(A Note from Tim McNally: Because we are on the doorstep of Tales of the Cocktail, July 14-19, it seems like a good time to step back and appreciate where we came from with cocktail culture and where we are going. I asked Nathan Dalton, affable, talented and knowledgeable manager of the bar programs for Felipe’s Restaurants and Tiki Tolteca by Felipe’s, to share with us some of his thoughts about cocktail history. Some very interesting viewpoints and references here.)
“Our Ancestors Were Cooler Than Us.”
I’m not just talking about my ancestors – American and, before that, Irish and Scotch. I’m talking about all over the planet, where people have been inventing creative ways to imbibe alcohol for centuries. To be upfront, I am not an archeologist with a PhD, traveling around and digging up ancient ping pong tables that smell like beer. The information I have is merely from books, talking to people and the internet. What I can contribute, though, is the giddy eagerness to put these crazy ideas into practice and then write about them.
I also am asking for the attention of all my fellow pyromaniacs out there. I’ll be discussing “the flip” from colonial America, and the en flambé game, Snap-dragon, from around the same time period but in Canada and England as well.
To give credit where credit’s due, I’ve learned almost everything I know about “the flip” from New Orleans local and colonial drink expert, Wayne Curtis. He writes about it in his book And a Bottle of Rum, and seems to love giving demonstrations whenever he can. No wonder, since it involves jamming a red-hot iron club into a barrel of booze.
This is how it would have happened in the 1600s:
The tavern would have had a loggerhead – an iron ball at the end of an iron rod – sitting in the fireplace. Hot loggerheads were originally used to melt tar, but bartenders found a better use. They would plunge the red-hot contraption into a container of a mixture of rum, beer and molasses, using the heat of the iron to help incorporate the molasses into the mixture. That is basically all there is to it – simple, but fun.
An iron-working friend of mine made a loggerhead for me, and I’ve used it at several parties as well as a formal dinner at Tiki Tolteca. It’s not one of those drinks that you fall in love with on your first sip. Your lips won’t have a “where have you been all my life” moment. I would, however, place it squarely in the category of “acquired-taste-possible.” But hey, how many of us liked single malt the first time we tried it?
From my own tinkering, this is my current favorite flip recipe. For a more authentic recipe, check out Curtis’ book.
12 oz Heffeweisen
12 oz Porter
6 oz Old New Orleans Cajun Spiced Rum
2 oz 2:1 Molasses syrup
To make the molasses syrup, mix 2 parts molasses with 1 part hot water in a mason jar and shake it. Easy peasy.
If you don’t have access to an ironsmith, an iron fire poker will do in a pinch. Heat the business end with a propane torch until it glows red (45 minutes or more). It’s always fun at a party to turn the lights off periodically and check the progress. Put the ingredients into a large non-meltable, non-leakable container (like a clay pot), request everyone’s silence, jam the poker into the liquid and listen to it hiss like a drunken alley cat. No, I’ve never gotten an alley cat drunk.
On to the next shenanigan!
Whereas the flip is less of a game and a really fun drink, Snap-dragon is the reverse – less a drink and more a ridiculous game that just happens to involve alcohol. I guess this is the point where I’m supposed to say, “don’t try this at home,” but I think I’d rather say, “Do this at your own risk. I did it and had a blast, but I can imagine more than one less-than-pleasant end result.”
Just for fun, I’m going to write the following instructions with a 19th-century wealthy British lady’s accent in my head. Feel free to follow along.
"Now you’ll want to procure a rather large punch bowl and a carafe of brandy. Heat the brandy on the stove, careful not to bring to the boil. Gently pour your heated brandy into the punch bowl and dampen the lights in the parlor to achieve the desired atmosphere. The depth of brandy should equal an inch or two. Sprinkle 20 – 30 raisins into the brandy, and then ignite.
During the several minutes of ensuing flame, the party guests will delight in attempting to fetch raisins from the inferno with their bare hands and eat them. Much fun will be had by all. Do mind the flammable curtains, and those with un-waxed mustaches will do well to apply extra caution. Bob’s your uncle.”
I had some people over to play this, and it is every bit as nerve-wracking as it sounds. By the end, most people had summoned the courage to grab at least one raisin. No one got burned, but neither did any of us have hair left on our hands. We used a large punch bowl so we needed an entire 750ml bottle of brandy, but half a bottle might do for a smaller bowl. It’s a damn waste of alcohol, and I doubt we ended up ingesting much at all, but it was worth it.
Thus concludes our short trip back in time. Have fun, don’t drinking-game and drive, and please don’t burn anyone or anything down.
The next game I’d love to try is Kottabos from ancient Greece. If anyone out there has a knack for making metal sculptures and wants to aid in this quest, please reach out to me!
Editor’s Note: We are not suggesting or condoning Snap-dragon. It is presented here merely as an example of our ancestor’s creativity and desire to relieve boredom when it came to alcohol. We also think the game belies the headline of this article.
But, hey, we are extra cautious around flaming desserts, Café Brulot, and even raise our napkins to cover our clothes when presented with a hot tray of sizzling steak. So build in those thoughts into your own thinking.
And thank you, Nathan, for the stroll down (ancient) memory lane. We look forward to hearing from you again.)