|The Plum in the Golden Vase|
Judging from our subject this week, it would be understandable if you assumed we were running out of cocktails to share, but nothing could be further from the truth! The fact of the matter is that Minnie & I only recently discovered this particular drink after purchasing a water-damaged copy of Robert Vermeire's 1922 reference, Cocktails: How to Mix Them from the damaged book sidewalk bin in front of Left Bank Books in the West Village. The book was warped & the pages were rumpled & stuck together so they resembled corrugated aluminum more than paper, but after spending an hour separating them with a letter-opener, we had at our disposal hundreds of rudimentary, but long-lost, cocktail recipes. I won't lie, neither Minnie nor I were adept enough with the letter-opener to save all the pages, but we were able to decipher more than 85% of Vermeire's opus, though a great many of the pages contained brown water-damage whorls more fascinating than the recipes themselves.
We nearly had a spat over whether or not to include this in our blog, seeing as the cocktail's name inspired a simultaneous shrug & sneer from both of us, but after trying it & finding a few variations in the stack of cocktail books piled on the floor behind the bar, we decided to share it. There was some discussion of renaming it The Mephistopheles or The Sabbatic Goat, but the simplicity of the damn thing didn't seem to warrant the elevation in status a name-change would suggest.
|L'Art de Martell Cognac|
Before we begin, we should state that our cognac tastes are a bit idiosyncratic. For sipping before bed, we prefer the L'Art de Martell given to us in 1997 by a man in Hong Kong who referred to himself as "The Last Real Chinese Warlord" & to be sure, his demeanor did remind us of Boris Karloff's General Fang in West of Shanghai, though he was infinitely more refined in his tastes for clothing, food & alcohol. He graciously presented us with the L'Art de Martel (only 2,000 were produced) after giving us a tour of a secret museum filled with pornographic statues, paintings & decorative objects recovered after the Senshi earthquake of 1556. Much like the Gabinetto Segreto in Naples, which houses the most graphically erotic objects from the destroyed city of Pompeii, this museum operates on the sly. Once located in the labyrinthine bowels of Kowloon's infamous Walled City & then moved, piece by piece, to an even more unsavory alley-front in Hong Kong before the region was handed back to Mainland China in 1997, this storehouse of sacred transgressive objects requires a familiarity with rather unsavory characters in order to gain admittance.
This Warlord (really a heroin kingpin) was infinitely more cordial than we'd been led to expect. While acquaintances of ours had described him as an "oriental grotesque", we found his company delightful & his expertise regarding these altogether unwholesome museum objects truly awe-inspiring. On our final evening in Hong Kong, the Last Real Chinese Warlord presented us with this paradisiacal bottle of cognac & a centuries-old copy of the erotic classic, The Plum in the Golden Vase by "The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling", illustrated colorfully & anonymously with all manner of sexual gymnastics. We were saddened to hear from Chinese friends that the dismembered remains of our host were discovered several years later in an urn painted with interlocking daisy-chains of grinning sodomites.
|A brick embossment from the Chinese Museum of the Forbidden, Hong Kong|
Of course, this bottle of cognac is saved for very special occasions & has never been blended with other ingredients, no matter how enticing the recipe.
For mixing, Minnie & I prefer bottom-shelf brandy (a $10 bottle of Korbel will do), mainly because the rot-gut taste cuts ably through any sweet-stuffs the recipe requires us to add. And, of course, we've risked virtually nothing in our experimentation. Because we'd had a few cocktails while separating the pages of Vermeire's book, we decided, rather capriciously, to use the prized Martell cognac for the first of the Devil Cocktails.
I'll digress a bit now to discuss Minnie's infatuation with creme de menthe during the 1950s & early-1960s, specifically her infatuation with a New Orleans staple called the Grasshopper. While tasty enough, the drink is an aesthetic abomination, a sickly sweet, desert-flavored concoction that has the same relationship to beauty as the foliage-covered Gainsborough ladies hats of 1907. Still, if one has not developed a disciplined approach to the more serious alcoholic potables, The Grasshopper is a seductive trinket. Even watching a barman pour the ice-cold emerald liqueur, creme fraiche & Creme de cacao from the silver shaker beneath the dim amber lights of a 1960s cocktail lounge has -- I'll admit it -- a certain visual magnetism. In an age where shag carpet began to climb up the fronts of bars & even the walls of nightspots all over America, something as gaudy as The Grasshopper was sure to capture the imagination. And it captured Minnie's just long enough for me to be charmed by it, but not long enough for me to develop a distaste for her. Thankfully.
So I had a moment's trepidation when the book's recipe called for creme de menthe, an ingredient I've assiduously avoided during our pursuit of boozy delights. While some recipes we discovered asked for white creme de menthe for a proper Devil Cocktail, I decided Minnie could handle Vermeire's green. Plus, with white creme de menthe The Devil Cocktail is basically the same as a Stinger, so we agreed to chart a course for adventure.
The recipe asks for a quarter gill of cognac for each drink & just to get into the spirit of things, we excavated our copper gill jugs from the back of the liquor cupboard. We filled our shaker with ice & I added two ounces & a splash or two more of the precious Martell (we'd make more substantial portions once we'd switched to the cheap stuff). Minnie added a little less than two ounces of the green dessert topping, then covered & went into that marvelous Shake the Cocktail rumba dance she's been doing all our lives, the leprechaun grin & the slightly sinister twinkle in her eye as pronounced as the day we met.
While she was shaking the elixir, I was furiously pawing through our cocktail library for ways to make this drink somehow better than drinking the Martell without embellishment. Finally I found the answer in a guide from 1968 in which the dos & don'ts of key parties had been cleverly laced with cocktail recipes, each guaranteed to replenish the sapped libido. This version of the Devil ('s) Cocktail asked for a sprinkle of cayenne pepper over the top & NOW we were in business, as they say. My curiosity about the drink had finally been piqued. I'd recently made a powder & a paste from long purple cayenne peppers & since we were using the fine Martell cognac, why not turn this drink into an upscale "experience" by adding the most sought-after cayenne imaginable?
|The Long Purple Cayenne|
Minnie whirled out of her rumba & strained our frigid Devil into two Cosmopolitan glasses. I cautiously sprinkled the purple cayenne powder across the top of each, we toasted to Satan & His minions & took a sip. This first sip was a little off-putting, the heat & the sweetness fighting for our attentions. I took the initiative & took a gulp, swishing it once in my mouth to dull the contrast a little & the cocktail took on a shape, became an idea we could build upon. Despite having used the Martell for the inaugural drink, we downed those like shots & pulled a bottle of J. Bavet ("A brandy of character") from the cabinet. For this drink, we tripled the amount of cognac, used the same amount of creme de menthe & carefully dusted the insides of the Cosmo glasses with purple cayenne powder. Minnie rumba'd like a woman who'd just had a hearty shot of brandy & I did the honors, watching the slightly green-tinted amber pluck grains of cayenne from the sides of the glass & darken evocatively as the three contrasting ingredients intermingled.
The cocktail had earned its name. I gently stirred each drink just once with my index finger & we raised our glasses to the light, watching the little black specks of cayenne whip around in the burnt sienna liquid's nebulous emerald heart. We took big mouthfuls of The Devil instead of sipping & it was a minor triumph. So much so that we made four more shakers of them before curling up on the sofa with snifters of the Martell & leafing lazily through The Plum in the Golden Vase.
|Creme de menthe & suicide, 1951|