragments of information can influence the way that a contemporary drinker thinks about what's in his or her glass, as well as the circuitous route various ingredients have taken to get there.

The flip side is that all of this research can be terribly exhausting. For example, over the past few months I have been delving into the history of the Corpse Reviver No 2. Trying to juggle all of the minute details can make writing a simple blog post an hours' long endeavour. Usually for each answer--or more realistically, each hypothesis--that is actually discoverable, some level of interpretation is required that inevitably just leads to more questions. Fascinating, yes. Time-consuming, equally yes. And while I love delving into all of the details about locations and personalities, contemporary cocktails serve as well-needed change of pace.

Most recognizable classics achieved their status because someone decided that a recipe was worthy of being physically collected in a cocktail recipe book--sometimes many people agreed over and over. Many modern recipes will never make it into print, regardless of their worth. It is simply the nature of the contemporary. No one can guess what will become classic in say fifteen years. Current and classic are always mutually exclusive. Thus, modern drinks don't carry the weight of history. It is quite a blessing. It would be impossible for a cocktail created in the last ten years to have 100 years of history. And because of this, managing the specific details becomes a lot easier. Sometimes even tracking down an actual recipe can be the biggest challenge. Sure there can be frustrating moments, as certain details will be unavailable, but that could also be said for an obscure classic.

While most of my research has revolved around the Corpse Reviver, I have been quite obsessed with drinking cocktails that include both tequila and sherry. These cocktails are all quite new. Tequila-based cocktails were not widely collected in early cocktail books, aside from the UKBG's Cafe Royal Cocktail Book. Tequila did not gain widespread popularity until the margarita became fashionable with the  Hollywood set in the late 1940s. This is another reason why modern cocktails are so interesting: by using ingredients that were either not readily available or had not even been invented yet, current bartenders can explore new and different flavor combinations. And this is the best reason of all to engage with current cocktails: they harness the creativity of an age and are constantly push the boundaries of taste.

La Perla

1 1/2 ounces reposado tequila
1 1/2 ounces manzanilla sherry
3/4 ounce pear liqueur

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

Notes on Ingredients: I used Milagro reposado tequila, Pur Spirits pear liqueur, and Barbadillo sherry.

One of the first published cocktails to utilize both tequila and sherry and gain notoriety is the La Perla, created by Jacques Bezuidenhout, who won the National Sherries of Spain cocktail contest with it in 2005. The interaction between the smoky, lightly aged reposado and the nutty dry flavors of the manzanilla is highlighted in this austere three-ingredient cocktail. The inclusion of the pear liqueur surprised me, but I found the taste quite lovely. The most pivotal ingredient, however, was the lemon twist. The essential oils add a great amount of depth to the cocktail and fuse together the sweetness of the pear liqueur with the more savory tequila-sherry combination.

Though this cocktail was originally intended as a tequila aperitif, the pear liqueur's sweetness became more apparent as the drink warmed up. While this is by no means a shortcoming, I would not place this cocktail in the same category as a Martini or a Negroni, the more famous of the aperitif cocktails. Instead, this cocktail would work well in any situation that a would call for a Manhattan or other spirit-forward cocktail that has a touch of sweetness.


When Is a Crusta Not a Crusta: Enter Charles Baker

The crusta will always, for me at least, symbolize nineteenth century bartending techniques and tastes. Or at least the best ones. The crusta also played an important role in the evolution of the cocktail, allowing it to become what it is today. Originally formulated with brandy, the crusta sprung onto the scene in the early 1850s in the great cocktail city of New Orleans at the hands of Joseph Santini who held court behind the bar at the New Orleans City Exchange. This esteemed drink spurred on the creation of other notable potations such as the Sidecar, the White Lady and the Margarita, but it would be impossible to completely trace its widespread influences. It could easily be argued that the crusta acts as a bridge connecting the original cocktail and the various sours.

The differences between the crusta and the original cocktail--our old fashioned--are slight, but notable. Looking at those changes sets the tone for how cocktails changed and were transformed at the hands of bartenders as they adapted their craft to current tastes, innovative tools, and newly imported, or discovered ingredients. The first innovation to change the old fashioned revolved around the sweetening agent. For example, why not substitute a bit of orange-flavored liqueur or maraschino liqueur for the gomme syrup. This simple alteration changed the plain cocktail to a fancy cocktail, though it didn't really alter the landscape of the cocktail--too much. The resulting drink is still composed of a spirit, bitters, a sweetening agent and some form of water. And sure by this time some of the techniques had changed (shaking or "throwing" had been introduced) as well as some of the tools (shaking tins, hawthorn strainers), but this was essentially a very minor step.

One of the next important innovations came when Santini decided to add a dash of lemon juice to the basic cocktail framework. Until then, cocktails had never contained citrus juice. Sours, fixes and daisies--all prevalent during the mid-nineteenth century--certainly contained citrus, but not the cocktail. And it was this move from a lemon twist to a quarter ounce of lemon juice that changed the face of cocktails.

The addition of juice to the fancy cocktail notwithstanding, the defining characteristic of a crusta is its presentation. It is just one of those drinks that is immediately recognizable. With its sugared rim and coiled lemon peel just peeking out of the glass, the crusta is a study in the lost art of over-the-top garnishing. The amount of time and skill it takes to properly assemble a crusta speaks of its old-fashioned roots. (And let me tell you, it is not as easy as it sounds to pare the entire peel from a lemon in one continuous piece.) The lemon juice was an innovation that influenced the future of cocktails. But it is the garnish that firmly situates its presence in the past. 

By the 1930s lavish, ornamental cocktail garnishes had mostly disappeared and the introduction of juice to the cocktail was no longer a novelty. The crusta was almost a hundred years old after all and must have been looking a bit long in the tooth. Cocktail culture, then as now, has always revolved around what's new and different, even when a recipe is simply a rediscovered gem. Though the crusta was still bumbling around the continent, as evidenced by its inclusion in Robert Vermiere's Cocktails and How to Mix Them (1922) and Harry McElhone's Barflies and Cocktails (1927), given the voluminous number of cocktails available, its popularity may have been on the wane.

But the crusta was still around in 1939, when the Gentleman's Companion was first published, and it is curiously included in bar books through the 1950s not to mention afterward. Despite its lavish garnish, the crusta was not forgotten like so many of its contemporaries, or those cocktails that had been created later. Therefore, it is not terribly surprising to find the crusta hidden in a section dedicated to champagne drinks in a tome dedicated to unearthing worthy libations from all over the world. And it is really not surprising that Charles Baker uncovers it while journeying through China in the years of the French Concession of Shanghai in the early 1930s. What is curious is that what Baker calls a crusta hardly resembles the original crusta at all. For starters, the lemon juice, which always stood out to me as one of the defining elements of a crusta, is not present in the recipe for the Imperial Cossack Crusta. And while the sugared rim is included, and then subsequently exaggerated as the recipe calls for the entire interior of the glass to be sugar-coated, the famous lemon peel is missing. The only part of this champagne crusta that recalls the classic crusta is he sugar. If I had looked at the recipe without knowing its name, I would have never have pegged it as a crusta-style drink. 

Imperial Cossack Crusta (for two)

1 1/2 ounces cognac
3/4 ounce kummel (5/8 ounce aquavit, 1/8 ounce Benedictine)
2 dash orange bitters

Using a thick slice of lemon, coat the entire inside of a champagne flute with juice, as well as the outer lip 1/2  to 1 inch. Pour in sugar, creating a thin coating. Place glass in the freezer for a half hour. In a mixing glass, combine cognac, kummel and bitters with ice and stir. Strain liquid into the sugar-coated flute and top with champagne.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Paul Masson VSOP brandy, Krogstad Aquavit, Chateau Ste. Michelle Sparkling Wine and Regan's orange bitters. Here I also went against my better judgment and used four ounces of sparkling wine.

Ah, the problem of kummel rises again. What to do when a recipe calls for a liqueur I don't have and can't get easily. In the past, I have followed Erik Ellestad's example and just substituted aquavit and a bit of simple syrup. But on this occasion after talking to my friend Dayne, he told me that I should use Benedictine in place of the syrup to get closer to the actual flavor of kummel. Because I have never tasted kummel I have no idea how well this worked, but this little tipple was delicious. The flavors were herbal and complex. A certain sweetness was present, but the dryness of the champagne and the bitters provided balance. Because of the sugar-lining a certain amount of sugar puddled in the bottom of the glass, which caused bubbles to continuously rise through the glass as a result of each sip. The effect is much like what happens when you add the sugar cube when making a champagne cocktail. The Imperial Cossack Crusta was a very surprising cocktail that we will definitely revisit in the future.