Something Good #37: Cocktails du Cinéma With Ariel Esteban Cayer
For the next couple of months I’m going to be off shooting a feature film. I will be pretty darn busy during this period so I’ve asked some friends to take the reins of Something Good. Every other week will feature a post from a guest writer in which they recommend something to my readers. (On alternate weeks I will be re-running notable older posts.)
Two weeks ago, my guest was Sheila Heti; this week it’s Ariel Esteban Cayer. Ariel is a Hong Kong-based writer and film curator with excellent taste. When he suggested the topic for this week’s newsletter, I knew my readers would be in good hands.
I was never one for bars or cocktails, or even drinking much (in fact: I was an annoying straight edge kid for most of high school and college, singularly focused on watching as many films as I could as a shield of sorts from normal social interactions). Nor was I interested in the mason jar concoctions I (wrongly) assumed to be the norm in Montreal for a long time. Later, I only bothered eyeballing the occasional G&T or Negroni at home; never knew what to order in bars aside from an Old Fashioned (thanks, Mad Men) and never conceived of drink-making as something I could be interested in, let alone learn about from books. It all seemed arcane to me, like coffee at first is. That is: until it isn’t.
Flash forward to mid-2020, pandemic times, six months or so into having moved to Hong Kong (which, for the record, has a very vibrant, very fancy cocktail scene, due it having big money, big restaurant groups, and American, British and Australian expats to spare). On a whim, I picked up Robert Simonson’s rather excellent The Martini Cocktail and felt it open a third eye. The compact book introduced me to the idea that drink-making could be taken seriously and had a studied history that related to that of the World (British Imperialism and the rum trade, the turn of the century, Prohibition and its mythos, Tiki as appropriation; so on and so forth).
It also helped that Simonson included a section in the book on martinis in movies (my main thing): a great list of classic Hollywood films that ranges from W. S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man (1934) to Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) to Billy Wilder’s many great films featuring the drink in key scenes (from 1942’s The Major and the Minor—“Let’s get you out of that wet coat and into a dry Martini”—to Jack Lemmon’s death-defying binge in 1960’s The Apartment).
This all also coincided, of course, with the marked proliferation of cocktail videos in my YouTube algorithm; new and old channels started by entrepreneurial bartenders rightly figuring out it wouldn’t take too long before everyone would be wanting to drink at home and perhaps get a little obsessive about it. Eric André got into drinks intensely and documented the growing of his bar on Instagram. His citing of Leandro DiMonriva (of The Educated Barfly) and Shannon Mustipher (author of Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails)as his quarantine “mom and dad” brought me to new recipes. I started reading David Wondrich, bookmarked Difford’s and r/cocktails, subscribed to Punch, learned my Tuxedo from my Martini ratios, my Last Words from my Final Wards (and Paper Planes). A year on, I am still drinking the mixology Kool-Aid although, thankfully, a semblance of a normal life and its basic requirements for sober productivity have also resumed and toned down the experimentation a little bit.
So, in the spirit of Simonson’s list that sparked this new obsession, and with thanks to Mark for his generous invitation to Something Good, here are two drinks (and films) that have been on my mind:
2.5-3 ounces (75ml-90ml) gin
3-6 dashes of Angostura bitters
1 sugar cube
No relation to the pink-hued, berry-or-rose infused “pink gin” that can now be found in liquor stores, Pink Gin is, in its original expression, simply gin tinted by a few drops of Angostura bitter (to taste). Originating in the British Navy (who added a sweeter gin to the bitters to make it more palatable as a cure for sea sickness), it seemed primitive and underwhelming.
I didn’t give it much thought, until I watched Stanley Donen’s British-made The Grass Is Greener (1960), starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr as the Earl and Countess of Rhyall. A posh, if slightly forgettable slice of Late Classical Hollywood, the film hinges on the absurd premise of Kerr running off with Robert Mitchum (as an American oil tycoon) despite being married to Grant. My attention settled, however, on Jean Simmons’ character, Hattie—as Lord Rhyall’s ex—who, at some point, requests her gin served “pink”—and asks: “would you mind burning the Angostura”?
This is where the drink differs from the accepted recipe: Grant adds a sugar cube to a short glass, douses it in Angostura bitters, sets the cube on fire, and pours gin over top. I rushed to emulate and was delighted with the result. If the original Pink Gin, when stirred over ice and served up, makes for a very dry, eye-pleasing Martini-like concoction, this version makes for a drink closer to an Old Fashioned—the burnt sugar adding a nice caramel roundness to it. (Ice is omitted here, as is the lemon twist, but adding these will bring this even closer to a “Gin Old-Fashioned”). The choice of gin is also up to you, but in keeping with the drink’s origins in the Navy, Plymouth is almost universally recommended. Unlike a more juniper-forward London Dry, it is a smoother, citrus-y gin that I’ve grown quite fond of. It makes an exceptional martini, and will play nicely here with the spice from the bitters.
The 20th Century
1 2/3 oz (50ml) gin
1 oz (30ml) crème de cacao (clear)
1 oz (30ml) Lillet Blanc or Cocchi Americano
1/3 (10ml) lemon juice (freshly squeezed)
Combine the ingredients in cocktail shaker, fill with ice, shake for about 10 seconds, and strain in a coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Alfred Hitchcock’s spectacular North by Northwest (1959) might be the most famous film to take place aboard the Twentieth Century Limited, the iconic train that connected New York to Chicago from 1902 to 1967. It is also the backdrop and namesake of Howard Hawk’s superb, proto-screwball comedy-of-hubris Twentieth Century (1934) starring a young and fierce Carole Lombard alongside a deranged John Barrymore. I can’t recommend both films enough, but the truth is: no 20th Century is prepared in either of these.
The cocktail is, however, a delicious drink and my most-recent go-to at home. First published in in 1937 in William J. Tarling’s Café Royal Cocktail Book (1937), it usually calls for 1.5oz of gin, .75oz of lemon, .75 oz Bianco aperitivo and 0.5 oz cacao. These specs are undoubtedly delicious, by my preference have settled with the revised specs above, attributed to bartender Joerg Meyer in John Difford’s guide. Dialing down the lemon lets the wine-based aperitivo and the chocolate flavours shine through. Try both recipes and see where you land; I tend to go back and forth depending on which gin I have (a more robust gin can handle the tartness), or, conversely, whether I have a lemon in urgent need of squeezing. Plus (and perhaps above all), this is a great, graceful way to put that bottle of crème de cacao to use once your brief Grasshopper obsession has come to pass.
From Tilman Singer’s Luz (2018)—a stylish, demonic possession film from Germany. In it, two characters share a disorienting two-part drink that baffles the imagination. It consists of small shot, in which sugar is poured liberally. Next to it, a blue mixture is served over ice, and garnished with a celery. The two are then combined, shaken hand over glass, until the mixture turns purple.
Designed as a visual gag, rather than as a functional drink, it’s reminiscent of the blue milk of Star Wars and begs similar questions. What could this taste like? Why celery, of all garnishes? For reference, the effect was achieved using butterfly pea flower tea, which turns purple in contact with lemon or lime juice, but one should absolutely speculate on what this fictionalized cocktail might be.
Singer’s follow-up recently got the green light from Neon, who put together an incredible cast. So now is the time to catch up, in case, I don’t know… he’s the next Bong Joon-ho or Julia Ducournau!
— Ariel Esteban Cayer
Every Wednesday I’ll send you Something Good. Hey, they’re auctioning off the late, lamented Ricky Jay’s collection of ephemera:
Magician, actor, scholar, author: the range of Ricky Jay’s accomplishments were as varied as are the formats and subjects of the material in his celebrated Collection: books, pamphlets, posters, handbills, broadsides, prints, ephemera, objects, and apparatus documenting the histories of magic, circuses, jugglers and acrobats, automatons, remarkable characters, learned animals, limb-deficient artists, con men, and scores of other related, if arcane, topics. Featuring characters of the greatest celebrity to the utmost obscurity, The Ricky Jay Collection will offer an astonishing variety of material in a sale that is truly without precedent.
My birthday was a few weeks ago; just saying.
Thanks to Ariel Esteban Cayer for writing this week’s issue; check out his Instagram for great film, food, cocktail and Hong Kong content.
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