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December 1, 2009

"Cocktails" By Luca Turin

"Cocktails" By Luca Turin

There is something dangerous about cocktails. For a start they have nothing to do with food, and certainly do not put you in the mood for it. They are the stuff of the fifties, of men in hats and raincoats hanging on to Manhattan lampposts on Friday night, unable to locate Grand Central, of cartoons involving the now-extinct pink elephant. Cocktails were always far too grown-up for me, like wearing a coat and scarf over a tuxedo or deftly slipping a tip, like a baton in a relay race, to the usher who shows you to your opera seat. This was until a recent Sunday brunch in a very good Boston restaurant called Craigie.

The American brunch is a brilliant invention which, I have found, helps get me through my least favorite day of the week. I did not recognize the names on the list and ordered a Tavern Sparkler, which turned out to be a sensational spiced apple confection made with the Karlovy Vary speciality Becherovk√†. It immediately put me in mind of a fragrance, Caron’s Anarchiste. My companion ordered a Cucumber Gimlet, and opined with a big smile that it was like drinking Chanel’s Cristalle. These two drinks were a revelation: as good as perfume, free of all the organic, nature-knows-best burden of wine, real works of art.

Every cocktail on the list was a creation of the barman, a young man called Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli. We spoke to him after lunch and he explained that he had, so to speak, been born in a restaurant to a family of cooks and restaurateurs and had learned the trade on the job. A formative influence, apparently, was three years spent at Eastern Standard, a restaurant which he said had a good cocktail “program”, a term usually reserved for university courses of study.

In structure, cocktails are like perfumes of the pre-war years, composed from a mixture of naturals (lime, orange water, whisky) and bases (vermouth, angostura, gin). They differ from fragrance in that the odorant materials must be reasonably water-soluble (when they are not they go cloudy like Pastis), with the added advantage that they will not linger in your mouth and nose and will not taste bitter the way fragrance does when accidentally ingested.

What I hadn’t noticed was how far fine fragrance and cocktails have converged, indeed crossed each other’s line: the ever-popular fruity floral is essentially an undrinkable beverage, and the quality of the raw materials in a cocktail now far outstrips that of the average fragrance. In cocktails as in fragrance, the great classics are abstract: the Martini is Chypre, the Manhattan Chanel 5, the Gin and Tonic Pino Silvestre, the Margarita Chanel Pour Monsieur. This thought brought back a distant memory of an email I’d received two years ago from Damian Sim, a Singapore-based cocktail composer who let me know he had put together a bespoke mixture for, of all people, American Express. It is called Pure Platinum and contains kewra flower. Now I want to taste it.

Luca Turin works at the MIT; he lives in Boston.

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