Wednesday, August 3, 2011

embury and the side-car

On Friday, my two talks were "Who's Your Daddy? A Mai Tai Paternity Test" and "David Embury and The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks." For the former, it is easier for me to refer you to Beachbum Berry's Remixed book (pages 64-72) and a brief summary in his blog; since I am not a Tiki historian, I will not attempt to do the talk any justice or reword Berry's written efforts. For the latter, it would also be easy to refer you to David Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, for presenter Robert Hess did not stray too far from the facts laid out in the book itself; however, Hess' analysis and focus on certain points seemed like it would make for an interesting post without the need to relate the entirety.

One reason Hess did not stray too far is that very little is remembered about Embury. The basics like how he was born in 1886, graduated from Cornell and then Columbia Law School in 1908 and 1916, respectively, published the book in 1948, and died in 1960 are recalled in his obituary. Moreover, we do know through Brian Rea that Embury did frequent bars but that he was a lousy tipper. Hess attributed the impetus for the book to be Embury being fed up with the state of post-Prohibition bartending and he set about to change that (apparently, not through positive reinforcement via generous gratuity). Intriguingly, he was not a bartender save for one at his home and parties, but he was a consumer and an opinionated one at that. The book is more of a opinionated tome than a recipe book, although there is no shortage of recipes in the book.

Beside sharing his views on the purpose of a cocktail, the basic components, why the best ingredients should be used, and glassware selections, he described a lot about how cocktails are constructed by analyzing 6 basic cocktails: the Martini, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Daiquiri, Side Car, and oddly the Jack Rose. Of these 6, Hess chose the Side Car to focus on in a liquidy sense. Embury described the Side Car as, "This cocktail is the most perfect example of a magnificent drink gone wrong. It was invented by a friend of mine at a bar in Paris during World War I... Unfortunately, however, the proportions are usually stated as equal parts of lemon juice, Cointreau, and brandy. This may not be a bad formula for a midafternoon drink, but for an aperitif it is simply horrible because of its sickish sweetness." Backtracking for a moment, part of Embury's 6 points of "What, then, is a cocktail?" is that it must whet the appetite, not dull it; therefore, anything "over-sweetened, over-fruit-juiced, over-egged, and over-creamed" ruffled his feathers. Clearly, the cocktail has more uses and times to imbibe it than the ones Embury stressed. But his belief that it "must have sufficient alcoholic flavor... yet must not assault the palate with the force of an atomic bomb" becomes apparent when you look at his preferred proportions.
Side-Car Cocktail from Harry's ABC of Mixing Cocktails
1 part Brandy
1 part Cointreau (Triple Sec)
1 part Lemon Juice

Side Car De Luxe from Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks
8 part Cognac or Armagnac
1 part Cointreau of Triple Sec
2 part Lemon Juice

Sidecar as served at the Robert Hess household
4 part Brandy
2 part Cointreau
1 part Lemon
These were the three recipes Hess proffered and he did not cover the sugared rim that is commonly associated with the drink today. Not only is the sugared rim not in the original, Embury insisted that the drink received no decoration save for a twist of lemon if desired. Hess related his initial struggles with the Sidecar recipes he found for they called for bottled sour mix, and the resultant drinks were quite unsatisfying to him. And perhaps quite unsatisfying for Embury which motivated him to write his book.

As a laboratory example, Hess had the cocktail apprentices mix up each one of the three Sidecar recipes above for the room. While I preferred the equal parts one for it has the proper balance of citrus to liqueur for my tastes (albeit light on the brandy notes), most people seemed to share Hess' sweet tooth and preferred his recipe. Very few people selected Embury's tarter version; however, tart drinks stimulate salivation and help prepare the body for a meal. Given Embury's predilection for preprandial drinks, his tarter formula makes sense. Also note that Embury's recipe is a hefty slug of brandy with the orange liqueur and lemon acting strictly as minor modifying ingredients; Embury believed that the spirit should be 50% or more of the total volume, although here it is closer to 73%.

Two interesting points where brought forth. The first came by way of Audrey Saunders who pointed out that not every ratio of sweet to sour will work for each drink; at the Pegu Club, they experimentally test each brand of Cognac to find the proportions that worked to achieve their preferred balance. The second came by way of the audience. The audience did propose their favorite recipes such as 1:1:3/4 and 3:2:1 (brandy:triple sec:lemon); however, one person mixed the original, Embury, and Hess recipes in equal parts and declared it his favorite. So what was it?

Since each recipe can be summed up as 3, 11, and 7 parts, and each is a prime number, using a common denominator of 231 and taking the average was the answer:
Brandy : Triple Sec : Lemon
77 : 77 : 77 Original
168 : 21 : 42 Embury
132 : 66 : 33 Hess
2.48 : 1.08 : 1 Average
Interestingly, this matched my preference for equal parts of triple sec to lemon juice. Moreover, if you were in Boston and requested a Sidecar at Eastern Standard and at Drink, this recipe would be between Eastern's 2:1:1 and Drink's 2:1/2:1/2 structures with this average being closer to Eastern's.

Clearly, I cannot do Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks or Hess' 90 minute talk proper justice in a blog post, so I recommend reading the book. While originals and out-of-print reprints are still around, Muddle Puddle Books has re-printed it with an introduction, not surprisingly, written by Robert Hess and Audrey Saunders. Amidst the aspects that may raise your ire are a lot of good words of wisdom. Furthermore, the book is perhaps one of the first treatises on the classifications of drinks and how to manipulate them to roll your own recipe creations.


Doug Winship said...

I'm a 3:1:1 guy. and we don't need no steenking sugared rim!

frederic said...

Given your preferred proportions for the Pegu Club, I am not surprised in the least. Both have the same structure as a Daisy with the Pegu having bitters.

I have been anti-sugared rim for the most part but every once in a while, the drink is on the tart side so the sugared rim can add a refreshing change. I think that crossover to acceptance has happened in the last year or so.

Ouroboros said...

I'm at 8:3:3. Which, upon multiplication, is pretty damn close to the 5:2:2 above.

HayBoy said...

i'd lost interest in this drink before hessie's smallscreen video and subsequently going with 4:2:1

i think he is on the money and its my go to ratio for experimenting with other sours