Things started to go wrong early on. “You don’t have Elderflower Liqueur? Do you have any idea what Elderflower Liqueur might be?”
I was trying to put together just a few cocktails from Jason Kosmas and Dushin Zaric’s new recipe book “Speakeasy,” but I was constantly thwarted by the insane list of ingredients: Elderflower, rose buds, five or six different kinds of bitters, kumquats, Berentzen Apfelkorn, hibiscus cordial. When we exasperatedly realized we were lacking brandy, my friend Lorraine pulled a bottle of whiskey from her cabinet and said, “Brandy is basically whiskey, let’s just do it.”
I’ll serve that cocktail last, I figured. When our palettes are dulled.
I do love the cocktail revival — as someone who doesn’t really drink beer, it’s a relief to have something to order at the bar other than a watery vodka tonic. But cocktails have become incredibly expensive as bars start infusing their own gins and making their own signature drinks that often taste chaotic and unbalanced. I wanted to see if I could make some on my own, if I could throw together a Ginger Smash at home, rather than paying $12 for some bizarre concoction a bored bartender threw together and named something vaguely dirty. (While in New York I found myself ordering an “Angry Lesbian” at an organic wine bar. I hope never to repeat the experience.)
I decided to practice on my friends with the help of the recipe book “Speakeasy.” Focusing primarily on classic cocktails, and giving interesting histories of each drink and simple instructions, I figured it wouldn’t be too taxing. The first drink I served everyone was a Tifozi, an Italian Campari drink. Whether or not you think it’s good depends entirely on what you think of the bitter but pretty Campari. Some liked it, but one piped up with “It has notes of Clorox and oak.”
Next came the Bee’s Knees, which a friend cheered with “Kingsley Amis would approve.” A gin, honey syrup, lemon drink, you could almost convince yourself it’s medicinal. Therein lies the problem. You could drink five for the sake of your sore throat and not realize there’s anything wrong until you’re calling all of your ex-boyfriends.
We were sipping these drinks slowly, sharing two amongst six people. As I presented the Bee’s Knees, a gorgeous looking drink, I was told “You could be a bartender!” My only reply: “I don’t know if you noticed, but it took me 20 minutes to put that drink together. So, no.”
Later came the Amelia, and after a couple glasses of wine and “sipping” the Bee’s Knees (I really liked that drink), we solved the lack of Elderflower Liqueur, um, creatively. Lorraine and I went through her cabinet, looking for a proper substitute when she came across a bottle of cherry-noted sake. “Why not?” The “Speakeasy” writers, with their emphasis on precision and authenticity, would be absolutely horrified. But the sub somehow worked, and the drink — a blackberry puree with vodka, lemon, sugar, and mint — was one of the most popular.
At the end of the night — glasses empty, blackberry puree pretty much everywhere — it was the wine and the company that was most memorable about the evening. I spent half the evening measuring, chopping, juicing, etc., and not enough with my friends. So here’s to the $12 cocktail — the price is worth not having to spend the evening hiding behind the bar.
By Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric
Hardcover, 176 pages. Random House. $24.95
(Cocktail photos: Lorraine Adams)