Spirits: Reincarnating the Buried 'Redheaded' Shot

(By James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The past couple of summers, it has become a tradition in New Orleans to hold a jazz funeral -- with a coffin and full procession through the French Quarter -- for a truly bad, embarrassing cocktail that the bartenders and mixologists who attend the annual Tales of the Cocktail event believe should die.

Last year, they laid to rest the Appletini, that girls' night out stalwart based on neon-green Sour Apple Pucker. The time had come. If bartending was ever to move forward as a respectable craft, then sacrificing one of the 1990s faux-tini drinks seemed reasonable. Very few tears were shed.

This summer's funeral presented a slightly different scenario. It was held for a well-known shot with a rather off-color name, served in so many college bars: the Red Headed Slut. Consisting of equal parts cranberry juice, peach schnapps and Jagermeister, the Red Headed Slut is meant to be taken in one gulp. Shouting something incoherent before or afterward is de rigueur.

At first I thought, Yeah, good riddance, RHS. Never again shall we experience your nasty mix of cloying artificial "peach" odor and bracing herbal/licorice/cinnamon punch. But over the past month, I started to think its burial might have been misguided.

Please understand: I am by no means here to defend the Red Headed Slut. I think anyone who serves one of those 1980s shots-with-a-naughty-name -- Sex on the Beach, Slippery Nipple, Screaming Orgasm, Dirty Girl Scout -- should be forced to listen to an iPod that plays only Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" over and over again.

When I look at lists of this drink genre, in a book I actually own called "Big Bad-Ass Book of Shots" (Running Press, 2004), I am struck by how often the drinks are based on a very small group of ingredients: Jagermeister, peach schnapps, Bailey's Irish Cream, Southern Comfort, cranberry juice. Sometimes more than one of them. Sometimes all of them. Clearly, more time was spent on coming up with a risque name for most of these.

But then I think I'm not being fair. Perhaps hundreds of years from now when the history of bartending is told, this type of shot will represent a primitive but significant stage of mixology. Sort of like cave paintings. In the '80s and '90s, most bartenders were working with what they had, without access to the sorts of obscure flavors and ingredients we now enjoy. What bar in 1984 had Old Tom Gin or maraschino liqueur or creme de violette?

Maybe instead of an RIP for the RHS, we should turn our attention to helping it evolve. With that in mind, I spent a lost weekend trying to reengineer it.

It's not as if the shot did its job well, anyway. We all know the purpose of a shot, and Jagermeister at 70 proof or peach schnapps at 30 proof aren't exactly high-octane. I'd suggest one slug of 101-proof Wild Turkey if that's what you're looking for. So, my plan was to shift from shot to proper cocktail.

I wanted to get rid of the peach schnapps, cranberry juice and Jagermeister yet still retain some memory of the fruit, the herbs and spices and the color, which is a sort of ginger color like . . . um, red hair.

The first ingredient was easy to get rid of. I hate peach schnapps and it was peach season, so I was going to use fresh yellow peaches in whatever I made. The second was also a cinch, because the cranberry juice wasn't doing much of anything in this drink except adding color. The third was trickier. I actually like Jagermeister now and then -- and, in fact, will be writing about my visit to its headquarters next week. But maybe Jagermeister as a mixer isn't always a good idea. It can overpower.

Still, Jagermeister has a flavor profile similar to Italian amari that so many trendy mixologists use. And I'd read about an interesting experiment using peaches and Punt e Mes on a blog called Cocktail Notes. Punt e Mes's flavor lies somewhere between sweet vermouth and Campari. I liked it, but Punt e Mes is brown, and I wanted this drink to be red. So I mixed sweet vermouth and Campari with muddled peaches.

Once I had my vermouth-Campari-peach mixture, I was in business. I combined this mixture with all sorts of spirits (and I'm still experimenting) but found it worked best with brandy or bourbon.

The drink still needed a new, less offensive name, however. I was stumped.

My recent experimentation happened around the time we learned of John Hughes's death on Aug. 6. That weekend, I ended up watching a bunch of his great 1980s teen films, including "The Breakfast Club" and "Pretty in Pink." At a certain point, during "Sixteen Candles," the name of my nicer, fresher, more sophisticated -- but still redheaded -- drink became obvious: the Molly Ringwald.

Jason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.com or food@washpost.com.

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