Cocktails 101 | Arsenic + Old Lace
There’s a classy retro vibe we’re sensing this spring. Shaking off the winter scruff and coming out fresh-faced and glossily-coiffed. Think Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in their heyday, with all of their iconographic polished-yet-breezy warmth. Makes us wish for lush, dark, velvet-lined speakeasy nights after days spent driving mountain roads with the top down. A little bit of modern glam with a big slug of nostalgia. In other words, perfect motivation for mixing up that distinctive and delicious potion known as an Arsenic and Old Lace.
In the Cha-cha-chá of mid-century cocktails, the Arsenic and Old Lace is a checked step back from a classic gin martini and one step sideways from one of our COLLECTIVE faves, the similarly violet-hued Aviation. There’s a little side swivel thrown in with an absinthe rinse à la The Atty, which was a 1930’s concoction pleasantly rescued from what we can most kindly describe as a shitastically vile beverage known as The Attention (made in the 1910s with equal parts gin, dry vermouth, crème de violette and absinthe. Dry heaves). Fast-forward to the 1940s. The WWII-era Arsenic and Old Lace cocktail was named after the dark-comedy Broadway play (1939) written by Joseph Kesselring that was adapted into a film of the same name directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant (released in 1944). Grant claims it was his least favorite film, because it was a little too slapstick for his taste, but in it he’s predictably delicious in all of his dimple-chinned glory. He played the part of Mortimer Brewster, who goes back to visit the elderly aunts (Abby and Martha) who raised him through childhood. He discovers that they are killing off lonely old bachelors to end their presumptively “suffering” singlehood by serving them a soupçon of arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide mixed in elderberry wine. Comedy!
Unlike Abby and Martha’s arse-kicking cocktail of carnage, the modern beverage as mixed by a master is all about finesse, balance, and attention to details. Get sloppy with the measuring and, before you know it, too little gin or too much crème de violette can make for a drink that tastes like the remains of Grandma’s antique perfume bottle, rather than the stiff yet floral version of a martini that it’s intended to be. One of our favorite barkeeps, Christopher Panarelli at O.P. Rockwell, recently stirred up some Arsenic and Old Lace cocktails for us on a rare quiet night at the cozy upper bar and we’ve been craving them on lazy afternoons ever since. As Cary Grant once said, “It takes 500 small details to add up to one favorable impression.” In this drink, Panarelli is nailing the hell out of said classy deets…
THE GIN: There’s already a ton of floral going on in this drink, so Panarelli suggests going with a “bolder, juniper forward gin.” Bracing London Dry gins make a great backbone for an Arsenic and Old Lace, and Beefeater is about as classic as it gets. It’s also a sentimental favorite, as it’s my 100 year-old Grandma Audra Belle’s favorite gin; she always bought it by the trigger handle because it’s “easier to pour” that way. Plymouth would also do nicely for those who want a “softer” nose, but I’ve never seen it come in a trigger handle. Sorry, Grams.
THE FORTIFICATION: Vermouth, a fortified wine, comes in dry (aka “French” in the old recipe books) or sweet (old school called “Italian” red, like you use to stir up a Manhattan) versions. We’re using dry vermouth here, which you keep in your refrigerator once the bottle is opened, right? Yes, of course you do.
THE HUE: Y’all have been dying to use up more of that Crème de Violette you bought to make Aviations, et voilà! Here you go. Crème Yvette—violet liqueur made with some additional spices—also works just fine if that’s what you’ve got on hand. I mean, how many bottles of purple booze does one home bar need? (Answer: one. Otherwise it takes up space where a good bourbon could go).
THE LITTLE HINT OF CRAY: Absinthe, aka “The Green Fairy,” was famous back in the day as the favored beverage of Parisian artists like Picasso and Van Gogh. Its supah high proof and easy-sipping licorice flavor make it equally famous for getting people fucked up…and fast. Since this drink only needs a titch of absinthe, we’d suggest you go with the best absinthe you can afford to keep on your shelf for sipping.
SHAKEN OR STIRRED? Generally, drinks using citrus or egg need to be shaken to incorporate ingredients thoroughly, while clear all-booze bevvies benefit from stirring to keep things crisp and clean. Chris likes this drink stirred over cracked ice with a long-handled barspoon, rather than shaken as the original Trader Vic’s recipe describes. This keeps the beverage very cold without adding a lot of ice chips and agitation to cloud up the pretty hue. No garnish is specified for this drink, but a little zip of lemon zest makes for a very nice finish.
Read on and stir ‘em up, baby cakes…
Trader Vic’s Arsenic and Old Lace (in the 1947 “Bartender’s Guide”): To a shaker filled with cracked ice add 1 ½ oz gin, 1/2 oz absinthe, 3 dashes French (dry) vermouth, and 3 dashes crème de violette. Shake and strain into a chilled, stemmed cocktail glass. Try a small “Nick and Nora” type stemmed glass for that vintage feel.
The Modern Arsenic and Old Lace (by Mr. Christpher Panarelli at O.P. Rockwell): To a mixing glass add 1 ½ oz. Beefeater Gin, 1/2 oz. Dry Vermouth, 1/4 oz. Crème de Violette and stir with ice. Add a generous splash of absinthe to a pre-chilled coupe glass, swirl to coat the entire inside of the glass, and pour out the excess. Strain that purple haze gin mixture into the absinthe-rinsed glass and enjoy. It’s magically delicious.