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Ahhhh!

City Paper's Summer Drink Contest

Deanna Staffo

Sizzlin Summer 2008

Here Comes The Sunburn City Paper's 2008 Sizzlin' Summer Guide

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Ahhhh! City Paper's Summer Drink Contest | By Edward Ericson Jr.

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By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 5/21/2008

The ultimate margarita recipe came to me 20 summers ago from a co-worker at The Providence Journal-Bulletin, Steve Heffner, who had lived life right. After graduating from Yale, Heffner had retired to San Diego, spending the Carter and Reagan administrations living off the kindness of freelance editors and girlfriends. His odyssey had ended only recently, when he became a father and settled uneasily into life at the newspaper's Newport bureau. Upon seeing my 23-year-old self enter the office, he bellowed, "Get out! You've got your whole life ahead of you! Retire now, while you're young."

Heffner had a bald head, Hemingway beard, and mouth like a shark. He was the best mentor a cub reporter could have. He showed me how to throw knives (he had a dart board with a photo of the paper's star columnist, Mark Patinkin, taped to it), how to ride the office moped down the halls, and how to affect an attitude comprising the proper proportions of disdain for the editors, delight in the bizarre pageant that is news gathering, and general mania. But the greatest gift he bestowed was the ultimate margarita recipe.

"Be careful with this, it's mostly hooch," Heffner warned as he mixed up the first batch at his desk. He swore he'd received the formula from a shaman he'd encountered in the California desert. I have no reason to doubt him.

The mix goes as follows: five parts fresh-squeezed lime juice ("It's best to use limes that are a little overripe," Heffner advised. "I usually buy them on Monday and let them sit in a paper bag under my desk until Friday or so."), eight parts triple sec, 10 parts tequila, and "more ice than you think you could ever need."

If you have a blender, shock the mix for two or three seconds, then pour into a glass of ice (a coffee mug in our case). The result is a revelation--especially for those weaned on the syrupy green "mixers" in the margaritas served by most restaurants.

"Thank you, wise one," I said. "This is the ultimate summer drink."

"Nah," Heffner scoffed. "The best summer drink is a gin and tonic. No! Strike that. The ultimate would be Gilbey's gin and Schweppes bitter lemon."

Heffner's boast precipitated a contest, conducted on a July afternoon, among the three contenders. The drinks were mixed and sampled, one following another, by myself and my then housemate. To our surprise, we both agreed: gin and bitter lemon soda won hands-down. The margarita came in third.

These many years later, City Paper decided to reprise that long-ago contest. We noticed right off that certain parameters had changed. In younger days, the object was to create the most caustic concoction palatable. The margarita more than filled this bill, causing many a drinking professional to go blithering into the night. Ease of prep was hardly a concern. The drink merely had to be simple enough to remember; cleaning up the epic mess afterward was never a consideration.

Today, priorities differ. The object is still a refreshing, crisp, tasty beverage, but it also ought to be simple to make and pack less kilotonnage than an F-18.* Endeavoring to make the new contest scientific, we assembled an expert panel of judges and tested not three but six drinks, each presented with clinical precision by yours truly on the City Paper patio (if you can call a patch of parking lot fenced off with chain link a "patio"). Each drink was scored on a 1-to-5 scale on six criteria: ease of creation, cost, appearance, taste, potency, and overall summer-drink-perfection.

The results were surprising; we have a new champion, a sophisticated and plucky number hardly known or heard from in recent centuries. We hereby rechristen and relaunch it for your pleasure. You are very welcome.

The Oswald:

Overall Score: 2.75. Mix cheap merlot with cranberry juice or cranberry juice cocktail. Proportions don't matter.

The namesake drink of local drummer and bon vivant Rob Oswald is the simplest to mix and the least likely to render you unconscious before your time. It's not everybody's cup of tea, though. It received low "overall scores," garnering a sixth-place finish. Yet it did much better--third place (3.34)--based on its average scores for ease of creation, cost, appearance, taste and potency (potency was scored to taste, not on objective alcohol content). "Its cheapness and ease of creation offset its Boone's Farm taste," one tester enthused.

Gin and "Bitter Lemon":

Overall Score: 2.90. Over ice, mix one part gin to two or three parts Schweppes bitter lemon. Garnish with lemon or lime slice.

This drink is simple and superb, and would have probably won, but for the lack of Schweppes bitter lemon--a lemon-quinine mixer that is more tart than tonic water yet still pleasingly sweet. In Newport, 1988, it was as easy as a walk to the grocery store. Alas, no more. Our team visited numerous grocery and liquor stores, and consulted online forums, but we were not able to score this magic potion. In despair, we purchased some lemon-lime seltzer from Safeway, which was nothing like the stuff we needed. The resulting concoction scored fifth. "Tastes like soap," one disappointed tester commented.

Margarita:

Overall Score: 3.60. In a blender filled with ice cubes mix 2.5 ounces of fresh squeezed lime juice, four ounces of triple sec and five ounces of tequila (I like Sauza Gold for this). Blend for three seconds, pour into salt-rimmed, ice-filled margarita glass.

Fourth in our judges' opinion, this very powerful margarita met mixed reviews. "Tastes like summer!" one judge gushed, while another stated, "I couldn't drink this--it's too strong for me." The key is to sip it, and let it steep. As the ice melts, the cocktail mellows out, and so do you. In our test lab, where speed was of the essence, this natural mellowing process was cut short. The drink also suffered from complexity; squeezing limes is a pain in the ass, and this requires a bunch of 'em.

Zombie:
(By Jeff Berry, as cited in The New York Times.)

Overall Score: 4.00. Mix in an ice-filled shaker 3/4 ounce lime juice, one ounce white grapefruit juice, 1/2 ounce cinnamon-infused sugar syrup, 1/2 ounce Bacardi 151, one ounce dark Jamaican rum. Strain into a highball glass with ice cubes, garnish with mint and sliced fruit.

This drink rated third overall, even though we made it with ruby red grapefruit juice (too sweet) and substituted Bacardi Gold for the 151 and Bacardi Razz for Jamaican rum (both ruinous). This thing is an ass-kicker, but it requires serious prep. The syrup requires boiling a cup each of water and sugar and crushing cinnamon sticks into the mix. "Sweet, tart, and very refreshing," one judge commented. "This would make me say things I regret at a barbecue."

Gin and Tonic:

Overall Score: 4.28. Over ice, mix one part gin to two or three parts tonic. Finish with a spritz of fresh lime juice and zest.

Although rated second (by a hair) overall to the winning entrant by our judges, the gin and tonic actually scored higher when rated on individual traits. The drink is so easy to make, so refreshing and simple, it's just hard as hell to beat. "Crisp and refreshing," one judge commented. Another said, "my personal favorite drink."

Pimm's Cup:

Overall Score: 4.34 Over ice, pour one part Pimm's No. 1, two parts lemonade. Infuse with mint leaves, lemon, orange, strawberry, apple and borage leaves. (Alternately, use ginger ale instead of lemonade, and garnish with cucumber, apple, and fresh mint.)

The Pimm's Cup is an imperial tradition, Pimm's No. 1 having been invented in London, 1840. According to a listing on the bottle, the 50-proof, gin-based tincture won awards in "Constantinople--1880," Peking--1889," "Rangoon-- 1896," "Rio de Janeiro--1913," and "Cape Town--1951," among others--but nothing in the past 57 years. Until now. "Delish. A taste of the old empire," one judge said. "Super refreshing. It's delicious. I would drink a ton of these. It makes me feel sophisticated." The version our judges liked best consisted of Pimm's and lemonade, infused with mint, citrus, apple, and cucumber. We have no idea what borage leaves are and, considering we couldn't score Schweppes bitter lemon, despaired of finding any in Baltimore on a Friday afternoon. In overall scoring the Pimm's Cup eked out a victory over the classic gin and tonic. But again, if ease of creation means a lot to you, the G&T won out--4.04 to 3.49.

*Some will ask: Where is the Long Island Iced Tea? Our response: Get back, drunkards! We decided to limit of types of alcohol allowed in one drink, for simplicity's (and budget's) sake. The LIIT demands a five-shot mix; we think more than two is pushing things. But if we were still 23, we'd probably think differently.

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