In July, I made my first trip to our covid-closed office in months, traveling around the startlingly speedy Beltway and north up Interstate 270 to the same unimposing building I’ve been commuting to for years. I went through the darkened building to my desk, sorted some mail and waved to some familiar shadowy figures in the hallways. I believe they were longtime colleagues, but the building was mostly dark and they were wearing masks. I’m not even sure that I was myself, having felt somehow askew for months, as though the pandemic had sanded away some layer of self I hadn’t realized was there.

Partially to counteract the sheer weirdness that had settled over this once-mundane journey, I decided to try to normalize the evening by picking up one of my favorite cocktails to take home. Founding Farmers has a location off 270, and on its menu is one of my favorite drinks in the D.C. area, the Clementine.

I’ve wanted to write an appreciation of the Clementine for a long time. It’s a creation of Founding Farmers’ former beverage director, Jon Arroyo (now consulting with Copper Fox Distillery). It’s been on the restaurant’s menu for more than a decade now, and it’s one of the drinks that drew me to the craft cocktail revival back in the late aughts. While I didn’t recognize it at the time, I now see in it a drink that pours many of the trends, rediscoveries and lily-gildings of the cocktail renaissance into a single glass.

Specifically, the drink is complex (10 ingredients, if you count the garnishes and infusion) but perfectly balanced, tart and sweet and spicy and herbal. It employs fresh juices and calls for liqueurs (maraschino and Benedictine) that were fairly esoteric until the cocktail revival brought them back. It makes use of a housemade ingredient, an infusion of chile pepper and clementines (which Arroyo says no one seemed to be using in drinks at the time) into reposado tequila. That base also provided an elegant reintroduction to agave spirits for those who might have only had them in shots or margaritas before; Arroyo says he had specifically wanted to highlight Siembra Azul’s reposado iteration.

Finally, it employs not one but two showy garnishings. Prior to pouring, the bartender moistens a wide band of the rim of the glass, then rolls it in sugar, creating a swath of sweet crust you taste and feel with each sip of the drink — an old-school technique that Arroyo picked up training with longtime cocktail king Dale DeGroff and passed along to his staff. Then, when the drink is presented, the bartender twists a strip of orange peel near an open flame above it, expressing the oils of the peel through the fire. This creates a burst of aroma in the space around you, and the squeezed and flamed oils settle on the surface of the drink. It also creates a tiny fireball. It’s one hell of a way to herald the evening’s tipple.

I loved the drink from the moment it arrived in front of me. It was the first time I’d ever experienced the flamed-orange technique, one of those little pieces of bar theater about which I’ve never managed to grow blasé. As an irredeemable dork who continues to love sleight-of-hand magic, I would’ve brought friends back for that drink for the fireball alone. The fact that the Clementine is also delicious? That’s gravy.

When I’d thought about writing about the Clementine in the past, I vaguely imagined writing about it with a little bit of cheek, along with other examples of the overly baroque tendencies of the early years of the cocktail renaissance, a pendulum that has of late begun to swing back toward simpler, classic drinks. Many have welcomed that swing, and the pandemic, I’d guess, may accelerate it; I know that I’ve mostly been leaning toward sips that aren’t too complex. Few ingredients. Equal parts. Not so much pomp and circumstance.

And yet.

When I picked up my Clementine to go in July, it was handed to me by someone in a mask, and it had been unavoidably simplified to survive the road. I transported it home in its brown paper bag and poured it from a nondescript plastic jug.

It tasted as good as ever then, and later when I made it for myself. But what I would’ve given, then and right now, to have someone make it for me with the sugar crust and the flamed twist! Or serve me any fussy, ridiculous, overly complicated concoction in a bar, with low lights and irritating music and conversations to eavesdrop on! Something with a strange new flavor and umpteen ingredients, something I would never make for myself at home, with a visual surprise to it. Hell, I could even go for a buxom plastic mermaid on a stick.

Often simpler is better. But every now and then, you encounter a drink (or a long stretch of time isolated at home) that makes you remember: Sometimes more is more.

And as Arroyo points out, while it’s fun to try to replicate drinks at home, “there are certain drinks that invite guests to enjoy [them] at that bar, to be made for you. You can’t replace that feeling, that emotion — it’s part of the experience,” he says. Sure, he notes, you can try to make it at home and have fun doing it, but “part of the intent is the hospitality behind it, because you’re giving a little bit of yourself every time you put that stuff out there.”

Since the pandemic began, more than one friend who’s been in the presence of our booze collection has teased that it probably doesn’t matter to me that bars are closed. After all, I can make a great cocktail at home.

But it’s just not true. As I watch bars across the country struggle to survive as best they can, advocating for the laws and implementing the safety protocols and hoping for the vaccine that will let them keep operating, as I remember some of my best bar experiences, I know no home cocktail setup can ever fill the void. Good bars gather some ingredients — the most important being the right people — and use them for a magic trick better than any citrus fireball: creating a small, temporary, happy community out of strangers.

Every time a bartender has made me a Clementine, I set aside my book, or pause the conversation I’m having, so I can watch that little burst of flame above the drink, announcing the arrival of a vanishing pleasure, enjoying the moment when someone presents you with a drink that’s complex, beautiful and made before your eyes. And as I sat at home drinking my homemade, delicious — but somehow incomplete — Clementine, I thought of the thousands of people whose work goes into the creation and preparation of these drinks, and all the little moments of joy and celebration their concoctions embellish, and I crossed my fingers for all of us.

Scale, print and see nutritional analysis for the recipe here.

The Clementine

The infused tequila needs to be prepared at least 4 days in advance. It will keep, bottled at room temperature, for up to 1 month.

1 serving

Granulated sugar, for garnish
1 lime wedge
Ice
2 ounces infused tequila (see NOTE)
1 ounce fresh lime juice
3/4 ounce pineapple juice (preferably fresh)
3/4 ounce Benedictine
1/2 ounce agave syrup
1/4 ounce maraschino liqueur
Orange peel, for garnish (optional)

Make a small mound of sugar, then use the lime to dampen the outside rim of a cocktail glass. Roll the exterior rim gently over the mounded sugar so the sugar adheres to the rim. Set the glass aside.

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, then add the tequila, lime and pineapple juices, Benedictine, agave syrup and maraschino. Shake hard, about 15 seconds, then strain into the cocktail glass.

If garnishing the drink, light a match near the sugar-rimmed glass, then twist the peel (orange side facing the surface of the drink) through the flame. The orange oils expressed from the peel will make a small burst of flame, then settle on the surface of the drink. Serve right away.

NOTE: To make the infused tequila, thoroughly wash 6 clementines, then score their outer rinds, top to bottom, making 6 to 10 cuts around the fruit. Wash a serrano chile, and then halve it lengthwise. Place the clementines and chile in a large jar or bowl, then add 1 liter (about 1 quart) of reposado tequila and let the mixture infuse. Taste regularly (at least daily) to see how spicy the infusion is getting — and once it’s to your liking, discard the chile pieces. Continue to steep the clementines for a full 4 days, then strain out the solids and bottle the infusion. It will keep for a month.

From John Arroyo of Copper Fox Distillery.

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