December 10, 2009

Adventures in Illicit Ingredients

This drink cannot be made the way it was originally intended. It just can't. One of the crucial ingredients no longer exists. And frankly, it's a good thing that's the case. The original version of this drink used an ingredient called "Jamaica Ginger," which was a patent medicine of the 1930s, a 150-proof nostrum of ethanol and ginger, that managed to dodge Prohibition agents, at least for a short while, by virtue of being "medicinal." However, much as Listerine now adds an agent that makes its mouthwash "non-potable," the T-Men of yesteryear insisted that changes be made in the formulation of Jamaica Ginger to discourage it from being quaffed straight. A bit of a battle ensued, with bootleggers replacing ginger solids that existed in the drink (a measure by which Department of Agriculture inspectors would test) with actual pieces of ginger, or other adulterants like castor oil or molasses.

One day, however, a pair of bootleggers who were too smart for their own good, Harry Gross and Max Reisman, tried adding a plasticizing agent, tri-ortho cresyl phosphate, or TOCP, to the mix. It passed the Treasury and Department of Agriculture tests with no problems, and was assumed at the time to be non-toxic. It wasn't. It wound up being a neurotoxin, and scores of Jamaica Ginger drinkers wound up with severe, often permanent, cases of peripheral neuropathy...they lost feeling in their hands and feet. Leg and hand muscles atrophied. It's estimated that between 30 and 50 thousand people in the US were affected by this adultering agent. Jamaica Ginger, sometimes called "jake," was quickly yanked from the market.

Today, there are several ginger spirits on the market, and it's easy enough to make ginger-beer base, but I decided, on a whim, to try to make a rudimentary ginger extract. I soaked about an ounce of shredded ginger in enough 190-proof neutral grain spirits to cover it, and let it sit in the fridge for a week or so. It's crude, but it'll do. Had I some distillation apparatus, I could perhaps make a better quality jake. But then I'd likely have ATF and T-Men beating down my door. I'd rather avoid that. So I just combined some ginger-beer base, a fraction of an ounce (maybe 1/16th) of ginger extract, and a little leftover ginger liqueur. Seems to work, although it merits mentioning that even the most meticulously prepared ginger solution eventually loses most of it's pungency, in as little as two weeks. For best results, make your ingredients as fresh as possible.

There's more than a few drinks out there that call for Jamaica Ginger, and I'm going to try a few over the next few weeks. Tonight, though, I thought I'd try one that sounds appropriate. For me, the name conjures up visions of a ridiculously hot area on a steam ship. You may think that sounds uncomfortable, but given that the high-temperature here today was in the single digits, I'll take that trade-off, thanks. And so I present to you...
Hot Deck Cocktail

2 dashes Jamaica Ginger (two eyedroppers of ginger extract, two barspoons each ginger beer base and ginger liqueur)
1 oz sweet vermouth
3 oz Canadian Club

shake all with ice, strain into chilled glass.
As long as you've got fresh ginger extract, beer, and liqueur, this should be a remarkably potent drink. The nose-searing character of the ginger should meld with the slight spice of the Canadian Club (it's got a little rye in it, after all), and be tempered just a bit by the sweetness of the vermouth. Oh, yes...this is a fine one for those cold winter nights. Plus, tons of booze, for that extra warming effect.

If you're a cocktail enthusiast or professional that's come up with a better, more accurate reproduction of that hoary old Jamaican Ginger, do let me know how you made it, won't you? I'm a ginger fanatic, after all...

Hot Deck Cocktail


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