Wednesday 21 September 2011

Draughts from the Windy City

Our last Candlelight Club event looked at Chicago during Prohibition so I set about tinkering with a menu of appropriate beverages.

I must say, I hadn’t realised just how corrupt the city was in those days. Al Capone apparently spent some $75 million on bribery, with the result that some of his speakeasies didn’t need to disguise the fact that they served alcohol. From 1927 even the city mayor was in his pay. At one point the Chief of Police admitted that half of his men were actively engaged in bootlegging themselves. There was a magazine called The Chicagoan, now little known but then intended as the equivalent of The New Yorker, and I’ve been looking at a copy from 2nd July 1927: not only does Prohibition and bootlegging feature quite heavily but it seems defensive, almost proud of the local hoods:

Chicago is the present capitol of large-scale bootlegging, her bootleggers the merchant princes of the profession… Any good bootleg office should guarantee a loop delivery in 30 minutes. Good firms usually scorn to adulterate their wares. They attempt to win and hold patronage by solid merchandising value… “Hell,” as one explained to this investigator, “we got no kick coming. Our business is gettin’ better and better. We’re all making money. Everybody’s happy!”

Al Capone
So what are some quintessentially Chicagoan cocktails? I guess we’d have to start with the Chicago Cocktail. No one seems to know where or how it came into existence but it was apparently being served under that name before Prohibition at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria as an import from the Windy City.

Chicago Cocktail
2 shots brandy
2 dashes of bitters (presumably Angostura)
Curaçao (somewhere ¼ and 1 tsp)
Sometimes a few dashes of gomme
Champagne to top

Also known as a Fancy Brandy Cocktail, this goes back to the dawn of mixology where the idea seems just to prettify the base spirit with sweetness and some aromatic high harmonics. It is also essentially a Champagne Cocktail with curaçao and different proportions. It is sometimes shaken and strained and sometimes served on the rocks. I have found one reference (Robert Vermere’s Cocktails: How to Mix Them) to its being improved with a dash of absinthe—but then isn’t everything? Being familiar with the Champage Cocktail I had a feeling that this version would be too heavy on the brandy, but in fact it works very well, and feels agreeably rich and decadent.

Chicago Fizz
1 shot rum (light or dark, depending on whom you believe)
1 shot port
Juice of half a lemon (about 1 shot)
1 egg white
1 tsp powdered sugar
Soda water to top
Shake all ingredients except soda, first without ice, then with ice, and strain. Top with soda water.

Again I can’t find any story for this drink but a fizz (or fiz as Jerry Thomas spells it) goes back to the nineteenth century and can be made with any base spirit. I’ve heard a tip that, with egg white recipes, you should dry-shake the ingredients together before adding ice, to give the egg a chance to whip up a good consistency; but certainly with this recipe you just get too much of a foamy head that way. I was using pasteurised egg white in cartons and found that half a measure was fine. It’s an intriguing recipe that works better than it sounds it will—the egg adds a silky texture but the whole is refreshing, with a sweet/sour vinous element from the port, and pleasantly pink.

Cohasset Punch
1½ shots dark rum (only Martha Stewart suggests light rum)
1 shot vermouth (recipes are evenly split between sweet and dry)
Juice of half a lemon (about 1 shot)
½ shot Grand Marnier (optional; triple sec is also worth trying)
½ shot syrup from a tin of peaches
Put half a tinned peach in a Champagne glass, half fill with shaved ice, shake the liquid ingredients and strain into the glass.

Odd that this definitive Chicago cocktail should be named after the town of Cohasset in Massachusetts. The story goes that William H. Crane, a very successful actor in of the late nineteenth century, was doing well enough to throw fancy parties at his summer house in Cohasset. Having played a long run at Chicago’s Hooley Theatre Crane brought one of the city’s better bartenders, Gus Williams, out to his next party to do the mixing. Williams came up with this drink and it was so successful he put it on the menu at his own place, Williams & Newman, in Chicago. In 1916 he retired and sold the recipe to the Ladner Brothers, whose saloon was then decorated with a neon sign proclaiming the “Home of the Cohasset Punch”.

The classic recipe doesn’t have the Grand Marnier—that was added by Wall Street Journal writer Eric Felton, I think. My own experiments have found that the syrup in tins or peaches round here doesn’t really taste of much—neither peaches nor syrup—so I tried replacing it with Monin commercial peach syrup or crème de pêche, which works much better. I think I slightly prefer it with dry vermouth. I’m not sure what the drinker is supposed to do with half a peach in their glass, so I replaced this with a couple of slices.

2 shots gin
1 shot lemon juice
½ shot gomme syrup
Half a dozen mint leaves
Muddle the mint in the bottom of the shaker then add the other ingredients, shake and strain.

Essentially a Gin Collins with mint. The story goes that, served over crushed ice, this was the beverage of choice for Chicago’s Southside gangsters, while the Northside crew preferred to take their gin with ginger ale. How it thence came to be the house drink at Manhattan’s 21 Club and later a staple of summer in the Hamptons, I do not know: Eric Felton (see above) pooh-poohs the origin myth and believes it was more likely invented at the exclusive Southside Sportsmen’s Club on Long Island itself. I was surprised how strong a presence the mint has if pummelled in this way, making for a delightfully fresh cocktail.

A Chicago speakeasy, apparently
Back in the day, Chicago was full of speakeasies. Many of them would have a legitimate business on the ground floor: Club Lucky was a hardware store, Emmit’s was a bank, John Barleycorn’s was a Chinese laundry, with booze carted in covered by dirty linen. The drinking went on in an upstairs room or in the basement. Emmit’s and Halligan came complete with escape tunnels. At least 30 of these places are still bars, but there are also new cocktail bars seeking to revive the spirit of the cocktail age, such as The Violet Hour. So I adapted one of the drinks from their list. They don’t reveal their recipes, but here is my version inspired by The Blinker.

The Violet Hour
2 shots bourbon
2 shots grapefruit juice
1 shot Chambord or crème de framboise
2 dashes grapefruit bitters
Shake and strain.

It’s an intriguing drink because it is very fruity, but refreshingly bitter-sweet because of the grapefruit juice. I was much taken with it, though one of our barmen, as he handed me one, sniffed, “It’s not my favourite from the list…” Clearly the grapefruit sharpness will divide drinkers.

One other I considered for our party is a well established drink called a Godfather, essentially a mixture of Scotch whisky and amaretto. Proportions vary but I think 2½ Scotch to 1 amaretto is about right. I did find one passing reference to the idea of adding a dash of absinthe, which actually works very well, so I’ve included the recipe and adjusted the name to reflect this:

The Godfather, Part 2
2½ shots Scotch
1 shot amaretto
Dash absinthe
Build on the rocks. I tried it with Islay malt whisky, thinking the smokiness might evoke gunsmoke, but it’s actually quite horrible—the iodine peatiness quarrels with the amaretto. This works better with blended whisky.

So here is a list that we can justify as Chicago-related. But do they drink these in Chicago? The Cohasset Punch was definitely served at Ladner’s until its demise in the 1980s, and it was even sold as a bottled premix. As for the others, in 1931 John Drury wrote Dining in Chicago and lists a number of locally popular cocktails: but he doesn’t suggest people were drinking the ones mentioned so far, and doesn't mention the Southside at all. He does reference:

The Gilbert To one jigger of Gordon gin, add one-half jigger of French vermouth and one-half jigger of Italian vermouth, a touch of Absinthe, and strain into cocktail glass. Concocted by Paul Gilbert, of the Chicago Evening Post, and a favorite of Ring Lardner, when both rested their weary reportorial feet on the brass rail at Stillson's. 

The Pink Lady To one jigger of Gin, add orange syrup to color, a dash of Apollinaris, and one-half a lime. Ice, stir well, and serve. Another Paul Gilbert creation, now become a standard cocktail. Said to be Walter Winchell's favorite. 

The Ticonderoga To one jigger of Dubonnet, add a dash of Italian vermouth, a dash of Grenadine and a touch of lemon. Emil Rutz, manager of the extinct Vogelsang's, concocted this—and the Loophounds liked it.

The Martini Into a shaker half-filled with cracked ice, pour two-thirds of a wine glass of Gordon Gin, one-half wine glass Italian Vermouth, and add a dash of Orange Bitters. Shake well, and serve with a piece of orange peel or an olive. 

The Mission To two-thirds Gordon Gin, add one-third French Vermouth; stir well and strain into cocktail glass into which a stuffed olive has been placed. This was a great attraction to the boys at the old Mission Bar in West Madison Street before Mr. Volstead appeared.

So this is what Chicagoans were actually drinking in 1931, though obviously the “Mission” is closer to the Martini as most of us understand it today.

And if you want some modern day verité, the Chicago edition of foodie site The Tasting Table offered this selection of the city’s best contemporary cocktails last year.

1 comment:

  1. I like that there are still articles in corruption that include Martha Stewart.