Resurrecting spirits Camper English, Special to The Chronicle Friday, October 19, 2007
Last year, Erik Ellestad, a cocktail aficionado and systems administrator at UCSF, decided to drink his way through a classic recipe book.
Though he initially considered "The Old Waldorf Astoria Bar Book," he found a cocktail every couple pages that required an obscure or unavailable ingredient, so he chose the easier-seeming "Savoy Cocktail Book" from 1930. On his path to making the book's 750 drinks, he hit his first snag at the second recipe: The namesake spirit in the absinthe cocktail had been banned in the United States since 1912.
"I tried a couple of substitutes (including pastis) that were not very satisfying. Then I received a bonus from work ... so I decided to order some absinthe from London."
Ellestad has plenty of company: Historically accurate cocktails are a growing trend extending from the classic cocktail craze, with an emphasis on finding and tasting the first-known version of a drink. Such cocktails can be a challenge to re-create. Drink recipes from 100 or more years ago require some translation, as they were smaller in size, used measurements such as drachms and gills, and involved processes like clarifying loaf sugar syrup.
But, as Ellestad found, the bigger challenge is that many of the spirits and other ingredients called for in classic recipes are no longer imported, have changed flavor profiles radically, were outlawed or are simply no longer produced.
Hunting down obscure spirits involves time, travel, collaboration and sometimes, reinvention. Nevertheless, dedicated drink historians (and thirsty mixologists) are working together to bring many of these lost cocktail ingredients back onto the market.
(Go read the rest. There's lots of it and I name-checked about half the booze nerds on the planet.)
Here's my big fat lost ingredients cover story in today's SF Chronicle Wine Section.