“Can I get you a cocktail,” asks the bartender at a new watering hole, putting a menu in front of me. I look askance at him. What kind of place asks if you want a cocktail for pity’s sake? Ask me if I want a drink, and I’ll answer in the affirmative. Damned right, I want a drink. I want something to slake my thirst, soothe my brow, satisfy my dreams and drown my sorrows. I want something that comes straight from the bottle into my glass with the least fuss and the most alcohol.
What he offers me is a Japanese Slipper. What he’s about to get is a boot up the arse. Particularly when he lists the ingredients. Midori, Cointreau and lemon juice. Does this guy not know who I am? I tell him if it weren’t for the smoking ban, he’d have a face full of cigar smoke for even suggesting it. And ask him for something with whisky in it. Like a glass. Instead, his mind working in ways I do not understand, he offers me a Godfather. Amaretto and whisky on the rocks.
Which has me wondering. Whatever happened to the traditional cocktail? Would James Bond walk up to a bar and order The Don Johnson? Would the real Godfathers, Vito and Michael, ask for a Ginger Mist? And please, if you need to think about the answers to those questions, you should just go back to your Sex and the City reruns. In fact, that’s the root of it. It’s time we kicked Carrie and her cohorts out of the places at which real people, both men and women, go to get hammered without having to worry about pieces of fruit getting caught in their teeth.
I figure it’s time this boy behind the bar was taught the facts of life. And ask him if he can do something a little more classic. “Like a Cosmopolitan,” he asks, reaching for his shaker. I disabuse him of this notion. And ask for a Sazerac. One of the earliest cocktails ever made. The drink, now best made with rye whiskey, absinthe, bitters and sugar syrup, dates back to the 1850s, when it was made with Cognac. There are a number of claimants to the creation of this cocktail, including Antoine Peychaud, a New Orleans apothecary who dished out his version in an egg cup, known in the language of those parts, as a coquetier. And from that name, legend has it, the Americans coined the term cocktail. Not quite true, as it happens, because the word has been around since the early 1800s. But why quibble over etymology when there’s a full glass in front of you.
The next drink I ask for is a Manhattan, simply so I can stay in the whiskey world for the moment. I like mine with rye, not bourbon, along with the vermouth and bitters. Like all cocktails, this one too has its own legend. It has been said, often as it happens, that this cocktail was created at the Manhattan Club in the 1870s during a dinner given by Lady Randolph Churchill, that’s right, Winston Churchill’s mother, and since it was such a good party, the drink became a hit. Since it’s such a good story, people tend to ignore the fact that the good lady was pregnant and in France at the same time.
I’m not a big fan of rum, so I skip educating the now slightly harassed bartender about the Daiquiri and the Cuba Libre (yes, all right, that’s really just a rum and Coke), and switch seats to a Sidecar instead. Originally equal parts Cointreau and Cognac with lemon juice, the proportions now lean further towards the Cognac than the orange liqueur. This one is pretty recent, dating back to World War I, and there are a number of people who claim to have created it. But this is not a history class, so who cares.
I finally take pity on the poor lad, and ask him for a Martini. He asks whether I’d like it with gin or vodka. I ask him what his recipe book says, so he smiles and reaches for the gin, but balks when I say I’d like mine stirred, not shaken. It’s hard for a flair bartender to juggle the cocktail shaker if there is no shaker. The Martini too has many folks who say they thought of it first, sometime around the 1860s. Over time the term has been tacked on, as it is in the menu in front of me, to cocktails like the appletini. There was a bar I used to frequent in London that offered variants like the straw Martini and espresso Martini. I am happy to drink a Martini with gin or vodka, but that’s as far as it should go. If I want more flavour in my drink, I’ll eat the olive.
I feel a warm glow within by now, not, I hasten to add, the result of the alcohol imbibed, but the feeling that comes from having bettered the life of another person. I ask for my check, leave a healthy tip, and ask the bartender if he’s had a good evening. He nods his head, shakes my hand, thanks me for coming. As I walk out, he whispers to the doorman. “For god’s sake,” he says, “don’t let that man in here again.” I bet Bond never had to hear that.