[Editor's Note: This post is part of a five-part blog collection about the inspirations for island cocktails served on Isla Palenque. Read the introductory post "The Joys of Mixology" and visit the bottom of this post for all posts in the Island Cocktails series.]
“Get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini.” — famous quip from Mae West’s Every Day’s a Holiday (1937).
Classic cinema continues its love affair with the cocktail when Humphrey Bogart laments that of “all the gin joints in all the towns in the world,” Ingrid Bergman walked into his (Casablanca, 1942), and the very next year Lauren Bacall sips on a daiquiri with that stinker, Bogart, in To Have and Have Not. By 1961 we’re drinking champagne before breakfast in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and who could ever forget the two medium-dry Vodka martinis shaken with a lemon peel that James Bond sips before saving the US space launch from the evil Dr. No in 1962?
Cocktail hour provides a host of sensory delights that go beyond the flavor of your chosen drink: the cool of the glass in your hand, the melodious clinking of the ice cubes, and variety in the sensations produced by different cocktails as they hit your tongue, ranging from foamy to smooth to almost numbing. By the same token, island life supplies tactile pleasure in equal measure, from the sand between your toes to the rough texture of a coconut husk. When married, the warmth of the tropics and the cool of a well-crafted cocktail are about as luxurious as it gets.
On Isla Palenque, we’ve singled out the best vintage cocktails to complement our unique island wilderness, and have even invented some new drinks that hearken to treasured traditions in mixology. You might choose to delay your enjoyment of the Straits Sling, Negroni, and Isla Palenque’s own Moda Vieja until you can sip them in paradise, but for those who can’t wait, I’ve included recipes below.
Taking a serious interest in cocktails almost inevitably means delving into “vintage cocktails” and their histories, since cocktails had their heyday from the late 1800s through the middle of the 20th century — a period that witnessed two world wars and the invention of almost every drink you know and love. Undoubtedly, a well-crafted cocktail provided comfort as often as pleasure throughout these volatile decades (if you’ll overlook a few of the cruder concoctions of the Prohibition years). After clear-cut global struggles against evil reached their nuclear climax, society was left with the backwash of a more muddled Cold War period, and mixologists seem to have markedly lowered their standards in the years following the cocktail’s golden age.
“Cocktails” after about 1960 all too often meant just some alcohol mixed with soda (rum and coke, anyone?), an oversweetened Slushee (Margarita 2.0), or vodka with whatever. Vodka, whose quality hinges on how odorless and tasteless it can be, should only be allowed in three drinks: the vodka Martini, the Bloody Mary, and the White Russian (and if we’re going to be serious about this, maybe only the first). These are standards I inherited from my grandfather, a man who took his drinking seriously, and I stand by them — in fact, I’d argue that you can tell the quality of a cocktail menu by how few vodka drinks it lists.
Vintage cocktails, on the other hand, were generally invented by people who liked to drink and liked to taste what they were drinking. They were also American and European inventions, by and large (though of course not exclusively, as my Latin cocktail posts show). So you see a lot of gin-based drinks, along with drinks made of whiskey, brandy, or rum. You will see very few vodka drinks (the spirit was barely known outside Russia until the 1950s), and you will see very few drinks where the mixers overwhelm the flavor of the base spirit: the goal was to enhance and complement the flavor of the base, not mask it.
It’s hard to imagine a solid cocktail menu that doesn’t primarily consist of drinks at least 50 years old, but only in the last decade or so has it again become possible to taste a really well-made Sidecar or an authentic Sazerac anywhere other than your home bar. The recent revival of the vintage cocktail in trendy bars and restaurants is responsible for bringing a lot of obscure old cocktails and ingredients back from the brink of extinction, as well as for producing some fresh updates to classic cocktail recipes. At Edén on Isla Palenque, our drink menu concentrates on classic cocktails to apéritif or accompany the restaurant’s traditional Panamanian and Latin cuisine. Guests will enjoy a selection of vintage cocktails, some of them obscure but all carefully chosen to provide refined refreshment — perfect for the hot and humid days on our tropical island. I’ll introduce you to three below.
The recipe for the Straits Sling was unearthed by one of the men largely responsible for the recent renaissance in vintage cocktails: cocktail archeologist Ted Haigh (Dr Cocktail). Haigh describes the Straits Sling as a “fossil in amber” that lets you breathe in the piquant aroma of Victorian British colonialism – making it the father of the Singapore Sling. (Singapore was part of the British “Straits Settlements” from 1824 until World War II).
Just a minor shift in ingredients turned this beautifully archaic and exotically dry refresher into the sweetened Singapore Sling, which is well-known today as a classic “umbrella” drink. A few of the ingredients might be missing from your standard home bar setup, but I personally feel this drink is reason enough to add them to your collection: just try it on a warm summer evening.
As the name implies, it’s perfect for a tropical climate, and a great addition to Isla Palenque’s cocktail menu, as Panama is frequently characterized as “the Singapore of the West”.
To make a perfect Straits Sling, just follow Dr Cocktail’s recipe exactly:
- 2 ounces of gin
- 1/2 ounce of kirsch (a dry cherry brandy; the same stuff you use in fondue, by the way)
- 1/2 ounce of Bénédictine (an ancient French herbal liqueur)
- 1/2 ounce of lemon juice, strained
- 2 dashes of Angostura bitters
- 2 dashes of orange bitters (if you can’t find them, a decent substitute is to simply twist the oils out of an orange rind and into the drink)
- Club soda
Shake everything except the soda water in a cocktail shaker with cubed ice, languorously and for about 10-15 seconds; strain into a highball or daiquirí glass. Fill the remainder with soda, give it a quick stir, and garnish with a cherry and piece of cubed fruit or three.
I love the Negroni (equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth) for a number of reasons. For one, it is one of the few cocktails that uses Campari, a bright red bitter Italian apéritif whose flavor is so strong that it is hard to mix successfully, but which delivers a great crisp bite that works especially well on a hot summer day in Chicago, or any day in Panama. If you like bitters, give this spicy carmine-colored spirit a try, it’s incredibly refreshing (in fact, I’d consider the very simple “Campari and soda” the most underrated beach drink there is).
The second reason I love it is due to my penchant for smart-alecky pranks and jokesterism – one look at the Negroni and you’ll be able to see the kick I get out of ordering this potent cocktail. When its trio of alcoholic ingredients are combined, poured, and garnished with a lemon twist, the Negroni looks like a pinkish “girlie drink” (maybe a Cosmo) and there is likely to be a comment or two about it. This is when the fun starts, because you offer the person who made the snide comment a sip. Gin and Campari make for a heady combination: most people’s faces will pucker up and they’ll give the drink back apologizing for ever using your cocktail choice to question your manhood.
The last reason I love the Negroni, and feel we must offer it at Isla Palenque, dates to the beginnings of our project here. I first met Aris Almengor, The Resort at Isla Palenque’s longest-standing employee and soon-to-be Director of Tours & Activities for the hotel, back in 2009 while he was working at a little B&B in Boca Chica. He was doing a little bit of everything, including standing behind the bar from time to time. On one occasion, noticing the B&B’s unopened bottle of Campari, I asked Aris if he knew how to make a Negroni, all but certain he wouldn’t – heck, half the bartenders in an urbane city like Chicago don’t know how to make them, and I often find myself providing instruction, as I expected to do with Aris. But instead he surprised me.
“Claro que sí, yes, I know how to make it. I used to make them on the cruise ship. But only old people order them, jeje.” Now that’s my kind of bartender. And he made a good one, with no advice from me; and in a “backwater” like Boca Chica, no less. Six months later, Aris was working as our project coordinator, and he remains both Amble’s and Isla Palenque’s longest-standing employee. So with that relationship in mind, the Negroni is hereafter to be considered one of Isla Palenque’s mainstays.
Anyway, on to the drink itself: this classic cocktail was invented by Florentine Count Negroni in 1919. He wanted something a little stronger than an Americano (equal parts Campari and sweet vermouth, topped with club soda) so he asked a bartender to replace the club soda with gin and ecco! — the Negroni was born. If you like Campari, this is an amazing combination, and very simple: unlike every other cocktail in this series, all the ingredients are already bottled and ready to go; all you have to do is add some ice. Play with the proportions at your peril, though: the use of equal measures of the three ingredients works some serious magic. You might get away with a little extra gin, but not more than another third or so, and the equal proportions of vermouth and Campari balance each other perfectly: don’t mess with them.
Recipe for a perfect Negroni:
- 1 1/2 ounces of gin (go with something stronger-flavored, like Tanqueray or Beefeater, rather than something like Bombay, which is on the “softer” side of gins; a cheaper gin like Gordon’s will also work)
- 1 1/2 ounces of sweet vermouth (The Cinzano brand is owned by the makers of Campari and works really well here, but any typically available sweet vermouth will do – Martini & Rossi or Noilly Prat, for example)
- 1 1/2 ounces of Campari (no choice here: Campari is Campari, and there is no equal)
Shake all ingredients vigorously and strain into a cocktail glass; if you’re feeling lazy, the Negroni also drinks well on the rocks: just pour it all in a rocks glass and throw some ice on top. Either way, though, the result will be nicely enhanced if you garnish with some lemon rind and twist the essential oils over the top of the drink. And note that I make mine with 4 1/2 total ounces of liquor: I like my Negronis strong — don’t have two. But scale it down to 1 ounce of each if you prefer a more classically sized drink.
While the drink menu at Edén primarily consists of traditional recipes with very few substitutions, in a few cases we have reinterpreted classic recipes to create new “Latinized” or “tropicalized” versions of classic cocktails, using local ingredients as much as possible. The Moda Vieja is one of these. “Moda Vieja” literally translates to “Old Style”, and our cocktail is a variation on the Old-Fashioned, a storied drink from the nineteenth century typically made with whiskey. Like the Martini, debates over the recipe and ratios for the “best” Old-Fashioned could start a bar fight: the drink began as a relatively pure-and-simple combination of whiskey, bitters, and sugar, but by the 1970s had devolved into a slurry of various fruits muddled with a little whiskey.
Our version straddles the two extremes, incorporating some local tropical ingredients and a fine Cuban rum I was grateful to find readily available in Panama. Some of the ingredients might be hard to get if you are outside the tropics — where that’s the case I’ve suggested alternatives which still make for a fine drink. And while I only invented this cocktail last month, who knows? — I like to imagine it being enjoyed by officers stationed at the Canal during Prohibition using exotic ingredients readily available to them.
Recipe for Isla Palenque’s Moda Vieja:
- 2 ounces of Havana Club Añejo Reserva (if you’re in the States and can’t get Cuban rum, substitute another high-quality aged rum, maybe Abuelo, or something from Puerto Rico)
- 1/2 ounce of Kentucky bourbon (we use Maker’s Mark)
- 1 teaspoon of maracuyá juice, including seeds (maracuyá is Spanish for passionfruit; if this is unavailable to you, substitute about 1/8″ wedge of lime – it’s not quite the same, but it works)
- 1 small orange wedge, including rind (wedge should be no more than 3/4″ wide)
- 1 sugar cube (or about a teaspoon of granulated sugar)
- 2 dashes of Rossard Amargo Aromatico bitters (they are Chilean and readily available in Panama, but feel free to substitute Angostura)
Put the sugar, bitters and fruit into an old-fashioned or rocks glass and muddle them, making sure to get the rinds nicely abraded by the sugar. Pour the bourbon and rum into the glass, along with enough ice to fill the glass about 2/3. Leave the muddled fruit in, and garnish with a half orange wheel if you are feeling fancy.
A full list of posts in the Island Cocktails series:
- The Joys of Mixology: Classic Cocktails on Isla Palenque
- Classic Latin Cocktails: Part I (The Holy Trinity), Part II
- Vintage Cocktails for the Tropics
- The Tiki Drink