Old-Fashioneds That Are Tasty,
But Not A Huge Hassle to Make

oldfashionedYou will have your own opinion of Mountain Dew, the soda beloved by videogamers everywhere, but might be interested to learn anyway that it comes by its name honestly. The drink was concocted in Knoxville, Tennessee—the heart of Appalachia—in 1940 by two whiskey-loving brothers who, owing to the vagaries of beverage distribution in East Tennessee at the time, decided to make their own mixer in order to have reliable supply. I’ve been drinking Mountain Dew since I was a kid, and enjoy it more than most people my age would likely admit, but it never occurred to me to mix the stuff with bourbon. I mentioned all this to my pal Don Galligan one Sunday last fall, when he was over to watch some football. Don is a talented whiskey drinker, whose area of expertise runs to Manhattans in particular. He thought for a moment, and told me the idea of mixing Mountain Dew and bourbon sounded disgusting.

“But, Don, it’s custom-made to go with whiskey,” I said. “By people from Tennessee. They must have known what they were doing.” Soon enough, I found myself mixing some Mountain Dew with bourbon (short glass, on the rocks) to settle the issue once and for all. It turns out Don’s right: disgusting.

That experience reinforced in me a view I’ve had for years, but never quite articulated: the notion of adding a sweetener to a bourbon-based cocktail makes no sense. Bourbon is sweet enough on its own, for starters. Drinks purists will take my views as heresy. The granddaddy cocktail of ‘em all, they’ll point out, is the Old Fashioned, which is basically bourbon and sugar with some bitters thrown in. The Sazerac (the official cocktail of none other than New Orleans) is whiskey and sugar with a rinse of absinthe and bitters.  These are supposed to be classics.

Sorry. I don’t get it. Worse, actually mixing an Old Fashioned can be a major pain. First, you shake some bitters into sugar sitting in the bottom of a glass, then muddle them together using whatever is at hand. (In my house, you’re apt to have to make do with a soup spoon.) Next, fill the glass with ice and bourbon. Then haul out the maraschino cherries and an orange for the twist. I mean, really. Wouldn’t a plain bourbon on the rocks be easier and do the job just as well?

Then again, enlightened drinkers can’t be expected to get by on whiskey on the rocks and nothing else. And I’ll admit there’s something both festive and elegant about a well-made Old Fashioned. For years in my house, we’ve mixed an alternate version of the drink that’s easier to make than the original, and a bit tastier, too. Think of it as an Old Fashioned-ish. The key is to replace the sugar with orange juice. Here’s how it goes.

Bourbon Old Fashioned-ish

Pour a jigger of bourbon over ice in an old-fashioned glass.

Add orange juice to oughly halfway up the glass, and the rest of the way up with water or club soda.

Add 2-3 dashes of Angostura bitters, and garnish with a Luxardo cherry (none other).

What you get is a drink that pleasantly sweet, and more orange-y than what you’d get from the traditional orange garnish. It’s especially fun to drink around the holidays, I find. Not everyone will like this variation, I suppose, but it’s certainly worth a try. And it’s definitely better than what you’ll end up with when you mix bourbon with Mountain Dew.

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When Mixing Manhattans,
Don’t Stint On The Vermouth

vermouthsAs the return of brown-liquor season approaches, a reminder: it’s the vermouth that makes the Manhattan, not the whiskey. You’ll have your favorite premium brand, of course, but can do worse than Carpano Antica or Punt e Mes. Both provide the depth of flavor that will transform a so-so Manhattan into a revelation: just the sort of drink you’ll be eager to mix yourself following a long day at the office, or perhaps after dinner, for dessert. Or both. A budget-minded libationst might object that fancy vermouth can be on the pricey side. Here in New Canaan, for instance, a liter of Carpano will set you back $39. I find I can rationalize that added cost—I find I can do a lot of rationalizing when it comes to liquor expense—by mentally offsetting some of it by going with a low-priced bourbon. Why not? If your favorite upmarket bourbon is so delectable, what are you doing adding anything to it other than a drop or two of water in the first place? Besides, it wasn’t all that long ago that the notion of “upmarket bourbon” was something of an oxymoron. In any event, Early Times can be a very good lower-shelf substitute. Seriously.

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Gin and Tonics, by the Pitcherful

gandpitcherThe annual family vacation on Nantucket went off without a hitch this year, except that the house we rented lacked a feature vital for optimal seaside relaxation: a deck facing the water where one can put one’s feet up during cocktail time, gaze out on to the ocean, and remember all over again how great life is. The shadows lengthen over the dunes as the sun sets, while the shore birds take one last, low pass along the water in search of whatever the heck it is they eat. Heaven.

So the lack of a deck was a problem.  We came up with a make-do solution, though, when we found five old, rusty patio chairs sitting on the beach just outside the back of the house. They had a bit of a trailer-park feel, but were plenty comfortable and sat on a spot that provided just the sort of ocean views I had in mind. The only downside was that–we’re talking about cocktail hour here, remember—the chairs were a bit too far from the bar inside to make for the convenient fetching of refills. This turned out not to be an issue: I simply mixed the day’s gin and tonics in a large pitcher, instead of individually by the glass. Then I’d take the pitcher in one hand and a bucket of ice in the other and head out to the beach (to great applause, by the way) and keep everyone’s glass full for hours. It worked great. Better yet, the extended soaking of limes in the gin made the drink particularly refreshing. So refreshing, in fact, that next year, I might mix my gin and tonics this way summer long.

The key to making gin and tonics by the pitcher, it turns out, is to maintain the carbonation of the tonic water throughout the process. The way to do that is to tilt the pitcher slightly and then pour the tonic into it along its side, much as you pour a beer onto the side of a glass if you want to keep its head to a minimum. Beyond that, the lime slices soaking in the gin in the pitcher for all that time provides an added boost. And not having to get up again and again to mix round after round  of drinks will of course be a boon to your knees.

Gin and Tonics, by the Pitcher

(Makes 4 drinks.)

6-8 oz. gin, or to taste.

20 oz. (two small bottles) tonic water.

1 lime.

Pour the gin into a large pitcher. You will be tempted to choose one that’s festive-looking, and that might otherwise hold Sangria or Margaritas. Resist this. The narrower the diameter, the better. If you have a Martini pitcher around, by all means use it.

Slice the lime lengthwise, then cut one of those halves crosswise into thin slices. Add the slices to the gin and macerate them lightly with a wooden spoon. If you’re a stickler, you’ll let the slices steep in the gin for a few minutes as well. But at the start of cocktail time, I just don’t have that in me. Tilt the pitcher and gently pour the in the tonic along the pitcher’s side.

Cut the remaining lime half into four wedges. Pour the gin mixture into highball glasses filled with ice, and garnish with lime wedges.

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They Had One Job . . .

I’m not sure I agree with all of Chris Bowman’s and Benjamin Harrison’s tips on stocking a bar. Especially troubling: the inclusion of tequila on their list of “Core Bottles.” If your friends’ default cocktail preferences run to Margaritas and Tequila Sunrises, goes my rule of thumb, it’s time to get new friends. . . .

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Confessions Of A Baby-Back Rib Snob

Cooked ribs from an angleSome of the greatest dining experiences I ever had happened nearly 40 years ago in Chicago at a restaurant called Carson’s, where I used to regularly eat myself into a stupor by chowing down on as many ribs as I could hold. It was wonderful. I was young then and could make my way through a rack of baby backs fairly easily, as long as I kept at it. The trick was to pace oneself and not become beguiled by the side dishes. You can get macaroni and cheese just about anywhere, but Carson’s ribs were—and are—among the best around, the sort of entrée that deserves the undivided attention of a serious eater. I was one of a group of eight or so young staffers from around the country who’d been summoned to Chicago for a year-long special project at the consulting firm I worked for. We flew home on weekends, but to tide us over during the week the firm gave us generous meal per diems, which we made sure to put to good use. On more evenings than you might imagine, we found ourselves at Carson’s sitting around an eight-top, wearing plastic bibs, with our shirtsleeves rolled well up. If I remember right, every one of us ordered a full rack of ribs every visit. When the ribs arrived, we’d hunch over and methodically go to work. After that, everything became kind of a blur–except that I do recall my own habit, when I was finally done after an hour or so of meticulous eating, of pushing back from the table and lurching into the bathroom to let out a couple of belches and wash down my face, hands, neck, and forearms with plenty of soap and hot water. Let me tell you, those were some dinners.

Barbecued ribs are one of those menu items, I long ago realized, that one shouldn’t even consider ordering at anywhere other than a bonafide barbecue joint–preferably one that’s been open for more than 20 years and that, in the eyes of a health inspector, might be deemed an iffy proposition. And even then, the results aren’t always great. After so many years of disappointments, I’ve gradually realized that the problem isn’t so much with those barbecue joints as it is with me. On the rib question, it turns out, I’m a fusspot. My list of rib do’s and don’ts is nearly endless. Only baby backs, in my book, for instance. And kindly serve the sauce on the side, if you don’t mind. If the meat is falling off the bone, it’s been overcooked. Please, no slathering on of basting sauce during cooking process. You parboiled the ribs ahead of time? Someone should call the police.

I could go on, but you get the idea. All this has led me to the sorry conclusion that if I want to have ribs the way I really like them, I probably need to cook them myself. After years of experimentation and tweaking, I’ve finally come up with recipe that lives up to the standards of, well, me. These ribs may not be Carson’s-level worthy, but they’re awfully good.

Barbecued Baby Back Ribs

Use a paper towel to remove the membranes on the concave sides of a couple of racks of baby back ribs or, Alton-Brown-style, dig underneath the membrane with the handle of a teaspoon.  Rinse ribs and pat dry.

Mix together a rub of salt, pepper, paprika, and brown sugar, and gently apply to both sides of the racks. Don’t go crazy. The point of the project is for the taste of the meat, not the rub, to dominate the palate. This is no time for a grand culinary gesture.  Let ribs sit for an hour or so.

Start a fire in your grill, and divide the coals into two piles, one at each end of the fire box. Use briquettes, not lump charcoal. They burn more evenly and stack better. Place an aluminum pan (or piece of aluminum foil folded into a pan-like shape) between the two piles of coals. Pour a bit of cider vinegar into the pan.

Loop the probe end of an electronic meat thermometer through the center of the grill’s cooking grate, and plug other end of probe into the thermometer, outside of grill. Target temperature is between 250 and 275 degrees.

Cut the racks in half so they’ll fit on the grill. Place them in rib racks on center of grate, over the aluminum pan. Close grill’s cover.

Monitor the fire’s temperature more or less obsessively. If it drops much below 250 degrees, add a few briquettes to heat things up. If it gets close to 300 degrees, spread coals out to cool things down. All the while, do not go anywhere near a basting brush. Keep at this for three hours or so, until the meat reaches an internal temperature (determined using a different meat thermometer) of 160 degrees.

Remove ribs place on carving board and let rest for ten minutes before serving.

Serve with Alabama barbecue sauce.

As I say, maybe not Carson’s-level delicious, but pretty darn good, just the same.

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The Next Big Thing (Maybe)

BoulevardierThe Boulevardier cocktail, in case you’ve never heard of one, is what you’d get if the Negroni and the Manhattan ever had a love child: one part bourbon, one part sweet vermouth, and one part Campari, poured over ice in an old-fashioned glass and garnished with an orange twist. It’s one of those rare retro-cocktails-making-a-comeback that doesn’t call for ingredients you’ve never heard of or a funny-shaped glass. It’s also very enjoyable. I’m surprised, now that I think of it, that the drink hasn’t had its own Negroni-style mini-craze. Anyway, if you like Manhattans, you’ll like Boulevardiers, especially if you happen to be running low on bitters . . .

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Shandies: Day Drinking For Old People

shandyThe effect of aging I find I enjoy the least is the constraint it has put on my ability to constructively drink during the day.  It wasn’t always like this—a fact I was reminded of a few years back when Mrs. Banks and I went to see our daughter at college to participate in a Greek tradition there called “Fraturday.” I wasn’t sure what Fraturday actually was, and assumed on the drive up for some reason that it must involve croquet. Turns out that was wrong. Rather, Fraturday—at least at my daughter’s school—consists from start to finish of undergraduates spending their Saturday afternoons lounging on the front lawns along Greek Row, drinking beer and in general enjoying each other’s company. The one we attended that weekend was a delight. As I stood there holding my can of Keystone Light, talking with my daughter’s pals, it occurred to me that this was basically how I used to spend my college Saturdays, too.  During fall semester back then, for instance, the pre-football-game cocktail party started at the fraternity house at 10:00 a.m. or so, continued at the stadium through the game, and then went on from there until around 6:00, when we’d take a short break back at the dorm to rest our eyes. Then we’d shower and change, have dinner, and head to whichever party we’d deemed would be the launching point for the evening’s festivities. Those, as they say, were the days.

But time has since slowed me down. Now if I so much as have a bottle of beer too early, I run the risk of an involuntary three-our nap later on, followed by a general grogginess that renders me less-than-sparkling in the dinner-conversation department. Bloody Marys at Sunday brunch can nearly finish me off for good. It’s better, I’ve found, to stick with diet soda until 5:00 or so. But I occasionally find myself in a daytime situation that cries out something stronger. My mother’s annual summertime visit from Florida coincides with the British Open, for instance, and for years she, Mrs. Banks, and I have made a habit of watching the Thursday and Friday rounds over lunch at some bar or other in town. The early rounds of the Open are among the most enjoyable TV events of the year for me–but the notion of watching all that golf dry is ludicrous. Twenty or so years ago, my chosen beverage for the task was draft beer, one pint after another, until the last group finished. But as I say, I can’t keep up that pace anymore. Rather, I’ve found that the best libation to accompany long-term golf-watching is a Shandy: essentially equal parts beer and a sweet, non-alcoholic mixer, combined. In Europe, for instance, they’ll mix beer with Coca-Cola and call it a Krefelder—a drink that sounds so vile I won’t even try it. But at South End this year—which is where we watched the Open on Friday—the bartender mixed pilsner together with lemonade (in France, this is called a Panache). The result was light and refreshing and not overly sweet—just the sort of drink one can toss down for hours without inflicting too much damage. Sort of like a low-octane gin and tonic, if you can believe it, or 3.2 beer with a bit of style. In any event, we watched golf at the bar for hours that day. I had one Shandy, and then another. The golf of course was terrific. And for a moment there, I felt young again.

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The Joy of Negronis

negroni with lemon wedgeI’ll never forget the first time I was served a Negroni, a few years back. I was sitting at an Italian place here in New Canaan called Cava, on Forest Street, waiting for Mrs. Banks to arrive for dinner. When I asked the waiter for a Negroni on tap, I couldn’t figure out why he looked at me as if I had two heads.

“Eh?,” was all he said. Then he cocked his head the way people sometimes do when they suspect they’re dealing with a moron.

“A Negroni on tap. In a chilled pint glass, if there’s one around.”

He was still shaking his head as he left for the bar. In the fullness of time, I realized I’d conflated my oni’s. What I’d meant to have was a Peroni, the Italian beer that’s a standard at New York Italian restaurants above a certain price point. (I was feeling snappy that day.) What I’d ordered, and later got, was a Negroni. The cocktail. The drink was entirely new to me and, while I wouldn’t say it was a revelation, it sure was good. I’ve had plenty more since. Pour one-third part gin, one-third part Campari, and one-third part sweet vermouth into an old-fashioned glass filled with ice, and garnish with a wedge of lemon. If your first sip tastes like floor polish, you’ve mixed it perfectly. But then wait a moment for the ice to start to melt, and let the gin to go to work. Heaven. After an especially stressful day, use Tanqueray, for added oomph.

For as trendy as Negronis have since become, I can’t say I know many people who actually like them. Everyone I’ve mixed one for personally has been appalled. At a bar here called South End, near the train station, the bartender, Ursula, tells me that only two of her customers order them regularly. At the late, lamented Gates, there were said to be three of us. Oh, well. I must be more of a hipster than I ever imagined.

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Someone Has To Say It. Martinis Are A Huge Con.

MartiniThe first Martini I ever drank was one I made for myself in college, on a lark. I’d just finished watching a midnight screening of an old Thin Man movie at the student union, and remember thinking afterward that any libation that generated the sort of devotion  that Martinis sparked in William Powell—he seemed to spend half the movie mixing and pouring them–had to be worth a try. So I found a recipe in an ancient copy of an Old Mr. Boston bar book that had somehow become part of my fraternity’s book collection. I poured some gin and vermouth together over ice into a tall glass and stirred them together with a table fork. Then (again, with the fork) I strained the mixture into the nearest thing my roommates and I had to a cocktail glass: an oversize wine bubble we’d smuggled out of a T.G.I. Friday’s the weekend prior. There was no garnish. I took a sip, then took another, and immediately wondered what all the fuss was about.

All these year later, and the appeal of Martinis still eludes me. I don’t exactly know why. I’m a big fan of gin, so much so that I’ve been known to substitute it for vodka when I want to add some extra oomph to the healing power of a Sunday-morning Bloody Mary. And I drink more dry vermouth than anyone I know, though usually when it’s mixed on the rocks with a bit of sweet. But mix gin and vermouth together, in my experience, and what you end up with is a concoction that somehow manages to lack gin’s basic stopping power and vermouth’s headiness. What, exactly, is the point?

Maybe I just have a blind spot. If I do, though, I’m not the only one. How else to explain the lengths so many purported Martini fans will go to fiddle with the basic recipe? Nothing seems to be off limits. They’ll substitute vodka for the gin, say, or add olive brine to make the drink “dirty.” They’ll come up with fruity variations like “Appletinis” that sound positively undrinkable. Or they’ll write the vermouth out of the recipe entirely and drink what is essentially chilled gin (or vodka!). You don’t see Manhattan drinkers pulling stunts like that.

None of these variations are improvements, of course. Anyway, if you’re ever out and suddenly find yourself with no choice but to have a Martini, here’s what to tell the barman: stir three parts gin (Tanqueray works well) together with one part dry vermouth (Carpano, if he has it) over ice and strain onto a single large ice cube in an old fashioned glass or, failing that, into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a lemon twist. The drink you’ll get will be better than what I served myself all those years ago at the fraternity house. Depending on your mood, it might actually not be half bad. Alternatively, if you have any discretion in the transaction at all, order yourself a Manhattan.

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