2015 is the centennial of two of the most important figures in American music and the history of New York. We took care of Frank Sinatra already on Alcohol Professor, so now it’s time to bow down to the woman he said was the most influential artist in his life and in modern American music history. Lady Day on Swing Street is a two part look (part one here, and part two here) on Alcohol Professor at the life and career of Billie Holiday, the Harlem Renaissance, and the rise and fall of Swing Street and Greenwich Village jazz clubs.
Spanish single malt whiskey? Mysterious brandy? A cognac only one farmer from France has ever heard of? High quality, low profile, and generally a lot of fun to drink, how did a chemical engineer from France become an importer of such unusual spirits in the United States? On Alcohol Professor, That Secret Brand looks at PM Spirits, the company dedicated to bringing you those and other obscure, niche — “geeky” as founder Nicolas Palazzi calls them — spirits.
The history of just about any spirit seems to follow a distinct pattern. A date for its creation is established, then half a dozen or more previous examples of the spirit follow in quick succession, making the original date more or less meaningless. This is because no one “invents” gin. Or whiskey. Or any of these things. The process of inventing gin is a long process of one type of spirit slowly evolving into another related spirit as tastes and supply changes and as distilling technology changes. Spirits aren’t invented. They evolve. So when something states that gin was invented in the middle of the 17th century by a Dutch physician named Franciscus Sylvius, what they’re really saying is that’s the year the history of gin become much easier to research than it had been in the past. Because even a cursory search will turn up gin, or at least its root form — genever — as far back as the 1500s, and you can bet that by the time something was written about, it had already been around for a good long while. Most of what we know about gin today involves England, but just about all history places the rise of gin in that nebulous region Americans know as, “Holland or The Netherlands or Belgium or something about the Flemish — where the hell is Flemland?”
It was during the great mid-century cocktail revival that young Ian Fleming came into his own as the gadabout and Bond vivant we know him as. And it’s likely that, as a man heavily influenced not just by British adventure writers like John Buchan, but also American detective novel writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, creator of the Philip Marlowe series and one of Fleming’s literary icons (Fleming even interviewed him for the BBC in 1958; the interview is the only known recording of Chandler’s voice, which the BBC radio producers described as “”slurred with whisky”), their drinking habits and those of their characters would have rubbed off on Commander Fleming. In the 2013 novel The Ian Fleming Files: Operation Parsifal by Damian Stevenson, a based-on-real-events novel about Fleming himself having wartime adventures that would inspire the adventures of James Bond, Fleming meets with his aging mentor Alfred Dillwyn “Dilly” Knox, who takes Fleming to The Eight Belles Pub.
2015 marks Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday. Over on Alcohol Professor, I’ve chosen to commemorate The Chairman of the Board’s centennial with The Chairman, The Poet, and The Dancer, looking at the history of Jilly’s Saloon, the joint Sinatra used as his home base whenever he was in New York City and owned by Jilly Rizzo, Sinatra’s right hand man. When he retired and sold the restaurant, it passed into the hands of a trio of Russians — including a Nobel Prize winning poet and the most famous ballet dancer in the world — who turned it into a hotspot for Russian ex-pats, intellectuals, and artists. Oh, and Johnny Carson was almost assassinated there by an angry Mob boss. Because of its length, it’s being posted in two parts. Part two is available here.
In an episode of the television show The West Wing, President Josiah “Martin Sheen” Bartlet said “Shaken, not stirred, will get you cold water with a dash of gin and dry vermouth. The reason you stir it with a special spoon is so not to chip the ice. James is ordering a weak martini and being snooty about it.” But then, Bartlett also once said, “To be called bourbon it has to come from Kentucky, otherwise it’s called sour mash,” so his opinion on drinks and drink history is about as dependable as Ian Fleming’s opinion on healthy eating and drinking.
The first drink James Bond has in Risico, while meeting with his contact Kristatos, is a Negroni. Risico prominently features one more cocktail, if in a somewhat dismissive fashion. Kristatos identifies himself to Bond at the Hotel Excelsior’s bar with a signal: an Alexander, which amuses 007.
“Bond had been told to look for a man with a heavy mustache who would be by himself drinking an Alexandra. Bond had been amused by the secret recognition signal. The creamy, feminine drink was so much cleverer than the folded newspaper, the flower in the buttonhole, the yellow gloves that were the hoary, slipshod call-signs between agents.”
In his book Everyday Drinking, Kingsley Amis, who would go on to author the first official James Bond novel after the death of Ian Fleming, described the Americano as “good at lunchtime and before Italian food.” He then went on to write: “If you feel that, pleasant as it is, it still lacks something, throw in a shot of gin and the result is a Negroni. This is a really fine invention. It has the power, rare with drinks and indeed with anything else, of cheering you up.” The first drink Bond has in Risico, while meeting with his contact Kristatos, is a Negroni, “with Gordon’s please” (in the movie For Your Eyes Only, which is loosely adapted in part from this story, the drink is changed to the Greek pastis ouzo, which happens to play a major role in Amis’ Bond novel, Colonel Sun). In the cinematic adaptation of Thunderball, Bond congratulates himself for disarming a henchman by mixing himself up a Negroni. The origins of the drink, like so many, are a mix of supposition and the acceptance of hearsay as fact because, eh, why not? That’s been the story for a long time.
“The room was sumptuous with those over-masculine trappings which, together with briar pipes and wire-haired terriers, spell luxury in France. Everything was brass-studded leather and polished mahogany. The curtains and carpets were in royal blue. The waiters wore striped waistcoats and green baize aprons. Bond ordered an Americano and examined the sprinkling of over-dressed customers, mostly from Paris he guessed, who sat talking with focus and vivacity, creating that theatrically clubbable atmosphere of l’heure de l’aperitif.” – Casino Royale, Chapter 5
Over at The Alcohol Professor, I talked to Josh Hatton from Single Cask Nation and the Jewish Whiskey Company about their recent bottling of “light whiskey” from Indiana’s Lawrenceburg Distilling. What is light whiskey? How did LDI find itself at the center of all this controversy about fake distilleries and craft whiskey? Oh, It’s that Whiskey from Indiana strives to make sense of it all.