My wife and I were on the way to meet friends for dinner and we had the radio tuned to 92.7 SSI when suddenly a very familiar and long-time fave tune came on. It was “Smooth,: that classic collaboration between the legendary Santana and the then up-and-coming Rob Thomas from Matchbox Twenty. We immediately ceased our marital small-talk (“How was your day?” “Fine. How ‘bout you?” “OK.” “Did you feed the dogs before we left?”) and listened to the classic hit. After the song concluded we started wondering when it came out. My wife Googled a bit and informed me that the song was released 20 years ago, in the summer of 1999.
Further research revealed that “Smooth” was certified gold in September of that year, went on to be certified platinum in November and stayed at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for 12 consecutive weeks. The following year, at the Grammys, Smooth won Song of the Year. It was the only No. 1 hit of Santana’s long career. A recent survey maintains that, even after two decades, “Smooth” is America’s second favorite song of all time – ranking just below Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” and a bit ahead of Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife”. (OK – I like the song, but – REALLY – ahead of Bobby Darin? Puh-leeze.)
Anyway, we arrive at our destination – Tramici – where we regale our friends with our newfound Trivial Pursuit-worthy facts about “Smooth.” And then we order dinner. A special that evening was lobster bisque, and I knew as soon as our server announced it that I would be having a bowl. And guess what? It was incomparably smooth! Probably one of the smoothest, silkiest, delightful soups I’ve ever enjoyed. It was rich and creamy but somehow magically light and ethereal. Oh – and very lobster-y. I enjoyed the soup with a glass of William Hill Chardonnay (also smooth, as it turns out) which was the perfect accompaniment. So perfect that I requested a second glass to accompany my entrée of Chicken Picatta.
Later, as I was thinking of this week’s column I considered the concept of “smooth.” A couple of dictionary definitions are “without harshness or bitterness” and “having an even consistency.” Either of those are applicable to both my soup and my wine. But how about other spirits? Well, in my opinion there’s a dichotomy of “smooth” and “flavor.” They’re not mutually exclusive of course; my Chardonnay tasted wonderful, and it was very smooth. But consider my choice of gin: Beefeater. Acquaintances often ask why I typically request this admittedly mid-range gin when I order a gin and tonic.
I always tell them it’s the taste. I think it tastes better than, say, pricier gins like Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire – both of which are to my palate a bit smoother than Beefeater. But taste wise, well – I’ve made my choice. Other liquors are harder to peg. Bourbon is an excellent example. How can Woodford Reserve (at 90.4 proof) or Knob Creek (at 100 proof) be remotely palatable (not to mention delicious) when a bottom-shelf brand at a lower proof causes fire and smoke to spew from the imbiber’s ears? Don’t get me wrong – the high-dollar and the bargain basement brands are all bourbon and all have a somewhat similar taste – but some you just don’t want to taste again and others you decide to redeem a few bonds in order to own a bottle.
The difference could be, and likely is, due to a number of factors. The cost of the ingredients (corn, rye, barley, yeast) probably doesn’t vary dramatically from one distiller to another. Nor the cost of the barrel (about $250) which must be new American white oak (bourbon barrels can’t be re-used for bourbon, but are often repurposed to age other spirits). Then there are labor costs and utilities, etc. But a big factor is aging. The minimum requirement for bourbon is a two-year aging process. More expensive brands specify much longer periods (although you won’t find the time on the label). Consider, however, the evaporation that occurs as bourbon ages – called the “angels’ share” this lost spirit can be as much as 10 percent the first year in the barrel, and averages 4 percent each additional year. Obviously an eight-year aging will result in substantially less bourbon to eventually bottle than the minimum two-year aging.
So … we need a smooth cocktail at this point, am I right? Let’s return to gin, because in this heat, I just pour good bourbon over ice and sip very slowly. This cocktail is unique and incorporates a smooth liqueur with which most Americans are unfamiliar. Strega is an Italian herbal liqueur somewhat like Galliano that has pronounced flavors of mint, fennel and saffron. Delicious straight as an aperitif, it really shines in this riff on the Pimm’s Cup made popular at The Fat Radish in Savannah.
THE FAT RADISH RIFF ON PIMM’S CUP
1 oz. Pimm’s No. 1
½ oz. gin
½ oz. Strega
½ oz. strawberry syrup
¼ oz. fresh lemon juice
Ginger beer, to top
Garnish: mint sprig, orange slice, half strawberry, blueberries
Combine all the ingredients except the ginger beer in a shaker, add ice and shake to chill. Add ginger beer, then strain over fresh ice. Garnish.
There are recipes to make strawberry syrup from scratch, as the Fat Radish folks do, but I elected to buy the Smucker’s version at the grocery. Enjoy – and stay smooth! As the song says “make it real – or else forget about it.”