Arts, Culture & Media

For your next cocktail, would you prefer 'The Bitter Taste of Calm' or 'Seven Days in the Grave'?

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Credit: Thomas Hawk via Flickr

How do cocktails get such memorable and wallet-opening names?

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We’re used to the idea of bartender as therapist — a great shoulder to cry on — but bartender as poet? As historian? As multi-linguistic wizard? I admit that I was guilty of my own prejudice until I met bar owner and cocktail consultant, Joaquin Simo. Well it turns out, good bartenders are always on the hunt for literary as well as libatious inspiration, from iPod playlists to more old-fashioned sources.

Joaquin Simo prepares cocktails
Credit: Alina Simone

Joaquin Simo prepares cocktails

As Joaquin tells me, “one of the best ways to name drinks, is just pick up a racing form, cause someone’s already done all the heavy lifting of thinking of a short, quippy, memorable name.”

But sometimes the search for a name starts with a hunch — an elusive feeling. The perfect visual can help:

“Sprezzatura is that great Italian, that almost, like, stylish disheveled thing,” says Joaquin, “where you see an Italian guy in an impeccably tailored suit and a perfect shirt, except his cuffs aren’t done. Or his tie is like artfully askew. You know, these little details where you’re like, is that on purpose? It’s kind of rakish and stylish and awesome. So we had this great drink that was a riff on a French 75 and, I wanted it to be elegant and stylish and sexy and so, Sprezzatura Royale, it turned out to be.”

OK, but what kind of name do you get by relying on your taste buds alone, without help from Twitter, sexy Italians or racing forms? I decided to invite an expert to Pouring Ribbons, Joaquin’s bar — my friend, stand-up comedian Eugene Mirman. Spending a lot of time in bars has made Mirman something of the equivalent of a foodie: a drinkie.

“There are three beautiful drinks in front of me. One has what can only be described as having very valuable grass in it," he says.

That’s Eugene’s first impression of the drinks Joaquin brings over to our table. He is trying two classic cocktails and one house original. The first two are a couple hundred years old — the last drink, only weeks old.

Stand-up comedian and cocktail taster Eugene Mirman
Credit: Alina Simone

Stand-up comedian and cocktail taster Eugene Mirman

Unfortunately, the first name Eugene comes up with can’t be shared on a family-friendly site, like this one. Sorry guys.

Onto drink two:

“That’s very good. I’m going to call it — The Citrus Good Morning. It’s like what you’d pour on your feet to start your day,” he says.

Turns out he wasn’t far off — this classic cocktail is called the “Corpse Reviver #2.” One of a class of drinks intended to be consumed first thing in the morning to ward off a hangover.

Now for the last drink, the one with that stalk of “valuable grass” in it — better known as dill. And the name Eugene comes up with…? Seven Days In the Grave.

“I can obviously taste the flesh, and it’s not fresh, but it’s not so old that you’re like, Yuck!” Eugene explains, adding, “I’ve basically either named a drink, or poorly described World War I.”

Seven Days in the Grave is a pretty awesome name, but Joaquin’s is even better: The Bitter Taste of Calm. Turns out the story behind the name is just as memorable.

Whenever one of Joaquin’s business partners has to board a flight, he takes a pill for anxiety, which he slowly grinds between his teeth, “and as he’s chewing it, turns and says, ‘Ah, the bitter taste of calm,’” Joaquin explains. “And because there are so many things that are kind of bitter and savory in this drink, that name struck me immediately. I was like: We’ve got to name a drink after this; it’s one of my favorite expressions. So that’s where that name came from.”

When you’re naming a drink, nothing quite beats life experience, except maybe, one’s native tongue. Joaquin was born in Quito, Ecuador, and often looks south of the border for linguistic inspiration.

“I am a firm believer that anything in Spanish is going to sound better than anything in English: Like fork. Blech! Tenedor. That’s elegant, you know, that’s really cool. You know, beet? Meh. Remolacha. That’s awesome!” he says.

But spiking a cocktail menu with Spanish doesn’t always work. Take the time one of Joaquin’s coworkers decided to update a Prohibition-era cocktail called The Monkey Gland.

“Well, Monkey Gland does not work, in Spanish, at all. Not that it sounds that great in English but: glándula de mono .” No thanks.

Then Joaquin wows me with another great factoid from his seemingly bottomless archive: The original Monkey Gland got its name from a dubious surgical procedure invented by Russian doctor Serge Voronoff where grafts of monkey testicles were transplanted into guys hoping for a Viagra-like effect. Turns out, that’s another secret naming trick, Joaquin tells me. Get people thinking, “If I order this, I’m destined for love tonight.”

I’ll drink to that.

The World in Words podcast is on Facebook and iTunes.

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