Spirits: Ginger ale and ginger beer make for comforting cocktails

The Cloudy Sky's mix of ginger ale, sloe gin and lime juice -- a low-proof variation on a rickey -- is the perfect mellow late-summer sipper. (Dayna Smith for The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 3:32 PM

Why do people always order ginger ale when they fly? I almost always do, and many of my fellow travelers seem to do the same. It's not a conscious thing for me, but rather reflexive. I don't know what it is about being strapped into a cramped coach seat, browsing SkyMall, that makes me think: Canada Dry. When I'm on the ground, I rarely find myself saying, "Gee, you know what'd be great right now? Ginger ale."

The food Web site Chow posed the question earlier this year to flight attendants, who confirmed that in-flight ginger ale consumption is high. Their explanations included the obvious (people don't want caffeine or alcohol, which can dehydrate them on long flights), the even more obvious (people hear the person in front of them order it, so they do, too) and the extremely specific ("Mormons don't drink caffeine, so they have a tendency to drink ginger ale," one attendant said). But the most popular theory is that the soft drink relieves motion sickness and settles the stomach. Ginger ale, it seems, has the power to calm and comfort, which is why your mother might have served it to you when you stayed home sick from school.

That idea of comfort might be why ginger ale - along with its more robust cousin, ginger beer - is such a popular mixer with liquor. Especially in the classic highball, it has always made spirits more accessible, taming the high-proof edges.

Comfort might also be why I've been mixing with a lot of it lately. You see, a couple of weeks ago I turned 40, which I've had a hard time accepting. I'd been searching for the perfect introspective cocktail with which to contemplate my middle age. But with summer beginning to recede, I've found myself suddenly and strangely drawn to all manner of drinks made with ginger ale and ginger beer.

There has always been much debate over whether "dry" (or "pale") ginger ale or more robust "golden" ginger ale works better in cocktails. The opinionated (and crotchety) David Embury, in his 1948 classic "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks," preferred the dry and pale (Canada Dry in particular) and declared that "old-time heavy" ginger ale "has no place in drink mixing." I respectfully disagree with Mr. Embury on that point. Further, he deplored most ginger ales on the market, saying they "fall below any reasonably high standard for carbonated beverages." With that, I do agree. In fact, I've been amused lately that Canada Dry now advertises that it is "Made With Real Ginger." I mean, really? Why is that not a given?

To be clear, I've been looking beyond the basic Canada Dry and Schweppes, both of which would be classified as "dry" ginger ales. I'm more interested in "golden," which is richer and has more of a kick. Two favorites have been Fever-Tree and the extra-spicy Blenheim, especially Old #3 Hot, with the red cap. I'm also a fan of Barritts ginger beer from Bermuda and Reed's from Jamaica.

Ginger beer has a long tradition in the islands, as evidenced by the Dark 'n' Stormy (rum, ginger beer, a squeeze of lime), one of my go-to summer drinks. Ginger beer is also a nice mixer with vodka, something I'm always trying to suggest to committed vodka-tonic drinkers. Ginger beer is essential in the Moscow Mule (equal parts vodka and lime juice to three parts ginger beer).

In my comfort-drink quest, I've been searching for even more inventive uses of ginger ale. I found an interesting recipe in "Cocktails: How To Mix Them," a book written by a London bartender named Robert Vermeire and published in 1922. The drink calls for sloe gin, that British favorite made with sloe berries harvested from the autumn hedgerows. Most sloe gin in the United Kingdom is homemade, and maybe sloe gin's link to English grandmothers' kitchens adds an element of comfort. Plymouth, Hayman's and Gordon's make commercial sloe gin; Plymouth is the most widely available in the United States. Avoid most sloe gin made here; it is almost always artificially flavored.

In any case, I find the mix of ginger ale, sloe gin and lime juice - a low-proof variation on a rickey - to be the perfect mellow late-summer sipper. The name of the drink even suggests the perfect setting for ginger ale: the Cloudy Sky.


Cloudy Sky

Wilson is the author of "Boozehound," coming this month from Ten Speed Press. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist.

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