There are great bars and there are great cocktails, and there are of course great barmen who provide their guests with great service, beverages and conversation. But once and awhile, a certain bartender will create a certain drink which transcends the typical and becomes more than a drink. It becomes a classic, a destination and an indelible drinking experience which only one bar can call its own. These posts are an attempt to capture these signature drinks and bars in which they can be called, The Usual.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Seelbach Cocktail

The Seelbach Hotel
The resurgence of bar-menus filled with classic cocktails served by well-educated bartenders who have hundreds of books dedicated to the subject from which to learn is only a thing of recent memory. There was a time not too long ago when digging-up a classic recipe meant more physical dedication than simply visiting a website database. In fact, that wasn’t even an option. The unearthing of a lost cocktail took some collegiate-style research, long hours of reading, personal interviews and a great deal of luck. Such is the case with the Seelbach Cocktail, discovered and rebirthed by Adam Seger while employed at the Seelbach hotel in Louisville. However even after its discovery placement back on the menu at the Seelbach’s Rathskeller Bar, Adam kept the recipe a closely guarded secret. After all, this was and would again be the hotel’s namesake and signature drink.

Built in 1905 by two Bavarian brothers, Otto and Louis Seelbach, at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville, KY, the Seelbach Hotel was a culmination of thirty years of dreaming and planning. Billed as the city’s only “fireproof hotel,” the brothers spared no expense for this Baroque style hotel; importing bronze from France and hardwood from the West Indies, along with Turkish Rugs and fine Irish linen.

The hotel very quickly gained widespread acclaim and was regarded as one of the grandest hotels in the United States. Among the many notable guests – some of which include FDR, Woodrow Willson, JFK, Al Capone, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley - was F. Scott Fitzgerald who took inspiration from his stay at The Seelbach for his novel the Great Gatsby.

When Seger arrived at the hotel in 1993, he set himself on a path to research the grand hotel’s long history. Along with the aid of an intern, he sifted through large files of menus, notes and documents and eventually uncovered a curious mention of the eponymous Seelbach Cocktail. With little information aside from the name, Seger had to dig pretty deep to truly uncover the history of this drink. His search eventually led him to Max Allen Jr, a third generation bartender.
The Rathskeller Bar at the Seelbach

According to Mr. Allen, his father spoke of the cocktail as the result of an accident and a curious bartender. As the story goes, a couple was visiting the Rathskeller from New Orleans, lets say, in the year 1910. He ordered a Manhattan and she a glass of bubbly. The bartender stirred together a Manhattan in his mixing glass but accidentally used triple sec instead of Italian Vermouth. When he opened the bottle of sparkling, it started to bubble over. The closest thing to catch the bubbles was the nearby shaker with the improperly made Manhattan.

After correcting the mistakes at hand and serving the couple their requested drinks, the bartender reached for the mixing glass containing the Manhattan with triple sec and bubbles. He liked the mixture and with a few adjustments was born the Seelbach Cocktail. The cocktail was the number one seller for the hotel until it was edged out of first place a few years later by the more popular Mint Julep. Eventually, prohibition edged both drinks along with many others further into obscurity.

The recipe calls for the drink to be built in a flute: 1 oz Old Forrester Bourbon, 1 oz Triple Sec, 7 dashes each Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters, then topped with sparkling. However, if mixed with spirits at room temperature this provides for a tepid drink with flattening bubbles.

Seger says when he re-launched the drink, he kept the recipe a secret. He would mix the bourbon and triple sec along with the bitters in his office distributing it to the bars in bottles marked “Seelbach.” The bars would keep the bottles chilled, then pour the secret mixture into a flute and top with chilled champagne. If building from scratch, it is recommended to give the bourbon and triple sec a quick stir with ice before hand.

The Seelbach’s recipe eventually came into public view with the printing of Gary Regan’s “New and Classic Cocktails.” As Seger tells the story, “Gary Regan's exact words to me in the lobby of The Seelbach when I told him the Seelbach Cocktail story whilst he was working on 'New Classic Cocktails' (I agreed to give him the recipe to publish as long as he kept it secret until the book went to print) was, ‘I thought you were giving me a load of bull#{%?! Adam, but now that I see the recipe with all the bitters, I know it is typical of the period and makes sense’.” 

The Seelbach
In a pint glass add
1 oz Old Forrester 100 Proof Bourbon
1 oz Combier Triple Sec
7 dashes Angostura Bitters
7 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

Add ice and give a quick stir to chill.

Strain into a champagne flute and top with Champagne and add a lemon spiral.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Singapore Sling at the Long Bar, Raffles Hotel

Perhaps no cocktail has as much mystique, lore and confusion about it as the Singapore Sling...

First served to the world from what was once a far-off land, the Singapore Sling’s name immediately conjurors up images of a romanticized time when writers, politicians, tycoons and socialites would gather to cool off with a long, cold, tropical concoction. Today, the name will often conjuror up looks of confusion from your average bartender as they go in search of that one ingredient… that one ingredient which they can’t quite put their finger one…that one ingredient which seems to be missing from the bar and so the drink cannot, unfortunately, be prepared.

Just about every drop of this cocktail is up for debate including its name, exact date of inception, and most especially its recipe. We have just a few facts to cling to and yet, for not completely fully knowing how this cocktail should be made, it remains an enduring classic. But perhaps, oddly enough, it is the lore and mystery rather than its precise balance and consistency that make the Singapore Sling so legendary.

In his 1948 “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks”, David Embry writes of the Singapore Sling, “Of all the recipes published for this drink, I have never seen any two that were alike. Essentially it is a Gin Sling with the addition of cherry brandy.”

Named after Lieutenant-Governor Stamford Raffles, who decades earlier decided the mostly ignored island of Singapore would make a perfect port for Britain to better gain control of Asian trade routes, The Raffels Hotel was a legend in its own time. Completed in 1887, it was most famous for accepting guests of any race. A temporary home to journalists, novelists, royals, adventurers, and tourists, stories of the hotel quickly spread throughout the world. These stories, as stories often do, included some tales of drinking at the hotel’s Long Bar. So, luckily, mentions of the cocktails from the Raffles Hotel do have literary mention, unfortunately they are not always consistent.

The “facts” which are, for the most, agreed upon are that the drink was invented by barman Ngiam Tong Boon around 1915 at the legendary Long Bar within the famous Raffels Hotel. Yet now, that excepted date is even in question as 1910 and 1913 keep popping up. Drink historian David Wondrich has pulled up evidence of “slings” mentioned as early as 1897 and a 1903 reference to “pink Slings for White People”. At least with this note, there is recognition of color – pink - or pinkish at least.

The Raffels admits that the exact recipe was lost very soon after its inception. So the recipe was lost, gone for good, forever.

Writings pop-up from the first half of the Twentieth Century with references to a long or tall drink with gin, cherry brandy, citrus, biters and on occasion there is reference to the herbal French liqueur Benedictine. Even with that frame-work for the cocktail, there is disagreement on the exact measurements and even its exact name as it comes up as the Straits Sling and Raffles Sling along with the Singapore Sling, which probably caught on for the allure of its exotic name and the ease of alliteration.

The commonalities which appear would make this cocktail a Gin Sling – Gin, Lemon, Sugar, Bitters and Soda – with cherry brandy added. And this cherry brandy would almost certainly have been Peter F. Heering Cherry Liqueur, which was widely shipped around the world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Yet the widely accepted version, and the one served today at the Raffles, contains grenadine and pineapple, neither of these ingredients appears in any tidbits of writing. So why the confusion?  Well, the Sling was not the only famous cocktail created by Mr. Boon at the Long Bar. His other gift to the cocktail world was the Million Dollar cocktail. Another gin based cocktail, this one containing sweet vermouth and egg white along with pineapple and grenadine. As recipes were lost and as memories attempted to piece them back together, the blending of the two recipes was entirely possible.

Today, tourists still visit the Long Bar at the Raffles in search of that legendary concoction which the hotel serves thousands of each year.

The hotel’s official recipe is:

Official Raffles Hotel Singapore Sling Recipe
30 ml (1 oz) Gordon's gin
15 ml (1/2 oz) Heering Cherry Liqueur
120 ml (4 oz) pineapple juice
15 ml (1/2 oz) lime juice
7.5 ml (1/4 oz) Cointreau
7.5 ml (1/4 oz) DOM Benedictine
10 ml (1/3 oz) grenadine
Garnish with a slice of pineapple and cherry.

Note: At the Raffles Hotel, the gin used is Gordon's, the cherry brandy is Cherry Heering, and the grenadine is Bols.

Something a bit more striped-down and closer to the original Straits Sling would be:

2 oz Gin
½ oz  of Bénédictine.
½ oz of Cherry Heering
¾ oz Lemon Juice
2 dashes of Orange Bitters,
2 dashes of Angostura Bitters

Shake with ice and strain into a fizz glass, add 2 oz chilled soda water and two pieces of ice.

So in the case of the Singapore Sling, the usual, is a bit unusual.