“Drinking First-Aid Kit” by Allison Sommers
Sarah Gilbert is an international aid worker who has lived abroad most of her adult life, toasting with Rioja in Spain, sipping Grüner Veltliner in Austria, and enjoying Malbec in Argentina before her great grandmother, Gima, inspired her first cocktail in NYC. She’s open to wine suggestions for her next home: Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
That the Gilberts enjoy a good cocktail is hardly a secret. An ex-boyfriend of mine loves telling the story of coming to my college graduation and entering my parents’ hotel room to find my mother pulling out four bottles of different types of liquor from her luggage so that all the invited family members could have their preferred apéritif that night in the privacy of our rooms. I couldn’t understand his amusement; Mom’s packing seemed like logical foresight to me. Who wants to dress up and meet in the crowded hotel bar when the people you want to see are in comfortable adjoining rooms?
Needless to say, I was not surprised to note that one entire chapter of my great-grandmother Gima’s cookbook was dedicated to preparing a good pre-dinner drink. Or to read about her belief that “any halfway intelligent woman should be able to produce a drinkable cocktail.” I was, however, a bit abashed to admit how badly my intellect measured up to my venerable forebear’s definition. I can open a mean beer —whether in a can or bottle—and uncork a wine bottle with the best of them before pouring my guests a glass of red, white or rosé. However, I was surprised to realize, at 35 years of age, I have never prepared a cocktail, drinkable or otherwise.
The reasons behind my ignorance vary. For one, I gravitate toward dense cities where people don’t entertain in their miniscule apartments and instead meet friends in bars and restaurants. Also, the knowledge that alcoholism runs in my family, together with a few embarrassing incidents that need not be recorded here, have led me to stay away from hard liquor and stick to wine. And I believe that drinking habits have changed over the generations. My parents received a martini pitcher for their wedding, complete with a glass stem for mixing. According to Gima’s recipe, a dry martini is 3 parts gin and 1 part French vermouth over ice. Which is 100% alcohol before the any melting occurs. I don’t know anyone who entertains like that now, and when friends come to visit they bring a bottle of wine, which complements the one that I have waiting for them. Then again, neither do we have the cooks that Gima mentions come and go so easily throughout her life. In any case, I resolved to gain Gima’s respect and learn her cocktails. So I decided to attempt the one that seemed the most complicated, the “Strawberry Blossom.”
Some lessons learned? A jigger is not, like the league or a fortnight, an antiquated unit of measurement. It is actually an ounce and a half and can be measured out in the tool of the same name. I’m sure Gima turned in her grave as I exclaimed excitedly over this nugget of information. Also, besides the jigger, cocktail preparation requires a fully stocked bar and a shaker. Luckily I know Brian Ellison, the owner of Death’s Door Spirits, the largest distillery in Wisconsin. And if anyone is going to have a fully stocked bar and the proper tools for a good cocktail, it’s the good people of the industry. So we went to work.
After mulling the strawberries and straining their seeds, I added the requisite tablespoon of lemon and sugar, mixing it all together into a syrupy juice that looked quite professional, in my humble opinion. A jigger of gin and bit of heavy cream is added to the shaker, along with some ice and the fun begins. I can now attest that one has not truly lived until one has shaken a cocktail. The restraint required not to dance around with the improvised maraca! I have to admit I might have wiggled a bit to accompany the “cha cha cha” of the mixing drink. But I’m sure Gima would not only have not minded, she might even have approved. And joined in. I was proud to present my friends with my fledgling efforts. My Strawberry Blossom was declared excellent, tart and creamy with a tint of lemony citrus. The only constructive feedback was that it might be a tad too strong. Which, I’m sure, is just the way Gima would have liked it.