The first cocktail I ever tasted was invented by a guy named Nick I went to high school with. I drank it out of a plastic bottle, and I have no idea what was in it. Nick’s invention was a matter of necessity. The idea had occurred to him, as it had to others before and will to others hence, that if he stole just a small trickle from each of the bottles in his parents’ liquor cabinet, a fraction of an inch of a pour, his theft would go unnoticed. At the same time, this blend of spirits would eventually reach a volume that would suffice to get him and the handful of guys he hung out with completely smashed. Since it was our first time drinking, this outcome was guaranteed even under suboptimal conditions.
We carried this potion with us in a 16.9 ounce Poland Spring bottle on a nighttime sojourn through our small town, State College, Pennsylvania. We circled the sidewalks within a few blocks’ radius of the intersection of Allen Street and College Avenue, perhaps the most generically named intersection in the United States. The lack of imagination was fitting for a town called “State College,” the location of the state college of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University.
Penn State kids so frequently harm themselves while drinking, usually out of red Solo cups on one of the the many lawns along fraternity row, that no bar would ever risk letting an underage kid in. Bouncers in downtown State College had ultraviolet scanners built into their retinas like Terminators, making them able to spot fake IDs on sight in order to bar the door to anyone even moments from turning 21. If you were too old for the playground but too young for the bar, State College didn’t offer much of anything to do or anywhere to go. So we walked aimlessly, passing around the plastic bottle and swigging its contents. It was disgusting. I realize you have to develop a taste for alcohol, but even if William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway had been drinking with us, they would have needed a Gatorade chaser just like we did. Eventually, someone threw up. It might have been me.
As I got older, and the effects of alcohol were less of a surprise, I started to take a genuine interest in the concept of a cocktail. Actually, it was more the connotation of a cocktail. There seemed to be something so pathetically utilitarian about chugging cheap beer with artificial caramel color, or doing shots of the agave-flavored grain alcohol that passes for tequila. Subjecting yourself to something unpleasant for the promise of feeling slightly different a few minutes later may be practical, but it’s sad. Sure, alcohol has the advantage of making it easier to talk to girls or commit acts of vandalism. But what a prosaic exchange. In contrast, if you drink a Manhattan, the air turns Technicolor. You begin speaking with a continental accent and swells of jazz trombone accompany you everywhere you go. You win every bet. Ladies drop handkerchiefs as they walk past. You are mistaken for a spy and a thrilling adventure begins. A lot is riding on your choice of beverage.
So I decided to like cocktails before I actually knew whether I liked them. Fortunately, cocktails are good, good enough to be worth drinking even after you discover they don’t change your life in any way. For an adult, there is no better ritual commemorating the nightly escape from wage slavery. The archetypal dad of the 1950s knew what he was doing, walking in the door, hanging up his hat, grabbing a bottle, and ignoring his family.
The consumption of alcohol has always been a social activity, but it is also a personal one. Our preferences have widely agreed-on associations, from the bourgeois wine snob to the rugged beer swiller. A cocktail adds complexity. The more components you’ve combined, the more you can say about yourself, like the Old Fashioned does for Don Draper or the Cosmopolitan does for Carrie Bradshaw—or as either does for anyone aspiring to personally inhabit these clichés. For me, as a young Asian-American with vaguely Muslim heritage, cocktails were a powerful cultural symbol. If I may take poetic license, beyond symbolizing youthful rebellion and American identity, they enacted an ideal: an alchemical combination of elements that, at its best, produced a new substance, rather than merely a mixture of separate ingredients.
Eventually, I decided to invent a cocktail myself. When you realize how much of a grammar there is to cocktails—in fact, “cocktail” used to mean any combination of a spirit, a sweetener, and bitters—you can’t help but feel that you should be able to create your own. How hard can it be? I figured it was just like cooking: If you don’t have basil for your pasta, use parsley. Still green. No black pepper? For one thing, what’s wrong with you? For another, use red pepper flakes. Still spicy. Substitute butter for every other kind of fat, unless it’s bacon fat. Even better. Same deal, right?
My first attempt was a step up from a random blend of stolen liquor in a plastic bottle, but not by much. It was called “The Bleeding Kidney,” named for its unappetizing appearance before stirring. I created it in collaboration with my brother and our friend Jack while our parents were out of town. Flights of nostalgia have allowed us to recreate an facsimile of the original recipe with some degree of historical accuracy. If I’m not mistaken, we learned from past mistakes and put Gatorade directly into the drink. We added a substance called Rooh Afza, a deep red syrup which, along with the bright green soda Pakola, is the national drink of Pakistan. Having spent every other summer of my childhood in Karachi with my Pakistani parents, I find its flavor more familiar than Coca-Cola.
“Introduced in 1907, Rooh Afza is a fruit-filled, friendly punch which is a perfect treat on a hot day,” says the manufacturer, Hamdard. According to Abu Dhabi newspaper The National, “Rooh Afza” is rumored by some to mean “refresher of the soul.” Others say it is gibberish made up by its creator, Hakim Hafiz Abdul Majeed. “Hamdard,” bizarrely, means something like “partner in pain,” which not only betrays the drink’s origin in ancient Islamic medicine, but is kind of metal. The syrup is made up of a mysterious combination of ingredients believed by doctors of the past unencumbered by the scientific method to have a cooling effect on the body. The dominant flavor is rose, though it is also punctuated by a flavor unfamiliar in European or American cuisine called kewra—the essence of the flower of the pandanus tree, more vividly known as “screwpine.” This gives it an exotic quality that either fascinates or disgusts Western tongues.
Rooh Afza is great, but it does not go well with alcohol. We can’t even remember what sort of spirit we used. Most likely it was a cheap whiskey called Old Crow, which we thought had the most badass bottle, but it doesn’t matter. The result is unpleasant. I don’t recommend fixing yourself a Bleeding Kidney on a hot day.
A few years later, I tried again. I had failed at this before, but I was a boy then. I was by now a grown man, nearly old enough to drink at a bar. Since cocktails are supposed to represent a culture, like the Daiquiri does Cuba or the Negroni does Italy, I decided to create one that would represent my politics. I called this cocktail The Young Marx. When Karl Marx’s thought took on its particular character in the 1840s, he built it on a synthesis of German idealist philosophy, French socialism, and English political economy. You can now witness this process on film, in Raoul Peck’s biopic The Young Karl Marx, in which it is accompanied by plenty of drinking.
My invention, based on the classic structure of a Negroni, represented all three of these intellectual components in booze form. Gin is the only spirit you could really describe as English, so I retained that as the base. Instead of “Italian,” or “sweet” vermouth, I used “French,” or “dry” vermouth. The German component was the hardest part. It had to be an amaro, like the Negroni’s defining ingredient, the bitter orange liqueur Campari. All I could think of was Jägermeister.
No, it’s not good. Did you think there was any chance this would end up being good? Nope. I’ve always meant to try it with scotch instead of gin, but odds are on that being even worse. The Negroni wasn’t invented until after Marx’s death—by a member of the bourgeoisie no less—so it may not have been fair to expect him to take to it.
My next attempt was inspired by a more contemporary figure, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. The Deleuzian is based on the Ramos Gin Fizz, a classic cocktail invented by New Orleans bartender Henry C. Ramos. A famed showman, Ramos created this drink partly for the ceremony involved in mixing it; it requires emulsifying an egg white with the liquor, aided by a bit of milk. It’s a strenuous activity. You have to shake it for like ten minutes, or until the liquid inside becomes what the recipes call “ropey.” Surprisingly, it actually makes sense after you’ve shaken long enough; it feels something like if you were slinging around a weighted rope.
My drink drew on terms from Deleuze’s philosophy, especially his work with psychoanalyst Felix Guattari. With Guattari, he wrote the books Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, known together as Capitalism and Schizophrenia. I began with a French spirit (cognac), because that was an obvious one. The gin fizz already provided some suitable components. The recipe includes a body without organs (an egg white), representing the schizophrenic experience of a person in the late capitalist environment. It also includes pre-Oedipal discharge (milk), alluding to the critique of psychoanalysis which gave the first volume its title. I was easily able to swap in rhizomatic fluid (ginger beer, from the rhizomatic root of the zingiber officinale flowering plant, instead of the gin fizz’s club soda), in tribute to the nonlinear logic by which Deleuze and Guattari developed their theory.
So far, this tracks really well. But it wasn’t quite enough to make the drink really exciting. So I added Spinozan forbidden fruit (curaçao, a liqueur made from the inedible laraha orange) and nomadic desert water (lime juice, from a fruit that grows in regions where traditional societies wandered the arid wilderness). Those two are a stretch.
You may be wondering what the point of all this is. Why should the ingredients of a cocktail have to symbolize anything, least of all abstract concepts from 20th-century French philosophy? I can’t answer that. But here’s the thing: this drink is actually really good. I only made it once after first coming up with it, but it was way better than it deserved to be. Since then, I never ended up having all the ingredients at the same time. But in the interest of journalistic ethics, I stopped at the liquor store the other day and stocked up. I’m drinking one now, and it’s still good. I can finally state with pride that I have invented a cocktail. If you begin to see this drink on menus in Brooklyn or San Francisco in the future, leave a good tip. That bartender is going to be exhausted after making you one.
Here’s the recipe.
Create an assemblage of:
- 2 oz cognac (I like Pierre Ferrand Grande Ambre, but if you’re on a budget a decent brandy will do)
- .5 oz lime juice
- .5 oz curaçao (Senior Curaçao of Curaçao and Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao are the only ones made with genuine Laraha orange, but Marie Brizard is also good)
- 1 oz heavy cream
- 1 egg white
Add ice cubes. Shake until ingredients are deterritorialized and then reterritorialized. The shaker’s exterior should begin to feel cold and frosty, while the fluid’s line of flight should become “ropey.” Pour into a tall, chilled glass. Swirl in:
- 1-2 oz ginger beer (it’s hard to resist using the Jamaican D&G brand, a corner store staple in most cities, but I wouldn’t blame you for using a better one like Q or Fever Tree)