spirit possession

Merry Effing Christmas, or, Giving Rum Another Chance, or, Rum Gives Me Another Chance.


Recently, at a restaurant that I love very much and yet about which I have never written, I had a cocktail they were calling the Negroni Hivernal – basically a Negroni with rum in lieu of gin and healthy dose of Bitterman’s Xocolatl Mole bitters. It was not something I had ever heard of, nor would have anticipated liking, but I trust their folks behind the bar sufficiently to give it a shot should they be convinced it’s a good idea. And it was, or is; it turns out it’s a good cocktail, with a lot of depth and activity and character. In a strange way, the rum disappears, which is to say that blind I would have known the red vermouth and Campari, but been damned had anything depended on figuring out what else was in there. Which at the least means that it was playing well and making plans with the other ingredients, for rum is not typically known for its discretion, and I cannot think of a single rum-containing cocktail that I would favour over any of gin or whiskey alternatives, under usual circumstances.

The bartender said he was pretty sure it already had a name, but he couldn’t remember it, so figured the hivernal lent a nice seasonally appropriate twist. I have since done a little “research” (the internet kind, not the drinking kind. Well, a little of both.) and discovered that the thing does have a name, several in fact. It is of fairly recent coinage, and seems to have been invented by several luminaries of the new New York cocktail scene more or less simultaneously (although I’m sure someone more in the know / less indifferent will disabuse me of this impression of simultaneity). Not that riffs on the Negroni are a rare thing; like most classic cocktails its simple composition cries out for substitution, elaboration. But when you do a thing and it tastes like A Thing than one tends to want to name it. Scott Fitzgerald (no F.) of Mulberry Project does something called the Man About Town, which uses white rum and orange bitters rather than mole, which ew (the white rum, not the orange bitters), but I like just because its name is a friendly nod to the bourbon riff on the Negroni – the Boulevardier – of which I am already a great fan. Joaquín Simó of Death & Co. now Pouring Ribbons specifies Smith & Cross Jamaican rum, no bitters, for his Kingston Negroni, and Michael McIlroy of Milk & Honey (now Attaboy) calls his version The Right Hand, which also uses dark rum and mole bitters, so arguably is the original, even if the name doesn’t quite do it for me.

Semi-authoritative origins aside, I think the Negroni Hivernal it will remain for me, because it captures something in spite being a little awkward. It’s a cute name, both appropriate and counterintuitive. Gin, which would usually anchor a Negroni, in spite of its summer-drinking and colonial associations has a wintry quality itself – cold, clear, coniferous and strange – at least I often think gin and think winter. I also think gin and think of drinking it on the rocks at a long-ago staff Christmas party in a four-story lesbian bar, because I had worn out my nerves on just about every other spirit available rum, and for the first time it occurring to me that gin might be a nice thing. Rum, on the other hand, is a hot country-of-origin spirit that nevertheless thrives in the winter by virtue of its brown sugar / caramel / molasses / spice profile. And so I have  associations with rum as well, and it feels right to make of this darker, deeper, spicier riff on the Negroni a cold-weather friend (although I suppose if the last half dozen posts are any indication, my seasonal cocktail criteria are pretty whimsical in their justification).

But what it really reminds me of is how I used to like rum. More specifically, and because it has been around Christmastime lately, it reminds me of what and whom I most often think when I think of rum and liking it, and of Christmastime and liking it (for underneath at all I am a grossly if intermittently romantic fellow). Once upon a long time ago, I decided that it was worth attempting to befriend this dude (a woman) with whom I had previously some passing but pleasant interactions. We knew one another from parties and through mutual friends and she had eyes that were kind of sleepy like cat’s eyes, but precisely in the way that cat’s eyes can be at once sleepy and burningly, terrifically alive. Tricky, intelligent eyes. I called her up one day and she said Yes she would love to hang out, but unfortunately was moving to another country the following week, but I should come to her going-away party (she lived, it turned out, on the same street as myself, but below the tracks, whereas I lived above). I did, and it was enjoyable, and I probably talked a lot about Frankenstein or not much at all and when next we spoke she said Hey how about this, how about next time we see each other we just pretend we are already good friends, and then let the getting to know one another happen from there?

What dispirited lump of a human could resist such a proposition? Not I, thankfully. When many months later she was in town, around Christmastime, she invited me out for a late night walk “with a bottle of brown in the neighbourhood she once slept in and now misses in slight brown ways” (the invitation was third persons all around), I was appropriately stoked. The bell rang sometime lateish, and when I opened the door, before I could even begin to utter words to receive her, she slipped and fell down the stairs, of which thankfully there were only three, but I assure you it made a genuinely charming impression. I’m not very good at telling stories, I realize, but this is important. She had with her a bottle of rum, and we sat on the floor in the dim, Christmas-lit living room, drinking brown liquor, eating snacks (I don’t remember what) and talking about theory and listening to, of all things, Telegram. Until we were very rum-warmed and somewhat drunk, and then we took an old saw and went into the touching, embarrassing, lazily falling snow to steal a branch out of which I could make myself a modest Christmas tree, in that neighbourhood where I too no longer sleep and also occasionally miss in what maybe I can call slight brown ways. Although I’m not sure I know what she meant by that.

I tend to look forward to the holidays, I’m not sure why. But this year I mostly felt a yawning blankness, a steady, sad, evacuation, that grew right up until New Year’s Eve, when against all odds, I had a very nice time.

(I sort of pooched the bouillabaisse though. Note to everyone, try not to crush all the whitefish under nine pounds of mussels.)