Add all ingredients to a mixing glass.
Shake with ice and strain into a coupe.
Garnish with a lemon twist.
* * *
When approached by wait staff of any sort, my two-year-old son is quick to the draw with his current favorite phrase, “Beer me, barkeep!” As you might expect, father is much more proud of this linguistic achievement than mother. What keeps the phrase alive is the positive reinforcement that the lad receives with each utterance. Sure, Papa told him to say it, but as any parent will attest, that has little to do with influencing the behavior of a toddler (or a teen, for that matter). No, it’s the laughter that follows – the boy’s reward – that has placed these words at the forefront of his tiny brain.
If the Third Degree is all about extraction and sharing of information, then the Fourth Degree must surely be the realm of inception – the planting of new ideas, as the titular film tells us. Behaviorist B. F. Skinner conducted a great deal of work in the area of reinforcement versus punishment, concluding that positive reinforcement was the superior way to alter behavior. Skinner’s work, of course, built upon the research of others, such as that of Ivan Pavlov, who was able to establish a link between associated stimuli – one which delivered positive reinforcement, food, and one which merely suggested it, a bell. In the realm of the cocktail, the Savoy Hotel is very much a bell that, upon tolling, gets the faithful salivating.
For more than a century, the name Savoy has signified the pinnacle of luxury. In cocktail terms, it became most famous for the Savoy Cocktail Book, assembled by head barman Harry Craddock, who left the United States during Prohibition to seek opportunity abroad. And it was during Prohibition, when rich Americans spread their thirst for cocktails around the world, that the bar scene at the Savoy really took wing and that the Savoy bar itself became “The American Bar”. Even today, the Savoy web site boasts that “legendary bartender Harry Craddock’s classic cocktails are still served in the newly renovated American Bar.”
If you read 12 Bottle Bar with any regularity, you’ll know the name Erik Ellestad. Mr. Ellestad, a dashing figure behind the bar, has not only worked his way through every drink in the Savoy book (all chronicled on his Underhill Lounge site) but also hosts a monthly Savoy Cocktail Night at Alembic in San Francisco’s Haight district. It was last month that I had occasion to partake in the Savoy Night, and it stands as one of my most enjoyable nights out. Now, while I must give Erik his due credit, a good deal of the success of the evening also came in the form of my drinking companions, JimBob, Jay, and Nick. JimBob, I’ve known for a few years now, and as I wrote in the original post chronicling that night, it was to JimBob that my mind went when I had to select a comrade for the occasion.
Now that the stage is properly set, allow me to apply a few annotations in the margins. As stated, the very thought of an evening of Savoy cocktails mixed by the very capable hands of Mr. Ellestad was enough to get my mouth watering. Having the opportunity to share the experience with someone who would appreciate it added yet another layer of positive reinforcement. That my guest would not only embrace the Savoy playlist but, subsequently, take the experience to a whole other level – jumping on a plane and cozying up at the actual American Bar at the Savoy in London – was the greatest measure of success I could ever hope to obtain. I had achieved inception.
For the sake of this story, we’ll ignore the fact that JimBob had both business and pleasure to attend to in London, and pick up the adventure with the text that popped up on my phone early last week: “Headed to the Savoy in London…You drove me here!” The pleasure part of JimBob’s trip involved a night out with the fine Englishman, Sam Kershaw, who was apparently no stranger to the Savoy. As JimBob has taken to Bucks – specifically under their Savoy-noted “Mamie Taylor” moniker – this was his first order of business. The bartenders, Justin and Swani, saw JimBob and company through a full course of drinks that night – Pisco Sours and Whiskey Sours were reported back to me – with a level of skill and artistry that, I’m told, does the Savoy name proud. Both Swani and Justin have since been in contact with me – an honor for 12BB – and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Justin was kind enough to share an easy bitters recipe, which we’ll be passing along to you shortly.
From the stimulus that was Prohibition, Harry Craddock formed the idea that life might better be pursued across the pond. Had Craddock not been a capable barman of some experience, he certainly wouldn’t have landed the job at the already well-established Savoy, nor would he have had the insight to pillage so successfully from the work of his forerunners and peers. In the case of the Fourth Degree, this is a drink that bounced around in various forms during the first quarter of the 20th century. In Imbibe, David Wondrich provides an early version (circa 1915) from “Old Waldorf Bar Days” (1931). That version, which uses Sweet Vermouth exclusively, was the one I accidentally made for the initial Third Degree post. It is delicious but, like the recipe here, could benefit from more Gin and less Vermouth. To compensate for the potentially overpowering Vermouth quality, Erik Ellestad makes his Fourth Degree with Genever, which is a fine choice. He also employs Carpano Antica Vermouth, which is titanic in nature and which we’ll explore in another post. I’ve gone with the Savoy recipe here, only cutting back the Absinthe, as a baseline. It’s very herbal and sweet in this form and may be best suited as a summer drink (even, possibly, over ice). A few twists of the ingredient dials are all that it will need to suit most.
Of the Fourth Degree, Albert Stevens Crockett, journalist and historian behind “Old Waldorf Bar Days”, wrote “Origin somewhat mixed but traceable to patrons of the bar who belonged to some secret society or other.” This, of course, leads us to ask ourselves what secret society and to what ends were they up to? As we know the term Third Degree comes from achieving the highest rank in the Masonic Lodge, perhaps the Fourth Degree was an even more transcendental state – not of openly sharing knowledge but of planting an idea which would germinate naturally and spread across space and time. Is it so far-fetched a concept to believe when we consider the ethereal nature of the cocktail – blowing across the Atlantic to the Savoy, chronicled for all time by Harry Craddock, resuscitated by Erik Ellestad, passed along by yours truly in the form of this blog, and inspiring pilgrims from around the globe to trek to the American Bar? Is it just the positive reinforcement that a delicious drink offers, or is it the result of a perfect inception planted long ago?