Tuesday, August 11, 2015


What's cooler on a hot day than a nice cooler?

Coolers aren't cocktails per se, but they are often included in cocktail compendiums, because they involve mixtures which include alcoholic ingredients.

Coolers may or may not have strictly defined "goods"--goods being hard liquor in any of its usual incarnations. Alcoholic content occurs in wines and beers and liqueurs and so forth, but aperitifs and cordials have not traditionally been considered cocktails, though they may constitute significant parts of cocktail recipes. 

One way of suppressing the hard alcoholic content of drinks is avoiding the use of "goods" altogether, thus reducing the percentage of alcohol present in the drink. Alcohol does have a very weak flavor by itself, but it's how it interacts with other taste elements that makes cocktails intriguing. No matter how little alcohol you imbibe, there is some effect on the brain and nervous system (as well as your digestive tract). But as I've pointed out more than once here, getting drunk or "tipsy" isn't the point of enjoying cocktails, and if it is, you've missed it entirely. 

The other consideration with coolers is sweetness. Soft drinks were invented to bring interest to water, which is a vital necessity to the body. If you're really thirsty, there's nothing like water, just as, when you're out of breath, there's nothing like fresh air. Soft drinks are flavored water. Flavored water has been popular for thousands of years, but popularly marketed flavored water drinks are a very recent development in history--one of the hallmarks of the modern world. 

Cocktails are like soft drinks for grown-ups. Lots of drinkers avoid sweeter cocktails, seeing them as nothing more than soft-drinks in fancy dress. I tend to agree, especially when faced with the "equatorial" "cool-aid" versions you often see offered at popular restaurants or taverns. Most of these don't even qualify as cocktails at all. You can spot these fakes by checking the order of ingredients. Inevitably, they involve the addition of fruit juices, at the expense of reducing the actual alcoholic content to less than 15%. In the restaurant and bar trade(s), this is usually a way of reducing costs, by cutting back on the actual amount of goods used to make them. These "weak" drinks don't deserve the name of cocktails, and should be avoided. 

Chacun a son gout. A large percentage of cocktail drinkers like martinis. The majority of traditional martinis are nearly pure goods, without any adulterating content (such as vermouth). Vodka martinis can be very good with certain foods, such as raw oysters, where the subtle saltiness of the shell-fish works in tandem with the dry clarity of the liquor. But if you enjoy variety, insisting on unadulterated goods as a steady diet is boring. 

But enough of this spin. The subject was coolers, and here are two nice recipes I've developed, used in conjunction with a "soda" that is presently new on the market. 

During the English occupation of India, so-called quinine water became a common way of ingesting the chemical (quinine--a prophylactic against malaria), and quinine water, mixed with gin (or vodka) has been a traditional combination for over a century. 

Tonic water (or Indian Tonic Water) is a carbonated soft drink. The commercial brand Fever-Tree Indian Tonic Water contains less sugar than is commonly used in most marketed tonic sodas, and it's what I've used here. You need less sugar, since the liqueurs or aperitifs I've used are sweet by themselves. Using a common tonic water with them would result in just the sort of "cool-aid" aspect I'm averse to. 

The method with these mixes is to combine the alcoholic ingredients in a stainless steel mixer, just as you would with any cocktail, but in amounts that will, when combined with the tonic water, result in a relatively smaller percentage of the finished drink. The amount of tonic water added to the mix is up to the mixer, but I've decided that the "mixed" alcoholic portion should constitute no more than about 30% of the whole when served. 

Mix these ingredients together with ice, then pour into "bubble"-wine glasses, add a couple of smaller pieces of ice (not the cube variety) and then pour the carbonated tonic water over this, stirring lightly. The drink should have a very pale color from the diluted drink ingredients, depending on what the recipe includes.   

1 1/2 part midori
1/12 part limoncello
1/5 part cinnamon liqueur
1 part fresh lime

add 3-4 small pieces of ice

Tonic soda water to top up


1 1/2 part genepi des alpes
1 1/2 part st germaine liqueur
1 part fresh lime 

add 3-4 small pieces of ice

Tonic soda water to top up

If these drinks seem too sweet, you can always use unsweetened carbonated water, or even boutique bottled drinking water. Tap water, I think, is just too pedestrian to use. A little carbonation stirs up the mix, and keeps it lively. And the quinine gives it character, which was always what made the English Gin and Tonic combination so seductive. 

There'll always be a British! 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Death of the Milkman

Hint: This is not a mystery novel.

I'm old enough now to remember when dairy products were delivered directly to your door at home.

If you live long enough, nearly everything that once seemed typical and universal, eventually seems old-fashioned. Change is the common thread that runs through life, though the pace of that change has itself changed over time. 

For someone living in Europe during the Middle Ages, I suppose it must have been possible to see the world as pretty permanent and static. When you were born, people rode horses, and went to church, and worked the soil, and made things mostly by hand. At the end of your life, these things were still true; little had changed in your world.

Today, the pace of change is so rapid, that in a hundred years, much of the environment, and what goes on in it, may seem so unfamiliar and outdated that it's astounding. People in 1900 could hardly have imagined what was coming, and if you'd told them about it, they probably wouldn't have believed you. Or they would have thought you crazy. 

When I was growing up in the 1950's, milk and cream and cheeses were delivered right to our door, once a week, by "The Milkman." The milkman--like the postman, or the Fuller Brush man, or the Bible salesman, or the census taker, or the paperboy--seems another aspect, another vestige, of our irretrievable and inalterable past. 

Why did milk men go away? Because the whole commercial marketing model of food and household goods distribution changed. 

Once upon a time--say, as long ago as when my parents were growing up during the first half of the 20th Century--people got their supplies and groceries from small tradespeople and shops. Dairy goods were sold by dairies, meat by butchers, baked flour goods by bakers, and so on. There were specialty shops for pickled goods, sweets, fruit and vegetables, liquor, and so on. 

What happened to all these separate, specialized venues?

The first great wave of change gathered momentum right after World War II. Safeway and other chains had begun before the War, but didn't develop quickly until the 1940's. By the 1950's, grocery stores (especially chains) were shunting specialty shops aside. Grocery stores rapidly consolidated the different kinds of goods people once had acquired from multiple sources. By 1955, it was possible to buy everything a housemaker might need to eat and drink, from a single big super-market.  

By the time I was in junior high school, milkmen were becoming an endangered species. With the rise of the automobile, in suburbia, it made more sense to do your one-stop shopping at the grocery market, without having to pay a premium for door-to-door delivery. 

The second wave of consolidation was of course the shopping "center"--or "mall"--a big complex of different kinds of retail, which might include, aside from grocery stores, all kinds of different product sellers. 

In a larger sense, the gradual disappearance of the small "tradesman" in our economy, is a trend that follows the increasing technological sophistication of distribution, communication, and marketing tools. These developments seem to possess an inertia that is overwhelming. 

Today, we're seeing some reaction against the consolidation represented by malls and shopping districts. There are contrary trends happening. People are reexamining the "convenience" and seeming attraction of these places. Over the last decade, construction of malls and centres has ground to a halt, and as much as a third of all the existing sites in the U.S. have gone "grey"--abandoned, or slated for demolition. 

Today, increasingly, people are shopping "online" (on the internet). Many of the things we once bought elsewhere, are being delivered to us, with just a few keystrokes on the computer. Mail order has reemerged as the frontier of marketing, after having been largely ignored for half a century. 

As a used (rare) book dealer, I've had to adjust to this new model, which hit the retail scene just at the point that I was entering the trade in the mid 1990's. When I contemplated becoming a self-employed used book dealer in 1994, most specialty dealers nursed a small local contingent of customers, which they supplemented by sending out catalogues to select customers further away. Provincial exclusivity outweighed most other considerations. Running an open shop with regular business hours made sense, since most of your sales were "through the door" rather than through the mail. 

So-called "big box" bookstores, like Walden Books, Crown, Barnes & Noble, and Borders had followed the shopping mall model, and were very successful for a couple of decades, discounting and pressuring the smaller independents. Half Price Books was created using this model, and it wasn't long before used books were being sold online, supplanting the "catalogue" model of the antiquarian book trade. Today, online is king, dominated by Amazon (and its subsidiary Advanced Book Exchange), along with a handful of much smaller sites. And books themselves, as physical text repositories of the written word, are also coming under pressure. 

Each wave of change seems to kill off the previous iteration. Used bookstores as we know them seem an endangered species. The very act of shopping, or browsing, is being seen as an inconvenience, instead of the adventure it once was figured to be. 

I miss the milk man. Would I willingly "go back" and choose to have my milk and cream and cottage cheese delivered by a cheerful man driving a big white truck through my neighborhood at 5 AM in the morning? I just might. On the other hand, would I care to order my groceries from an online delivery site, and paying with a credit card to a nameless, faceless corporate marketer? Would I let someone else choose my apples, or my breakfast cereal, or my cheese wedge? 

There are some tasks in life that are better performed first-hand, hands-on. Convenience is not always to be preferred over direct interaction. Sometimes, even paying a small premium for the charm and immediacy of "real" experience, is better than allowing oneself to be swept up into the automated wave of someone else's dream. 


Thursday, July 30, 2015

Further Diversions from the Stainless Steel Counter

One obvious limitation to the variety and diversity of mixing is the number of traditional kinds of spirits there are. There's gin and rum and bourbon and scotch and brandy and vodka and tequila, any one of which provides a firm platform for the exploration of tastes and combinations. Still, one often senses the monotony of this limited panoply of historical precedents. One may expand this range a bit by using aperitifs or fruit drinks as bases, but then we're straying into punches and coolers and toddies--not cocktails. Cocktails as such deserve to have their own categorical purity, which we should respect. 

So, in the round-robbin of shifting alternatives, here are five more, some so new they don't even have names.
This one is a delicately spiced number. You don't see apple liqueur used much in popular recipe books, and I can't think why. Apple flavor, especially the crisp "green" side, makes perfect sense in a drink. Maybe the association with apple juice is somehow wrong. Gin is a flavored spirit, and here the delicate herbs in the gin mate with the apple and Genepi aperitif to make a very sophisticated flavor, "dried out" by the lime.   

3 part Boodles gin
1 part apple liqueur
1 part Genepi des Alpes
1 part fresh lime juice

Shakes and served up in very cold cocktail glasses.


Exotic ingredients are making a comeback in the liquor business. Today, you can find "bitters" in dozens of flavors, and other kinds of special ingredients are appearing too. Here, I use black burnt sugar syrup (which is a little like clarified molasses) to lend a bit of down-south sweetness to a classic dark rum arrangement. No one would be surprised or embarrassed to be served this in New Orleans or Key West on a hot afternoon in late summer.    

2 parts dark rum
1 part puerto rican rum
1/3 part black burnt sugar syrup
1/3 part blood orange liqueur
1/3 part cinnamon liqueur
1 part fresh lemon juice

Swirled and served on the rocks, or up, with or without an orange or lemon peel floating on top. 


This one is very seductive, but the optional addition of vanilla-almond syrup is hard to settle. I first made it with, and it seemed a trifle too sweet, but when I made it without, it seemed comparatively dry. I think maybe just reducing the amount to half a teaspoon of syrup might be the trick. The ginger with the parfait d'amour (a proprietary flavor that's in the orange family, but is more complex than that) is really a revelation. 

3 parts golden rum
1 part parfait d'amour
2/3 part ginger liqueur
1 teaspoon vanilla almond syrup (optional)
1 part fresh lemon juice

Shaken and served up.


Here again, the use of the burnt sugar syrup, alters in a good way the effect of the traditional Peychaux bitters. Galliano goes well with lots of other flavors, and here it deepens the quality without diverting it. This one, like the dark rum recipe above, is inspired by Southern hospitality and charm, which you can experience second-hand just by drinking this drink!

4 parts Jack Daniels sour mash whisky
1 part Galliano
1.5 parts fresh lemon juice
1/3 part burnt sugar syrup
four dashes Peychaux Bitters
orange peel + 1/2 teaspoon orange juice

Swirled and served up. 


This last perhaps doesn't fully qualify as a cocktail, since it's based on an aperitif--dry vermouth--instead of a straight spirit. Still, especially for the ladies, it's the perfect Summer cooler, which can be served up or on the rocks, and of course it's a weaker drink, so less dangerous or inebriating. Not that I worry too much about that, since I rarely have more than one drink at any given time. I've nick-named it the "punch drunk" since it's really sort of a punch, but will not make you "drunk." 

"Punch Drunk"

2 parts dry vermouth
1 part compari
1 part triple sec
1 part lime
1 1/2 part soda

On the rocks, or up if you prefer.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Certain Rare Cancers Have Been Reported

When I grew up in the 1950's and 1960's, you routinely saw and heard advertisements for non-prescription medicines. In those remote times, cigarettes and beer ads were also routinely permitted--so the question of the public's health was decidedly an ambiguous matter from a regulatory standpoint. 

Over the last two decades, spending by pharmaceutical companies on lobbying, and advertising to the general public on television, have mushroomed. Drug companies are making very big money on a host of new products, designed to appeal to people who have common chronic afflictions, like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, indigestion and irregularity, depression, diabetes, obesity, sleep disorders, joint and muscle disease, chronic pain, skin hair and nail problems, and so forth. None of these conditions is new, and the treatments are generally familiar and routine. 

Non-prescription medicine is available to the general public, because it's considered safe enough that ordinary people can be trusted to use it in a safe way. Prescription medicine is considered to be safe only when prescribed by, and taken under the supervision of, a trained physician. Marketing prescription medication over public media to the general public is a relatively new phenomena--the campaign to convince people that taking riskier artificial or synthetic substances is going to make a significant difference in their lives. 

Many of the new drugs aren't even "primary" treatment products. They're just designed to "help" when used in conjunction with a primary treatment regimen. 

It used to be that drug companies targeted their campaigns to pharmacists and doctors. When I was growing up, the father of one of my friends was a pharmacist. He'd received hundreds of "gifts" and come-ons every year, to influence him to promote the use of one or another commercially marketed pills or applications, in the hope that he would recommend them to his customers. Toys, paperweights, pens, calendars, it was a relentless flow. 

Today, drug companies have gotten permission to promote prescription medications directly to the general public. 

We've all seen the new ads. They have fancy names, scientific sounding--like Verdaxa, or Duvadin, or Clinolix--and we know the FDA has passed them, but FDA approval apparently doesn't guarantee safety, at least not any more.

On each ad, there is a cheerful vignette of someone performing daily routines, or on vacation. They're all smiles, liberated from the distractions of their medical issues, getting on with life, celebrating just being alive. 

But while all this visual drama is taking place, a comforting voice is narrating the serious side effects which may accompany the desired "cures" the drug was designed to effect. The possible "side-effects" of a pill for depression may include heart attack, stomach ulcers, swollen feet, and even "certain rare cancers." 

You would think that any advertisement which was required to inform you about all the bad things which could happen to you if you used a product, would probably not work. 

But we all know that big corporations aren't stupid, and they wouldn't be using these ads if they weren't working. 

Americans have always loved taking medicine, and it's becoming more true every year. Is it because we have an inordinate credulity for panaceas? Do we think we can medicate ourselves into health? 

Most people know that eating a good diet, and exercising regularly, are the best behaviors for good health. Smoking, drinking immoderately, living a sedentary life, being socially isolated, or taking unnecessary risks such as driving too fast, or crossing streets while texting--these are all behaviors designed to shorten your life, or to lead to poor health.

But people are not rational. They will do things they know are bad for them, out of sheer laziness, or simple mischief. 

People can be convinced of almost anything--right up to, and including, committing suicide.

The pharmaceutical companies know this, and they rely on it. 

Would you take a drug which "might" help with a chronic condition, but which carried the risk of certain much more serious side effects? 

"Certain rare cancers have been reported."  

Monday, July 6, 2015

Three New Mixes from the Stainless Steel Counter

The days pile up and the recipes keep coming.

It's a restless round of changing combinations, a refusal to settle on a favorite. Exploration, discovery, surprises and confirmations. Questions, with a few answers. Failures, with the occasional success. 

Here are three new happy discoveries. Parfait d'Amour, as produced by Marie Brizard(c) (a French distiller), has an orange basis, with some other allied flavors. It has a purple color, though what the color has to do with the flavor is anyone's guess. (Creme de Violette has the same color, but with a different flavor.) I find Parfait d'Amour to be a useful liqueur, when I'm looking for a different spin on citrus. The first recipe here is great on a hot day.   

2 parts gin
1/2 part parfait d'amour
juice of 1/2 lime
tonic water to finish

Served on the rocks, perhaps with a lime peel.  

Thinking again of hot weather, this one has a little Down South flavor, with the burnt syrup added, which gives it a slightly molasses quality that is quite suggestive of New Orleans combinations. Bourbon goes well with sweet nut flavors. The lemon just straightens it out a bit. 

3 parts bourbon
1/2 part hazelnut liqueur
1 teaspoon burnt sugar syrup
1 part lemon juice

Swirled in ice and served up with an orange slice.   

Readers will know that I like aquavit as a mixer. This one functions as a flavor agent, since the white vermouth is the goods. I don't know why the ginger works with the aquavit, but it does. The lime keeps things neat, and focused. It's on the dry side, but still refreshing.  

1 1/2 part aged aquavit
2 parts dry vermouth
1 part ginger liqueur
1 part lime juice

Served up in chilled cocktail glass--with lime slice if you wish.

Summer in the Bay Area. It's been hot the last few days, with the saving grace of the marine fogs to cool our sleep at night. We have the best of worlds here, in terms of weather. Temperate, though a bit too dry of late. Here's hoping for a wetter Winter. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

James Salter dead at 90

The fiction and screen writer James Salter died a week ago, on Friday the 19th, while at a gym. A week earlier, he'd celebrated his 90th birthday.

Against all the odds, he lived a long, full life, filled with incident, action, movement, excitement, meditation, and considerable success. 

A modest man, with large ambitions, sophisticated, svelte, soigné, equally seduced by elegance and devotion to solitary craftsmanship. 

He was among the first novelists I really admired. Fowles. Steinbeck. Hemingway. Salinger. Forster. Salter. A compelling style, an investment in gesture, in the perfect metaphor, the transparent phrase. A sense of the vividness of a certain time, of the memorable, the sublime. 

A man for whom, like Hemingway, life itself was more seductive that his art. And yet at the same time a patient artist, tinkering, revising, turning sentences and paragraphs over and over, seeing them from all angles, inside out, then coming back and seeing them fresh, again, before letting go of them. 

The early "air force" novels don't mean much to me. His work begins with A Sport and a Pastime, continues with Light Years, Solo Faces, and ends with All That Is (which is a kind of foil for the muted autobiography Burning the Days). 

It turns out that, for good or ill, most of what he wrote about came directly from his life experiences, appropriating real people into his stories, often thinly disguised. 

The experience of reading his work is for me an astonishment, at the exquisite surface, the shrewd and wonderful description. The deepening sadness of his characters. Their obsessions. Their pleasures. Their regrets. 

If I could have been the sort of writer I once dreamed of being, it would be something like Salter. A figure undisturbed by the distractions of fame, but with a devoted audience of admirers. Living an interesting life in interesting places. And writing a handful of nearly perfect books. 

Salter thought the only thing that lasts is what we're able to record in language. 

As the world gradually forgets who the man James Salter (née Horowitz) was (in life), the books will linger on into the decades, as distinct vessels of the alembic of who he might have been. Not as an alternative, but as a speculation. 

Who were we? Look into our books to find us. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Fjord

My personal genealogical history is traced back to England (from the name Calef on my real father's side), and to Norway (Johnson on my mother's side). 

I've traveled to English and Scotland and Ireland for visits, but I've never visited Scandinavia. I have a feeling I'd enjoy going there--something I may eventually do. 

One striking landform of Norway is the fjords. A fjord is a deep, narrow, elongated sea or lakedrain with steep land on three sides, opening toward the sea (the mouth). Fjords were formed by glacier tongues of retreating glaciers, depositing gravel and sad along the way, forming shallow "thresholds" at or near the mouths. Fjords are thus often natural harbors. 

Fjord--the word--has ancient origins--from the prehistoric Indo-European word "prtus," derived from "por" or "per," meaning "go," or "pass," or "to put over on the other side." Its basic meaning "where one fares through" also give us the words "fare" and "ferry." Thus a fording, or crossing.     

Aquavit--or akvavit--is a traditional distilled spirit produced in Scandinavia, going back to the 15th Century, the principle flavoring agent being caraway (or dill), and averages 40% alcohol. The word comes from the Latin aqua vitae ("water of life"). In Scandinavia, it is often sipped at room temperature, or used in conjunction with beer. It may be clear or slightly yellow, depending on age. Aquavit is produced in Scandinavia, but also in the U.S. 

I have tried using aquavit as a mixed drink spirit, either as the goods, or as a flavoring agent, with excellent results. Here is a mix that begins with aquavit, but comes out tasting more balanced and less peculiar than you might suppose. 

3 parts aquavit
1 part Tanqueray Gin
1 Part fresh squeezed lime juice
1/2 part creme de minthe 
1/2 part creme de violette

Shaken vigorously and served up in a pre-chilled cocktail glass.

Now to toast one's ancestors!