Amongst my most treasured Virago Modern Classics are the 3 Mae West books (2 novels and her autobiography), I've also got a box set of her films somewhere, but I hadn't thought about her for a while until Damon Runyon made me remember yesterday.
It's years since I read her books, it's probably time to read them again, and wonder again at just how amazing she was both as a trailblazing woman intent on living on her own terms, and a reminder that out great grandmothers might not have been precisely the way we imagine them. Her wisecracks and one liners are every bit as brilliant as you would expect as well.
To match Mae I wanted a really old fashioned drink; something that would have been familiar in her Bowery hay day. Jerry Thomas was another New York icon, though he predates West by a good few decades his Bartenders Guide (first published in 1862) seemed like the best place to look (I have a Hesperus edition that my sister gave me a few years ago, it's worth getting a copy).
I came up with two options; the Martinez which is a sort of precursor to a Martini, and has enjoyed a bit of a comeback in recent years (its gin, Vermouth, bitters and marischino in Jerry Thomas'version, he uses Old Tom gin which is relatively sweet, and suggests adding extra sugar in the form of gum syrup if it's wanted. By the time you get to the Savoy Cocktail Book the gin is probably dry, and the vermouth is definitely dry). I like a Martinez but thought something without gin would make a change.
The Fancy Vermouth Cocktail sounded perfect. It doesn't give any clues about the vermouth, so I've used the Belsazar summer edition that I have which is definitely at the sweeter end. You take a small wineglass of this (a bar measure, unless you have some proper little Victorian wine glasses - an egg cup would also be about right) and add 2 dashes of bitters and two dashes of marischino. Shake over ice, strain into a coupe glass, garnish with quarter of a lemon.
I was quite tired when I made this, and the lighting in my kitchen is poor. For no good reason I thought the marischino bottle had the same sort of dropper thing in it that the bitters bottle does. Reader, I added a lot more that 2 dashes. Regardless the resulting drink was okay, and I'm looking forward to trying this with different vermouth's (and mess marischino) to find just the right set of balances between sweet and dry.
As it goes I think the drink I ended up with is probably right for the early Mae West mood, when sweeter drinks were more fashionable. Not using gin also means this is a much lower alcohol cocktail which is no bad thing either.