No preservatives, but worth keeping around
By Jason Wilson,
I am not immune from schadenfreude. So it was with great glee that I learned that Skinnygirl Margarita — the low-cal, ready-made cocktail developed by Bravo TV reality star Bethenny Frankel — was removed from Whole Foods’ shelves a few weeks ago. Beam Global Spirits & Wine, which bought the Skinnygirl line this year, had been hit with a class-action lawsuit claiming deceptive advertising. Apparently Skinnygirl’s “all natural” ingredients contain the preservative sodium benzoate. Oops!
Not that this was a surprise; how else could a low-proof mixture containing fresh, pure citrus juice sit on store shelves for months without going bad? Frankly, if you’re too lazy to squeeze a lime and mix it with tequila and triple sec, maybe you deserve some sodium benzoate in your life. Beam dismisses the lawsuit as “frivolous,” and even after paying $120 million for Skinnygirl, the company undoubtedly is rich enough to survive this legal challenge. In any case, more than 100,000 cases of the stuff will be sold this year, making Skinnygirl the fastest-growing spirit in the United States.
That is the way of the world. So much of the spirits industry is populated by characters who’ll tell you anything so you’ll drink their swill. Which means, of course, that once the schadenfreude wears off, I find myself a bit depressed.
What always makes me feel better is to appreciate someone who stands in opposition to such prefabricated nonsense. That’s why I’ve been spending so much time with Jim Meehan’s new cocktail guide, “The PDT Cocktail Book” (Sterling Epicure), to be released this fall.
I mentioned Meehan’s book in my last column and included the recipe for the outstanding Newark cocktail. But as I’ve spent more time with this guide over the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that its recipes might represent the best, most complete chronicle of the cocktail renaissance that we’ve experienced over the past five years. If you have been swept up by the cocktail craze, or if you suddenly find yourself with bottles of sloe gin or both kinds of Chartreuse or six styles of rum in your cabinet, then you must have this book on your shelf.
PDT (short for “Please Don’t Tell”) is the iconic speak-easy revival bar in New York’s East Village that Meehan helped open in 2007. In fact, it’s the one that so many of the Johnny-come-lately “speak-cheesies” in other cities have tried to emulate. You enter through a hot-dog shop called Crif Dogs, then proceed through a phone booth to finally arrive at the bar, where you find a code of etiquette along with the leather-bound cocktail menu. Precious? Perhaps. Worth it? Totally.
Meehan is as serious about drinks as Skinnygirl is silly. “I moved to New York to further my studies as a bartender,” Meehan writes earnestly. “[M]y work ethic and approach to the profession remains thoroughly Midwestern.”
So although the illustrations are playful and lighthearted, don’t expect a chucklefest. “The PDT Cocktail Book” is not another rehash of late-19th- and early-20th-century classic cocktails. Meehan’s modern recipes employ an impressive cross-section of the newly rediscovered spirits I’m always trying to persuade you to try. I have never read a cocktail book with more new recipes for apple brandy, rye whiskey and cognac. Have you bought bottles of pisco or genever or Benedictine and run out of things to do with them? Meehan provides the answers. Is there an expiring bottle of sherry in the fridge? You’ll find more than a dozen ideas. As a bonus, a half-dozen hot dog recipes from Crif Dogs are included in the book.
The recipes I’ve featured from Meehan’s book illustrate, for me, two of the most interesting directions cocktails have taken. The first is Meehan’s use of unusual base spirits, such as fruit brandies or eaux-de-vie, rather than the standards. The second is his experiments with wine as a prime ingredient. You’ll see both in the Mount Vernon (with cherry brandy kirschwasser and sherry) and the Falling Leaves (with dry Riesling and pear brandy).
As for citrus, Meehan addresses it in a terse note. In his bar, “Fresh Fruit Juices are squeezed daily and fine-strained of pulp.” I searched all 368 pages of “PDT” and found no mention of sodium benzoate or low-cal, pre-bottled cocktails. For a brief moment, the world worked in exactly the right way.
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.