History is not homogenous. In every era, there are always people who celebrate new ideas; people whose raw energy and thirst for innovation drive our common culture in new directions. Most of the rest of us try to follow along the best we can, cautiously peering around every new corner before turning it.
Then there are the few who see the corner and maybe even take a quick peek at what lies beyond and then simply stay put. They’re the flip-phone users, the CD-listeners, the quinoa-avoiders. Some of those people run bars and restaurants, thank God.
Take the people who run Sardi’s, the legendary theatrical restaurant on Manhattan’s West 44th St., which celebrates its 95th anniversary this year. Every time the restless trendsetters scampered around another corner, dragging us toward Peruvian-Nepalese restaurants and restaurants devoted only to toast and cocktails made from micro-distilled aquavit spiced with squid-ink bitters, Sardi’s took a quick look and stayed right where it was, with its Continental cuisine, its caricatures on the wall and its Dry Martinis, considered by many aficionados to be the best in New York.
And yet, if you page through Sardi’s Bar Guide, which the restaurant published in 1988, it looks like a real corner-turner. Sure, it’s got Manhattans and Martinis and such, but it also includes a whole raft of the gaudy Disco drinks that so characterized American mixology in the 1970s and 1980s.
From the Alabama Slammer and the Amaretto Sour, on through the Long Island Iced Tea and the Melon Ball, all the way to the Tootsie Roll and the Windex, with frequent stops in between for sex drinks (e.g., Screaming Orgasm, Sloe Comfortable Screw), the book is a—sometimes appalling—testament to the Dark Ages of Mixology. (And if you’re wondering why they’re called that, consider the Oyster concoction, there on page 152: an ounce and a half of vodka stirred into three ounces of Baileys, which then curdles, producing the gobby, globby oysterness from which its name is derived.)
As you look more closely at all those gaudy new drinks in the Sardi’s book, however, you notice that many of them have comments from the book’s author, Vincent Sardi Jr. (who was born in 1915 and died in 1997), who wrote it with the help of nonfiction writer George Shea. Sardi was the son of the restaurant’s founders and, during World War II, a captain in the Marines. When he thought something was stupid, he didn’t mind saying so.
That Windex, for instance. He thought the mix of vodka and blue curaçao, normally served as a shooter, could also be “poured into an old Windex bottle and sprayed into the mouth perhaps, or (better yet) onto one’s windows.” On the Sunoco 251, another shooter (equal parts 151-proof rum, vodka and green Chartreuse), he begins with “No serious, sophisticated bar guide would be really complete without this elegant, upscale drink,” before bringing us up short with an “All kidding aside.” The Screaming Orgasm? “To the best of my knowledge, we’ve never served one of these at Sardi’s.”
So. A book that peers around the corner without actually rounding it. The drinks Sardi takes pride in; the ones he claims for the restaurant; are a much more conservative lot. Of them my favorite is the 44th St Cocktail, named after the restaurant’s location. I don’t know which of the place’s bartenders at the time, Billy Jimenez, Jack Kustera, Joe Petrosoric and Ray Tornato, came up with this one. But the heart of the drink, the combination of rum, brandy, citrus juice and sugar, goes back to the early 1700s.
You can’t get more flip-phone than that. But, you know, the thing still works.
44th St Cocktail
Contributed by Sardi’s
Ingredients:.5 oz Lemon juice1 tsp Sugar1.25 oz VSOP-grade cognac or Armagnac1.25 oz Rich, dark rum, such as Appleton V/XGlass: RocksGarnish: Fresh piece of pineapple
Directions:Briefly stir together the lemon juice and sugar in a shaker. And the rest of the ingredients and fill with ice. Shake and strain into ice-filled rocks glass. Garnish how you like (a piece of fresh pineapple works particularly well).