Monday, April 30, 2012

Northstar Cocktails

Yes, it could be a patch on a biker's leathers.

What's my new favorite cocktail book?  Hands down?

Northstar Cocktails by Johnny Michaels and the North Star Bartenders' Guild.

It's my favorite drink book for so many reasons - because, first, I want Johnny Michaels to make me one of the drinks inside.  I not only want Mr. Michaels to make me one of those drinks, I want him to make me a Handsome Devil.  Why do I want Mr. Michaels to make me a Handsome Devil?  Because I may never mix it at home and may never get out to the Twin Cities where he pours.

I mean, I should get out there, because if this book is any gauge, they take their drinking very seriously in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Northstar Cocktails is also my favoite book because Johnny Michaels is an opinionated bastard - in the very best possible way - and he could care less what you think if you had the nerve to stand between him and the creation of a new drink. 

Pretend you're a cranky old sot.  Pretend you write a letter to the Times - or the Gazette or Inquirer or the Daily Mail - and pretend your letter derides bartenders who don't make cocktails the way God intended.  Pretend you write:  I don't want some lawyer from Philadelphia putting fruit in my Old Fashioned!  Whiskey, sugar and bitters only!

You know what Johnny Michaels will do if he reads that letter?  Of course you know.  He'll create a drink called The Lawyer From Philadelphia.  It's a "pink, bourbon based cocktail, which is served in a white wine glass and garnished with a pansy rested atop a floating lemon wheel."

And if that ain't thumbing your nose at the legion of purists who like it the way they like it - I don't know what is.  C'mon, a pansy?  That's inspired. 

So, Mr. Michaels has opinions.  He's serious about being the "steward of people's good times."  He's comfortable quoting the Good Book:  "Make thy neighbor's drink as you would have thy neighbor make a drink for you."  And the proceeds from the sale of his book go to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International.  In fact, all events hosted by the North Star Bartender's Guild are charity based.

I want to be an honorary member of the Guild.

You know, for kicks.

The reason why I may never make myself a Handsome Devil?  It's the recipe, darling.  Most any cocktail book will have the occasional concoction that has an ingredient that has either not been available in twenty years or that calls for the home Maker of Drinks to labor for hours over an ingredient that you'll use once.

This book?  Johnny Michael's and the Guild's book?  It's got one of those recipes on every other page - and that's another reason why I love it so much.  Any group of people that follows their bliss down byways that call for the addition of Habanero-Butterscotch Syrup or Coriander Tincture to make the perfect cocktail - these are my people!

And so, I'd have one of them mix me up a Handsome Devil.  It calls for Jim Beam Black bourbon, an orange slice, a skewered brandied cherry and a blanched hazelnut.  But it ain't the hazelnut that will make you sweat.  It's the need for a 1/2 ounce of Devil Mix.  You want to make the Devil Mix for me?  And remember, this isn't the drink, this is just half an ounce of beauty you're adding to the drink.  Here goes:

Devil Mix

4 ounces Benedictine
4 ounces Frangelico
4 ounces Cointreau
1/2 ounce salt solution (see p. 31)
1/2 ounce Hot Pepper Tincture (see p. 195)
1/4 ounce Angostura bitters
1/4 ounce Regan's orange bitters
1/4 ounce Fee Brother's old-fashioned bitters


1 ounce kosher salt
4 ounces hot water

Mix and store in an eyedropper bottle.


4 ounces crushed red pepper
1 1/2 cups Everclear grain alcohol

Add ingredients to a Mason jar and let sit 5 to 7 days, shaking once or twice a day.  Strain through a fine mesh strainer and store in a sealed glass jar.

Add two ounces of the Black bourbon to 1/2 ounce of the Devil Mix in a rocks glass.  Insert orange slice like a mohawk, so that the top of the peel is sticking out.  Insert skewered cherry and drop hazelnut in drink.

That, my friends, is one serious drink.

I wimped out.  My first try at making one of the Guild's drinks was

I Will Not Remember the Maine

3/4 ounce rye
3/4 ounce gin
1/4 ounce maraschino liqueur
1 (heavy) dash Angostura bitters

Pour liquids into double shot glass and insert a large ice cube.

Yes, it does call for equal parts rye and gin.  You know what?  It works.

So then, feeling emboldened, and because I had all the ingredients on hand, I went for the

Green Fairy

2 ounces Bombay Sapphire gin
3/4 ounce Green Tea Syrup (see p. 187)
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
1 egg white
7 drops St. George absinthe


1 cup water
1 cup sugar
5 green tea bags

Bring water to a boil and then remove from heat.  Steep tea 5 minutes, squeeze bags, and discard.  Whisk in sugar and let cool.  Will keep refrigerated for 1 month.

Shake all ingredients, except absinthe, without ice.  Shake again with ice and strain into coupe and sidecar.  Top with absinthe. 

Did Karen wonder, out loud, why I was brewing green tea at ten o'clock at night?  Sure.  Did the absinthe, the last ingredient added to the cocktail, drop deliciously through the froth created by the egg white and add a hint of licorice to the gin and sweet tea?  Did the absinthe also give the drink its name, Van Gogh's green fairy being reincarnated as St. George's absinthe?  Bringing the drink and the Guild and yours truly full circle?  Since the drink originated in Johnny Michael's twin cities but needed to use that special last ingredient, the St. George absinthe - the St. George that is distilled less than six miles from my house, the house and the distillery both calling Alameda home?

Yes yes yes and yes.

The only trouble was, by the time the drink was ready, Karen had long since called it a night.  Way to late to call Edward - the friend who had tipped me off to the book.  Thanks, Edward!

And so I sat alone in our then messy front room, sipped happy, and put the drink down on the end table without noticing that Kristina had earlier hauled out a little pal, and that the pal - with his nose so bright - clearly wanted a sip, too.

I figured it was okay because I didn't think he'd be guiding any sleighs in April.

The important thing?  Now I've got an old pickle jar full of green-tea infused simple syrup, so if you're in the mood for a Green Fairy, just stop on by.  I really want to make this drink more than once.

Monday, April 16, 2012

So he sang – Manuel Patterakis, August 19, 1933 - April 8, 2012

As my cousin lay dying, we talked.  We talked a lot about his life.  About his childhood in Hiawatha, Utah, his early years there with my dad.  About moving to Modesto when he was nine.  About his sister, Grace, and his brother, Chris.

Manuel told me about attending Modesto Junior College.  About studying Accounting because he was going to be an accountant.  About the music instructor he was lucky enough to encounter there at MJC.  The instructor who - when my cousin Manuel told him he was studying Accounting - responded with a single word:  Bullshit.

And as my cousin Manuel told this story, he started laughing, laughing at the twin memories - the first, where he had envisioned himself as an accountant, and the second, the memory of this music teacher expressing the strong and salty opinion that Manuel's life would of course center around music.

So he sang.

And it was these many years later, as my cousin lay dying, that he laughed at the memories.  Still able, even under the cancerous circumstances that led him to Memorial Medical Center in Modesto, still able to laugh.

I was glad that Vicki - widow of Manuel's brother, Chris - I was glad that Vicki, who did so much for Manuel, who loved him so much, who showed her brother-in-law such care and tenderness, I was so glad that Vicki had sent me a reminder to visit.  To take the short trip from Alameda and say hello to my cousin.

My cousin Manuel - Manoli to me, always - played such an important part in my life.  If that life has a soundtrack, Manoli is the singer.  His voice - that huge baritone - was present at so many significant occasions.  When Karen and I got married in Modesto, in 1990, he sang us down the aisle the same way he sang my parents down the aisle at the old Greek church in Stockton in 1962.  When Elizabeth was baptized, and then Kristina?  His was the voice in the choir loft - singing, rejoicing.  Sang for my brother, George, and his wife, Karna - for my brother Dean, and his wife Laura.  So many happy ceremonies, so much singing.

Of course, Manoli was there for the more somber moments, too.  When my father died, Manoli sang him to his rest.

Manoli sang so many to their rest - his parents, his siblings.  All eight of the original Katsufrakis clan, my Yia Yia Elizabeth among them.  Manoli's mom - my Yia Yia's older sister.  Thea Helen the matriarch of the Katusfrakis kids.  Those eight pillars who are such an important part of my history, who still cavort in my head if I close my eyes.  Drinking Metaxa, turning a lamb on a spit.  Yelling, dancing, singing.  So much singing.

As my cousin lay dying, he joked - I worry I won't have the backbone or the bravery to face that final journey the way Manoli did - because as he lay dying, he laughed and wondered who was going to sing him to his rest.

The words we sing - the words Manoli sang so often for so many - are simple:

Eternal be, his memory.

But the words carry such great meaning - and so Manoli wondered aloud who would sing for him.  He said that Father Jon - who for so many years at so many of those celebrations and commemorations has had his beautiful voice complimented by Manoli's beautiful voice - Father Jon said he'd record Manoli and put a cassette player in Manoli's casket to cue up when necessary.  And as Manoli tells me this story, he's laughing with that great laugh of his, the laugh somehow always lighter and more playful than I expect.

He's laughing.

During that visit at the hospital, Manoli spent a lot of time talking about his teaching years, years that were relatively unknown to me.  I was a kid for most of them.  But my cousin sparkled when he talked about those days, especially about Peterson High in Sunnyvale.  His emotion was reciprocated after news of the severity of his illness began to spread.

First, some former students set up a Fan Page on Facebook (where I stole the pictures you see here).

Then, in early January, more than 100 of them traveled to Modesto to sing.  For him.  Traveled from up and down California, from Utah, to remind him of the incredible impact he had on their lives.  How, because of his music, his teaching, they'd always remember Mr. P.

And finally, these students who had traveled for him - then sang for him.  So he sang right back.

The next time I saw my cousin, the last time I saw my cousin, he was recuperating at a rehabilitation facility in Modesto.  They'd tried to class up the joint with dark wood paneling, and it of course was exactly what the doctor ordered, but there was no hiding the fact that it was a Dying Place.  It's there right at the end of Granger Avenue - near the apartment where my cousin lived with his mom for so many years after he retired from teaching.  Near the apartment where his mom, my Thea Helen, spent her last days in a hospital bed they'd set up in the front room.  So it was Granger again - a Patterakis again dealing with the dying of the light.

That last visit was a softer one - Manoli's voice not silenced, but quieted by the cancer.  There was less laughter, too - though still some.  God bless you for that, Manoli.  Bless you for that.

I had told him, I had said that if I could sing, I'd sing for him.  My brother Dean chimed in that Manoli definitely didn't want to undergo that.  Manoli laughed, though.  Manoli laughed.  Manoli laughed and said he would - of course he'd enjoy hearing me sing.

That's about when my Mom walked in.  I told her we'd been having a good visit.  A lot of that was just me reminding Manoli how much I loved him, how much the girls and Karen loved him, how important a role he'd played in all those momentous occasions in our lives.  And I told Mom how Manoli had laughed and said he'd be happy to hear me sing.

Mom recognized the foolishness of that idea and so she leaned in close and asked Manoli if he'd like to sing with her.

Manoli was quiet for a moment before he said, No.  No, Anna, he said, his voice so quiet - the strain of speaking those few words so evident.  But I'd like to hear you sing.

And so she did.

My mom sang a Greek song that she'd sung to my a dad a lot as he, like Manoli, lay dying.  Mom's voice is so pure, so clean - and as she sang, Manoli closed his eyes and smiled, smiled to the beauty of her voice.  The song is simple - a bird who's alone is urged to sing, and through the singing other birds will join in, and so the bird that was alone won't be any longer, will always have company through the magic of song.

I'm crying at this point.  I cried a lot during that last visit, and I was certainly crying then, listening to Mom sing for Manoli, watching him smile at the sound.  Because it made me acknowledge that even though I can't sing, I will - when we gather for Manoli's funeral.

As Mom finished, when she straightened and wiped the tears from her eyes, when she turned to me to ask after the kids - we were all surprised to hear singing - quiet, beautiful singing.  Surprised to hear Manoli - singing.  Manoli with barely the breath to whisper responses as we visited - and yet, and then - reminded I think by the joy in my mom's voice, he sang.

It was a silly song.   A Greek song.  To Kokoraki.  Just a silly, Greek children's song.  Like Old MacDonald, with a different animal sound added to each verse, starting with to kokoraki - a cockerel, a young rooster.  But it made me draw closer to Manoli, still with his eyes closed, as the words came out - to kokoraki ki-ki-ri-ki-ki - as he sang the song.  I'd heard Manoli sing stronger so many times in my life, but this time?  With the words scarcely escaping his lips?  So soft?  Yet sung with such delight?

I have no idea how awful the pain, how terrible his discomfort - but as Manoli sang, he smiled.  As Manoli smiled and sang - I knew he wasn't in that little room overlooking a courtyard in a Central Valley rehab facility.

I don't know if he was in Hiawatha, a Sunnyvale cafeteria, maybe a choir loft in Stockton or Modesto.  But I do know for that moment, as he sang, as he'd sung so often before, Manoli was happy.  Happy because he was doing - even there at the very end - one of the things he'd always done best.

So he sang.