By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
My brother Tyler and I sometimes play a game we call Liquor Store Archaeology. The aim is to make a pith-helmeted visit to older, neglected liquor stores, the sort of family-owned shops that perhaps were once prosperous and now do business mainly in pint-size flasks or liters of cheap wine or beer by the can. Inside, we scour the dark bottom shelves and dank back corners of the place, looking for forgotten bottles of spirits that have been languishing, perhaps for decades.
More often than not, we indeed turn up something rare or just plain strange. Our finds span the world: caraway-flavored kummel from Germany, an Armenian brandy called Ararat, eaux de vie with all manner of fruit floating in them, a wasabi-flavored liqueur, even a honey liqueur bottled with a real honeycomb.
It has become rather competitive. I thought I had taken the lead with something called Panache, a sweet aperitif wine with a 1970s-looking label that was made by Domaine Chandon but now is impossible to find. Then Tyler countered with a wonderful liqueur from Sicily made from mandarin peels, called Mandarino del Castello, about which we can find no information.
I figured I'd won when I'd unearthed a bottle of Cordial Campari. Though made by the same company, Cordial Campari is not to be confused with the more famous Italian red aperitivo; Cordial Campari is a clear, sambuca-like after-dinner digestivo. I'd heard tales of Cordial Campari and seen it in a few old-man bars in Italy. But it has not been widely available in the United States, and my bottle is probably decades old. It may once have been valuable, but probably not anymore -- mainly because my friends and I broke into the bottle during the holidays, and it's now sitting half-empty in my cabinet.
So Tyler became the clear victor not too long ago when he turned up something called, somewhat disturbingly, Peanut Lolita, a thick, peanut-flavored liqueur that once was produced by Continental Distilling in Linfield, Pa. The logo and fonts on the label suggest the early 1960s, but according to what little research exists, Peanut Lolita was still around in the mid-1970s, when infamous presidential brother Billy Carter "often made drunken appearances" with the liqueur's spokesmodel, according to an essay by Christopher S. Kelley in "Life in the White House: A Social History of the First Family and the President's House" (SUNY Press, 2004).
We may now own the only two bottles of Peanut Lolita left in existence. Due to the liqueur's overwhelming whiskey-and-peanut taste and grainy texture -- not to mention its unfortunate name -- it is unlikely to make a comeback anytime soon. But Tyler has created a respectable drink with the stuff: He layers ice-cold Peanut Lolita and raspberry-flavored Chambord in a cordial glass and calls it a PB&J.
For a while, the holy grail of our archaeology has been Creme Yvette, a purple-colored, violet-and-vanilla-flavored liqueur originally made by Sheffield in Connecticut and then by Charles Jacquin et Cie in Philadelphia. Nearly all mid-century bartending guides suggest that Creme Yvette was part of any well-stocked bar, and it was essential in classic cocktails such as the Blue Moon. But in the 1960s, it disappeared.
Creme Yvette is a variation on the traditional creme de violette liqueurs found in Europe, and the closest Tyler and I had come to tasting it was when friends brought home versions from France (Benoit Violette Liqueur) and the Netherlands (Bols' Parfait Amour).
That is, until last summer, when I finally had a taste of real Creme Yvette in New Orleans at the Tales of the Cocktail conference during a session on rare and obscure spirits. Rob Cooper of Charles Jacquin generously served tastes to everyone who attended, poured from one of two bottles left in existence. To judge from the reaction of many of the cocktail geeks in the room, you'd think it was a life-altering experience. Cooper suggested that if he had anything to do with it, Creme Yvette would soon be back on the U.S. market.
One importer has beaten him to the punch. Eric Seed, who owns the Minnesota-based Haus Alpenz, has brought in a delicious creme de violette liqueur made by Austrian distillers Rothman & Winter. This creme de violette is more floral, with less vanilla, than the others I've tried.
It's not the first time Seed has unearthed some long-lost spirit. In Indonesia, he rediscovered Batavia Arrack, a spicy rum cousin that was a standard in pre-Prohibition punches. In the Austrian Alps, he found Zirbenz, a liqueur made from the fruit of the native stone pine. And from Barbados, he began importing falernum, a spirit that until now I've had to manufacture myself if I wanted any (see recipe here).
Though recently called "the Indiana Jones of lost spirits" by Food + Wine, Seed is actually more cerebral and mild-mannered than he is swashbuckling. His hunts often begin at the request of high-end bartending clients, including those at Central and Cork in D.C. When asked what motivates his quests, Seeds says simply, "The customers I sell to, they take a very dim view of vodka."
Needless to say, Seed wins Liquor Store Archaeology in a landslide.
Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.