I recently celebrated a rather significant birthday (think Medicare) and – as I’m prone to do every year – claimed all of August as “birthday month.” There were numerous celebrations – a stellar Beef Wellington dinner expertly prepared by Tasteful Temptations, an unexpected (and extravagant) gift of a painting by legendary local artist Mildred Huie, and too many happy hours to list. One particularly nice evening my wife and I rode our bikes to Bennie’s Red Barn and enjoyed the ambiance of the TreeBar. Our favorite bartender, Chris – who always remembers our preferred cocktail even if months lapse between visits – had a rare evening off but we were happily served in his stead. Bennie’s and I have something in common – we both got our “start” in 1954. Actually, I pre-date the Red Barn by a few months as Bennie Gentile opened his now iconic restaurant on New Year’s Eve that year.
The Red Barn has withstood the test of time and is the oldest restaurant on St. Simons. I can remember decades ago, when my wife and first vacationed on St. Simons, being told to be sure to go to Bennie’s. Back then there was no sign – you just drove, hesitantly, way up Frederica Road with your eyes peeled for a red barn. A couple of times we were even more adventurous and, using Bennie’s as a landmark, turned off Frederica to the right and drove into the darkness to dine at (the unfortunately defunct) Alfonza’s.
In recent times, once we were island residents, my mother and sisters would visit – and all being steak lovers would insist on a visit to Bennie’s. Sometimes a couple of visits! We always closed out the meal with a slice of Alvin’s apple pie. Alvin had worked at the restaurant almost through its entire existence and would sign a photo of himself if you joined him in front of the monumental fireplace.
One thing on the menu we had never tried was the Raccoon – a frozen libation that must contain about a half dozen liquors along with ice cream and chocolate syrup. It’s kind of like a Mudslide except more in the avalanche category … I figured, as a birthday treat, I should try one. Thankfully my wife offered to split it with me – or I’d have never been able to finish my fried chicken!
As it was “birthday month” I felt entitled to try a new gin. I had not experienced the gin produced by Japanese distiller Suntory despite hearing good things. A nice lady at the 19th Hole was particularly enthusiastic about the gin, after learning I liked to try different ones. So I picked up a bottle of Roku. Yes – Roku, like that little device you connect to your TV to binge-watch Walking Dead. I wondered how a gin and an electronic device got the same name – and guess what? There’s a logical explanation: “roku” is a Japanese word meaning six. And the Roku device was the sixth product created by the company founder Anthony Wood. And Roku gin is characterized by (you guessed it) six distinct Japanese botanicals that set it apart from other gins.
In addition to juniper, coriander, angelica and citrus peel (common gin components), Roku is made unique by the addition of sakura flower, sakura leaf, sencha tea, gyrokuro tea, sansho pepper and yuzu peel. The result is a smooth floral gin with a slight sweetness and a mellow finish due in part to a filtration process that involves bamboo charcoal.
The packaging almost takes the crown from St-Germain for most beautiful presentation, with a hexagonal bottle (continuing the “six” theme) embossed with those Japanese botanicals and a calligraphied label printed on traditional Japanese washi paper. I first enjoyed the gin on the rocks so as to appreciate the nuances of flavor and then investigated cocktails in which it could be utilized. I found and liked this one from Scofflaw Bar in Chicago.
1-½ oz. Roku gin
1 oz. Rondo spritz
½ oz. lemon juice
¼ oz. lavender syrup
Put everything in a shaker with ice, shake until chilled. Strain into a tumbler with more ice and garnish with a lavender sprig.
Now, I’ll be honest. I had to order Monin lavender syrup from Amazon as I couldn’t find it locally. And I gave up on acquiring Rondo (although it sounded so interesting with everything from gentian root to wormwood amongst its ingredients) so I substituted the similarly herbal/bitter liqueur Amaro. But the result was quite nice and quite different. And, again being honest, I really liked the name Velvet Fog because that, of course, was the nickname of the late Mel Tormé.
Who? Mel Tormé. He was a singer with an amazing voice. He co-wrote “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”), for Pete’s sake. Never mind – I did mention I just turned 65, didn’t I? I may be old, but I got to hear all the good singers!