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Satan’s Whiskers and Maiden’s Prayers 

Libations from a bygone era

Thursday, Sep 18 2003
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

So a guy walks into a bar. He looks at the dame in the corner, the one giving him the big eye; he’ll deal with that later. Right now, he’s got business with the bartender.

“The usual, Joe,” he says.

In a moment, standing on the bar like Venus on the half-shell, is a glass of ice-cold comfort, the sort of bracing elixir that etches a line between day and evening. The guy picks it up, anticipating its sea rage, its consolation. Oh, there’s nothing like a Zima.

Now, wait a second, you’re thinking, how wrong is that? My point exactly. Or rather, the point of Daniel Reichert, who is on a mission to get people to wake up and smell the gin.

“Gin is so complex, there’s so much going on,” says Reichert, his fingers playing over bottles of Booth’s, Tanqueray 10 and other spirits that flank the kitchen sink of his Studio City home. “There’s juniper, angelica root, lemon peel, clove. For making great cocktails, it brings so much to the drink.”

Where you or I might see an olive when we stare into a martini, Reichert sees history and culture. He wants you to see it, too, and for all of us mindlessly swilling Cosmos and wine coolers, he recently launched Vintage Cocktails, a catering outfit that specializes in the “pick-me-ups, apéritifs and nightcaps of a bygone era,” drinks with names like the Scofflaw, Bee’s Kiss, Satan’s Whiskers and Maiden’s Prayer.

“Who wouldn’t be curious about a drink called Maiden’s Prayer? It’s so sexy,” says Reichert, explaining that the cocktail is a 1920s version of a Long Island Iced Tea: plenty of alcohol, but you don’t taste it. “It’s up to the maiden, I suppose, which path the drink will lead her down.” As for who’s doing the mixing, the maiden better watch it: Change one ingredient, and it becomes a Between the Sheets.

I ask Reichert to mix me a drink; he chooses a periodista, or journalist. “I think knowing a little something about the cocktail you’re drinking adds to the enjoyment,” he says, as he loads a silver shaker with ice. “The periodista is likely a variation on the daiquiri, which was John F. Kennedy’s favorite drink and which he popularized.” Reichert pours in rum, fresh lime juice, a dash of apricot brandy. “My hunch is the drink came about because there were a lot of journalists visiting Cuba during his presidency.”

Reichert slides his fingers over the cocktail, in a delicate V-shaped glass. It looks like pulverized peridot, it’s tart enough to make me squint, and it is so cold it must be sipped, not gulped.

“Bars never get drinks cold enough,” says Reichert. “Or they pour 10 ounces of tepid booze over a cupful of ice.” A classically trained actor who is married to the singer Andrea Marcovicci, Reichert gives a heavy sigh. “It’s not that I want to bash contemporary cocktails. The apple martini is a lovely-looking drink, but it tends to taste like Jolly Rancher candy. And I like Jolly Ranchers, but why would anyone choose to drink only them when there’s this whole world of delicious, complex, inspiring cocktails that wake up your palate and also your imagination?”

Reichert, who is also a professionally trained bartender, gathered the recipes he uses and their attendant histories from old cocktail books. His friends have been willing guinea pigs: A buddy who comes over to watch Red Sox games gets a Ward Eight (bourbon, lemon juice, orange juice and grenadine), created in Boston in 1898 to honor a campaigning Democrat. Another friend, actor Jon Tenney, likes the Jasmine (gin, Campari, lemon juice and Cointreau), a relatively new drink named for a dishwasher at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse.

Watching Reichert play alchemist, one notices the conspicuous absence of vodka.

“Vodka is the white paint of the spirit world, and it’s just not interesting to me,” he says. “It’s flavorless, odorless alcohol and water; it brings nothing to a drink but a vague alcohol burn. It’s popular because it’s easy to disguise its flavor. It’s also cheap, and if you put it in a fancy bottle you can make a ton of money selling it. Someday, some enterprising fellow is going to come up with juniper-flavored vodka.”

While a slew of great vintage cocktails came from Britain and Cuba, Reichert says the credit for cocktails generally goes to America, and to Hollywood specifically.

“The cocktail is a very American creation, one of the great American contributions, actually,” he says. “The end of Prohibition coincided with this golden age of the movies, and drinking cocktails became enormously popular. Nick and Nora (William Powell and Myrna Loy of the Thin Man movies) drank martinis; so did Claude Rains. Even in Casablanca, people order champagne cocktails. Only when Rick is alone and depressed does he drink straight whiskey. The movies coming out of Hollywood played everywhere — people saw these incredibly glamorous people slugging back martinis . . . the movies really brought cocktail culture to the rest of the country.”

This does not mean that cocktails themselves came from Hollywood. “Hollywood has a wonderful way of borrowing things, distilling them and representing them as its own,” says Reichert, “but the reality is there weren’t that many drinks created here.” Original Hollywood cocktails include the Honeymoon Cocktail (from the Brown Derby), the Brown Derby Cocktail (from the Vendome Club) and the Zombie (from Don the Beachcomber). “The Zombie was basically lots of rum and fruit juice, which I suppose made you feel like one of the living dead,” says Reichert. “It was heavily promoted with the intriguing warning ‘Limit two per customer.’ Tell people they can only have two, and of course they want even more.”

Speaking of more . . .

“How about a Royal Hawaiian?” asks Reichert, who makes me a drink that looks like a morning glory, with an indigo eye of Parfait d’Amour liqueur afloat in a sea of gin made milky with pineapple juice and orzata syrup.

“And when we talk about Hollywood cocktails, we must not forget the Gimlet,” he adds. “Though British, the Gimlet was popularized by Raymond Chandler’s Hollywood detective Philip Marlowe, who drank them with his mysterious friend Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye.”

The Gimlet is featured on the “Hollywood Classics” section of Reichert’s Vintage Cocktail drink menu; Stingers and Rusty Nails show up on “The Late Show”; and the Vesper, Pimm’s Cup and Royal Silver on “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” Want to know what’s in the Royal Silver? Reichert is also teaching classes.

“Maybe I romanticize, but I think that, back in the 1940s, if you went to someone’s house and asked for a martini, they’d know how to make it for you,” he says, adding that he’d like to see the custom of a cocktail before dinner stage a comeback. “It’s not about getting soused, it’s about waking up your palate and making you want to eat. The Pegu is a perfect example.”

Reichert makes me one. It’s a tiny gem containing gin, Cointreau, lime juice and bitters, and is so invigorating I feel scoured from the neck up. And while I like knowing it originated in the 1920s at the British Officers’ Club in Burma, I do wonder if it will fly with a generation weaned on supersized, supersweet McCocktails.

“Well, look at what’s happened in the country in the past 20 years with wine,” counters Reichert. “It used to be, you went into a restaurant and ordered red or white; people didn’t know what Merlot was.” Not anymore. “I’d like to see the same thing happen to cocktails. Once you make an investment of a cocktail shaker and a couple of glasses, it’s really no harder than making a great cup of coffee.”

Vintage Cocktails, (818) 985-9096, www.vintagecocktails.com.

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