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HOMEIN THE MAGAZINEBACK ISSUES | JULY/AUGUST 2013


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A Mighty Wind

David Wondrich navigates the spirits-soaked history of sailor drinks.

 

By David Wondrich

 

It’s thirsty work, sailing—and I mean actually operating a vessel that’s propelled only by the wayward breezes, and not the kind of sailing that merely requires a small investment in cruisewear. For the sailor, there’s no end of hauling on ropes, straining at capstans, shifting booms, lifting spars, furling sails, stowing, belaying, reefing, tacking, holystoning and a whole lot of other species of hard manual labor. And that’s the easy part—often, the only break from the grinding labor is provided by moments of sheer, blinding terror, where the only thing separating life from death is the speed, strength and experience of a handful of underpaid men. Throw in the fact that the high seas remind you always of the relief your thirst seeks while doing nothing to provide it and small wonder these men took a drink when they could.

 

We owe the drink that stands at the head of the phylum of modern drink, the drink from which almost every sour, julep, cobbler or cocktail has branched, to sailors. We’ll probably never know whether it was a seaman, one of his officers or one of the passengers they were conveying who, one day in the 1620s or 1630s, first got the idea to flavor distilled spirits with citrus juice, sweeten the mixture with sugar, soften it with water and make it interesting with spice. But it was sailors who spread this “punch,” as it was called, all around the world; sailors who drank it and enjoyed it and got the landlubbers to agree.

 

By the middle of the 1800s, two centuries of monkeying around with the basic punch formula had led to some interesting and rather tasty local variations, ways the barmen in one port of call or another preferred to make them. Almost always, these were now made in individual servings, rather than large communal bowls, but sometimes that was practically the whole extent of the variation. Jamaica’s famous Planters’ Punch, for instance, was made simply with rum, lime juice, sugar, water and ice—the one ingredient that was not in the original formula. Not surprisingly, ice was used in most of the other famous individual punches of the day. If you can have a cold drink on a hot day, you will have one, and the American ice industry had a global reach. The gin slings they made in Singapore had it (along with lime juice, cherry brandy, Bénédictine and soda water); the green swizzles from Trinidad had it, as did (inevitably) the red swizzles they made at the upstairs bar at the Ice House in Bridgetown, Barbados.

 

One place the enterprising Yankees who saw to it that hot countries could have cold drinks did not, however, reach was one of the places that needed ice the most. The tiny archipelago of Malta is 60 miles off the coast of Sicily and right in the path of the sirocco, the wind that periodically blows on southern Europe out of the southeast, bringing with it all the heat and parching dryness of the Sahara desert from which it arises. As one English writer put it in 1837, “Nothing is more salutary during the sirocco than iced beverages; they revive the spirits, strengthen the body, and assist digestion.”


And fortunately, there was a very fine source of ice, or at least snow, within an easy day’s sail, in the form of Mount Etna, the snow-capped volcano that anchors the east coast of Sicily. Which meant that, when the hot wind was blowing, the thirsty sailor on shore leave could climb the steps that made up San Giovanni street to the establishment maintained by the old Baldacchino brothers and have one of them swizzle up their famous “Sirocco Mixture.” Francis Bennett of the Royal Navy did just that in 1859 and was kind enough to write down the recipe.

 

It’s as sound a way of moistening the dusty throat as any I’ve ever had—light, spicy and dry yet with the richness of the Cognac to give it a little oomph.

 

Sirocco Mixture
With a vegetable peeler, remove the outer rind from 2 small to medium-sized limes, in long spirals if possible. Muddle the peels in a pint glass with 2 tsp. superfine sugar. Add the juice of the limes, about 1½ to 2 oz. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Fill the glass with finely cracked or shaved ice.

 

Add:
2 oz. VSOP Cognac
1 oz. Maraska brand maraschino, or ½ oz. if using Luxardo
A goodly grating of nutmeg

 

Swizzle with a long swizzle stick or barspoon.
Add a straw and be cooled.

 

 

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