This week I’m reviewing Owen Matthews’ “Glorious Misadventures,” a history of Russia’s all but forgotten attempt to explore and colonize North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. The far flung saga follows the trail of Russian adventurer and businessman Nikolai Rezanov as he moved east from Siberia, to Alaska, all the way down to Spanish-administered San Francisco. So I thought I’d mirror his extremely dangerous trek in a less-death defying, more cocktail-ish manner.
We’ll start in the frozen wastelands of Siberia: I found the “Siberian Kiss” via the excellent food and drink blog Gin and Crumpets. It also gave me an excuse to make ginger syrup, which I love, and pear juice, which I’ve never used before. It was love at first taste with this icy beauty, what a wonderful concoction. The mellow, faintly spiced twist of the ginger syrup partners so well with the pear that I was ashamed I hadn’t thought of it before, lending a rich, subtly sweet taste. The lime infuses a nice citrus note, and the prosecco…well, prosecco makes everything better. This poppy and sugary delight is memorable and will make a great outdoor party drink once summer comes around. Make it now.
- 1/2 oz pear juice
- 1 oz Finlandia vodka
- 1/2 oz ginger syrup
- 1/2 oz fresh lime juice
- 2 oz prosecco
Heading across the Bering Strait (named after the impossible brave Danish explorer Vitus Bering) I tried “The Alaska” which was the subject of a very interesting 2010 Washington Post article written by Jason Wilson. Like most drinks originating in the early 20th century, its name and origin are cloaked in mystery. I always enjoy drinking mysteries, so I mixed this up one quick. It is a stiff, extremely botanical drink that serves as a good showcase for both strong gin (I used Old Toms) and the yellow chartreuse, which conveys a little honey and even more floral hints. A challenging sipper, this is a good advanced course in botanicals, but probably not for a beginning cocktail drinker.
- 2 ounces gin
- 3/4 ounce yellow Chartreuse
- 2 dashes orange bitters
Hunting for a cocktail homage to the city by the bay, I found this interesting article by Lauren Sloss about the lack of a “San Francisco” cocktail that truly lived up to the name. There are two, but their use of banana and other tropical flavors just didn’t sit right with some of the bartenders interviewed in the article. One of the bartenders quoted, however, positively referenced the “Frisco” cocktail, which I found via Imbibe magazine. This is a harsh and challenging drink but rewarding, as the rye and Benedictine mix is powerful, intimidating, and resonant. If you’re interested in overcoming your fears and trying your taste buds against a high-impact, pungent rye mix, this is your drink.
- 2 oz. rye whiskey
- 1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 oz. Bénédictine
“Gloroius Misadventures” tackles an obscure but intriguing period of world history of which there are few tangible reminders. Indeed, Matthews identifies chronic alcoholism and Russian Orthodoxy as the most prominent legacies of Russian colonialism in North America. This story is a tough one to tell, simultaneously introducing readers to several different historical dynamics including the shape of the Russian monarchy, the cultures of Siberia and Alaska, the formation of the Russian American Company, and, oh yes, the book’s main subject, Nikolai Rezanov.
Matthews mostly pulls off this juggling act, telling a complex story in a compelling manner, although some of the story lines ran a bit long and seemed somewhat superfluous. Rezanov is an interesting subject, fueled by a grandiose vision that was eventually undercut by his–and his country’s–many failings. Matthew’s recounting of Rezanov’s doomed and farcical 1805 attempt to open up Japan to Russian commerce was a high-point in the narrative, and provides a good list of diplomatic “what not to dos.” Also entertaining are Matthews’ stark description of the savage violence and horrific living conditions that colored life in the Russian settlements in Alaska. Endemic alcoholism, wars with the natives, and chronic mismanagement crippled already tenuous Russian attempts to extend the Tsar’s domain.
While not always enthralling, Glorious Misadventures is a good survey of this mostly forgotten period of European and American History and offers several interesting factoids. Chief among them, Rezanov’s legacy lives on not so much in Russia’s presence in Alaska, but in a Soviet-era rock opera that centers on his romance with a Spanish noblewomen. The show still plays to sold out theaters. We should all be so lucky to be remembered in such a way.