by David 1/Voridrich
THERE ARE PEOPLE IN THIS WORLD WHO DON'T REGARD THE absence of a proper cocktail as a situation calling for immediate and extraordinary measures. I'm not one of them. Mind you, I don't require my every waking moment to be spent with fingers locked on the stem of a martini glass; there's a time and a place for everything. But when that time is now and I find my fingers closing on air, I start to get—well, not panicky, because that implies helplessness. "Motivated" is the word I want. So what if the vicinity holds no bar, no bartender, no cocktail trolley all stocked up with booze and the implements needed to beat it into the shape of a cocktail? As long as there's a drop of alcohol of (almost) any kind anywhere around, I will have that cocktail—even if it takes a little improvisation.
Luckily, when you strip off all the flair and silliness with which it's so often invested, mixing good drinks is a pretty simple business. You don't need to know five hundred recipes. You don't need to write about booze for a living, as I do. You don't need jiggers, speed-pourers, neon liqueurs, or birdbath-size crystal martini glasses. All you need is a little imagination, a little knowledge of the basic principles of mixology (measure everything, make the drink as cold as possible, and don't overdo it with the sweet stuff), and, above all, the will to get it done. As proof, I offer three examples, occasions when I was far from home and MacGyvered myself (and various other interested parties) a reasonable cocktail against very long odds.
My first success with field mixology came in 1983, when I was twenty-two and found myself stuck in a cheapo motel in Greensboro, North Carolina, with three other guys and nothing to drink. (It's okay, we were a band.) It was the last night of our tour and we were all down to pocket change. Half an hour's scrounging through backpacks, drum cases, seat cushions, and whatnot yielded just enough money to pop around to the state store and pick up a pint of their cheapest vodka. With twelve cents left over, mixers were out of the question—as was ice (the motel charged a buck for it). Even a bunch of broke rock-and-roll musicians could see that a couple swallows of warm Popov are almost as bad as no drink at all.
Fortunately, there was a cafeteria-style barbecue joint next to the motel. That gave me the idea. I would have to be quick— and discreet—but the prize would cost nothing more than a dirty look from the cashier.
Keeping my head low, I slipped through the door, found the drinks station, grabbed one of their massive Styrofoam iced-tea cups, filled it with ice, snapped a cover on it, pocketed three or four lemon wedges, and slipped out again—all in less than sixty seconds. Three minutes later, we were back in our room. I peeled the lemon wedges with a Swiss Army knife, poured the vodka into the cup, shook the bejeezus out of it, punched a thicket of holes in the lid with the awl (that pointy thing on the back of the pocketknife), strained the contents into four motel glasses that had been cooling under the faucet (better than nothing) and twisted a nice, fat strip of lemon peel over each. A minute later, A Blind Dog Stares, as we were calling ourselves (yes, I know it's a stupid name), was sipping bone-dry vodka martinis. Not too shabby, considering.
In the two decades that followed, there was a good deal of competent—if I do say so myself—but essentially unexciting fieldwork that I'll skip over. I learned a lot about making do. (Did you know that a beat-up old coffee mug chilled in the freezer for half an hour will keep your drink cold far longer than any fine-crystal martini glass in existence? Or that you can make a fairly palatable margarita with tequila, lime juice, and Mrs. Butterworth's?). One thing that I could never work around, though, is the absence of vermouth when a martini jones strikes. (While I'm fine without it in a vodka martini, with gin it's a different story.) So when, a couple of years ago, my wife and I found ourselves all alone at a friend's country house in upstate New York, stocked with all the good things in life—bottle of Tanqueray, real martini glasses, antique cocktail shaker, lemons, lots of ice—save that one, we came close to despair. I mean, it's not that we needed that martini, mind you; it's just that it had been a long drive and there was a patio and a sunset looming and . . . okay, we needed it. But there was no way we were going to get back in the car. An insolvable problem.
Then the inspiration: What is vermouth but oxidized, lightly fortified wine that's had herbs and spices steeped in it? And what was that behind the house but a large and well-tended herb garden? A rummage through the refrigerator turned up half a bottle of Pinot Grigio. God knows how long it had been open, but in this case it scarcely mattered. We were in business. A sprig of rosemary, a little thyme, some chamomile flowers— I had no formula, but those sounded about right. Perhaps a strip of orange peel for aroma and a couple of sage leaves for their bitterness.
Now, a big part of the vermouth-making process is aging: It takes months for the herbs to impart their flavor to the wine and for the wine to oxidize. If we had had to wait that long for a martini we would surely have died. But there is such a thing as a microwave, and this house had one. Quick and dirty, but effective. After a couple minutes of shaking everything together in the bottle, I decanted it into a glass bowl and nuked it for half a minute or so. Result: crude, but adequate. Martinis ensued.
My third and most recent booze-related MacGyverism happened in the summer of '05. Once again, I found myself in need of ice, only this time I was in France with some fellow journalists, touring Cognac distilleries, as pleasant a form of work as has ever been devised. There was a slot in our itinerary for an afternoon boat ride down the Charentes, the sleepy little river that runs through the Cognac region. What could be more enjoyable, we figured, than to spend a June afternoon floating downstream, shooting the breeze, and sipping cocktails? We came prepared. I packed a cocktail shaker, a strainer, and a juicer. Someone else brought some bitters, someone else some Cognac, etc. All we needed were the cups and the ice. A quick stop at the local hyper-market (as they call them) and we'd be all set. The cups were no problem. But who knew French supermarkets don't sell ice? What kind of a country is this? The boat left in ten minutes; there was no time to go anywhere else.
Just as despair was setting in, it came to me in a flash— they've got a fish counter, right? Our best French speaker was dispatched. Five minutes later, he was back, a big bag of ice chips in each hand. The cocktails only tasted a little bit like fish.
David Wondrich is one of the leading authorities on the cocktail and its history. He lives in Brooklyn in a house full of bar gear.
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