The Manhattan Project



Where we consider art supplies for the cocktail cabinet.

How different is your cocktail with high-end liquids, and are premium supplies always the best choice?

In this episode — The Manhattan Project

Martinis and Manhattans remain our staple drinks at cocktail time here at Grade “A” Fancy world headquarters. The frillier potions get their due, but we return to these two time-honored classics most often, and why not have a five o'clock date that’s delicious and dependable? We do tinker with them on occasion, adjusting proportions, adding a squirt of various bitters or boozes, switching garnishes as our mood and brand of spirits will dictate. But we have never had a scientific side-by-side showdown of vermouths. Since freshness is key and we rarely open more than one bottle at a time, what we would need to accomplish this was somebody else’s vermouth. To this end, we convened a blue-ribbon committee of cocktail crazy chums for a blind tasting of Manhattans.

Vicky you already know from Codename: Cocktail and her tasty blog Liquorsnapper. At MidCenturyMixology, Chris and Elizabeth are wading through an inherited Old Mr. Boston page by page. Garth’s analytical skill and Shane and Friederike for an artistic angle rounded out the panel.

A good liquor store today will have a dazzling number of red vermouths. It was tough but we narrowed our selections to a manageable six, refraining from any new world styles. Guests were to bring a few widely available bottles: Cinzano Rosso (Italy), Carpano Antica (Italy), Cocci Vermouth di Torino (Italy), and Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry Rouge (France). We know all the best people, so a bottle of Compañia Vermouth Mata Tinto (Spain)* was proffered by Friederike, whose elegant label design heralded its (re)appearance in the American market.

We plotted to sneak in something bottom shelf, Tribuno or Stock, say, or better yet, an oddball bottle, something that you might see in the well at an iffy bar and swear it was a movie prop. Two stores and no luck. We ran out of time, so our fallback was that standard check-out shelf item, the not-at-all-disreputable half bottle of Martini & Rossi.

For the rye: This confront was all about the vermouth so the whiskey would need to be good, but not a flavor bomb. Old Overholt was once our old faithful; we were mighty happy with it through the scarce rye years until, about five years back, we noticed that our Manhattans were tasting a bit syrupy and flaccid. Vermouth being the sweet element of the drink, we immediately placed the blame and swapped brands, without solid success. So, was it us? Had we become…hard-boiled? Upping the hard stuff made our cocktails stronger, but not better. Yep, this was driving us crazy. At which point we learned that the Overholt overlords were selling us 3 year aged bottles instead of the 4 year. Big aha. We moved to other brands as they became available.

All this made us excited about the recently available Old​ Overholt Bonded Straight Rye – a little too excited because when​ we spotted it while shopping for this project it somehow ​leapt into our cart. At 100 proof, the thought occurred that the tasting might lose focus, so we bought a bottle of the regular Overholt, too, and decided to use them mixed 50-50.

The Confront

With our taster panel settled in, Vicky and Karen mixed the individual broths over ice in chrome vessels, bottled the results, and popped them in the refrigerator. When all six samples were concocted, we served in glasses marked A through F.

The results? They were all fine. We’ve paid $15 for worse. But when we hashed it out, those labeled C, B,and D were judged the best examples of a delicious Manhattan. Unmasked, those were Martini & Rossi (surprise, everybody!), Cinzano and Mata. One taster (Nigel Tufnel?) awarded the Cinzano a 5 out of possible 4 on the scoring sheet. The plush sipper Mata turned out to be a great mixer — perhaps it, along with the standards Martini and Cinzano made sense, since we were using the rugged Bonded Overholt, whose edges needed smoothing. There were vast differences of opinion, of course, but mostly lower regards were given to A, E and F. We went into this pretty sure that Dolin and Cocci were not natural Manhattanites, but what happened with the Carpano Antica? This was a puzzler, since it was always a treat in the past and a respected, quality choice with the pros. Perhaps it just wasn’t made for the Overholt. Which brings us to a sorry conclusion. The new 100 proof Overholt just didn’t make a great Manhattan. Like bourbon, it’s just too dominant over its partners. (We’ve since revised our recipe to 75% old OO to 25% bonded. Not bad.)

Here’s some of what the panel had to say. Some tasters thought the Cocci Manhattan had a nice balance, but others found it flat, no depth, and the least favorite. The color also was lighter and not as attractive coupled with the rye. The Cinzano was described as winey, herbal, rich, deep and spicy. Others thought it sour and lacking depth. Martini & Rossi was found to be spicy, an easy drinker, and #1; two samplers thought it was the driest. One wag said it was “pretty OK.” Mata got raves — it was complex, unusual, had a cola aspect, was thick, rich, worked well with the rye, a fave and a standout. One taster found it cloying and banal. The Carpano Antica was judged the “sweetest, therefore reminiscent of a lot of poor Manhattans, but could be great in the right hands.” Others found it warm, interesting, boring, and two said it was their least favorite. And finally the Dolin was unremarkable, meh, nothing outstanding, and OK. On the other hand, some tasters noted its mineral, spicy, apples, pears and quinine aspects and thought it mixed well. We agreed it might be nice with a sweeter liquor, like bourbon.

In conclusion: match your favorite vermouth to your favorite rye. Drink up. But don’t high hat the popular mid-price brands just because they are familiar. They may turn out to be the perfect mixer.

Thanks to the Tasting Team

Shane Arbogast, Christopher Gray, Elizabeth Stein Gray,
Friederike Paetzold, Garth Powell, and Vicky Sweat.

With special appearances by Chris Karwowski and Jinx Louise.

*Yes, Compañia Mata Tinto is available in this country. In NYC, at Despaña and Vintry Wines, for example.


A Holiday Tradition!

Prepare your ears for the wildest holiday-themed novelty records and the sounds of on-air gift giving with a cast of celebrity merry-makers. This Saturday everyone's fave holiday tradition, the Radio Bartender, returns to the "Fool's Paradise" featuring Rex on the mighty WFMU! As always, Grade "A" Fancy's head mixist Karen will unveil a new cocktail for the occasion, live in the studio, amid much radio hi-jinx.

Tune in this Saturday, December 23, from 1 to 3pm on the Fun 91! In the New York City area it's WFMU 91.1 fm Jersey City, and 90.1 in the Hudson Valley. Children of any land can listen in real time via the miracle of the internet.

Here it is! Your official Fool's Paradise cocktail for 2017:

The Three Wiseacres

1 oz. Irish whiskey (we used Powers)
1 oz. Pimm's No.1
1 oz. agua de jamaica*
1/2 oz. Becherovka

optional dash oxymel (1:1 honey and apple cider vinegar)
optional dash walnut bitters (we used Boy Drinks World) or walnut liqueur

garnish with twist of lemon peel

*Agua de jamaica is the Mexican name for hibiscus tea. It is called sorel in Jamaica. The dried flowers are available in Hispanic markets and better fruit stands. We used 1 cup flowers to 2 quarts water and 3/4 cup sugar, as recommended here, although you may want to halve the recipe. Go easy on the spices, since the Pimm's and the Becherovka are both spiced.


Santa's Hollow Leg

Stumped for that nonpareil gift this year?

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You want your cocktail strained, not your seasonal shopping. These booklets will be delivered to your door & leave you time to relax with a soothing snootful by the fire.

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Did you miss our symposium, The Spy Who Came In From The Pool, based on this booklet at the 2017 Tiki Oasis weekender in San Diego? Two tipples from it, The Cloak and Stagger Punch and The Ejector Seat, were demonstrated. All attendees survived, or so we are told.

Some spicy intel is revealed in the pages of Code Name: Cocktail. What’s James Bond’s freakiest drink? Where did Harry Palmer learn to mix properly? Which cocktails are best with egg salad? What’s Alec Leamas’ favorite color? (Just kidding – that last one is classified.) Click the Buy NOW button below.
Perhaps you prefer something entirely seasonal. Howzabout Hark! The Radio Bartender Brings? There are still a few copies of our holiday cocktail guide.

It’s that most wonderful time of the year — the hustle-bustle and anticipation as everyone prepares for a very special visitor. Yes, of course we mean The Bartender of the Airwaves, bringing a gleaming new holiday cocktail for all the parched listeners of Fool’s Paradise with Rex on radio station WFMU. Due to popular thirst, we’ve collected these original cocktail recipes in an eyeball-pleasing 40-page booklet. In addition, it tells the heart-warming tale of the Radio Bartender, and provides guidance and counsel to make your holiday cocktail hour merry and bright. To purchase Hark! The Radio Bartender Brings via PayPal, click on the Buy Now button below.

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Grade “A” Fancy in collaboration with Liquorsnapper.com present ~


The Exciting, Undercover, Top-Secret,
Daggers Danger ‘n’ Daiquiris
Supersloshy Side of Mid-Century Spy Fiction

By Vicky Sweat & Karen McBurnie
with Art and Design by Jon Hammer



Seasonal libations straight from the airwaves of
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By Karen McBurnie & Jon Hammer



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Grade “A” Fancy in  collaboration with Liquorsnapper.com presents ~ 


The Exciting, Undercover, Top-Secret,
Daggers Danger ‘n’ Daiquiris
Supersloshy Side of Mid-Century Spy Fiction

By Vicky Sweat & Karen McBurnie
with Art and Design by Jon Hammer

What do you want?  Information.

What have we got?  40 sumptuous pages of cocktails, punches and poisons potions as imbibed by secret agents of mid-century fiction, including 13 original recipes concocted in our secret labs. Plus tips and tradecraft to weaponize your home bar.

Secret agents and strong beverages go together like Hitchcock and icy blondes, Ernst Stavro Blofeld and fluffy white cats, and without doubt, gin and vermouth. (Also clichés and spy fiction!)

Vicky and Karen presented a symposium, directed by Chris Karwowski, entitled The Spy Who Came In From The Pool based on this book at the 2017 Tiki Oasis weekender in San Diego.  Two tipples from the book, The Cloak and Stagger Punch and The Ejector Seat, were demonstrated.  All attendees survived, or so we are told.

What’s James Bond’s freakiest drink?  Where did Harry Palmer learn to mix properly?  Which cocktails are best with egg salad? What’s Alec Leamas’ favorite color?  (Just kidding – that’s classified.)
All is revealed in the pages of Code Name: Cocktail. Click the Buy NOW button.



A Quick One, In Ragtime

The cemetery is a fine spot for the curious to wander, and you will often be rewarded with a genuine curiosity. Odds are you didn’t know that a superstar of the turn of the last century, the “King of Ragtime,” who made his name in St. Louis, wound up in an unmarked pauper’s grave in western Queens.

Beginning with the smash hit success of “Maple Leaf Rag,” in 1899, Scott Joplin went on to be a popular and prolific composer of ragtime, the syncopated synthesis of African American dance music and European classical and marches. His music was an important foundation for jazz, and by extension, every other pop form of the Twentieth century, but he’s mainly known nowadays due to a brief ragtime revival sparked by the movie soundtrack album for 1973’s The Sting, that featured several Joplin tunes (including “The Entertainer,” which peaked at number 3 in the Top 40 singles chart). His reign was short lived. The ragtime fad didn’t last long and Joplin’s fame wouldn’t either. Institutionalized for dementia caused by syphilis, he died in 1917 at the age of 49 in the Manhattan State Hospital on Ward’s Island and was buried anonymously in St. Michael’s Cemetery, East Elmhurst, Queens.

Each year St. Michael’s puts on a free concert to honor Joplin, and we have attended many times. The cemetery is a little tricky to get to on public transportation, so it is usually a small affair, a few dozen locals and fans, a band, free hamburgers and hot dogs. This year marks the centennial of Joplin’s death, and the turnout was much bigger than usual, probably because of better publicity. The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra was the perfect choice for this one hundredth anniversary of Joplin’s death. The Paragons were eleven pieces strong and the program was mostly Joplin rags with a few other timely selections to provide some context.

Joplin’s grave bore no marker until 1974 when ASCAP donated a simple bronze plaque. This year a memorial bench was dedicated as a somewhat grander tribute. Your Grade “A” Fanciers, of course, had other ideas about paying homage to the great musician. We were joined in a toast to Scott Joplin by our friends Gabrielle and Scott.

We devised an honorary drink for the occasion and named it The Maple Leaf Rag. Shooting for something that might have been downed at the turn of the century, this was composed with an Old Fashioned in mind, and it wasn’t too far a fetch that we'd add some maple syrup to salute Joplin’s first big hit. The Amaro Sfumato adds a little smoke for a barroom of the period, and a garnish of toasted walnut lends a trace of woodsy-ness and some tannins to counteract the sweet maple. Gab reminded us that walnut wood is used on pianos, which suited us swell.

The Maple Leaf Rag Cocktail

Advance prep:
• Toast as many walnut meats as drinks you will be serving
• Dissolve maple syrup 1:1 with hot water and let cool

Drink ingredients:
2 1/2 ounces rye, or a combination of Canadian whiskey and rye
1/4 ounce Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro
2 teaspoons maple syrup dilution, or to taste
Dash Angostura Bitters
Dash Fee’s Old Fashion Aromatic Bitters
Shake lightly with ice and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a cocktail cherry and a toasted walnut. (Alternatively, this could be built as an Old Fashioned, in the namesake glass over ice.)

*      *      *

After the concert we took a moment to visit another ought-to-be-famous resident of St. Michael’s. Just down the lane from Joplin is the modest grave of another African American legend, the man they called “the Black Edison,” Granville T. Woods.

Born a freeman in 1859 in Columbus, Ohio, Woods was an electrician and inventor with 60-odd patents to his name. One invention, a multiplex telegraph, spurred a lawsuit from Thomas Edison challenging its patent. When Edison lost he offered to make Woods his partner, but was turned down. His work was also crucial to the development of electric trolleys and third rail transit systems. His remarkable life is way too crammed with accomplishment to recount here. We should pause a moment to remember him and consider how paltry this simple marker is as a testament to his legacy.