Category Archives: dry vermouth

Overture to a Classic

 

The Sandman: Overture is finally at an end. It was a long, agonizing wait—and now that it’s done I’m not sure what to feel. Part of me wants more, but the other half just wants to dive back into the original series. Gaiman has scripted an engrossing prequel that will feed The Sandman’s legend, and J.H. Williams III has depicted that story with incredible images that push the limits of what comic art can be.

At first, the series felt like little more than an Easter egg for Sandman fanboys. Considering the richness of The Sandman’s universe, that isn’t much of a criticism. Much like the original, The Sandman: Overture celebrates the power of stories to shape our world. In doing so, the series also celebrates comic books. As the Sandman’s realm encompasses all dreams in existence, its landscape is littered with the debris of childhoods spent reading comics. Dream’s librarian was first imagined in DC’s Weird Mystery Tales, his raven was once a man in the pages of Swamp Thing, and Batman can be spotted lurking in Dream’s library. With Gaiman’s previous nods to DC titles, it only makes sense that The Sandman: Overture should celebrate Gaiman’s classic title and add depth to its universe.

While Gaiman may have intended readers of The Sandman: Overture to be left itching to read the original, the story stands strong on its own; I can imagine it being a fun introduction  to The Sandman for the uninitiated. It also highlights the eye candy possible when a truly gifted writer collaborates with a uniquely talented artist. J.H. Williams III has been wowing me since Batman: The Black Glove, and each issue of the new Sandman takes eye-popping comic art to new heights. Fold-outs transport you through the universe, figures fluidly blend with the action, and panels coalesce into ethereal landscapes. Together, Gaiman and Williams revel in the medium’s interplay of language and pictures. It’s this willingness to play with form that truly makes the story fresh. The Sandman: Overture did not need to push boundaries to be good, it merely had to uphold the legacy of the original. Instead, it envisions new ways for artists to bring stories to life. Most of the series’ memorable cosmic action sequences eschew frame-by-frame formatting and complicate traditional comic art’s linear narrative approach. It makes for exciting storytelling that brings The Sandman universe to life like never before.

In the introduction to the special edition of The Sandman: Overture #6, Vertigo Executive Editor Shelly Bond suggests we “raise a choice glass of liquid” to this prelude to a classic. I concur, and might I suggest my new favorite cocktail recipe:

The Chancellor.

The Chancellor

2 oz Single Malt Scotch
½ oz ruby port
½ oz dry vermouth
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters
Combine scotch, port, vermouth, and bitters in mixing glass. Fill glass with ice and stir well. Strain into chilled coupe.

I stumbled  upon The Chancellor in Food & Wine’s Cocktails 2014, but it all started with a bottle of Laphroaig Dale had collecting dust on his bookshelf. Scotch fanatics everywhere are sure to recognize the name of this single-malt and gnash their teeth at the idea of using it in a cocktail. Laphroaig, described to me by C’n’C co-conspirator Matt Chartrand as”the Scotchiest scotch Scotland could scotch up,” was my first experience with the spirit aside from Johnnie Walker, which I’d still prefer to avoid. Finding Laphroaig’s intense smokiness too abrasive, the bottle was gifted to me after I found myself asking for another taste every time I visited Dale’s. Slowly but surely, I warmed to its uniquely earthy and peaty flavors.

Food & Wine describes The Chancellor as “a nicely dry variation on the Manhattan.” Making the drink with Six Grapes Reserve Porto, the chocolate and cherry flavors of the port danced beautifully with the salty, peaty, and smokey character of the Laphroig. When I switched to Glen Moray, I found the drink quieter and much closer to the dry Manhattan description, but no less delicious. In both cases, the 50-50 mix of port and dry vermouth balance with the scotch and showcase its best flavors. I can imagine sipping this drink in Dream’s library enveloped by the musty smell of old paper and leather. The Chancellor begs to be explored with different scotches, ports, and vermouths, much likeThe Sandman: Overture invites readers to explore The Sandman and its influences.

And make no mistake: I will definitely be exploring The Sandman series a second time. While my first foray into Gaiman’s world was American Gods as a pre-teen (which showed me you can write great fantasy without setting it in a world of castles and dragons), reading The Sandman shortly after college rekindled my passion for comics and cemented my Gaiman fandom. Prose and poetry demanded most of my attention as an undergrad, and Dream’s adventures helped heal the rift between my inner English major and pre-teen comic book nerd by imagining a world where “literature” and comic books share equal footing. Denizens of The Dreaming not only include obscure characters from the pages of DC  comics, but myths, legends, and literary figures. While The Sandman reminds us comics can be every bit as rich and powerful as timeless fairy stories, The Sandman: Overture reminds us there are always fresh ways to read both. I’m looking forward to returning to The Dreaming of ’89-’94 with The Chancellor as my companion.

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Perfectly Strange: Mixology History & Variation

It’s been far too long, dear readers.  Working at history museums during the spring field trip season sapped my desire to write over the past few weeks.  Fortunately, it’s also helped me realize I love studying history, be it academically, occupationally, or in this case, alcoholically.  Since joining this adventure I’ve researched, mixed, and sipped five types of drinks: the Manhattan, Old-Fashioned, gin & tonic, gin martini, and Sazerac.  All five drinks have competing origin stories stretching back to the 19th century, and all have the numerous variations you’d expect from recipes with a century-plus of history.  Reading these origins and spin-offs online has been almost as much fun as enjoying the drinks.  Almost.

In the comic book department, I’ve been slowly progressing through Marvel’s Essential Doctor Strange, Vol. 2.  The more I read, the more I knew Dr. Strange needed a cocktail to go with him: something intriguing, exotic, and full of history and lore.  That drink hit me taking in the menu during happy hour at The Sample Room a few days back: the Sazerac.  Rye whiskey (or if you want the chronological progenitor, cognac) sugar, Peychaud Bitters, and a lemon twist (squeezed into the glass then discarded, according to purists) strained into a chilled glass washed with absinthe and ice.

Problem is, Peychaud Bitters are hard to find.  They’re definitely not stocked at my three main liquor stores.  Neither is absinthe.  I finally found the closest thing on my 3rd try: Absente Absinthe Refined.  Made with real Artemisia Absinthium Wormwood, Absente is the right proof (over 90) for real absinthe, but boasts additional sugar and coloring, presumably in lieu of more complex traditional distillation methods.  Besides that, I’m not sure the Sazerac is the right drink to capture/pair with Doctor Strange.  While absinthe has the legendary history you’d expect from a figure like Strange, I’m not sure he’d be a big absinthe drinker.  He’s a modern American doctor, not some 19th century bohemian artist.  What’s more, he’s a New Yorker: Manhattan has been his home both before and after becoming Master of Mystic Arts.  But that’s too simple for an illustrious Master of Black Magic.  Surely Stephen Strange’s tastes must be more refined, more exotic, than the basic Manhattan.

Enter David Wondrich, cocktail historian and author of Esquire Magazine’s the Wondrich Take.  Classic cocktails, much like comics, have long histories complete with reboots and spin-offs.  And according to Wondrich, the Manhattan has plenty of spin-offs, including the Sherman.  The Sherman is a Manhattan, much like Dr. Strange, but modified with only one dash of Angostura bitters, a dash of Orange bitters, and three dashes of absinthe.  Just enough of the mystical powers of the over-proof green fairy to unlock its flavors. The Sherman feels right with Dr. Strange, but it’s still a Sherman.  Lucky for us, we haven’t varied from the traditional Manhattan vermouth formula.  To turn our Sherman into a Dr. Strange, cut your amount of sweet Vermouth in half and replace the other half with Dry Vermouth.  Now you have a Perfect Sherman, or better yet a Perfect Strange.  Garnish with a lemon twist if you can, but if you love Maraschino cherries knock yourself out.  Half of the fun of comics are the twists, and cocktails were made for improvising.  And yes, this drink does use every bottle currently in my cabinet.  So what?  What makes Dr. Strange Vol. 2 so interesting is its combination of superhero comic cliché, surreal art, and florid cosmic horror prose.  It’s the perfect amount of Strange: both the comic and cocktail are mutations on familiar traditions.  Enjoy responsibly, for as Lovecraft (Or perhaps Roy Thomas? Stan Lee?) warns on the opening page of Dr. Strange #183, “We live on a placid island of ignorance, in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far…”

Why yes, that is a lime you see garnishing this Perfect Strange. I used all my lemons in prototypes of this drink before I got to taking a photo. I was getting Strange and improvising, so sue me.

The Roosevelt/Batman: Venom

No, I’m not drinking a 60-proof cocktail this early on a Sunday. But I fixed this drink last night while putting the finishing touches on the post. The Roosevelt (named for Teddy, I’m told) is a stiff drink with spiced rum, dry vermouth and OJ. I’ve been wanting to try it for a couple weeks now, and a rum cocktail seemed to fit here since one of the locales in today’s comic is an island-nation in the Caribbean. Here’s the recipe I threw together (ratios from liquor.com)

kraken_bottle1.75oz Kraken Black Spiced Rum

0.5oz Martini Extra Dry vermouth

0.25oz orange juice

1/4tsp granulated sugar

orange twist

Combine all in a shaker over ice, shake and strain to your garnished glassware of choice (technically I guess it belongs in a martini glass).

This is officially the first cocktail I’ve mixed that I just plain didn’t enjoy. It’s very dry and very boozy — the former is not necessarily a criticism, but the latter definitely is. I like my drinks to have a bit of a kick to them, but the presence of alcohol in this concoction is just overwhelming, and somehow the rum’s spicy flavors are most decidedly AWOL in a drink that contains roughly 65% spiced rum. And what the hell is the OJ doing in there? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

I thought maybe I could track down a recipe with more forgiving ingredient ratios, but to no avail. IF for some reason I were to fix this drink again, I’d either switch to a sweet vermouth, use simple syrup instead of sugar, or both (granulated sugar will not dissolve in solutions of high alcohol content, and this drink is about 30% alcohol). I might even up the vermouth to 0.75 or 1oz to bring that proof down a bit.

On first glance the Roosevelt sounds intriguing, but without some serious tweaking it remains a seriously flawed beverage in my mind. I struggled to get to the bottom of the glass, and so did my spouse/drinking buddy.

Luckily, legendary Bat-writer Dennis O’Neil comes through for us in this 5-comic arc from 1991. Originally published as Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20, Batman: Venom tells an early story of the Batman’s career in which his failure to rescue a young girl sends him into a guilt-ridden addiction to the super-steroid code-named “Venom” — the same drug that will one day fuel his nemesis, Bane.

venomIn this tale, Batman is vulnerable and repulsive; a miserable, whining junkie who almost becomes a murderer for a handful of steroid pills. And yet Venom stands among the most powerful reasons why Batman can throw down with the gods and supermen of DC Comics.

Concerning mystery, intrigue, and feats of derring-do, Venom has it all. From street punks to super-soldiers, from death traps to dangerous obsessions, Denny O’Neil showcases the breadth of Bruce Wayne’s abilities and pathos. To overcome his chemical and psychological dependency on the story’s eponymous super-steroid, Batman locks himself in the Batcave for A MONTH. Emerging from pretty much the most hardcore cold-turkey ever, he heads to the Caribbean and kicks over an island full of James Bond-style paramilitaries. And did you ever wonder who would win in a fight between the Dark Knight and a great white shark?

(It’s not the shark.)

But it would be a mistake to consider Venom nothing more than D.A.R.E. lesson starring some 007 villains. The comic’s morality tale on substance abuse is the most apparent and least interesting element of the story.

Lacking the strength to free a young girl from a collapsing sewer tunnel, Batman begins to doubt his own efficacy, despite his many years of mental and physical training. “I was too weak to save her…. I wasn’t strong enough,” he says. After some trepidation, he starts popping “Venom” pills to dramatically increase his muscle capacity so the tragedy with the girl in the sewer will never happen again.

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“Where iss it, where iss it: my Venom, my Venom? It’s ours, it is, and we wants it.”

In other words, Batman goes looking for superpowers. In a dream sequence, the comic juxtaposes his failure to save the girl with an image of Superman — suggesting that if Batman had super-strength, the girl would still be alive. Or so Batman’s nightmares would have him believe.

Superheroes usually have a weakness, something that confounds them or deprives them of their fantastical powers. It’s the Achilles’ heel transposed into modern comic mythology and generalized into a genre trope.

(Achilles and Superman are in many ways cultural analogues, and so are the former’s heel and the latter’s Kryptonite.)

Examples abound; it is, after all, a trope:

Each Green Lantern ring always has some kind of substance over which it has no power (wood, anything yellow, etc.). And of course, if you take the ring away, GL is basically the definition of “Average Joe.”

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The only amusing scene in Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin

Martian Manhunter is mortally afraid of fire; it’s deadlier to his species than any other hazard he and the Justice League typically face.

Even mere-mortal heroes like Green Arrow or Iron Man are pretty much just snarky, rich douche-bags when stripped of their signature weapons and armor.

But… not so the Batman. Take away the high-tech suit, the gadgets he’s invented, the custom-made cars, the most powerful computers on the planet, and… he’s still the goddamn Batman. All the tech is just for the sake of expedience and/or looking scary. Bruce Wayne is a force to be reckoned with because of his knowledge, experience, and training — in other words, because of his identity. No matter the situation, Batman is always 100% as cunning and dangerous as ever.

Duel to the death with a horde of ninjas? Cakewalk. After all, Batman IS a ninja — he just doesn’t need swords or mystical powers or a horde of other ninjas for backup. And, you know, he’s an expert in every single form of hand-to-hand combat on Earth.

Buried alive, drugged unconscious and tied in a straight-jacket? The goddamn Batman will dislocate his own shoulders, tear out of his restraints, punch through the lid of the coffin, hunt you down and make you eat the dirt you buried him in.

Mano a mano with the Man of Steel? Well, here’s the thing: Clark Kent fights fair, while Bruce Wayne fights to win. And because super-intelligence apparently isn’t included in the Kryptonian superpower package, Batman is always three or more moves ahead of Supes. Game over, Clark. Game over. And by game over I mean you’ve just been electrocuted, shell-shocked and decked in the face by the guy wearing the Kryptonite ring you gave him.

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Fanboi rant over. You just can’t hamstring Batman the way you can other heroes. He’s got weaknesses, sure, and this comic dives headfirst into his struggles with survivor’s guilt and his own fallibility, but the point is Batman doesn’t have “superpowers” because being Batman IS the superpower.

Venom gives us a most unwelcome taste of what happens when Batman goes looking for supernatural abilities to compensate for the fact that he’s fallible — and the cost is terrible. The cost is his integrity, his incorruptibility. Not to mention the respect of his friends and readers.

The irony is he’s so critical of himself that he equates his fallibility with his lack of superpowers, when of course we know Superman and Wonder Woman and Green Lantern and all the rest are just as fallible as anyone else.

TL;DR — Batman: Venom is a typically dark and self-reflective Dennis O’Neil Bat-story that functions well on its own, even as it foreshadows the emergence of Bane in the Knightfall story arc.

And skip the Roosevelt — if you want a dry, boozy drink, just double down and fix yourself a Martini. Or if you’re dead set on rum, grab a Daiquiri or a Dark ‘n’ Stormy — they do a much better job of showcasing all those delicious spiced rum flavors.