Bloody Mary Reprise: Quest for the Extraordinary, Global Province Letter, 7 March 2012

When asked how much educated men were superior to those uneducated,
Aristotle answered, "As much as the living are to the dead." ----

Diogenes Laertius (fl. 2nd century)

The Reprise. The story never ends. Years back when we opined about all the charms of the martini, the story kept building, as reader upon reader sent in new olives, new onions, and other fillips that laid new adornments on this fabled cocktail. So, too, with the Bloody Mary. In our last letter, we said that our own Bloody was a work in progress, one that had to be rebuilt entirely, both to capture its original simplicity but also to add twists that would favor yet not destroy the original drink.

Whereupon our colleague at Spicelines continued our experiment and took it many steps further. Her kaizen process ascertained, for instance, that it's best to put vodka in the glass first, then the tomato juice. Largish ice cubes lead to a more rewarding drink than chipped ice. Better to get newish scallions, so that the long leaves can add much appeal to the finished drink. Very thin stemless wine glasses are comfortable vessels in which to serve the drink. And contrary to what we thought, the Bloody is always better stirred, not shaken.

Of course, we have received dozens of letters from our readers, one or two quite explicit on how to get the drink right. Doc Holladay, a cagey investor from Fayetteville, Arkansas, tersely puts it in two words:  "celery seed."  The voluble and elegant English General Manager of the Four Seasons in Boston, Mr. Bill Taylor, is somewhat more elaborate about his preferences: "I will always substitute V8 juice for tomato juice, horseradish for Tabasco (although I'm too lazy and thirsty to grate mine) and celery salt for celery, Worcestershire sauce, tonnes of lemon and a lot of fresh ground pepper...frankly the vodka is entirely optional, and if it is in, it makes not a hill of beans to me whether it be Smirnoff or Grey Goose.....and the real secret is a big glass because it is too much trouble to have to repeat frequently!"

Don't Tart It Up! Whether it is a Bloody Mary or some other drink, we are sternly advised not to drown a drink with meretricious geegaws. You may remember that we were distressed by a recent Wall Street Journal article about Manhattans. Some Wall Street Journal readers reacted to it with utter scorn. One Tom Halliwell of Hayden Lake, Idaho mockingly opined: "I'm sure the drinks profiled in the article are very good cocktails; however, it is a stretch to call them Manhattans. They are no more a Manhattan than an "Appletini" is a Martini. I have no problem with experimenting with different types of whiskeys, vermouths or bitters, but apricot liqueur? You've got to be kidding."

Lawyer Richard Kurtz of Philadelphia shares the same sentiment but goes on to suggest how a proper Manhattan gets properly drunk and savored: "A Manhattan is a great drink when properly made with Canadian whiskey—not bourbon and never rye. But who would drink something that tastes like cinnamon, oak, vanilla, mint or cornbread, as your article "The Manhattan Project" (Off Duty, Feb. 18) suggests? Our law firm has a tradition called a "proper lunch," which is served at times of great moment at the Union League Club. A proper lunch includes snapper soup or oysters on the half shell, shucked on the premises. These are served with the last sip of the Manhattan, when a second can be ordered by those not doing any billable work in the afternoon. Fried oysters and chicken salad is the prescribed entree for a proper lunch. Bread-and-butter pudding with vanilla sauce is the proper ending. Be sure a proper nap is in your future if you do the whole thing."

Memorable Drinks. We were most taken with the thoughts of reader Alison Hemmings of London, who heads the Burns Club of London and who is known to down a Bloody Mary or two. But actually it was just off the links where she had the perfect drink many years ago: "Spot on!  How this reminded me of my first Bunnahabhain (try spelling that when you've had one or two …). It was early summer after a great game of golf with friends on the Isle of Arran off the west coast of Scotland. After dinner at the wonderful Kilmichael Country House Hotel, it was just cool enough to be cuddling the crackling open fire when I was persuaded to give my national drink another chance.

 I remember it yet, and although it was an instant hit, I only drink it in extra-special circumstances!"

She seems to understand better than most that the proper alchemist must get beyond the artifice of mixing drinks to create a great drinking experience. The mood, the moment, the place, and company—all these are as much as part of the chemistry of a good drink as the molecules inside the glass.

One's Method Needs a Little Madness. If the truth be known, a good method and a perfect recipe will at best net you an acceptable drink, not an Olympian beverage. We live in an age that is overly fascinated with technology. There's much too much emphasis on technique, not enough on the artful strands that all must be woven together to produce greatness. Unless we are just sluggish drunks, the cocktail has to bring together special ingredients, embroidery that heightens but does not obscure the basic cocktail, a time of day, good light in a lovely surrounding, memories, and of course worthy conversation. Above all, conversation.

The drink ultimately must capture some magic. That means integrating bits of experience, and atmosphere, and serendipity, none of which can be measured out of a bottle. It was this ether than inhabited great clubs until so many of them simply turned into average hotels as the 20th century drew to a close. We must not shrink from using our intelligence and our heart when orchestrating a drinking occasion.

Excellence Does Not Come Easy. It takes a magician, a genius, an intuitive soul to vault beyond the humdrum and produce excellence; a drink that soars. In field after field, we hear about the need to pull people together in an enterprise, abolishing the smokestack thinking that makes businesses falter. In almost every healthcare company and institution we have counseled, the cry has gone out to integrate everything together in order to secure better healthcare results. But rarely does integration occur, because the leaders don't really know what it is or how to get it.

The great Cardinal Newman seemed to understand that higher education itself reinforces rather than rectifying this problem. To wit, he found that the university indulges in training, and does really show its students how to build intellectual bridges to others, to intuit how we pull together disparate people and clashing ideas into a whole. It provides the rules and training for simple actions and societal success, not the stuff that takes us up mountains or helps us discover the sublime. Nor the vision that helps us pull together a polarized society, a world civilization splintered by technological fission (be it bombs or digital communications) at a time when we must undertake a desperate and practical quest for fusion. This is an age and we are in a country that needs to climb mountains.

So we must say drink hearty, drink to the lees, but, above all, drink a full draught where nothing is lost through hastiness, neglect, or ignorance. Excellence is a heady broth, neither ordinary nor intended for the ordinary.

P.S. Cardinal Newman is well worth reading on his concept of the university, because he in effect says it prepares us well to do the ordinary, not the extraordinary:

"If then a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is that of training good members of society. Its art is the art of social life, and its end is fitness for the world. It neither confines its views to particular professions on the one hand, nor creates heroes or inspires genius on the other. Works indeed of genius fall under no art; heroic minds come under no rule; a University is not a birthplace of poets or of immortal authors, of founders of schools, leaders of colonies, or conquerors of nations. It does not promise a generation of Aristotles or Newtons, of Napoleons or Washingtons, of Raphaels or Shakespeares, though such miracles of nature it has before now contained within its precincts. Nor is it content on the other hand with forming the critic or the experimentalist, the economist or the engineer, though such too it includes within its scope. But a University training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to {178} popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life."

P.P.S. We know of one chap who voluntarily works on the problem of integrating the data and wisdom found in each of the medical institutions in Boston, which, as much as anything is this nation's medical capital. It is like pushing rocks uphill. Each of the institutions has information protocols and other impedimenta that guarantee that knowledge will not travel very far. He thought it best for people who wanted to share medical wisdom to go around all the official systems and to use social networking tools to get the word from one practitioner to another.  Merely bright and clever men tend to be parochial, finding all sorts of ways not to listen to others, all the while bleating their limited thoughts to anyone in their thrall.  Two or three Boston physicians with writing talent share their truths with us in the New Yorker on a regular basis:  we assume some of their observations seep back to Boston and to Harvard.

P.P.P.S. You can get a whiff of our martini quest in Three-Martini Lunch. All About Bird Dogs, and Fixing Our Martinis and Our Health.

P.P.P.P.S. The brilliant John Von Neumann provided the theoretical basis for our modern computer, for space travel, and a whole lot else. He was brilliant enough to be wary: he was for instance excited to be part of the quest to build the first high-powered computer, but fearful of the consequences of that which he was doing. There are numerous interesting scientists who are haunted by what they have done, not knowing whether they were advancing humanity or preparing the way for man's end. As for this computer adventure, one might read George Dyson's Turing's Cathedral (amazon and infinite bookstore) which is nicely reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, March 3-4, 2012, pp.C5-C7.  There can be all sorts of questions about where our technological fascination is leading us. But, for sure, this technophilia is not giving us wisdom and is not pointing us toward a rounded life. Instead technique has just become one of our addictions.

P.P.P.P.S. We can report that an Idaho collector of old-fashioned cocktail shakers advises us to shake very gently from side to side when making our potions. He destroyed one collectible when he got too robust and enthusiastic, leaving a shattered vessel at his feet.

P.P.P.P.P.S. These days the Wall Street Journal often gets its drinks wrong. We have yet to poll our readership to find out whether this sin even outweighs the penchant of the News Corporation (the owner of the paper) for reading other people's mails and listening to their phone calls.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. We notice that Lawyer Kurtz of Philadelphia makes his Manhattans with Canadian whiskey, which we find a bit curious. David Embury would have none of it. To quote him, "Just a brief word about Canadian whiskey (which, in my opinion, is all it deserves) and then we shall get down to American whiskies, which, to my taste and for my money, are the real royalty of the whiskey clan." Canadian whiskey has generally been of a rye type, and to Embury tastes like a blend of Scotch and rye. Generally one wants a lower proof when the whiskey is distilled out, and a higher proof when it is bottled and sold. On both counts, the Americans win. Drinks embracing the Canadian tend to be a little pallid. It is probably fair to say that Philadelphians, far from the main stream, do better at punches, such as the Fish House Punch George Washington so adored. Save this punch for a special occasion, since it has been known to slay more than one guest at a party.


Back to Top of Page

Return to the Index of Letters from the Global Province

Home - About This Site - Contact Us

Copyright 2011 GlobalProvince.com