“Your heart is like a great river after a long spell of rain, spilling over its banks. All signposts that once stood on the ground are gone, inundated and carried away by that rush of water. And still the rain beats down on the surface of the river. Every time you see a flood like that on the news you tell yourself: That’s it. That’s my heart.”
Shamed by my absence from the Reading Room’s #GetLit Robert Burns event last weekend, I was sure to arrive at 7pm sharp on Friday for this week’s installment celebrating Japanese author Haruki Murakami. This was the first event where I hadn’t heard of the author or his works, but I was sure that the themed cocktail list designed by the exceedingly well-read cocktail architect Chantel Tseng would serve as the perfect introduction. And that’s the special part of this can’t-miss-cocktail series – those ignorant or expert in either the authors or drinks are at home, and both parities are sure to learn something new. For instance, I overheard a group of young women who were steeped in Murakami but were new to cocktails whisper excitingly as they read through the ingredient list and made the connections to their beloved stories. As a bibliophile and cocktail aficionado, that’s just magic to hear!
Alright, enough of my mushy odes, let’s get to business! Writ large, the Murakami menu was choc full of “wow” moments, as exotic ingredients like Dolin Genepy and lychee juice worked with old favorites for some adventurous drinking. First off was the “A Shinigawa Monkey” with absinthe, Jack Rudy grenadine, sparkling nigori sake, and monkey (ornament, not…you know….the animal). This was a straight-forward and up-front exhibition of the sake and the absinthe, which results in a heavy and consistent licorice taste, at least to my palette. Not quite my cup of tea and I was hoping for a bit more sweetness from the grenadine but, if sake is your bag, you’ll lap this one up! Next up was “The Ice Man” with vodka, Dolin Genepy (an herbal liqueur from Europe), sake, and crushed ice. I liked this one, it was a frigid and uplifting vodka drink with the beautiful grassy, moss echo and the pop and burn of the sake. More than a mouthful, this was a fun one to gulp, the arctic sensations mellowing out as you drank giving way to this unique, soft, herbal hue. Nice.
The next drink was my favorite of the evening, the “Hanalei Bay” with light and dark rums, lychee juice, plum wine, lemon, grapefruit, blood orange, bitters, crushed ice, and shiso (a Japanese herb and member of the mint family). I’m just falling deeply in love with blood orange as a cocktail ingredient and Ms. Tseng wields it expertly, meshing it with the grapefruit, lemon, and plum wine for a surprisingly consistent and revelatory, tropic taste. I almost didn’t taste the rum, which to me was a testament to the perfect synergy of the other flavors. Superb. Then I had my other favorite of the event, “The Strange Library” with sake, green chartreuse, apricot brandy, ginger and turmeric tea, grapefruit, and lychee. The most unique flavor of the evening, this drink takes you on a refreshing ride with the chartreuse and brandy powering through up-front, leading to a soft, ginger tea-ish ending. I don’t even love chartreuse, so I found the pleasant balance in this drink particularly impressive.
If you are a gin fan like myself, the “Kafka on the Shore” with gin, slivovitz (a fruit brandy made from plums), manzanilla, pickled plum, and lemon is for you. Gin up-front, gin in the middle, and gin ’til it died, I loved this one but sipped slowly! The slivovitz and lemon make an appearance on the outer edges, but this good, herbal drink is true to its base spirit. Next up is the “Sputnik Sweetheart” with rye, sake, barley tea, chamomile, ginger syrup, lemon, charred start anise, and nutmeg. Ms. Tseng is a master of the warm cocktail, and the Sputnik was another masterpiece, with a very nutty, earthy flavor carried through by the barley tea and chamomile. I loved the cut of the anise which isn’t stringent but makes its presence known without upsetting the symmetry of the drink. And you can never have enough ginger syrup!
The final drink of the night was the “Seventh Man” with Kilchoman Machir Bay Scotch, manzanilla, dolin rouge vermouth, grapefruit, and seaweed. Like the Kafka, the Seventh is an homage to its base spirit – the drink is scotch through and through with little pretense. I’m not a huge scotch guy but I found some joy in the borders, the vermouth and grapefruit softening the drink a bit. Until next week!