The Striving Man — that unique brand of American go-getter born of the 19th century who turned the rivers into highways and laid streams of steel where no water ran, who changed the tavern into the saloon and made punch obsolete by favoring the cocktail (yes, that Striving Man ) — usually lands cat-like, with his spats and laces pointed skyward. Spend and acquire are his watchwords. He thrives even when the economic worm turns south.
Bully for him.
For the rest of us, caught in what the nattering class calls “these uncertain times,” that niggling sense some sort of belt-tightening might be in order is hard to shake.
So it is with deep ambivalence that the Land of Forgotten Cocktails ventures into the forest of home economics to offer this Buyer’s Guide for the Home Bartender. While we remain bullish for bars, we recognize our wallets ain’t as fat as they used to be. Just promise you won’t forget your friendly neighborhood publican when “economic certainty” — whatever that is — returns.
One of the first things the budget-minded home mixer-upper needs is a good, sturdy American whiskey. Kentucky bourbon is the first thing that comes to mind, but don’t discount rye whiskey. Good American whiskey should be cheap — it’s made from inexpensive materials, doesn’t have far to travel, and its distributors pay no import taxes. (This is not to say there isn’t a stack of baksheesh for Uncle Sam built into the price of your favorite bottle of brown goods.) Indeed, we live in magical times when a truly bad bottle of whiskey is relatively hard to find.
Our Choice: Elijah Craig 12-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Cocktail: Bourbon Old Fashioned
Recipe: Into a tumbler, put a half ounce of simple syrup (one part
granulated sugar to one part hot water, stirred until clear), four dashes of Angostura bitters, and a twisted piece of lemon peel. Stir a little bit and then add two ounces of bourbon. Stir again. Fill with ice and stir for 10-20 seconds. Twist a piece of orange peel over the top if you must.
Rum should be cheap, too. Most of it is made from an industrial waste — molasses. In the good old days of the 18th and 19th centuries, rum was used as a kind of currency “paid” to the British Royal Navy’s sailors in the form of their daily tot, and the midday rum break was as sacred as the modern-day coffee break in mills throughout the land. Prices of trade goods (particularly the human variety) were listed in their rum-barrel equivalents.
Our Choice: Cruzan Aged Light Rum
Cocktail: Planter’s Punch
Recipe: A Planter’s Punch follows no canonical recipe. Some improvisation is part of its appeal, which is why I keep coming back to it. Put some rum, maybe two ounces, in your shaker, with about an ounce of simple syrup. Next you need some sour, so add either an ounce or so of (fresh!) lemon or lime juice. A dash or two of Angostura bitters wouldn’t be out of place here, so add ’em or don’t (I usually do). Fill with ice and shake vigorously until well chilled, then strain into an ice-filled tumbler. A grate of nutmeg over the top is nice. Couple that with a pinch of red pepper (I like smoked paprika) and you have a Myrtle Bank Punch.
Gin used to be so cheap that it was considered a scourge of the London underclasses. “Mother’s Ruin” was vilified by the English press and reformist propagandists with the same language and urgency employed to describe the heroin and crack “epidemics” two centuries later.
Choosing a “house” gin is a tough call: the wide flavor variations between brands of equal quality make your choice a very personal one. Moreover, I will use one gin for a Gibson and a different one for a Martini, such are the idiosyncrasies between brands. Our choice in this category couples good bang for the buck with across-the-board versatility, all wrapped up in four-star quality. (Plus, it’s the kind of old school, as-seen-on-Mad Men brand currently in vogue.)
Our Choice: Boodles British Gin
Recipe: When the world casts its gim’let eye upon you, do what Raymond Chandler did: deflect it with a bracing glass of this concoction. It’s cheap-as-chips, couldn’t be simpler to make, and oddly sophisticated in a noir-ish sort of way. Put three ounces of gin in a shaker with one-and-a-half ounces of Rose’s Lime Juice. Fill with ice and shake vigorously until well chilled. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Repeat as necessary until the world fades to black (and white).
Vodka shouldn’t even be mentioned among the budget-conscious. In nearly every way conceivable, it’s a waste of your dwindling resources. The artificially expensive and heavily marketed brands lack any discernible flavor whatsoever, and the cheap bottlings taste clumsily of (nearly) pure ethanol and water. It’s a soulless spirit sent by a god-less country to undermine our way of life. There, I said it.
But if you just gotta have some in your home, get the one made by appointment for the czars, the one exiled at gunpoint by the Bolsheviks and shunned by the French, the one that found succor in the good ol’ U. S. and A. — and then undermined our way of life.
Our Choice: Smirnoff
Cocktail: Vodka is the wall-eyed slag still standing at the end of a kegger who’ll partner up with anybody. Have fun. Wear a condom.
— John Myers