Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Dickens of a Drink

I'm always happy when I can work Charles Dickens into a story, so a recent piece I wrote for the New York Sun about holiday drinks was a pleasure to compose. Someone yesterday asked me, "What's a holiday drink?" Good question. And that's why I wrote the article. For years, the category has been occupied by a single beverage: egg nog. But the cocktail police have blown the whistle on that situation, and have been bringing out more options, including old-fashioned punches, the one-time classic Tom & Jerry and Hot Buttered Rum, as well as various mulled wines and ciders.

For the article, I talked to people at PDT, Death & Co., Flatiron Lounge and Pegu Club. Here's the piece:

Houses Of Spirits

In the final pages of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," Ebenezer Scrooge, newly embracing goodwill toward men, raises the salary of his long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit and declares: "… we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop!"

Smoking bishop was a punch, of course. This convivial category of alcoholic beverage — typically composed of water, sugar, lemon, spice, and wine or spirits — was, for nearly 200 years, as popular in America as it was in England. By the mid-19th century, however, it had been supplanted by the "short drink" and cocktail. Still, even as it waned in popularity, the punch retained a grip on the drinker's imagination, particularly around Christmastime. The image of a circle of friends or family gaily ladling out elixir from a bowl, and toasting each other's health, all but screamed yuletide. Ditto such cold-weather drinks as the Tom & Jerry and Hot Buttered Rum.

How holiday imbibing has changed! Until recently, a thirsty reveler was as likely to encounter the Ghost of Christmas Present in a bar as a bowl of decent punch. The movers and shakers of the current cocktail renaissance, however, are doing their part to ensure that the season of giving will once again mean hot and shared drinks.

Co-workers, pals, or strangers who wish to bond over a bowl can now head to Death & Co. (433 E. 6th St., between First Avenue and Avenue A, 212-388-0882), an East Village drink emporium that boasts a punch section on its cocktail menu. The inspiration for the brews came from merry olde England itself. "We went over to London in March, just to drink," one of the bartenders at Death & Co., Philip Ward, said. "There's a good bar scene in London. One bar we went to was doing punches. The punch wasn't any good, but it was a really cool service. We decided to do it and actually make really good punch. This is something that is good for holidays. It's very communal."

Though the punches have been available at the saloon for some time, the management recently added some new concoctions geared toward the cold-weather months. These include one called Jersey Lightning, composed of Laird's Applejack (which is made in New Jersey, hence the name), Harvest Moon Tea-infused Carpano Antica vermouth, fresh lemon juice, and a dash of Peychaud's Bitters. Another punch is the Spread Eagle, contributed by cocktail historian David Wondrich, and based on a recipe by 19th-century drink master Jerry Thomas. It's made of Rittenhouse rye whiskey, Compass Box Asyla scotch, fresh lemon juice, and muddled lemon peel, and topped with fresh grated nutmeg.

All of Death & Co.'s punches are served cold, but the tavern can fix you up if you're in need of a steaming cup. One option is the Hot Buttered Rum, a beverage many have read about or seen downed in old period films, but never tried. In its version, the bar uses its own spiced butter.

The owner of the Flatiron Lounge (37 W. 19th St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-727-7741), Julie Reiner, said she always brings out a couple of hot drinks when the temperatures dip. (Seasonal menus are rather a point of pride among newer cocktail mavens.) This year, she'll feature a Glögg — which is a Swedish mulled wine, made, in her version, with a red wine base, port, and spices — and a hot apple brandy that brings together apple cider mulled with brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, Cognac, and spiced butter. (Take note: These attractions are likely to hit the menu later this month.)

At PDT (113 St. Marks Place, between First Avenue and Avenue A, 212-614-0386), the meta-speakeasy where you enter through a wooden phone booth in the neighboring hot dog joint, winter will be greeted not by traditional cold-weather drinks, but new creations using lustier, heartier liquors. "As the seasons change, the spirits get darker, a little more savory, and somewhat more spicy," a bartender there, James Meehan, who helps to manage the East Village bar, said. Debut creations will include the Black Flip, a spin on classic egg-based flips that combines Cruzan Black Strap Rum, Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, and a whole egg. Also on the menu will be a Benton's Old Fashioned, a cocktail that can give you a warm feeling just thinking about its ingredients: bacon-infused George Dickel whiskey, Grade B maple syrup, and Angostura bitters.

One potation that was once as closely associated with the holidays as eggnog is the Tom & Jerry. This egg-loaded, heavily spiced meeting of rum and cognac reigned supreme throughout the 19th century, and even today can be found in homey bars in the upper Midwest. (My Wisconsinite parents still break out the Tom & Jerry drink mix every December 25.) But in New York, it's a rare bird, even in the most luxe cocktail dens — and for good reason. Preparing a Tom & Jerry is a pain. It takes time and room, as it involves mixing a complex batter with several ingredients, and heating liquids.

One place you can bank on booking a bowl of the creamy stuff is Pegu Clubon Houston Street, where Audrey Saunders's recipe is legendary. The drink seems to hold a special place in mixologists' hearts this time of year. "Last Christmas when I got home from a party, I made myself a Tom & Jerry," Mr. Meehan said.

Mr. Simonson maintains the wine and spirits Web log "Off the Presses."

Jersey Lightning Punch

Courtesy of Death & Co.

12 sugar cubes
3 oz. fresh lemon juice
3 oz. Carpano Antica sweet vermouth infused with Harvest Moon tea*
9 oz. club soda
6 oz. Laird's Bonded Applejack
6 to 8 dashes of Peychaud Bitters
Ice, cubes and one large block
Apple slices, for garnish
Cinnamon sticks, for garnish

1. Dissolve sugar cubes into 3 ounces of club soda. You may have to muddle them a little.

2. Stir in lemon juice, infused sweet vermouth, Applejack, and bitters.

3. Add several ice cubes and stir until cold.

4. Strain ice cubes from mixture.

5. Add 6 more ounces of club soda.

6. Pour over a large piece of ice.

7. Garnish with apple slices and cinnamon sticks.

Serves 2 or more, depending on thirst.

* Harvest Moon tea is available at Sympathy for the Kettle, 109 St. Marks Place, between First Avenue and Avenue A, 212-979-1650.


jonfromcali said...

Hey, Robert. We should go have one of these things over the holidays, when we're there. E-mail me back.

Robert Simonson said...

Well, if you're the Jon I think you are, you're on.

jonfromcali said...

I'll be in touch as soon as somebody (you? Bobby C.?) gives me your current e-mail address. Don't want to clog up your (very good, BTW) blog with personal correspondence.