"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
How do you know that cocktail blogs — that is, Web sites whose mono-obsessional authors natter on about nothing else but carefully mixed intoxicants, their ingredients and their histories — have come into their own? Well, at the preeminent annual cocktail convention in the nation, Tales of the Cocktail (this year held July 18-22 in New Orleans), said bloggers claimed ownership of their very own seminar. Called “Cocktails and the Blogosphere,” the event trained a spotlight on New Orleanian Chuck Taggart, who writes about music, food and politics as well as sazeracs on his blog, the Gumbo Pages; Rick Stutz of Kaiser Penguin, so named because, I quote: “It is a well-known fact that penguins are members of high society and enjoy fine cocktails”; and Darcy O’Neil, a professional bartender who peppers his Art of Drink blog with chemistry lessons he learned in college.
But the man moderating the panel — and one of the godfathers of cocktail bloggers everywhere — was Seattle native Paul Clarke. Clarke launched his site, the Cocktail Chronicles, in May 2005, when his ramblings on the best ryes on the market were still but a slurred voice in the cyber-wilderness. Now, he has been joined by more than 100 blogs dedicated to the art of the carefully considered libation. Their creators include bartenders, mixologists, lowly journalists such as Clarke and what the spirits mafia call “Cocktailians” (loosely defined as individuals who are enthusiastic about cocktails and know how to mix a mean specimen of such).
Clarke’s efforts have earned enough attention to land him regular writing gigs for Imbibe magazine and SeriousEats.com. He recently talked to Salon about the art of mixology, reviving lost ingredients and how to mix the ultimate martini, over a bowl of gumbo and a (gasp!) beer at the French Quarter’s Acme Oyster House.
You began the Cocktail Chronicles in May 2005. Did you know of anyone else blogging about booze back then?
To the best of my knowledge, only one purely cocktail-oriented blog existed then. That was barmixmaster.com. It’s now very sporadically updated, so it’s not very active. There were a couple of other people who blogged about a number of things, with cocktails being among them. Chuck Taggart has been blogging on the Gumbo Pages since before there was blogging, about everything from food and politics to music and cocktails. But his cocktails, especially his originals, are absolutely fantastic. He is very conversant in spirits and liqueurs. For me, he was a big motivation. I thought, “Here’s someone who’s blogging, but he actually knows what he’s talking about.”
In my day job, I’m a journalist and I work as an editor part time in a small publishing company. When I started my blog, I thought it would be nice to write something without an editor looking over my shoulder. I didn’t have to worry about a word count, a deadline; I could write about a topic I want to write about; I could use the voice I want to use. I didn’t do it to broadcast my message. But then people actually read it, which constantly surprises me.
When did the drink bug bite you?
I think it was in 2003. My wife’s family is a big foodie family. Any time we have a big gathering, there’s a massive amount of cooking going on. My mother-in-law is a trained chef; my sister-in-law went to baking school. I’d always think: “What am I going to do except sit here and eat everything?” Then, one time, I was reading a cocktail recipe in the New York Times and thought, “We have a dinner coming up. I’ll make a drink.” It was like the clouds opened and the Jesus light came down. I’d always been interested in cocktails, but I didn’t know anything about them. Every time I’d try to make myself a martini, it was terrible.
Why was that?
In retrospect, I see everything I was doing wrong. I was using a gin that was not very good. And I was using a lousy vermouth and not much of it. I wasn’t using bitters, and I was shaking the cocktail. Now when I make a martini, I use a decent gin, a lot of vermouth and a good vermouth, and a little bit of orange bitters, and stir it nicely. It’s lovely.
So you prefer a classic martini style, the way it was made in early decades of the 20th century?
Circa 1930s — exactly. I always thought my drinks sucked because I used too much vermouth, that the two or three drops I used were too much. Then I realized that I actually needed it to be one-third vermouth — and I’m happy as a clam.
Who have been some of your inspirations and mentors?
I was very fortunate to come across a couple of things right off. Knowing that I liked the drinks printed in the New York Times, I found out that Williams Grimes wrote a book in the ’90s, “Straight Up or On the Rocks,” which I still, to this day, think is the best book about cocktails ever written. Grimes is an excellent researcher. He’s a really good bullshit detector. And one of the things about cocktails is there is a lot of bullshit about drink origins. The answer to the question of who invented a drink is often that it was made by a guy in a bar — which is the font of all bullshit.
Then I came across David Wondrich’s “Esquire Drinks.” He’d talk about a Manhattan made with rye whiskey. I thought, what the hell is rye? I’d heard of it in “The Lost Weekend,” where Ray Milland is drinking it. I never recalled having had it. I went out and bought a bottle of rye that very day, and that bug bit me, too. I’d had a bourbon Manhattan and thought, Well, that’s all right. When I made a rye Manhattan, it was an “Oh, my God” moment. I understood why the drink was so good.
The Pacific Northwest, where you live, seems to be a hot spot for sophisticated cocktails.
Well, in that region, food is a very big thing. I think part of it is the abundance of fresh seafood, and surrounding the cities, you have very vibrant farming areas. And with good food, you get wine. Washington and Oregon have a fantastic beer community, so I think the interest in cocktails has been sailing along behind it. In Seattle, we have two wonderful bars with bartenders and owners who take what they do very seriously. One is Zig Zag Cafe where Murray Stenson is the bartender. The other one is Vessel, which is where mixologist Jamie Boudreaux works.
You have a popular feature on your blog called Mixology Mondays, in which you invite visitors to share their experiences mixing different cocktails. What sparked that idea?
It was April 2006. It had been almost a year since I began my blog, and in that time, a handful of other drink blogs had started, and we would e-mail each other. I was always looking at events like Is My Blog Burning? — which is a food bloggers event — and Wine Blogging Wednesday, where a bunch of wine bloggers pick one Wednesday a month and talk about Chardonnay or whatever. So I thought it would be cool if cocktail bloggers had something like that. The first Monday, about eight people did it — it surprised me. I think the most we’ve had was 30.
You also appeared on a “Lost Ingredients” panel at Tales of the Cocktail. Is that something you’re particularly interested in?
When I first started getting into cocktails and collecting the old bartending manuals, often I’d find that a recipe called for something I didn’t have. Right away — and maybe it’s just the contrarian in me — that would spark my curiosity, especially if it was something I couldn’t get now. I had to have it. What’s the reason everybody wants absinthe? Because until recently, they couldn’t have it.
Anyway, there are sometimes ingredients I want try, but I can’t buy them online. So the only alternative is to make them myself. Things that don’t require distillation I can do. For example, Falernum is one of the ingredients I’ve played with. It’s a really obscure kind of syrup, originally made in Barbados, and typically used to flavor classic Caribbean punches. It enjoyed a heyday in the United States roughly from the 1930s to the 1970s as part of the tiki drink movement. It matches very well with rum. And it is commercially available, but it’s hard to find. I just happened to find a recipe online at egullet.com, so I went ahead and made my own. It was really easy. You just soak some lime zest, some cloves, some ginger and some rum and strain it out and you’re there. It tasted all right.
That was about the same time I started up my blog. I was proud of myself, and I typed it up: “Hey, I made this thing.” The three readers I had at the time, one of them happened to be Murray Stenson in Seattle. He wrote and said, “I have some of the real stuff. Do you want to come down and have a taste test?” I came down and tried the stuff and realized how far off I was. But that kind of sent me on the path.
Obsessively digging up obscure ingredients and recipes and historical information that has been forgotten seems to be a big trend in cocktail circles right now.
Yes, and one thing about having a blog is, when you post something, you realize how many other people out there are trying the same thing. You start getting e-mails from people, especially from bartenders. I know the Falernum recipe I eventually settled on after two years of messing with it is being served at a bar in Seattle and a bar in Eugene, Ore. I’ve talked to bartenders in New York who have played around with my recipe as a starting point for their own.
On your blog, you list everything in your liquor cabinet. It’s quite an extensive collection — including over 17 types of rye, 12 types of brandy and 29 types of rum. Where do you keep it all?
By last fall, I had overtaken all the top shelves in the kitchen, so my wife graciously gave me the hall closet, which is pretty big. I put in shelves and I thought: It will take me forever to fill that up. But I did it pretty quickly.
Robert Simonson writes about theater for the New York Times, the New York Sun, Time Out New York and Playbill.com, where he is senior correspondent.More Robert Simonson.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)