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Spirits: A cocktail named Alaska has nothing to do with Sarah Palin

The Alaska cocktail is really just a variation on the martini, one that replaces dry vermouth with Chartreuse.
The Alaska cocktail is really just a variation on the martini, one that replaces dry vermouth with Chartreuse. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

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By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; 3:42 PM

As summer wanes and the first cool weather appears, I've already switched to an autumn cocktail. My new favorite: an early-20th-century classic named the Alaska cocktail.

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Now, just because I'll be writing about the Alaska cocktail does not mean I will start off with a Sarah Palin joke. For instance, I will not say that, after drinking four Alaska cocktails, you will be able see to Russia from your bar stool. Nor will I jokingly suggest that you buy Bristol Palin an Alaska cocktail if you ever meet her in a club. In fact, I will "refudiate" any claim that I am drinking an Alaska cocktail merely for cheap political humor.

I realize that will be difficult. The Awl recently published a piece called "How Sarah Palin Ruined Alaska." In it, Alaska native Marty Beckerman writes that once upon a time, "Saying 'I'm from Alaska' was the best conversation starter imaginable," leading to silly questions about whether his family lived in an igloo and rode on dog sleds instead of cars. "But it was never the same after August 29, 2008. As soon as John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his VP candidate, suddenly no one asked about months of darkness or snowboarding to school - only about her."

Emily Post advises us against talking politics over cocktails, so let's focus on the drink. Why is the Alaska cocktail so named? According to "The Savoy Cocktail Book," published in 1930, "So far as can be ascertained this delectable potion is NOT the staple diet of the Esquimaux." (Esquimaux? No that's not a new word coined by the Shakespearelike Palin; it's just an old-time spelling of the word Eskimo.) Anyway, as with many cocktails before it, we really have no idea how the Alaska cocktail got its name.

So forget about names, and look at what's in this drink. Is smoked salmon an ingredient, you might ask? Well, it is true that the Alaska Distillery (based in Palin's Wasilla) did launch a smoked salmon-flavored vodka this past summer. But no, there is no smoked salmon in the Alaska cocktail.

Instead, it is a mix of gin, yellow Chartreuse and orange bitters. So the Alaska cocktail is really just a variation on the martini, one that replaces dry vermouth with Chartreuse.

Chartreuse? I've called for it many times in the past, and you might remember that it's made from a secret formula of 130 herbs, flowers and spices grown in the French Alps. There's 110-proof green Chartreuse and there's 80-proof yellow Chartreuse, which is milder and more honeyed and which is what's called for here. By the way, the full recipe of Chartreuse is known only to two Carthusian monks who have taken a vow of silence.

But perhaps I shouldn't talk about the monks. Start talking about monks and monasteries and vows of silence, and suddenly we're creeping toward religion, another topic Emily Post says we shouldn't discuss over cocktails. Now, talking politics over drinks is one thing. It generally causes little harm - at least for the first few rounds, before it comes to fisticuffs. Religion is a different story. Given the current vitriol over mosque-building and threats of Koran burning, well, mixing drinking and religion never gets anyone anywhere. Anywhere good, that is.

Chartreuse transcends religion, anyway. I've been surprised how many of my friends and family members, of all religions and political persuasions, have taken to Chartreuse. My friend Rachel, who much to my chagrin is a committed appletini drinker, was blown away by how much she enjoyed Chartreuse in general and the Alaska cocktail in particular. And just the other day, my father - whom until recently I labeled as cocktail-averse - surprised me by describing a wonderful drink he'd concocted with Chartreuse.

Given how contentious things have gotten these days - and not just between cocktail people and non-cocktail people - could Chartreuse actually be the thing that brings folks together?

Yeah, probably not. Especially when you put it in a cocktail named Alaska.

Recipe

Alaska

Jason Wilson is the author of "Boozehound," to be published next week by Ten Speed Press. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist.


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