Monday, March 9, 2009

Mixology Monday XXXVII: The First Time (I hope this place gets closed down by the police)

Young drinkers take role models, and one of the shining beacons of intemperance glares through the fog from the round table in the Rose Room of the Algonquin hotel, where the Vicious Circle shared quips, told jokes, and generally inflated themselves and one another. It was here (or nearby) that Dorothy Parker came up with her sentence “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”

Ultimately, I share Parker’s own view that the Round Table folks were not literary giants. I would suggest, however, that sitting around and telling jokes might be a better drinking lifestyle than the Still Life with Whiskey Bottle that produced The Sound and the Fury.

Witty, bitter, and sophisticated, the Round Table folks are perfect role models for young people who would consider themselves gimlet eyed rather than, say, beer goggled.

Among the founding members was Robert Benchley. Benchley wrote with a sense of comic timing and misdirection that is almost unmatched.

His short piece “If These Old Walls Could Talk” begins:

In passing by the old Waldorf the other day (or, to be exact, just as they were beginning to tear it down) I realized, with a slight catch in my throat, that some of the dullest hours of my life had been spent within its crumbling walls and, as I stopped to look for the last time at its historic front, I would have murmured “Eheu fugaces!” if I had been sure whether the “g” is pronounced hard or soft.

Benchley was also a drinker, and this is interesting to us here because he was, for years, a teetotaler.

When this month’s Mixology Monday topic was issued, I thought immediately of Benchley. This MxMo, hosted by LUPEC-Boston, asked the question:

What drink do you suggest for the delicate palate of the cocktail neophyte?
Here’s how it went for Benchley. (The story is apocryphal, of course, and it is a tribute to the man’s inebriation that there are conflicting stories regarding Benchley’s first drink.)

He was 31 or 32, having barely drunk a drop, and he was standing at Tony’s Bar with Dorothy Parker. Typically, Parker and all of Benchley’s friends would be getting drunk, and Benchley would be drinking soft. Tonight, however, he said “Let’s see what all the fuss is about,” and downed an Orange Blossom. He had tried a cocktail previously in another speakeasy (or perhaps it was this one, the record is conflicted), and said with a scowl that he hoped the place was closed down by the police.

The Orange Blossom worked. Benchley would soon spend as many hours of the day drinking as working, and was once rumored to have visited 38 speakeasies in one night. I’m afraid it doesn’t end well for Benchley, he drank himself right into cirrhosis and death. I’m not the kind to issue warnings with cocktails, but I suppose there is a certain amount of responsibility called for when introducing a neophyte to the drinking life.

There seem to be about 200 recipes for the orange blossom, and I won’t pretend to know which one is the right one, or which one Benchley drank. I like this one.

Squeeze an orange and pour an ounce of juice into a shaker with two ounces of good gin,
a teaspoon of superfine sugar, and a dash of orange bitters. Ice. Shake. Pour. Decorate. Enjoy -- but not too much.

It’s a very well balanced drink, with enough juicy flavor playing along with the gin
that it tastes like a very grown up glass of orangeade, but without so much in the way of fruit and sugar that it becomes cloying.

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