Retro Drinks: Because We Miss Crème de Menthe

click to enlarge Keeping cool like the Dude. - Courtesy
Keeping cool like the Dude.

'Tis the season for cream in everything — along with sticky, minty, chocolaty, nutty, coffee-based liqueurs you might otherwise never consider imbibing. We are also still in mourning for the passing of Mad Men and its nostalgic '60s-era drinks. The combination can be lethal. Resist.

I'm not suggesting that a Grasshopper should never pass your lips. Nor am I passing snootier-than-thou (at least no more than usual) judgment on an occasional and abiding White Russian. (The folks at the recently opened Ringer Pub are counting on your nostalgic recollections of The Big Lebowski in highlighting the White Russian as an all-day, every-day, all-season $4 special for just that reason.) But I do feel that a little reconsideration might be in order.

For example: Said Grasshopper is a classic mix of green crème de menthe (1 ounce), white crème de cacao (1 ounce) and cream (2 ounce), shaken with ice and served in a martini glass. Serious bar guys such as King Cocktail Dale de Groff present the recipe without irony. But I recently tasted the Menthe Pastille white crème de menthe by the French company Giffard, and it's a drink, clean and freshly minty, you might actually want to savor alone over ice. (Subbing it, of course, would result in a clear Grasshopper, so a few mint leaves might be called into action for color-coding.) The Stinger, called "the classic New York nightcap," actually calls for the clear stuff (1 oz.), along with 2 ounces of Cognac.

Some bartenders, of which Blue Box and Brigid's Nick Kenna is one, aren't content to let the Grasshopper lie with mere upgrades in components and play even more with the recipe. To his 'hopper, Kenna adds an additional half ounce of brandy. "It grounds the drink," he says. Kenna also fiddles with another classic, the Brandy Alexander — starting with the base booze.

click to enlarge Don’t forget about Dorcol’s Brandy Alexander. - Courtesy
Don’t forget about Dorcol’s Brandy Alexander.

The Alexander is one of those drinks of uncertain naming but probable origin in the 1920s. The recipe calls for 1-and-a-half ounce brandy, 1 ounce crème de cacao and 1 ounce cream, shaken with ice and served in a coupe with a grated nutmeg garnish. Many a movie has featured it. For the brandy, Kenna subs locally distilled Kinsman Rakia infused with toasted pecan and cacao nibs, and in lieu of crème de cacao uses a combination of Praline, a pecan-based liqueur made by the Sazerac folks, and Noir d'Ivoire, a distillation of two types of cocoa bean from the Ivory Coast. But wait, that's not all: He also leaves out the cream in the shaken mix and in its place caps the coupe with a foam of simple egg white or egg white mixed with a touch of cream. The result, embellished with artfully drawn nutmeg, is almost virtuous in its lightness. You could slam down more than one of these babies.

I never really got into traditional coffee liqueurs such as rum-based Kahlua. But the combination of nostalgia and innovation brought on by current cocktail and coffee movements has led to the appearance of some new products that put the bean, not the sweetness, front and center. From just up the road in Austin, for example, comes the newly minted Caffe del Fuego.

Says co-owner Peter Remington, "We wanted something that made coffee the main flavor profile, toning down the sugar quite a bit..." When I tasted the brew, I found it a tad subtle — this from a guy who likes really strong coffee, but don't let that stop you. Consider it instead a sturdy base from which to compose your own Russki, white or black. (The Black Russian, by the way, is simply equal parts coffee liqueur and vodka — no cream.) I haven't done this, but here's what I think might work: Have at hand a cold-brewed coffee or a cooled espresso and a little simple syrup of equal parts sugar and water — just in case the Caffe del Fuego needs amping up in your estimation. Then make the classic WR thusly: In a rocks glass filled with ice add 2 ounces vodka and 1 ounce Caffe del Fuego coffee liqueur, top with a splash of heavy cream and stir. You may now feel free to Dude the drink up with added coffee and/or simple syrup. Or not. You are in charge, not somebody's cloying liqueur.


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