It begins with a sonnet or short story and ends in a coupe glass.
That's the short version of how Reading Room bartender Chantal Tseng dreams up a drink that evokes -- and sometimes tweaks -- masterworks like "Macbeth" or "Death in the Afternoon."
The long version? "It's all very much like jazz: improvisational and adapting to the era and environment," Tseng says. She begins by reading a handful of pieces by a particular author. Then the free associations begin.
"Sometimes, there is a specific reference to drinking . . . sometimes an author simply writes about a theme that has a lot in common with a classic cocktail that already exists," Tseng says. Sometimes, she just wants to make a hot drink and hunts for a bit of writing that will inspire it. (She read more than 30 Robert Burns poems to find one that would work with a mulled
To understand Tseng's process better, we asked her to suggest readings to complement cocktails you can make at home: the Old-Fashioned, the Vesper and the El Presidente. Her answers have been edited for length.
" 'Old fashioned' used to be more of a way to describe a drink. The first definition of a cocktail [was] spirits, bitters, sugar and water. People began to request a drink made the old-fashioned way, which eventually just became an Old-Fashioned as we know it today. As for a story: 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' by F. Scott Fitzgerald, where the protagonist starts life old then gets young. This is akin to the span of the Old-Fashioned, which after a long life has found itself newly revived."
"The Vesper is a variant of a dry martini created by Ian Fleming in his novel 'Casino Royale.' It's not the best drink, and personally, I'd rather drink a champagne or champagne cocktail while reading 'Casino Royale,' and the characters drink quite a lot of champagne as well. The Vesper was a plot device, naming a drink for a woman. But after she dies, he never has one again. If you haven't tried one, may as well do so while reading Bond."
"The El Presidente can vary greatly depending on your choice of rum and vermouth, but then, it is named after a political office, after all. I would suggest a good spy novel by Graham Greene, maybe 'Our Man in Havana'. "