Classical Cocktails: Drinkers Without Borders

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Any endeavor performed at a sufficiently high level carries serious risks. For highly trained, international-competition-worthy wine and spirits tasters, the danger of “palate exhaustion” – the diminished capacity to detect nuanced flavors at the end of a marathon tasting session, also known as “palate fatigue” – is omnipresent. Even if one opts for spitting over swallowing, it is much harder to appreciate the subtler spice notes in the day’s sixteenth bourbon sample than it is in the second, and no competition should be decided purely by starting position.

Palate exhaustion seems especially relevant today as the London Olympics lumber into their home stretch. NBC’s coverage (deservingly savaged in detail on this site, and elsewhere) should sport a chyron every half hour warning viewers that extended exposure carries the risk of sentimentality exhaustion, jingoism exhaustion, and Superfluous Flying Tomato exhaustion. (Actually that’s a poor example: no warning is effective against Shaun White. He exhausts on contact, like Marcus Bachmann or Metal Machine Music.)

As with hangovers, only time and hydration can cure palate exhaustion. Fortunately I’ve found that the burnout engendered by NBC is more susceptible to alleviation by (re)inebriation. This is not true of hangovers, although as the Bloody Mary has taught us, it can be fun to pretend otherwise.

Neuroscience having recently caught up with the fine art of booze writing, we now know for a fact that alcohol stimulates creative thinking. And it takes creativity to throw off the yoke of purblind America-centrism, to remove the metaphorical stars-and-stripes grill from our minds’ teeth, and to begin to see the Olympics as others see them. A brisk, potent cocktail should be just the thing to kickstart the de-Seacrestation process.

Personally I aim to be fully re-oriented in time for the men’s marathon, which was once a chemically-enhanced debauch of an event in its own right, on Sunday. I intend to throw my full support behind Guor Marial, Sudanese child-labor camp escapee and renowned “runner without a country.”

Marial, a U.S. resident born in the newly-independent South Sudan, received special dispensation to run the marathon under the Olympic flag. If he wins (folks who know running say it’s unlikely; my own doubts stem from a conviction that NBC doesn’t deserve a Tale of Real-Life Heroes this good), something called the “Olympic Hymn” will play in lieu of any national anthem. And I will raise a Drink Without a Flag, my cocktail of choice for curing jingoism fatigue.

Drink Without a Flag

1 oz. juniper-infused vodka*
1 oz. aged white rum [I used Flor de Caña 4 year. Appleton White would also work well. Just steer clear of Bacardi.]
¼ oz. green Chartreuse
¼ oz. Cointreau

* = to make juniper-infused vodka, add 1 tablespoon of dried juniper berries to a 750 mL bottle of vodka. Allow the juniper to infuse for two days to a week, agitating occasionally, and tasting periodically to gauge the amount of juniper flavor imparted. Then strain out the juniper berries. It is that easy, and it’s worth it.

Stir all ingredients in an ice-filled shaker or mixing glass. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with long-cut lemon and lime twists. These might intertwine to invoke the idea of Olympic rings if your knife skills are much better than mine.

 

The DWaF is a 2012 update of Paul “the Alchemist” Harrington’s Drink Without a Name, from Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century, published in 1998 and now sadly out of print. Writing for an audience just blinking its way into the dawn of our current Cocktail Renaissance, the Alchemist envisioned a kind of orange-flavored vodka martini, with just a hint of herb flavor. He cautions against using more than a paltry eighth of an ounce of Chartreuse, lest the cocktail’s “herbal kick” cause the recipient’s taste buds to “cower.”

This is, of course, gimcrack and bunkum. No fault belongs to the Alchemist (a terrific writer and a personal hero of mine); he could not have foreseen how far cocktail culture would progress in the 15 years after he invented his drink. But anyone accustomed to ordering a high-end cocktail in 2012 can handle a dollop of Chartreuse far larger than a quarter-ounce, and reported instances of medical treatment for Cowering Tongue are few and far between.

And then there’s the vodka. Sure, we want a translucent, all-booze cocktail to help cleanse our minds and palates, but we can do better than grain neutral spirits. I learned from one of the many Boardwalk Empire-era drinks named for Jack Dempsey (the one that’s just gin, white rum, lemon juice, and sugar) that juniper plays well with sugar-based spirits. The Drink Without a Flag benefits from that harmony, while nodding to the Alchemist’s creation with a vodka infusion simple enough for anyone to pull off at home, given a couple days’ head start on your Men’s Marathon cocktail party. Gin works if you’re in more of a hurry, but not as well – perhaps because the non-juniper botanicals get in the way.

A properly-made Drink Without a Flag should pour a beautiful, pale, translucent green, and strike a perfect balance between herbaceous, citric, and spirituous flavors. It should go down smooth and easy, but pace yourself: we’ve got an entire marathon to watch. And we can’t learn all the words to the “Olympic Hymn,” or provide proper moral support to Guor Marial, if we’ve driven ourselves past the point of palate exhaustion.

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