Sunday 29 July 2012

The Twentieth Century Cocktail

Classic cocktails have really been getting explored and revived over the last few years. Manhattans and Martinis and Sazeracs never really left, but Fourth Regiments and proper Aviations have slowly become commonplace in good bars all over the world. With innovators like David Wondrich, Dr. Cocktail, Gary Regan, Robert Hess, and their ilk writing books and collecting really old recipes, and even more current releases like the PDT Cocktail Book collecting tons as well, it's easy to suddenly feel a little saturated with drink ideas - lot of which are fairly similar, particularly if you want to rifle through pages upon pages of gin and vermouth variations in just about any 1930's cocktail book. Let's be clear here: this is not to put down in any way what these men and women have done, that is essentially the birth of an entirely new cocktail culture that for the previous thirty-plus years was arguably dead. It is also a little mind-boggling to think that they have themselves narrowed down the sea of cocktail ideas to what they deemed best, and yet I still feel a little daunted when trying to decide what to make next at home.
The key is really to narrow down the handful of truly important drinks that stand the test of time, or find those that stand out in their ingredients or purpose. A Last Word in a collection of pre-Prohibition cocktails, for example. So this brings me to my momentary obsession in a cocktail sense: The Twentieth Century. When thinking of chocolate in drinks, chocolate syrup and flavoured vodka at chain restaurants comes to mind, and not anything "classic," yet here is one hailing from the 1930's that can be balanced and refreshing, and thankfully has a gin base. Creme de Cacao is not a typical ingredient the cocktail nerds see nor many craft bartenders use, perhaps because of its modern associations or perhaps because it tends to be a fairly flat-tasting product. Yet, again, here is a simple, classic drink in which it works.

The Drink
The challenge of making a very old cocktail is finding the "proper" ratios with which to mix the ingredients, so the answer is always to just make it how you like it but to be mindful of how it was intended. Using too much chocolate liqueur would bring us back to that overly-sweet grossness that in part gave mixed drinks such a bad name, so be mindful that this is a gin drink and should be mixed as such. The PDT book lists 2:1 for gin to everything else, whereas Ted Haigh adapted his to 1.5 gin to 3/4 Lillet and lemon, to 1/2 creme de cacao, and I've seen ratios of lemon drop even to 1/4. I prefer my drinks drier in general so I lean towards the Haigh's recipe, but we also get into tricky territory without specifying the exact chocolate liqueur. Here's where my suggestion comes in - don't use creme de cacao. Vancouver's Pourhouse bar, one focusing almost strictly on classic cocktails or at least the mentality of such, makes their 20th Century quite differently to delicious results by using Giffard White Chocolate syrup and changing the proportions a fair bit. This makes for a surprisingly balanced drink that is not too sweet at all, albeit much less dry than some palates may be accustomed. This is an excellent drink to introduce or coax misinformed or close-minded souls to gin, and one that anyone - even those who sat at your bar looking for Appletini's - can enjoy. To play with the idea even further and treat this as a dessert cocktail, which in my opinion it is, an egg white can be added, with the suggestion to back off the syrup a little further as egg will increase the perceived sweetness.
A final note is the Lillet - the original would have used the original Kina Lillet, so substituting Cocchi Americano here would be more true to form.

20th Century (C.A. Tuck, 1937)

  • 2 parts gin
  • 1 part Lillet
  • 1 part lemon juice
  • 1 part creme de cacao
Combine all ingredients with ice, shake, and strain into a cocktail glass.

20th Century (Pourhouse)

  • 1 oz Tanqueray gin
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • 1 oz Lillet Blanc
  • 3/4 oz Giffard White Chocolate Syrup
  • Egg white (optional)
Combine all ingredients and dry shake if using egg, then add ice and shake again and double-strain into a cocktail glass. If not using egg, garnish with a lemon cheek.

The History
The drink is credited to C.A. Tuck in the first publication of the "Cafe Royal Cocktail Book," written in 1937 by William J. Tarling, who was at the time the president of the United Kingdom Bartender's Guild and main barman at the Cafe Royal. This restaurant and bar, which had one of the finest wine cellars in the world, ran from 1865 until 2008, hosting many a good time for the likes of Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, Virginia Wolf, Winston Churchill, up to Brigitte Bardot. Details on Tuck's station and career are elusive to say the least. The cocktail was named in honour of the Twentieth Centry Limited train that ran between New York and Chicago from 1902 until 1967. It was often called the "most famous train in the world," making the trip in twenty hours (which in the 30's was cut to sixteen) - four hours faster than any previous attempt. The train was also famous for its Art-Deco design and on-board luxuries, even including a barbershop, and boarding and exiting was a sophisticated affair with crimson carpets adorning the loading area, creating the phrase "red carpet treatment."
The 1930's in London marked a continued shift towards electricity and the use of motor vehicles from the old gas and carriage. While many industries felt depression all over Europe, London actually managed to avoid much of the damage, even seeing small booms in new industries like electrical equipment and food production. By the mid 30's, there was an influx of fearful Jewish immigrants to the city, and by the end of the decade many of them were of course escaping to the countryside. The beginning of a new decade was marked by the Blitz, the German bombing of the U.K. - most notably London - from 1940-1941, killing about 40,000 people.
Among the many lives lost was influential and iconic singer, Al Bowlly, who sang in Fred Elizalde's Savoy Hotel Band in the 1920's at the famous Savoy Hotel where Harry Craddock was mixing drinks and writing his seminal cocktail tome.  The jazz age brought artists to Europe, spreading a sound of music never heard before, and there were some British artists of note who became superstars during the swing era even across the Atlantic, namely Bowlly along with bandleaders Elizalde and Ray Noble. Bowlly made over 1000 recordings in his career, and was the first singer to headline live and radio performances instead of the bandleader, essentially being modern music's first "pop-star." He was also one of the first singers to perform with a microphone, allowing a softer and more versatile singing style that coined the term "crooner." While the 30's marked his solo career, including some trips to New York, he could still be seen performing at big venues in London. It’s possible you would sip a Twentieth Century cocktail, perhaps even made by C.A. Tuck, wherever he was, while listening to one of the great singers in modern music. Here is a very rare filmed performance in 1934 of a classic, "The Very Thought Of You," composed by Ray Noble and performed by heart-throb crooner, Al Bowlly.

Originally published on by Rhett Williams

Twentieth Century Limited train circa 1930's (public domain)
Twentieth Century Cocktail 2012 from Pourhouse Restaurant, Vancouver (Rhett Williams)
Cafe Royal 1901 (public domain)

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