One of the best things about writing a column on spirits is doing the research on various cocktails and their ingredients. I’m often asked, after doing this column for a number of years, if I ever run out of topics. Well, yes … if I had to come up with topics I would, indeed, come up empty. But I read about cocktails and spirits and trendy bars online and in print and — fortuitously —another column can triumphantly emerge!
I especially enjoy learning about historical cocktails, their origins, and often a bit about their creators. I ran across a recipe recently for a drink called The Panic Button. Now who amongst us wouldn’t want to know about the origin of that libation?
It turns out this delicious drink was crafted by a bartender at Charleston’s Dewberry Hotel. He had been challenged to incorporate a liqueur called Averna into a drink that would hold sway in a fine Southern establishment. The bartender, as was I, was unfamiliar with Averna. He probably did the same research I did — and learned that Averna is an Italian liqueur that has been produced on the island of Sicily since 1868. It’s in the amaro family of spirits, meaning it’s a bittersweet herbal mixture that tends to be a bit syrupy. The liqueur is crafted by macerating (basically soaking) dried herbs and often fruit peels — and even certain tree barks — in an alcoholic base. The result is then aged and typically sweetened. Other versions are Fernet, vermouth and Luxardo.
The challenge for the Dewberry bartender was how to incorporate this decidedly European liqueur into a drink that would appeal to Southern American tastes. It is unclear from my research exactly why the bartender was being asked to assume this daunting task, but one can only assume the assignment threw him into a panic (thus the resulting name). We can hope that there was a suitable incentive involved — a raise? A promotion? Getting to keep his job?
We hope he was justly rewarded, as the cocktail he created is truly delightful. At first glance it seems an unlikely combination of ingredients, but once mixed and tasted the genius in it shines through. Starting with a bourbon base (what better way to appeal to Southern tastes?) he added some inspired touches that make The Panic Button worth mixing up at your home.
THE PANIC BUTTON
1½ oz. bourbon
¾ oz. Averna
½ oz. Campari
½ oz. Heering cherry liqueur
¼ oz. fresh lemon juice
Shake all the ingredients with ice to chill, then strain into a glass.
The Dewberry serves this is a coupe glass with a large round ice cube and without other garnish. I’d be tempted to add on a lemon twist since it’s the bright pop of citrus that seems to enliven this creation.
You, like me, may not be familiar with Heering cherry liqueur. I had often seen this product at my spirits purveyor but did not own a bottle. Another historic spirit, this one, from Denmark, dates to 1818, and is considered a key ingredient in the Singapore Sling, first formulated at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore around 1915. Heering is often referred to as the “granddaddy” of cherry brandies. Made by soaking Danish cherries and secret spices in neutral spirits and then aging for five years, Heering is not one of those dyed ruby-red abominations often used in lesser bars. It’s been said some such “brandies” taste like cherry Lifesavers in a Robitussin base (pretty descriptive, huh?). If you invest in a bottle of Heering, you will find it to offer a rich deep flavor that adds depth and deliciousness to a number of cocktails like the aforementioned Singapore Sling, the almost forgotten Blood and Sand, and one with a particularly noteworthy name — Remember the Maine.
REMEMBER THE MAINE
2 oz. Rye whiskey
¾ oz. sweet vermouth
2 tsp. Cherry Heering liqueur
½ tsp. Absinthe
In a chilled coupe or cocktail glass, add the absinthe. Roll around to coat and discard the excess.
Add the rye, vermouth and liqueur to a mixing glass with ice and stir well.
Strain into the prepared glass, and garnish with a brandied cherry.
The Maine referred to here is another historical reference. For those who may have slept in history class, the U.S.S. Maine was an American battleship which exploded and sank under mysterious circumstances in 1898, while anchored in Havana, Cuba. The U.S. had been looking for a reason to rout the Spanish from Cuba, and it was widely assumed Spain was behind the explosion. “Remember the Maine” became a rallying cry for those ready to go to war with Spain — which eventually occurred with the advent of the Spanish-American War.
Why the name for this cocktail, which is essentially a rye Manhattan with the addition of the Heering and that captivating swish of absinthe? It seems the creator, Charles H. Baker, a well-known contributor to The New Yorker, was unfortunate enough to be in Havana in 1953 when Fidel Castro launched a revolution that overthrew President Bautista and resulted in Communist rule on that island neighbor of ours. Mr. Baker wrote that he and other journalists holed up in a hotel bar and took turns mixing cocktails from the limited supply on hand. Baker’s cocktail was deemed a success and, being American, he christened it after the battle cry of an earlier Cuban conflict.
So … this little history lesson comes to a close. Most of you seem to still be awake, and your attentiveness is appreciated. You may now enjoy the reward of a tasty cocktail. Those who dozed off must stay late and clean the erasers. Erasers? Wow – there’s a historical reference.