Posted on January 16th, 2012
This holiday season found me in London, which in turn found me in many bars. The Savoy’s American Bar, the Artesian at the Langham, the Connaught, and a bunch of others– the most notable of the others being the Nightjar.
The Nightjar is so dark and wood-paneled that it’s easy to pretend you’re seated at a bar inside a giant hollow tree– and if that’s not a worthy fantasy I can’t think of a better one right now. In fact, back when I was a home-schooled 9-year-old I had very few aspirations other than to: a) live in a hollow tree, b) soak acorns in a bottle of water for weeks, and c) be a squirrel. So Nightjar struck a chord even before I’d gently lifted the small coconut shell bowl of dried pineapple garnish off the top of my glass that contained a barrel-aged Daquiri. The slices of fresh coconut were dusted with charcoal to “aid my digestion.” Oh yes.
Even with my digestive system having been prepared to meet what drams may come, and even though we were served a drink in a seashell, my most memorable drink was Nightjar’s take on the Hanky Panky. It’s a simple cocktail from history, and the changes they make are simple as well: Ransom Old Tom as the gin, and Byrrh instead of sweet vermouth.
What up, Wise Men? Did you say “Byrrh?” Byrrh is a quinquina, or what the French call an aperitif that features quinine. Cocchi Americano, although Italian, is also part of this family, and seems to be getting subbed in for Lillet all over town these days due to its drier nature. Byrrh is not currently being exported to the US, so we called upon the help of a friend to nab us a bottle at The Whiskey Exchange near London Bridge before leaving.
The label has a delightful vintage feel to it, and at the neck of the bottle is affixed a tiny replica of the label front, like a brooch. Byrrh is like a saucy vermouth, languishing on a red velvet chaise in a tattered vampy dress instead of wearing an apron and efficiently dusting the cobbled sills of her appartement. How could one not be tempted to try her out in a Hanky Panky?
Well, Science forced me to have four Hanky Pankies, and if you bring me a doll I’ll show you where. First, I had the Byrrh version with an equal part of Tanqueray (1.5 oz), and a barspoon of Fernet Branca, stirred, with an expressed and rim-rubbed orange peel garnish. Then a regular one with Dolin Rouge vermouth. Then another regular. Then a Byrrh. Then I wolfed a PB&J, watched Ren & Stimpy, and passed out.
This morning in the kitchen I was confronted by the stark pith of a nearly naked orange, and a dull headache-like recollection of having preferred the regular Hanky Panky. Ugh. Seriously? After all that romanticizing and anticipation? I didn’t believe myself, so I had two more Hanky Pankies– small ones though, so let’s just call it one more. The Byrrh contributes a sassy red hue, and picks up and runs with the orange oil which leads to a fruitier and sweeter taste than I remember. The Fernet nips at the tongue post-swallow and sharpens the point on the citrus, but only a little bit. It tastes a bit immature. The Dolin Rouge, however, makes for a drier, more savory drink. The Fernet is much more apparent, with its cooling menthol and the orange oil making the whole thing just refreshing enough. The Dolin’s tawny color even looks better with the orange peel glowing in the glass. So what was it I originally liked about Nightjar’s Byrrh Hanky Panky? Is Ransom’s Old Tom Gin a necessity? Did it just taste better in my hollow tree fantasy zone? Am I being haunted by Ada Coleman?
Maybe. A few days after Nightjar, I had a barrel-aged Hanky Panky at the Savoy’s American Bar. But first I made sure to confirm with the bartender that Ms. Coleman would be okay with it. Ladislav told me that they gave the barrel her nickname, “Coley,” and liked to think that her soul lives inside, so he thought it would be just fine. And fine it was. Made with a blend of four gins and multiple vermouths, plus the barrel-aging, this was one smooth Hanky Panky. Nothing crazy going on here, no sir. Just the facts, ma’am.
I’d have thought that paying homage to a famous lady bartender might imbue my future Hanky Pankies with a certain spiritual depth. But you never know– maybe it was wrong of me to mess with Ada’s drink by adding a quinquina. Maybe Ada haunts Nightjar and she put a curse on my bottle of Byrrh. Whatever the case, I think it’s reasonable to say that the Hanky Panky can wear a lot of hats (apéritif hats, gin hats) and because it’s such a simple and elegant drink, all three ingredients will be center stage.