Pina Coladas, Chaos Theory, and the Butterfly Effect

It is an odd but fundamental characteristic of complex dynamic systems, Life of course included, that small changes in input can lead over time into huge changes in outcome. Thus could a tiny air disturbance in, say, Japan, lead to a hurricane in Florida some time later.

This is something you should consider when choosing cocktail ingredients. Yes, you could save time and a little money and skimp on quality and freshness – but know that the consequences could be grave. Let’s take two alternative histories for Bob & Sue as an illustration:

POSSIBLE REALITY #1

Afrer a few years of marriage, with its attendant ups and downs, Bob & Sue had to decide their next step: stay in Chicago where Bob had a good job as a lawyer, or move to London where Sue had an excellent offer from a strategic consultancy.

The night before Sue had to give a final response, they sat down at home over cocktails to talk it over one more time. Sue had earlier sent a text suggesting Pina Coladas. Bob had agreed, but then was tired and hurried at the end of the workday, and just grabbed cartons of pineapple juice and cream from the store on the way home from work. Coming home he realized that he was out of limes, too, and so dropped a jigger of Rose’s Lime Cordial into the shaker just as Sue was coming through the door.

They sat down and spoke desultorily of their day, sipping their drinks, which were sickly sweet and insipid, through frowning lips. Bob was irritated with himself for not having made an effort to prepare a better cocktail, but decided not to apologize – after all, he had to make almost all the drinks, and he couldn’t be expected to make them great each time. Sue was irritated that the mediocre drink was spoiling her favorite time of the day, turning the relaxation and conviviality of the cocktail hour into something tedious and even rather seedy. Sue put her glass down and asked for a beer. They began to argue, and after 30 minutes, Sue told Bob that she was going to London, and that he could go to Hell. Bob replied that that was just fine with him; he did all the cooking and cocktail mixing anyway, and would do just fine without her.

A month later they separated, and Sue moved to London, where she was soon killed crossing the street, having looked in the wrong direction before so doing. By that time Bob was already well into a terminal downward spiral of alcoholism, depression, and drug abuse, and finally died penniless and friendless at the age of 53, after a series of arrests for mail fraud, larceny, and public indecency.

POSSIBLE REALITY #2

Afrer a few years of marriage, with its attendant ups and downs, Bob & Sue had to decide their next step: stay in Chicago where Bob had a good job as a lawyer, or move to London where Sue had an excellent offer from a strategic consultancy.

The night before Sue had to give a final response, they sat down at home over cocktails to talk it over one more time. Sue had earlier sent a text suggesting Pina Coladas. Bob had agreed, and though tired and hurried at the end of the workday, he stopped at the greengrocer on the way home for fresh fruit and coconut milk. Coming home he put some Lena Horne on the stereo, and just as Sue was coming through the door he finished making the cocktails, in the following manner:

In a shaker, Bob put

  • 4 oz dark rum
  • 4 oz fresh squeezed pineapple juice
  • 1, 25 oz fresh squeezed lime juice
  • 3 oz coconut milk
  • 0,5 oz sugar syrup
  • 8 ice cubes

shook vigorously, and then served in cocktail glasses over a few additional ice cubes, with a pineapple slice for a garnish.

They sat down and spoke desultorily of their day, sipping their drinks, which tasted a bit like Paradise, authentically fruity and lightly sweet and sharp and rich and balanced. Bob felt good about himself for having made the effort to prepare a great cocktail, and felt grateful to have a wife who appreciated it, for Sue was practically purring over her drink. They both felt the tension drain away with each sip, and soon began to discuss, considerately and amicably, the choice at hand. After 30 minutes, Bob agreed to go to London, admitting that it could be good fun, and Sue suggested that they could return to Chicago after a couple of years if he did not like London, or could not find adequate employment.

A month later they moved. As it turned out, Bob’s firm was looking for an opportunity to open a branch office in London, which they chose him to head, and he was made partner soon after. Sue herself became Senior Vice President of her consultancy in short order. Once she was almost hit by a taxi in Picadilly Circus, but Bob grabbed her by the arm at the last instant and pulled her back onto the pavement. That very night they conceived a child, their first of three, all healthy and happy as it turned out. On the evening of their 10th wedding anniversary, they reminisced about how troubled their marriage had been at first, at times, but since their move to London, it had been the most felicitous relationship they could have hoped for, or even imagined; they laughed to think that they had ever considered separating, so many years before. They would have laughed even harder, had they known that Bob would later use his network of contacts to raise a huge amount of money for the winning presidential candidate in 2028, and be rewared with his nomination as US Ambassador to Great Britain. They would positively have doubled over, to know that following his heroic behavior during a terror attack on the US Embassy, Bob was to become a beloved national icon, and would be elected President himself in 2036, just in time to save the world from the Great Nanobot Plague. . . .

So please, the next time you’re tempted to make that cocktail with bottled juices: think (about the future salvation of humanity) before you drink.

Cheers!

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Cocktail Spotlight — Starting TODAY with the MANHATTAN

Not so many decades ago, countless numbers of amateur bartenders peopled the Western world. In civilized living rooms across America, the liquor cabinet and the cocktail tray were ubiquitous, and as the sun set across the land, the soothing sounds of ice shaking against gleaming stainless steel and clinking inside sparking highball glasses could be heard from sea to shining sea.

Unfortunately, in the intervening years, cocktails slowly disappeared, to be reborn in recent times as the product of professional “mixologists”, the conceit being that one could not possibly mix a few liquids with ice without a university degree.

This is really a pity, as cocktails are easy to make, requiring very little training, equipment, and investment. Let’s see just how easy, by getting down to business today with ingredients that will cost you less than US$50, and equipment that you will find in any kitchen. Let’s make together that timeless classic, the Manhattan.

The only things you need to prepare in advance: a trip to absolutely any liquor store this side of Eden, to pick up the ingredients: Bourbon or rye whisky (basic,quality stuff like Jim Beam and Four Roses work perfectly), a mass-market sweet red vermouth (Cinzano or Martini & Rossi are recommended), and a small bottle of bitters (Angostura’s products, regular and orange-infused, are excellent, and almost universally available);

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 and just make sure there are some ice cubes ready in the freezer. Nota bene, no cheating here: you must get the bitters; else it’s not a cocktail. Are you really going to miss the 10 $US that much?

Then, wait for 5 o’clock to ring in on the old church tower, and come as you are. If you enjoy putting on, say, a velvet smoking suit, I salute you. But a t-shirt and some trashy shorts are ok, too. Nudity, a clown suit, it’s all good. The main thing is to start today.

 Let’s assume that you don’t have a cocktail shaker in the house. You can get one later, because I know you’re very busy, and because cocktails “on the rocks”, though different from cocktails shaken and strained, can be just as tasty. Just take a squat, broad-mouthed sort of glass, not too big and not too small, say 18 to 30 cl (6  – 10 fl oz)  in capacity, and drop in 4 or 5 ice cubes of average size.

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Then rouse your humble measuring cup out of the cupboard and measure out 7,5 cl (2,5 fl oz) of bourbon or rye, and 3 cl (1 fl oz) of vermouth

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 and pour over the ice.

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 Now, for those indispensable bitters: the soul of true cocktail enjoyment begins right here. Cocktails were born as a specific sort of mixed drink: a blend of spirits with a little bitters as a “hair of the dog” morning pick-me-up. For a very long time, a drink without bitters simply wasn’t a cocktail at all, but rather a sling, fix, fizz, julep, punch, sour, etc. Nowadays, the distinctions have long since blurred together completely, and we refer to all mixed drinks indiscriminately as cocktails, but even if one doesn’t much care for historical authenticity, or even semantic clarity, not to know the true cocktail is really to miss out on something deliciously unique. A true, old-school cocktail has a concentration and a focus of structured flavors that other mixed drinks can’t offer, with the bitters adding several layers of complexity to the various degrees of astringency and sweetness of the base spirits. It makes the true cocktail a precious libation for thoughtful citizens in a 21st century world of thoughtless consumerism.

 So boldly dash those bitters in to the glass with a simple flick of the wrist. 2 or 3 dashes should suffice.

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 Swirl the glass about, let it chill for a minute or so, and then wet your lips! Ah, but doesn’t the first drink of the day taste gloriously?

 Do note how the drink changes as you sip it away, as the liquid is progressively both chilled and diluted by the melting ice. You may like it more at the beginning, middle, or end. Whatever the case may be, withhold judgment until the glass is empty. Then you may decide that next time, you’ll try adding more or less of each ingredient, change the brand of liquor or flavor of bitter, or even add a new ingredient. A dash of absinthe? A few dashes of Cointreau? A lemon twist? More, less, or even no ice, in the English style? Hey, it’s your cocktail, the recipe is only a starting point. Make it exactly as you like it, that’s the whole point of the cocktail, where endless individual variations are possible.

Manhattans are best enjoyed with friends at any hour; they work both as apéritifs and as after-dinner drinks, but they can also be profitably self-served after a long working day with a good book or a new CD, or just weaved in, sip by sip, into your reverie of thoughts and memories . . . .

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 Cheers!

Cocktail Spotlight: A Sidecar Story

Lamp cocktail art deco

I’d said goodnight to my friend after dinner in the Marais. It was a rainy Monday in November, and cold, but I was troubled in my mind, and bored. So I took the long walk up the rue de Rivoli, the rain dripping off my homburg, all the way to the Palais Royal, looking grand in the arc lights through the steamy haze. The Louvre, covered in scaffolding, loomed in the darkness on the left; it was depressing and I hardly looked at it. Then right through the Palais Royal, and along the rue de l’Opéra, I bore down on Garnier’s pompous creation. It grew more massive at each step and I turned just short of it on to the rue Daunou, and so through the swinging saloon doors into Harry’s New York Bar.

I sat down at the bar and looked at the shelves across from me and felt better. There was a lot of good liquor, and it was very quiet. The saloon was almost empty. Here, with a Sidecar well and truly made, I would be able to settle my mind and figure things out. My nerves were raw and so I didn’t think much of the momentary electric flash in my head as I waited.

The bartender took my order and got to mixing my cocktail. He talked to me in decent French but with a thick Scottish brogue. I couldn’t understand much except something strange about the “damned Germans” stirring up trouble in Austria. Even stranger was the fact that he smoked a thick cigar whilst making my Sidecar. There was hardly anyone else in the bar so I guessed he thought why not, and I wasn’t complaining. He was making my Sidecar just as I like it: with

6 cl of v.s.o.p. cognac

3 cl of Cointreau and

the juice of half a fresh lemon,

with plenty of ice in a shaker, which he then strained into a crystal cocktail glass, ringing like a bell when set empty upon the countertop.

“Hey, thanks,” I said, and raised my glass, sniffing the mingled aromas of citrus and grape and rancio. The bartender replied in English, “Oh, an American, how fine, we don’t get your folk coming here so much these days, which there being the Depression and all the troubles.”

“Has the financial crisis affected tourism so very much?” I liked his use of the word “Depression”. He was quaintly avuncular with his funny old-fashioned language and bow tie and heavy rough broadcloth coat. Scots are colorful people, I thought.

He hesitated. “Well. . .well yes. . . . But you’ve come at a good time anyways, I need a more intelligent Amercian opinion. My friend Ernest here insists that what you’re drinkin’ is—“

A bear of a man on my left whom I somehow had not noticed before broke in, “A Frenchified Daiquiri. A sissified Daiquiri. Harry, this sort of thing is fine when you’re sweating it out in Havana, but what a man really wants in New York or Paris isn’t this fruity rot mucking up his good liquor.”

“Ernest, you are a great writer, and for an American you hold your liquor well, but I don’t think you know what you’re talkin’ about here.” Harry turned, his solid round face appealing to me. “You look like a serious drinker. Surely you have tried and loved my White Ladies, my Clover Clubs. Surely you appreciate a well-mixed Bronx Cocktail. Ernest would be having us all still drinking Juleps and Slings and Fixes and Cobblers, afraid to mix delicious sour juice in with our spirits and sugar and bitters just because some damned fool might call it a Punch. Tell Ernest that it has been perfectly respectable to mix fruit and sugar into the Cocktail since the bonnie Brandy Crustas of the 1850s. That’s eight decades of tradition behind me!” He turned back in triumph.

Eight decades. I rather thought his maths suspect. Then a photo on the wall behind the bar caught my eye. It was a portrait in black and white, with the caption : “Harry MacElhone, New Year’s Eve, 1934”. It was the spitting image of the bartender, and not a day younger.

I felt light-headed. I drained my glass and rubbed my eyes. When I finally opened them again, to my relief, the chair next to me was now empty, and the bartender was a rather modern-looking young Frenchman with a yin-yang tattoo on his exposed lower arm.

“Encore un Sidecar Monsieur ?”

I looked around me. There were a few people about, sitting at tables, some talking in low voices, some drinking intently. It was still 2013, and all was well, as I felt again the flash in my skull. Then I saw the saloon doors swinging, and in walked a man in an archaic but natty, perfectly-tailored tweed suit, with a flower in his buttonhole, and with exactly the same face that stares out at me from the back cover of my secondhand copy of Tender is the Night.

“Deux, s’il vous plait. Mon ami est arrivé.”

Cheers !

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Cocktail taxonomy: making YOUR cocktail

Cocktails are wonderful, wonderful things. Wherever and whenever I serve them, people say, almost invariably, “Yum! Why don’t I drink these more often? And can you mix me another one?” Then I show them how they could make their own, and their eyes glaze over, and they stare blankly out into the distance, disbelieving, as though I were explaining to them how they could transmute lead into gold by mixing the molten base metal with dragon bile, creme de tartare, leprechaun urine, and New Coke. WTF is going on here? Our great uncles mixed these things routinely on Monday nights after getting home on the 6 oh 7 from Central Station, and now we treat them like something Hermione Granger learned to make in her final Potions lessons at Hogwarts.

Really, tut tut. Cocktails are easy to make, and don’t let any mystifying, sand-in-your-eyes bartender tell you differently.  The problem is the difficulty in conceptualizing the different categories of cocktails you can make. The curious but uninitiated drinker is intimidated by the million and one published cocktail recipes, the laudable but confusing result of  two centuries of steady mass drinking in the Western world, but there are in fact surprisingly few underlying themes, and herein lies the solution. By creating a Cocktail Taxonomy, grouping the finest, time-tested recipes by meaningful category, we can overcome the confusion, just as we make sense of the otherwise bewildering diversity of earthly fauna by classifying it all in such groups as mammalian or reptiliian, vertebrate or invertebrate, bird or beast, and so on.

As an alcophile, you can, and should, create your own Taxonomy, as a function of your taste, ethnic origin, current geographic status, and bitter/sour tolerance. But here’s something to inspire you: my own Taxonomy, developed with my wife over many nights of earnest  tasting over the last two years. It lists for you the ingredients you need to get started (depending on where you live, a single trip to your local liquor superstore with US$200 in your pocket should be enough), the classes, genii, or species of cocktail (more on this in future posts), and recipes broken down by ingredient type, with comments on mixing technique. When we consider this, ideally in a club chair with a Straits Cocktail in one hand and a Dutch cigarillo in the other, the hocus-pocus melts away, and we see clearly that vast numbers of cocktails are just small variations on a handful of archetypes :

* The Manhattan type : a brown liquour with sweet vermouth

* The Crusta type (cf Margaritas) : liquour, orange liquour, citrus juice

* The Speakeasy type (cf Martinis) : gin, gin, gin, and any other dry ingredient you care to dribble in to your shaker

* The Sour: liquour, lemon juice, sugar

* The Tiki Bar (cf daiquiris) : rum, sugar, citrus juice

* The Italiano (cf Negronis): liquour, vermouth, Campari or amaro

and so on. Then we can relax, drain our glass, and head back to the kitchen to mix another round, confident that that next cocktail will surely be the best you’ve ever made, keeping in mind that, even if you don’t have a shaker, don’t worry: most of these drinks are also delicious on the rocks.

So here it is: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B-EO9tJAxQ1ja0VzY3BGSDZxaUk/edit?usp=sharing. If you have any trouble downloading the source file,  contact me at johnshess@yahoo.com and I’ll re-send it to you. So get mixing, and let us know which cocktail makes you sing “the hills are alive with the sound of music!”

For me, it’s the Boulevardier

Cheers !!

Apologia pro Alcophilia

In spite of the criticism I read and hear of what seems to me the moderate and entirely reasonable consumption of even high-quality alcoholic beverages, whether it be in the media, or from ex-wives and girlfriends, I enjoy my beer, wine, spirits, and cocktails with a determination rivaling carbonized steel in its unbending tensile strength, never doubting for an instant the goodness of my hobby. There is, after all so much bla-bla-bla in the world, no more significant than the sound of static on the radio. But once in recent memory I have doubted : when I read a critique of drinking written by Thicht Nhat Hanh, the eminent “engaged” Buddhist monk and popular philosopher. His comments gave me pause, as they were not based on mere opinions, no more or less valid than a critique of the color blue simply because one doesn’t like it, but rather on a serious consideration of the impact of drinking alcohol in a conditioned universe.

Conditioned Arising is the fundamental principle of Buddhism, and arguably the fundamental principle of modern Science: that all things are related to each other in an endless play of cause and effect, effect and cause. And Hanh argued that for this reason, the fact that I drink with pleasure and without evident ill-effect does not mean that my drinking is not harmful, and thus wrong, for my example will lead others to drink too, including others who will not be able to drink responsibly. I.e., little Jimmy who sees me savoring a 2:1 martini and sighing with pleasure as I nibble the gin-soaked olives, gets certain ideas, and could one day grow up to become Big Jimbo the wife-beating, job-losing alcoholic.

This called for deep reflection, and over a nice Manhattan (2,5 fl oz Bourbon, 1 fl oz sweet vermouth, a few dashes of bitters, shaken and strained) I did indeed give it a serious think. To my relief, I saw clearly that Mr Hanh too is wrong on this point.

He errs by making a highly questionable assumption : that on balance, the consumption of alcohol causes more suffering than pleasure for humanity. We cannot at all be sure that this is true. Alcoholic drinks are among the most accessible and affordable pleasures we have, a source of relaxation, inspiration, sociability, and sensual delight, available to almost everyone. Is it compassionate to wish to deprive, by law or by persuasion, the hard-working poor across the planet of one of the few activities they can enjoy and look forward to?

And there is not only a “live for the day” sort of argument for the benefits of drinking. Even in terms of health and longevity, scientists now suspect that the human organism is biologically adapted to alcohol, indeed thrives on moderate doses of it, and that abstinence is as serious a risk to our health as is overindulgence. The epidemiological evidence is very strong that Little Jimmy could die prematurely someday if he is deprived of alcohol!

When we see that the balance in the benefits and costs of drinking is at least highly uncertain, and very possibly positive rather than negative, we see that efforts to eliminate this ancient practice, so deeply embedded in so many cultures, are contrary to the deepest essence of Buddhism itself : Conditioned Arising. Hanh, I believe, has allowed his prejudices in favor of abstincence, natural to a monk, to cloud his judgment in this matter. As a thinking Buddhist, he knows that Conditioned Arising indicates a profoundly complex, interrelated, organic universe, with which we fiddle unnecessarily at our peril. He should thus know that trying to stop a practice so deeply embedded in our culture following at least 6000 years of steady drinking, is hopeless without the force of repressive law, whether religious or secular–and surely he doesn’t want that. And if he did, Conditioned Arising indicates that there would inevitably be a series of unintended consequences quite possibly worse than the original problem. When there is doubt, it is far better to leave things alone, to play themselves out as they will.

And there is a thought experiment that we can conduct that should put this subject to rest definitively. Let’s imagine that Hanh becomes a universal prophet, and by gentle persuasion convinces all the peoples of the world to stop drinking alcohol. It’s vanishingly unlikely, but not absolutely impossible. With time, the drinking of alcohol would become nothing but a folk memory, and then still later, entirely forgotten. Sugars and yeasts, however would continue to exist, and thus the potential for alcohol would endure. And sooner or later, a Little Farmer Jimmy would leave that apple juice too long in the barrel, and find that he got a wonderful pleasant buzz after drinking a mug, and would share it with his friends. And then we’d just start the whole cycle over again.  It is futile to wish alcohol away.

Fermentation is a fundamental aspect of nature, and alcohol, a natural and fundamental product. Let us, like the Bacchus-worshipping ancients, just be grateful for it, and treat it with the respect it deserves : to be enjoyed, appreciated, and used wisely.

Welcome to the Alcophile Cocktail Hour

Adolf Hitler, as leader of Nazi Germany, by all accounts never drank a drop of alcohol.

Franklin D Roosevelt, leading the forces of freedom and humanity against the greatest evils in the history of civilisation, loved nothing more than to mix evening martinis for himself and for his intimates.

This blog assumes that this is not insignificant.

The violent pushes and pulls of life can provoke us to evil deeds. But one who mindfully pours, say, two jiggers of London Dry gin and one of French vermouth into an iced shaker at the end of a difficult day, who settles into a comfortable armchair and contemplates the complex, delicious blend of flavours in his olive-garnished cocktail glass, accompanied by an interesting book, a thoughtful friend, or an elegant work of music, is very likely to effortlessly resist the provocation.

This blog purposes to be an unbridled celebration of this spirit. 

So please do mix yourself your favorite drink of the moment, settle in, and enjoy with us the Alcophile Cocktail Hour: a moment to reject the foolishness and the manipulationism so prevalent in our time, and embrace a calm, centred state of mind, gently ironic and wholly self-sufficient. Here’s to you, my dear friend !