Homemade Cocktails — Experiments, Critiques & Travels
Well, as usual, I’m getting impatient. Fall is entirely too far away; it’s fresh, cool air and brightly colored leaves, which contrast with the oh-so-necessary crystal-clear blue sky, make it my favorite season. There should be a faint hint of woodsmoke in the air and a jacket over your arm. Curiously enough, what you’d like to drink is often a reflection of your perception of your environment. What all this means is I’ve shifted away from rum and gin and toward brandy and whiskey, which arguably make drinks better suited to Fall and Winter. As always, there will be a number of exceptions, such as the first meeting of the Heron Social Club (hush-hush!), which will feature Gin, but again, I always get a case of Autumnal Impatience in September. Now to wait until the Equinox (September 23rd) and for the Georgia weather to drop to a 65-70º high, which won’t happen until October, if not later.
Anyway, as a sort of pre-season drink, I present the Saratoga. Inevitably, my mind turns to the Battle of Saratoga — arguably the turning point of the American Revolutionary War — though the drink originated much, much later, there being no such thing as a cocktail (as we recognize it) in 1777. Saratoga Springs in New York had, by the mid-1800s, grown into the Las Vegas of its day, sporting a spa, hotel, casino, and race track. It was here, presumably at The Track, as 12 Bottle Bar reports, that the Saratoga was first mixed:
1 ounce Brandy (Pierre Ferrand Ambre)
1 ounce Whiskey (High West Rendezvous Rye)
1 ounce Sweet Vermouth (Martini)
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass or small, fancy wine glass. Garnish with half of a lemon wheel or a lemon slice.
Now, in accordance with the practice of the day, this is a cocktail very much centered on the booze, but with just the right amount of sweet and bitter, not to mention water, to even out the finished drink. Use a nice VSOP cognac and a rye; in fact, pick a rye you love and toss it in this one. The Saratoga is very much like a Manhattan, though the spiciness of the rye is rounded out by the fruit and cacao notes of the cognac. In fact, in order to boost the cognac flavors a bit, I tried mixing up a version of this with rī(1) Rye Whiskey, and it turned out fairly well, but I prefer the kick from the more assertive High West Rye. The alternative would be to use a more assertive cognac. An apple brandy (Laird’s Bottled-in-Bond 100º would do the trick) would also make an interesting substitute for the rye, though with that you’re veering remarkably close to a Fallen Leaves, a favorite I’ll cover at a later time.
Like David Solmonson at the 12 Bottle Bar, I had overlooked the Saratoga in David Wondrich’s Imbibe! because you can only look at so many whiskey-vermouth-sugar-bitters combinations before skipping a few of them (no offense to Mr. Wondrich, as it’s a marvelous book! On another note, I’d have loved to have been at the Eastern Standard while he was mixing these up). The Saratoga is also a notable member of the family of drinks that use two base spirits, among which the Between The Sheets is arguably the best-known. Being similar to the Manhattan and having a basic-but-classic formula, the Saratoga is a prime candidate for experimentation. Use some amaro or Dubonnet in place of or supplementing the sweet vermouth, which might give you something like Audrey Sanders’s Little Italy, or vary the bitters, or toss some Scotch in there. Who knows what could happen? Check out Summit Sips for a few notes on possible variations (and a similar transition to colder weather), or look at Paul Clarke’s write-up, which notes that Dale DeGroff has been making Sazeracs with a blend of cognac and rye for years. If you need some instruction, watch the corresponding episode of Robert Hess’s “Cocktail Spirit” (I am always jealous of Mr. Hess’s glassware).
Let’s all drink some aged liquors and urge Autumn to make an early appearance.
Photo by IJL.