A year or so ago, my wife was away on business. My teenager and I were supposed to go somewhere – I don’t remember where. Wherever it was, I had been ready to go there for quite some time.
After waiting for what seemed like a very long time, I shouted to the ceiling.
“HEY! DO YOU STILL WANT TO DO THAT THING?”
A second later, The Teen’s muffled voice came through the ceiling.
“Oh, right! I’ll be right down!”
Fifteen minutes later, I was still waiting.
“DID YOU FORGET WHAT YOU WERE DOING?” I asked the ceiling.
“Oh, sorry! I’m on my way!”
Five minutes later, there was still no sign of my child.
This time, I spoke with a loud, authoritative voice, but not to the ceiling.
“Alexa, volume nine.”
“Alexa, play bagpipe music, please.”
There was a slight pause, then the lilting sounds of Scotland The Brave wafted through the house.
‘BREE, BREE, TWEEDLE, BREEBREEBREEEEEE…”
…followed immediately the sound of running footsteps upstairs, the slam of a door, and the frantic thuds of footsteps on the stairs.
“WHAT!? WHAT!? WHAT’S GOING ON? PLEASE ALEXA, STOP!!” The Teen cried out, face pale and panicked.
This is a good story and there’s more to it, but I’ll save it for another time, because I wouldn’t want to lose track of my main point.
My main point is that I am not a subtle man.
I’ve never quite grasped the concept of subtlety. I spent most of the late 80s dressed almost exclusively in white painter’s pants and Hawaiian shirts. When I lived overseas for a few years, a British person told me that I was the loudest American they had ever met.
I struggle with subtlety.
Okay, hold that thought…
Now, imagine that you are walking across a parking lot on a hot summer day.
Suddenly, it starts to rain.
You know that smell – that incredibly calming, refreshing smell – that comes up from the pavement?
It has a name. It’s called petrichor. It’s produced by bacteria in the soil or on the surface of the pavement. I’m not sure why. Bacteria have their own motivations. But the point is, they produce this particular chemical, and humans are hard-wired to react to it. If you can imagine ancient humans trekking across the savannahs of Africa or the plains of Iraq, it makes sense that we would love that smell.
I found out a few months ago that you can buy petrichor in a bottle. It turns out that there are small villages in India whose main business is harvesting it for the perfume industry. If you look diligently enough online, you can find it infused into oil.
It occurred to me that very few people have been using this particular scent/flavor profile in cocktails.
So, I ordered some.
Over the next few weeks, while I waited for my petrichor to arrive, I spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of drink I could build around the smell of fresh rain. And I came to a troubling conclusion.
Have you spotted it yet?
The smell of rain is very delicate. It could be easily overpowered by strong-flavored ingredients. This drink would call for something I am fundamentally ill-suited to – subtlety. At this point in my life, my body rejects subtlety like a bad kidney.
Eventually, I vaguely remembered reading an article in a high-end food magazine many years ago. In it, the author pointed out that most Americans don’t eat enough tropical fruit, most of which we’ve never heard of. Okay, she pointed out, ice-cold star fruit juice is really good on a hot, tropical morning, but we really need to expand our fruit-palates.
Looking back on my past experience with star fruit, I remembered… nothing. Nothing at all. All I can recall about eating slices of star fruit is that it had a very delicate flavor.
In other words – subtle. This struck me as auspicious.
The big challenge, of course, is getting ahold of fresh star fruit in January. An online order and remote pickup from Whole Foods resulted in a surprise substitution and seven pounds of mangos, which, while delicious, are arguably not interchangeable with star fruit. Ultimately, I ended up ordering my star fruit online, and the experience was so excellent that I may order all my tropical fruit that way from now on.
My next challenge -and let’s face it, this probably should have been Step #1 – was to find out if petrichor is even safe to consume. I consulted Andrea Peck, a food scientist with Cargil, who told me that the problem was not so much with the petrichor itself, as with whatever oil it is suspended in.
“Scent compounds that are produced for the perfume industry usually use an oil that will be shelf-stable for a long time. That’s not always compatible with being food-safe. I wouldn’t promote using it unless you can contact someone who can confirm it’s food grade.”
After some thought, it occurred to me that I probably wasn’t looking for the actual flavor of petrichor – who even knows what that is? – but the smell of fresh rain. My best bet would be to coat the outside of the glass with petrichor oil and let the scent saturate the drinking experience.
Ultimately, after weeks of obsessively over-thinking it, here is what I came up with:
Rain On The Patio
1 oz. Frozen star fruit juice – see below*
2 oz. Upscale vodka – this is one of those cases where there are no strong flavors for the vodka to hide behind. If you’ve got a bottle of the good stuff, this is a time to break it out. Finlandia or Tito’s might be good choices for this. Make sure that you store it in the freezer. It should be skull-shrinkingly cold.
3 oz. Fresh star fruit juice, chilled
A martini glass – if you have an ornate or cut crystal one, this would be a good time to use it, not to show off, but because the carvings and decorations will provide more surface area for the petrichor.
A cocktail shaker – I like a two-piece Boston shaker
A tiny paintbrush – the type you would use to paint a model
Fill the martini glass with ice to chill it. Crushed or cracked ice will work well for this, but even regular ice cubes will have plenty of time to do the job while you prepare the cocktail.
Combine the fresh star fruit juice, the frozen star fruit juice, and the vodka in the cocktail shaker. Shake once or twice to combine, then set aside.
Using the paintbrush, paint an inch-wide strip around the outside of the martini glass, about half an inch or so from the rim. Remember, we are going for aroma here, not actual consumption. When you first open the bottle of petrichor, you will be suspicious and underwhelmed. It won’t smell like much of anything. Don’t worry – once it has a chance to, I don’t know, breathe?, you will be rewarded with something rather special.
Now, shake the cocktail thoroughly. Your goal here is to shake it until you can’t hear the frozen chunk of star fruit juice rattling against the sides of the shaker. This might take several minutes and your hands will probably get uncomfortably cold.
Pour, unstrained, into the martini glass. It needs no garnish.
This cocktail is awfully good, and – dare I say it? – subtle. It turns out that star fruit juice is actually delicate and delicious – fruity, without being very sweet. The vodka provides a bracing alcoholic note, but being vodka, doesn’t impose any actual flavor of its own. (Upscale vodka enthusiasts assure me that good vodka does have a flavor; it’s just very subtle. This is another argument for using top-shelf vodka for this drink.)
The star of the drink though, is, of course, the petrichor. If you sniff the glass as you raise it to your lips, there is the soft-but-unmistakable smell of fresh rain. Over the next hour or so, you will notice that your hands also smell like rain.
*I get very frustrated when I buy juice – particularly pineapple juice – and only need to use an ounce or two of it at a time. A few months ago, I bought a silicone freezer tray designed for parents to save baby food. It makes pre-portioned, 1-ounce pucks of baby food, or in my case, cocktail juice. Frozen juice-pucks are excellent for shaking in cocktails, if you don’t want to dilute your drink. Given how much trouble I went to getting my hands on fresh star fruit, I wanted to freeze most of it for later use.
If you don’t happen to have a silicone baby food mold, freeze the juice by putting one ounce of it in a 2-ouch jigger, then freeze it. The cone shape of the jigger will let you remove the juice puck easily.
Okay. Good. Fine.
I think we can all agree that subtlety is excellent in small doses – which is lucky because, by definition, that’s how subtlety works. But any Buddhist bartender will also tell you that we need balance in the universe. Man/Woman, Dark/Light, Yin/Yang.
This is my favorite cocktail. It is also the least subtle drink imaginable, short of being on fire and served by a gorilla. It comes courtesy of master Indian recipe developer, Raghavan Iyer.
½ tsp. Cumin seeds, toasted if older than six months. (Did you know that you should replace your spices once a year? Don’t even get me started on baking powder.)
¼ cup packed mint leaves
1 Serrano or jalapeño chili, roughly chopped
Scant ¼ tsp. coarse sea salt or kosher salt
1 oz. Lime juice
1 oz. Ginger syrup
4 oz. Medium-quality gin -this may be what Gordon’s was invented for.
Muddle the cumin, mint, chili, and salt together in the bottom of a cocktail shaker.
Add wet ingredients and ice.
Shake well, until very cold.
Strain into martini glasses. Or one glass, several times.
This cocktail is an angry green color. It means business and is not here for your nonsense. The salt and cumin are the first flavors to hit you when you drink this, followed quickly by the heat of the chili. This drink would probably be uncomfortably spicy, except for how cold it is, and for the cooling influence of the mint.
The Slumdog Martini is a stern mistress, who demands your attention and affection.
But she’s not subtle.