Spirits: Corpse revivers, the original energy drink

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; E05

The appropriateness of morning drinks is always a touchy issue. I'm not talking about bloody marys or the other socially acceptable brunch drinks. I'm talking about real cocktails, taken before noon. It's certainly not the sort of thing I would advise before work. But every once in a while, maybe over a long weekend, it's tempting to throw off those bourgeois shackles and indulge.

A century ago, there was no hand-wringing over this sort of thing. It was assumed that a gentleman might reasonably stop off for a morning tipple. In the pre-Prohibition days, there was a wide category of drinks variously referred to as eye-openers, fog-cutters, mustache-twisters and corpse revivers. Harry Craddock, bartender at London's Savoy Hotel and author of the 1930 classic "The Savoy Cocktail Book," described corpse revivers thusly: "To be taken before 11 a.m., or whenever steam and energy are needed."

I am lucky that in my line of work I can sometimes get away with a drink before 11 a.m. And so it happened that the other morning I was mixing sidecars. Now, a sidecar is not a typical morning drink, but I was making them on the early side because I had been unhappy with the ones I'd made the night before. (This job of mine, and you can surely empathize, is often repetitive and tedious.)

The sidecar is one of those classics that everyone has heard of; images of Paris in the 1920s spring to mind. But not too many people know how to make one. And those who are aware that the sidecar is a mix of brandy, lemon juice and orange liqueur almost never agree on proportions. Should it be equal parts of all three? Two parts brandy to one part each of the other two ingredients? Should it be made with cognac? Cointreau? Grand Marnier? Should the glass have a sugared rim?

The sidecar is in the daisy family of cocktails, which dates to the late 19th century. Its members traditionally consisted of a base spirit, lemon (or occasionally lime) juice, a sweetener such as grenadine or sugar, and a liqueur such as yellow Chartreuse or an orange liqueur such as curacao or triple sec.

One of the most famous daisy cocktails is the Tequila Daisy, otherwise known as the margarita (Spanish for "daisy"), with tequila, orange liqueur and lime juice, following the same basic formula. As drinkmaking progressed into the 20th century, name-brand orange liqueurs such as Cointreau and Grand Marnier became most prevalent in the mix.

A couple of weeks ago, a reader in our weekly Free Range discussion asked me about sidecars, saying: "I love them, have tried all kinds of different proportions in the mix, but I still can't seem to match what I had years ago in a restaurant in Sausalito. Not too sour, not too sweet, like the little bear's porridge -- just right." It is nearly impossible to re-create the perfect drink of memory, but I suggested a ratio of two parts cognac to one part each of lemon juice and Cointreau. But when I went home that night and made a sidecar with those proportions, I was disappointed. I tried equal parts, then other variations. Nope.

The next morning, I was still vexed and started again. Then it occurred to me that maybe I just don't like sidecars very much: It always feels like an element is missing. I prefer sidecar cousins such as the Hoopla (which adds Lillet Blanc) or the Odd McIntosh (which adds Lillet Blanc and replaces cognac with apple brandy). In both cases, Lillet Blanc, the white wine and citrus aperitif, adds a balancing lightness to the lemon juice and orange liqueur.

I have written before about how important the right orange liqueur is. It is one area where you should always splurge on a name brand. Besides simply being of higher quality, an 80-proof liqueur such as Cointreau is also higher-proof than the run-of-the-mill triple sec or curacao (which are usually 30 to 60 proof). Employed correctly, the higher alcohol content -- like fat in a cut of meat -- is what delivers flavor.

That morning, instead of the usual Cointreau, I reached for another name-brand French orange liqueur: Combier. Like Cointreau, it is a clear triple sec, or an orange liqueur that has been distilled three times. Combier isn't new. In fact, it claims to be the original orange liqueur, made in the Loire Valley since 1834. I like that Combier has a brighter fruit flavor than Cointreau. It only recently became available in our market, and I'd been meaning to experiment with it.

That morning, then, seemed like the right time to make a corpse reviver. I scrapped the cognac of the sidecar altogether and mixed equal parts Plymouth gin, Combier, Lillet Blanc, lemon juice and just a tiny dash of absinthe to make Craddock's classic Corpse Reviver No. 2. It was 10:30 a.m. It was absolutely perfect.

It was so delicious that I could see why Craddock had felt the need to provide this warning below the recipe: "Four of these taken in swift succession will unrevive the corpse again."


Corpse Reviver No. 2

Wilson can be reached at food@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/boozecolumnist. His book, "Boozehound," is to be published in September by Ten Speed Press.

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