From an Outie to an Innie
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
We've reached a curious place in the evolution of drinking. While I prefer to call people who make drinks for a living bartenders, some in the cocktail business insist on being called "master mixologists" or "bar chefs." Popular mixologists moonlight as "cocktail consultants." They regularly earn thousands to create brand-name drinks for liquor companies, to develop cocktail menus full of libations that restaurants sell for double-digit prices.
And some drinks, such as a Litchi Lavender Saketini I sampled the other day, seem to exist only in the theoretically hip world of the cocktail menu.
I recently saw a drink recipe that took 10 minutes to make and called for muddled bell peppers and a basil leaf garnish. The "bar consultant" who created this rum cocktail for a trendy West Hollywood spot advised readers to "spank" the basil leaf. "Put it in your palm and slap it," he said. "It just makes all the difference in the world."
Who would claim allegiance to such a drink?
Yet, every once in a while, an otherwise embarrassing drink escapes from a cocktail menu and becomes the taste of a generation. Behold the Appletini, arguably the most popular cocktail of the day.
I'm talking about the kind of drink with a mortifying name (say, one with the suffix -tini). The kind of drink that involves a cloyingly sweet ingredient (say, DeKuyper's Sour Apple Pucker). The kind whose mass appeal, after a few years, brings derisive smirks from "master mixologists," eye-rolls from the "bar chef." The kind that everyone secretly likes but that eventually becomes a joke, something to order after the third round.
Sex on the Beach. Woo Woo. Bay Breeze. Bahama Mama. Slippery Nipple. Screaming Orgasm. A certain sex-themed drink served with a dab of whipped cream on top with an unprintable name.
And the most infamous of them all: the Fuzzy Navel.
Like big hair and David Hasselhoff, the Fuzzy Navel appeared on the scene in the 1980s, seemingly out of nowhere. You see, long before DeKuyper introduced its Sour Apple Pucker liqueur, it sold something called Peachtree Schnapps. In 1984, DeKuyper sold about 85,000 cases of Peachtree Schnapps. In 1985, it sold more than 1 million cases, mostly based on the popularity of the Fuzzy Navel, the Appletini of its day. In 2005, DeKuyper celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Fuzzy Navel, but the drink is actually older than that. I unearthed an earlier recipe from a 1973 issue of House & Garden.
Since the 1980s are so back (or were), I decided to play the role of cocktail consultant and revisit this maligned drink. At the home bar/test kitchen of my brother Tyler, a fine amateur mixologist, I assembled a crack tasting panel of old school friends who came of age with the Fuzzy Navel. To get in the mood, we cranked '80s prom hits like Alphaville's "Forever Young."
We started with the old Fuzzy Navel of memory, consisting of vodka, orange juice and, of course, Peachtree Schnapps, served on the rocks. Walt, a big fan of the original, held his ground: "I don't care if it's embarrassing or not."
The rest of us sipped. The consensus: Ugh. From the first artificial-peach sniff, it was awful. "This tastes like a bad night in college," said Jill, Walt's wife.
A full makeover was necessary. We wanted to stay true to the basic taste and premise but to reinvent it for 21st-century adults.
We replaced well vodka with Stoli Peachik. We replaced Peachtree Schnapps with a much more nuanced and flavorful liqueur, G.E. Massenez Creme de Peche. Finally, we added depth by introducing the underrated Licor 43, a Spanish citrus liqueur that brought creamy vanilla to the ripe fruit flavors.
The verdict? Very sweet, but wonderful, and, most important, a cocktail an adult need not be embarrassed to drink. It worked on the rocks like the traditional Fuzzy Navel, but the better expression is straight up in a martini glass. Even Walt liked it.
Bartenders -- even mixologists, even bar chefs -- may feel free to play around with our Spanish-accented Ombligo Borracho, or Tipsy Navel. I won't hold my breath awaiting the consulting fee.
Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.