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Have grapefruit juice, will mix it up

By Jason Wilson,

I simply love grapefruit. For me, the complexity of its bitter-sweet-tart flavors puts it head and shoulders above any of its citrus cousins. Oranges, lemons, and limes: Admit it, you all wish you were grapefruit. Clementines and blood oranges? You have your moments, but they are fleeting. I know star mixologists have fallen in love with the Meyer lemon, the kumquat, the yuzu. But those are just novelty acts.

When it comes to booze, it’s hard to beat the grapefruit for sheer mixability. Gin and aquavit, brandy and bourbon, amari and herbal liqueurs: You name the spirit and there’s a fabulous drink calling for grapefruit juice.

What stands up to smoky mezcal? Grapefruit. In Jalisco, Mexico, where tequila is produced, the favorite local cocktail isn’t a margarita with lime juice. It’s a Paloma, which can be made with grapefruit juice or, via the quickie method, with grapefruit soda.

What was in Ernest Hemingway’s signature drink, the daiquiri variation called the Papa Doble? Well, that would be rhum agricole, maraschino liqueur, lime juice and then a little something else to bring it all together: grapefruit juice.

I rest my case.

I guess I’ve had grapefruit on the brain since I visited my parents in Florida this spring. As we reminisced about the old days, I started thinking about one of my first favorite drinks, in college, the Greyhound: grapefruit juice and (gasp) vodka. That was long before any inklings of spirits connoisseurship, and surely the grapefruit was store-bought and the vodka came from a big plastic jug.

Soon enough, I graduated to the Greyhound’s slightly more urbane cousin, the Salty Dog, an afternoon drink that my parents occasionally made around the house. The difference between the Salty Dog and the Greyhound? It adds a salted rim to the equation. Also, I’ve always understood a Salty Dog to contain gin instead of vodka.

There is some debate over gin vs. vodka, but that’s how my parents made the drink. And the only reference to the Salty Dog I can find is in “On Drink,” a 1973 book by the great comic British novelist (and lush) Kingsley Amis; he calls for gin. Amis’s terse commentary on the Salty Dog: “You either like it or not.”

I like it. The Salty Dog is still one of my absolute go-to drinks. There is such elegance in its simplicity: 2 ounces of gin, 3 ounces of grapefruit juice, ice, salt. At this time of year, I drink a lot of Salty Dogs.

But because at this point we’re squarely in the Baroque period of cocktails, something so simple certainly demands mixological adornment, right?

One variation that remains popular at the Food section is the Antibes, which adds the herb-and-honey-flavored liqueur Benedictine to the mix. Another variation, the Italian Greyhound, involves switching out the gin/vodka for Punt e Mes, the Italian spirit that falls somewhere between vermouth and Campari.

But it took a recent trip to Denmark for me to find a really new twist on the old Salty Dog/Greyhound. It was at a place called Ruby, one of Copenhagen’s cutting-edge cocktail bars. There, I had a variation that switched out gin/vodka for a local microdistilled aquavit. It made sense, really, because aquavit, like gin, is at its base level a botanically infused vodka. Aquavit takes caraway or dill as its main ingredient, rather than the juniper in gin. Ruby’s bartenders took the Salty Dog or Greyhound a step further by adding a bit of Campari.

The name of Ruby’s drink, the 866, refers to a Danish long-distance bus called the Graahundbus, or “Greyhound bus.” The only sticking point, for me, was that Ruby — understandably, in Denmark, in April — poured store-bought grapefruit juice. The rest of my trip, I thought about how I wanted to try it with some fresh-squeezed juice from Florida grapefruit.

When I returned home, the 866 was everything I’d hoped: perhaps the finest in a long line of fine grapefruit cocktails.

RECIPE:

The 866

Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2011). Follow him on Twitter @boozecolumnist.

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