Friday at five: Rob Roy

Louis & Wally

Did you know that Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Walter Scott (1771-1832) were contemporaries? Even If you are not a classical music buff, you may have lately noticed more and more references to Beethoven popping up around you. Well please get ready, because you will see more and more Beethoven over the next year, as December 16 2020 will be the sestercentennial, or 250th, anniversary of his birth. Or so we assume, since we don’t know definitively on what day Beethoven was born, only the day of his baptism, which was December 17 1770, in Bonn, Germany. Even Beethoven didn’t know his own birthday, and at one point he asked his pupil, friend, and later, biographer, Ferdinand Ries, to do some research to help him figure it out. Scott will have his sestercentennial a year later, in 2021, and we in the US will have our country’s five years after that.

I don’t know of any definitive connection between Beethoven and Scott, other than the fact that Scott had an interest, in his younger days, of German Romantic literature, and that Beethoven set three of Scott’s poems as part of his 25 Scottish Songs, Op. 108, first published in 1818. At that time, Beethoven was one of the world’s most famous composers, well into his “late” period, and composing some of the greatest instrumental music ever written. So why the Scottish folk songs? Well, in a word, money. Despite his fame, money was always a problem for Beethoven, and there was not a single point in his life where he could settle down and stop the hustle. The song settings paid fairly well, and were easy and enjoyable work for him. (They are worth listening to; they’re quite beautiful.)

Late in his life, Scott had money problems too, although his trajectory was entirely different from Beethoven’s. Scott was born into nobility and had a steady day job as a Writer to the Signet (a kind of solicitor) among other things. He began his professional writing career in 1796 with a translation of German ballads. Later the same year, he published his first poems. By 1805, his poems had reached international acclaim. (Beethoven at this point was four or five years into his mature “middle period.”) In 1814, Scott published, anonymously, his novel Waverley, historical fiction about the Jacobite rising of 1745. Waverley was a smash, and over the next 18 years, Scott published 20 more books which have come to be known collectively as the Waverley Novels. The novels brought Scott substantial wealth, but the money problems still came for him. In 1825, the publishing company in which he was a partner went bust. Scott took it upon himself to write his way out of his debts, publishing over the next seven years a non-stop stream of novels, plays, and non-fiction.

All-in-all, Scott’s collected works make for a very impressive leather-bound set. Judging by the number of these sets from the late 1800s that are still around in New York City, they seem to have been quite popular among the type of families who could afford to purchase them, and also to afford to keep them around in good condition for 150 years. At this moment, Argosy Books has available a set of the Waverley Novels in a centenary edition from 1871, 25 volumes and a comparative bargain at only $950. A fancier edition from 1877 in 48 volumes is currently available for $4,000. We can deduce from all these collected works sets that Scott was popular in New York City. But we also have more direct knowledge: in 1833, 6th Street in Greenwich Village was renamed Waverly Place in Scott’s honor. Pity they spelled “Waverley” wrong, but oh well, you say “whiskey,” I say “whisky.”

Succession, 1890s Style

If you were a New Yorker in the 1890s and had the cash, not to mention the shelf space, for a 50-volume leather-bound set of the works of Walter Scott, you were probably the type of clientele that William Waldorf Astor had in mind when he opened his Waldorf Hotel at Thirty-third Street and Fifth Avenue in 1893. On February 13 of that year, the New York Times raved: “This hotel is a palace. The new Waldorf Hotel is soon to be opened. Its cost over $3,000,000. Fortunes expended upon a single room—a thirty-five hundred dollar bed. Plans for a grand opening next month.” Browsing through the Times archive of the subsequent months, you see many stories on the Waldorf—interesting ones that probably merit a post of their own. But then on November 3, 1893, a bombshell hits. “It will tower above the Waldorf; John Jacob Astor to build a hotel adjoining that of his cousin. An eighteen-story hotel is to be built by John Jacob Astor on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street, adjoining the Waldorf. If expectations are realized, it will be the largest, best equipped, and in most luxuriously appointed hotel in the world.”

The story reads:

“When William Waldorf Astor put up the Waldorf on his part of the old Astor homestead, it was rumored that the other branch of the family was not exactly pleased, and that its members would continue to live in their brick house at Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, right next door. The Waldorf has prospered however, and John Jacob Astor some time ago decided to go his cousin one better in the hotel line.”

Family intrigue! Extreme wealth! Cousins making power moves just to piss each other off. Yes, this is the 1890s version of Succession. At the end of the Times story, they announce that John Jacob Astor had chosen a name for the hotel, “a capital one” at that, but he would not yet reveal it. Well, of course, he named it the Astoria Hotel. The Astoria opened in November, 1897, the Astor family having decamped from their brick house way uptown to Sixty-fifth Street and Fifth Avenue. The two hotels were at first operated separately, but both under the same general manager, George Boldt. But soon thereafter, they were combined into a single hotel, with a “Peacock Alley” skyway connecting the two properties above Thirty-third Street. The combined hotel became the Waldorf-Astoria, with the hyphen symbolizing the peacock alley. When Conrad Hilton bought management rights to the new Waldorf-Astoria (the old one was razed in 1929 to make way for another folly, the Empire State Building), he changed the hyphen to an equal sign, making the reference to the old skyway that much more explicit. Hilton dropped the hyphen in 2009, which is a pity.

Oh Promise Me

Not far from the original Waldorf, the Herald Square Theatre opened at 1333 Broadway in 1883. Herald Square was, of course, the home of the New York Herald, a sort of Fox News for its age, and which would later become the Herald Tribune. The two famous squares on Broadway, are actually “bowtie” squares, each consisting of a pair of squares: Herald & Greeley, and eight blocks uptown, Times & Duffy.

Composer Reginald de Koven had his first smash hit in New York with the operetta Robin Hood, which, after debuting in his native Chicago in 1890, opened the next year in the Manhattan Theatre, just down the street across from Greeley Square. The Times gave the show a very good review, and one tune, “Oh Promise Me” has survived, becoming for a time a popular sappy song to sing at weddings. If you were a fan of All in The Family, you may recall the episode in which Edith Bunker, much to Archie’s chagrin, gives us her version of the tune.

Looking for another hit, de Koven settled upon Rob Roy for more Robin Hood-ish action. I don’t know to what extent de Koven or librettist Harry Smith were inspired by Walter Scott’s novel, but certainly the novel would lend an air of rich-mahogany-many-leatherbound-books respectability to the affair. How to describe de Koven’s music? I guess calling it second-tier Gilbert and Sullivan would get you in the ball park. The rhythms are square, the harmonies are square, the tunes are written so that you can hum along the first time you hear them. There don’t seem to be any recordings in print, but Naxos did a well-produced recording of Robin Hood in 1981, many selections from which can be found in the usual places. I’ve leafed through the score of Rob Roy, and it certainly doesn’t seem to be any better, and the Times review would indicate that it didn’t quite reach the heights of Robin Hood.  

Rob Roy score.

Nonetheless, the show was a hit, running at the Herald Square Theatre through March 1894. And so, to celebrate the hit show running around the corner, one of the bartenders at the Waldorf came up with a show-themed cocktail, and the Rob Roy was born.

The Damn Drink

If Rob Roy the operetta is the red-headed stepchild of Robin Hood the operetta, I don’t think you could quite say the same about Rob Roy the cocktail in relation to the Manhattan. True, that’s the easiest way to conceive of a Rob Roy–as a Manhattan with scotch whiskey subbed for rye. And that’s undoubtedly how the drink’s originator came up with the idea. But since the world of scotch whiskey is so vast, this drink can go in a million different directions, some of which are amazing. Mixing one up with a relatively neutral blended whiskey, like Famous Grouse for example, and you have not strayed too far from Manhattan town. Going with a single malt that is balanced but with some nice peat, say a Glen Morangie, or a Cardhu, and now you are really venturing into new territory. How about with a peat bomb from Islay like a Lagavulin or a Laphraoig? Off the Island for sure!

There is also a wide range of tuning to be made on the vermouth dial. Fin de siècle cocktails were sweeter than current tastes call for, a 1:1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth would be the starting point. Personally, I prefer my whiskey cocktails much drier and would more likely aim for 3:1 or even 4:1. As I noted in my post about the Old Pal vs. the Boulevardier, the white vermouth or perfect (white and sweet vermouth) versions are worth checking out.

And lastly, there’s the dash. Angostura bitters is the standard, but there is an argument to be made for Peychaud’s. And what if you skip the bitters altogether and opt for a dash of something sweet, like Benedictine, or Drambuie? Well, you’re on to something there, but that’s a topic for next time!

One last question remains, and that is, where to drink one? The original Waldorf bar disappeared 90 years ago, the current Waldorf Astoria is closed, the Oak Bar is still closed. Well, it turns out there is still a great old place to enjoy a Rob Roy in period setting. It hails from 1885, predating with Waldorf and the operetta. And better yet, it is right around the corner from the original Waldorf and the Herald Square Theatre. I’m of course talking about Keen’s Steakhouse. It’s perfect, and in fact, I went back yesterday just to be sure of it.

At Keen’s, I tried two different Rob Roys. For the first, I was looking for a ‘straight down the middle’ blended scotch. They had just run out of Famous Grouse, so we went with Cutty Sark instead. We went 3:1 on the vermouth, and Angostura bitters. It was good, and would serve well as an evening opener. For the second, I wanted to try out a really peaty single malt. We went with Caol Ila, and this was a really good choice: it’s peaty but without the iodine, medicinal qualities of some other Islay malts. We also went sweeter with the vermouth on this one. Hugely different! I don’t think this would be my favorite way to start an evening, but I very well could see myself enjoying one of these by a fireplace as a night cap.

Midtown East: Tacovision

When we heard that the folks at Crave Fishbar were opening a taco joint in our hood, we were thrilled. Crave is our go-to seafood restaurant in Midtown East, and it’s got a lot going for it: great oysters, a solid wine list, healthy and delicious fish and seafood options, and a really lively dining-at-the-bar scene. So we had high hopes for Tacovision, the team’s new taco bar on East 53rd Street. With the Crave pedigree, we were expecting great fish and seafood options, as well as solid vegetarian and vegan choices. In short, we were not disappointed.

We visited TV—as the cool kids already call it, no doubt—on taco Tuesday. In addition to $6 margaritas, they were featuring a $3 brussels sprouts taco. There are plenty of options for us non-carnivores, with four vegan taco options, and four pescatarian. We went with three of each, and also opted for vegetarian nachos. The nachos were serious business, piled high with kale and cauliflower, beans, and cheese—decidedly not nachos “Flanders’ style!” All of the tacos were great, with the fried cod taking first place in our ranking. The house-made blue corn tortillas were very good. The $6 margs were good too. We ordered them up, and they came cold, an in an appropriately-sized cocktail glass.

With the departures of some good, and some not so good, Mexican and taco joints, Midtown East is currently a little underserved for tacos. Sure, there are solid upscale versions at Pampano and Rosa Mexicano (as well as Maya and Cascabel a little further uptown). So Tacovision has a sporting chance of finding a solid niche. The block of 53rd between 2nd and 3rd is already home to some of our neighborhood favorites: Doug Quinn’s saloon Hudson Malone, underground Japanese whiskey and jazz bar Tomi Jazz, as well as an outpost of the Kati Roll Company. Tacovision is a welcome addition to the block and to the hood.

Details

Tacovision
244 E 53rd St, New York, NY 10022
https://tacovisionnyc.com/
(646) 921-1990

Friday at five: Old Pal

A guy walks into a bar:
Bartender: “What’s yours?”
Guy: “Old Pal.”
Bartender: “Listen buddy, I don’t know you from Adam. So I’ll ask you again, what’ll it be?”
Guy: “I’d like an Old Pal, please.”
Bartender: “What in hell is that?”
–end scene

Some version of this scene has been playing over and again for me, minus the Capra-esque patter, for many months now. I’ve been conducting a bit of an experiment, and have found that hardly anyone, bartenders included, knows how to make an Old Pal. I think the bartender at Elixir, a truly excellent bar in San Francisco, may have been the only one who remembered it. And that’s a shame, because it’s a great drink.

I’m a big fan of Negronis–they’re my go-to when I’m looking for a gin cocktail that’s as bracing as a slap across the face. A few years ago, I fell in love with Boulevardiers, which swap out the gin for bourbon. I was in Louisville for two weeks this summer, and had one of those pretty much everywhere I went. But Nora and I both have a preference for rye whiskey over bourbon, at least in cocktails, and that’s where the Old Pal comes in. If you swap out the bourbon in a Boulevardier for rye, and also swap out the sweet vermouth for dry vermouth, now you have an Old Pal. This is exactly how I explain the drink to a bartender who doesn’t know what an Old Pal is. If they also don’t know how to make a Boulevardier, I’ll order a whiskey on the rocks.

The drink was created by Harry MacElhone, of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, in honor of his friend and frequent customer, William “Sparrow” Robertson, a sports writer for the New York Herald. Robertson would call everyone his “old pal,” and the drink was named. The associations with Harry’s and Paris in the ’20s complete the allure of the drink for me.

Ingredients

  • 1 oz Rye Whiskey
  • 1 oz Campari
  • 1 oz Dry Vermouth
  • Lemon twist

Method

Build in a tumbler filled with ice. Serve with a lemon twist for garnish.

Given the similarities between the Old Pal and the Boulevardier, I thought it would be instructive to mix up one of each and do a side-by-side comparison. I was expecting the Old Pal to be crisper and the Boulevardier to be sweeter, and I was blown away by how much that turned out to be the case. The Boulevardier was tasting almost like sweet cough syrup in comparison to the sleeker, racier Old Pal. I think I will keep ordering them!

And speaking of old pals, our friend Kara Newman has a great book, “Shake. Stir. Sip.” which features the Old Pal, and about 50 other equal parts cocktails. It’s worth checking out, as are all her books!

Kara Newman's book Shake Stir Sip, and the Old Pal cocktail.
Kara Newman’s great book, Shake. Stir. Sip. features equal parts cocktails.

Friday at five: Sazerac

Few drinks are as evocative of a place and time as the Sazerac. The place is New Orleans, and the time is mid-century. Mid-19th-century that is, near the beginning of the cocktail story. Apothecarist Emile Amedée Peychaud was selling his namesake bitters, mixed with brandy. John Schiller was the New Orleans agent for Sazerac de Forge et Fils Cognac. In 1859, he opened his bar and dubbed it the Sazerac Coffee House. Schiller gave the Sazerac cocktail, made with Peychaud’s bitters and Sazerac cognac, its name. Later on, in 1870, the preferred base changed from brandy to rye whiskey. This much is established. Claims that the Sazerac was the first cocktail, and claims around the origins of the term ‘cocktail’ itself are probably apocryphal (or is that apotheracril?) These details aside, our credo is that New Orleans gave America two of its greatest inventions: cocktails and jazz.

The best Sazerac I ever had was years ago during Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. Nora was at an event for the afternoon, so I was free to while away a few hours in the Napoleon House. It was a beautiful day and the way the sunlight was playing inside the bar is impossible to describe or forget. While we all enjoyed Sazeracs, I chatted for over two hours with a couple from Baton Rouge. I have no idea what we talked about, and I suspect the only thing we had in common is that we all appreciated the beauty of that moment.

Ingredients

  • Generous 2 oz pour of whiskey
  • 1 lump of sugar
  • Several dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
  • Several dashes of absinthe
  • Lemon twist

Notes on Ingredients

For the whiskey, we used Breukelen Distilling’s 77 Whiskey Bottled in Bond. We picked this up during New York Rye Week at the Union Square Greenmarket and have been enjoying it neat, in cocktails and on the rocks. For the Absinthe, we used St. George Spirits Absinthe Verte. There is no substitute for the Peychaud’s bitters, although some reputable establishments, including the Napoleon House, use a mix of Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters.

Method

Gather two tumblers. (We are using Duralex Picardie tumblers that we just found at Housing Works for a dollar a piece!) Fill one tumbler with ice and chill. In the second tumbler, add the lump of sugar. Add dashes of Peychaud’s bitters to cover the sugar. Muddle the sugar and bitters with the back of a spoon. Add the whiskey and stir. Add ice to fill the glass. Prepare the second tumbler: discard the ice. Rinse the glass with the absinthe, and discard the absinthe. Using a Hawthorne strainer, strain the drink from the build tumbler into the chilled tumbler. Garnish with a lemon twist and serve.

Suggested film pairing: this one is a no-brainer, as featured in Nora’s Classic Cocktails, Classic Film series, it’s Live and Let Die from 1973.

Friday at five: Rye Manhattan

Welcome to the inaugural post in cultured nyc’s weekly cocktail column, Friday at five. It’s autumn in New York–our favorite time of the year. Even though we haven’t had much sweater weather yet, it’s time to start thinking about warming up with some whiskey. Not only that, but today is Rye Day at the Union Square Greenmarket. Frye-day, if you will, kicking off a week-long celebration of New York state rye. We had the chance to sample rye whiskeys from Breukelen Distilling, Nahmias et Fils, and New York Distilling Company. We were taken with all of these, and will be featuring these whiskies in coming weeks.

For today, we will showcase New York Distilling Company’s Ragtime Rye American Straight Whiskey. This is a classic rye; 100% New York rye, aged for three years and bottled at 90.4 proof. On its own, it’s spicy, clean, well integrated. I had a feeling it would do well in a cocktail too.

The cultured nyc reference library has a pretty deep cocktail section, so where to turn for our first post? How about Dave Wondrich’s Imbibe? We’re starting off old school here, and this book is all about the old school. The Manhattan Formula #3 (New Standard) comes courtesy of William “The Only William” Schmidt in The Flowing Bowl, 1892.

  • Half a tumblerful of cracked ice
  • 2 dashes (1/2 Tsp) of gum
  • 2 dashes of absinthe
  • 2/3 drink (2 oz) of whiskey
  • 1/3 drink (1 oz) of vino vermouth
  • (a little maraschino may be added)

This is close to the Manhattan we always make here at cultured nyc, maybe a touch sweeter on the vermouth. Per Dave’s recommendation, we left out the simple syrup. We also left out the maraschino, but did add one of Nora’s very fine house-made maraschino cherries. I was, however, very curious about the absinthe. A tiny bit of absinthe can completely transform a drink. I was worried that this would turn into some sort of weird Sazerac. But it didn’t! Not quite anyway; it added a green ‘undertaste’. I don’t think I’ll turn this into my new standard, but I certainly enjoyed it.