Unexpected Nostalgia and the Kill Devil Cocktail

Some cocktails have the ability to take on a life outside the boundaries of the bar and become imbued with a time and place. It can happen at any time, and the cocktail becomes more of a signifier, a carrier of meaning. Perhaps it would seem more likely for a cocktail to represent a change in taste or an entrance into a new stage. The Vesper certainly always reminds me of my awakening to the lovely attributes of gin. The Pink Lady marked my first foray into the world of egg white drinks. And it was with the Improved Genever Cocktail that I first really understood and appreciated how absinthe can transform a cocktail. But when you spend as much time as I do thinking about cocktails, researching and reading, hell even imbibing cocktails, some of them stray into other territories.

I first ran into the Kill Devil Cocktail at Pegu Club in New York City three years ago. For summer, the city was unseasonably cool. The humidity was barely on my radar--a blessing since my years in the Pacific Northwest have lowered my tolerance. Five years had passed since I lived in Brooklyn, and I could feel how far I had moved away from that life. In the intervening years, I had changed coasts and moved three times before finally settling in Seattle. But some things never really go away. As I walked the streets on the edge of the East Village across to SoHo, I could feel the energy, could feel myself picking up the familiar pace as I wove through crowds and dodged traffic. I felt very much at home and yet not. So much had changed and yet so little. Of course, the pang of nostalgia was as present then as it is for me now while I write this. And while all of this self-awareness slipped away as I found myself staring at tiny blue flames that were flickering from a lime coin floating on the surface of my cocktail, I certainly knew at that moment that my taste buds were entering new territory.

The Kill Devil Cocktail is a strange concoction. It looks curious on paper--a drink that you aren't really sure will work in the glass, but that is too interesting to pass up. These cocktails are my weakness, and I have succumbed many times. The only surety is that the experience will be wholly new, regardless of whether you will ever want to relive it. This cocktail combines two ingredients not often seen together--rum agricole and green chartreuse. And while you may instantly think, there must be lime juice in there or something else to smooth out those big bold flavors, you would be wrong. This is not a Daiquiri or Last Word variation. While a bit of sweetener does help these two ingredients meld together better, it tends to stay out of the spotlight. When I first saw this cocktail on the menu, I was intrigued. When I tasted it, I was mesmerized. The flavors were intense and beyond anything I had ever tasted before. And as I sat there, taking in the complexity of each sip, it struck me how much I had changed. Even two years earlier I would have never been able to enjoy the Kill Devil. In fact, I probably never would have even considered ordering it.  

Kill Devil

2 ounces rhum agricole
3/4 ounce green chartreuse
1/4 ounce simple syrup
3 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. The original garnish was a "coin" of lime peel with a small amount of Stroh rum set alight. I have seen this drink garnished differently elsewhere, but I leave mine ungarnished.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Rhum J.M and a 1:1 simple syrup.

Earlier this spring, I found myself back in the Big Apple. It seems I can't visit my family without tacking on a trip back to New York. Very few things in my life are the same as they were on that trip so long ago. But those same pangs of nostalgia were there, though weaker. As soon as I arrived back in Seattle, I found myself craving a Kill Devil. This drink has come to symbolize that strange feeling of belonging in a place and yet not--the push and pull of how we change over time--a feeling I experience most keenly when I visit the East Coast. No longer does the Kill Devil seem novel and overpowering. I now understand its refined simplicity, how the disparate ingredients have been tamed. But regardless, the Kill Devil serves to remind me of how things change in spite of what we choose to hold onto. It makes me remember how the things that define us at one point in time, never really go away, but are just markers on the path.


Anything You Can Do . . . : Gin and Rum in the Stork Club Cocktail

Recently I was brainstorming drinks for an informal dinner party, and the Stork Club Cocktail popped into my head. If you haven't tried it, the Stork Club is just about one of the easiest drinking panty droppers from the 1930s. I like to trot out this cocktail every now and again when I am looking for an uncomplicated, unpretentious start to a informal summer's eve. The combination of gin and orange juice give it away as a concoction created during the days of sub par gin and the uninspired ways to cover up the telltale flavor. Of course, it's very name points to its origins--the Stork Club was one of New York City's more famous speakeasies during Prohibition and was infamous for its rich and famous clientele for many years after. Refreshing, sweet and yet not so sweet, the Stork Club is an unassuming, uncomplicated sour, a lazy orange-laden Pegu Club. In the late days of spring, when the temperatures seem to first broach the seventies, and it's just warm enough to be noticeable, the Stork Club never fails to satisfy.

Stork Club Cocktail (from Lucius Beebe's Stork Club Cocktails (1946))

dash of lime juice (1/4 ounce)
juice of half orange (1 1/2 ounces)
dash of triple sec (1/4 ounce)
1 1/2 ounces gin
dash of angostura bitters (2 dashes)

Shake well and strain in chilled 4 ounce glass.

But this time was different. Almost as soon as I thought of the Stork Club, I was already transforming it into something else. Because the drink reads like an overly simple tiki drink--a blend of juices, bitters, and a liqueur on top of a versatile base--rum was just a natural impulse. But in general this cocktail is crying out for variations. The lime juice invigorates the orange juice. The bitters add necessary depth. Of course, the liqueur can easily be modified--orange juice with a hint of lime is incredibly forgiving. Whether apricot liqueur or grapefruit, peach liqueur or even something a bit more herbal like Strega, there is ample room for experimentation.

What struck me was how easy the substitution really was, both mentally and in terms of taste. It was quite a no-brainer. And while many cocktails allow for rum to stand in for gin to wonderful effect, the most notorious being the Bee's Knees (gin) and the Honeysuckle (light rum) or Honey Bee (Jamaican rum), I hadn't really paid that much attention before. Of course, an argument could be made based on drink families--a sour, whether it has gin, rum, or even whiskey, is still delicious. But whiskey does not work as a stand-in for gin in all citrus manifestations. The chemical reactions inherent to barrel-aging make sure of this. And while white spirits in general will usually work as a substitute in a pinch--some play better than others. White rum will generally work in any gin drink that includes citrus, and many that don't; white dog and tequila, each with its own funkier flavors, are harder to meld. The Stork Club is the perfect example of a citrus cocktail where both rum and gin work really well, and the substitution doesn't make the drink step too far out of its original packaging.

West 58th Street 

1 1/2 ounces white rum
1 ounce orange juice
1/4 ounce lime juice
1/4 ounce apricot liqueur
1 dash Angostura bitters

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Chairman's Reserve white rum, Bitter Truth Apricot liqueur and Angostura bitters.