Six authors, Six tales of terror, six different drinks
The events that led me to this place are scarce believable even to me and hint at a horror stretching back untold eons into a time when the earth was dark and the domain of unknowable things no human mind can ever hope to comprehend. I sit now, in this ruin of a hotel, grand at one time but long since collapsed into a shabby state, somewhere in the ancient mountains of New England. I watch the mist seep down those wooded slopes and know that I will never again find solace in the seemingly innocent pleasures of nature. For now I know of the things that lurk within those shadows and whose human agents seek even now to lure me out. From time to time I catch a glimpse of one of them, standing in the unkempt courtyard. For some reason, they dare not come in. And I dare not leave.
My world now is shrunk, consisting of nothing more than this room and the grim hotel cocktail lounge. I assume my place at the end of the bar and am, by and by, joined by a few other damned souls who have found their way to this forlorn place from which it seems impossible to leave. A quartet of impossibly ancient musicians sets up nightly in a corner and stumbles its way through “Moonglow” and “Moonlight Serenade.” If the song is about the moon, they seem to know it. From time to time a chanteuse joins them. She’s young, has a voice like velvet and smoke, eyes haunted by some melancholy no one will ever know. She’s particularly good with “Blue Moon.”
I bring with me on these nightly pilgrimages a book. A different one each night for though I have little to my name now I am fortunate to have a cache of old novels. Horror, fittingly. Tales of the macabre and the mad. Each night I raise a glass to them, something properly tied to the author or the tale itself.
Dracula, Bram Stoker
“The night is chill, mein Herr, and my master the Count bade me take all care of you. There is a flask of slivovitz (the plum brandy of the country) underneath the seat, if you should require it.”
Dracula may “never drink…wine” but Jonathan Harker certainly did. In the macabre novel by Ireland’s Bram Stoker (Dublin is crawling with vampires during the city’s week-long Bram Stoker fest every October). Stoker famously never visited Romania, but he still strove to fill hapless young Harker’s journey through the Carpathians with local color. Some of that local color was golden. Golden Mediasch to be precise, a Romanian wine “which produces a queer sting on the tongue, which is, however, not disagreeable.” Harker consumes a few glasses of this wine, but it can be difficult to track down.
Easier to find is slivovitz, which the mysterious coachman offers Jonathan Harker en route to Dracula’s castle. Slivovitz is a plum brandy popular throughout eastern Europe and not entirely unlike Italian grappa. Everyone will insist that the only true slivovitz (or at least the best) is homemade. Like traveling to Castle Dracula, drinking slivovitz calls for a stout constitution. This is the brandy of the countryside. If you plan to drink it straight (noroc!), consider Rudolf Jelínek 10 Year Gold, a Czech slivovitz that spends time aging in oak barrels.
Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
“We accordingly brought him back to the deck and restored him to animation by rubbing him with brandy and forcing him to swallow a small quantity.”
In horror literature from the pre-War period, brandy is frequently applied as a constitutional restorative. It’s brandy that is given to a haggard man discovered by sailors on the ice plains of the Arctic to revive him in body and spirit. The haggard man, it is revealed, is a certain Dr. Frankenstein, a student who, when combining his scientific pursuits with his hobby for alchemy, created a living creature from the flesh of the dead. Spurned as an abomination by his own creator, this monster takes to the mountains, slowly educating itself and plotting vicious revenge against the man who cursed it with life and then cast it aside.
Such terror does indeed call for the vigorous application of brandy. Given Herr Doktor Frankenstein’s origins and the novel’s 19th-century setting, we are best served by pouring ourselves some Asbach Uralt, a rich, fruity old-fashioned brandy produced by a company founded by Hugo Asbach in 1892. Sipped neat, it’s a fine experience, but it also makes a nice cocktail.
Asbach also makes chocolate, so it seems fitting, if you are going to use Asbach Uralt in a cocktail, that it be a Brandy Alexander:
- 2 oz/60mL Asbach Uralt
- .5 oz/15 mL each of white chocolate liqueur and dark chocolate liqueur
- 1 oz/30 mL cream or half-and-half
Shake well and garnish with grated nutmeg.
Kwaidan, Lafcadio Hearn
“He was awakened by a showering of snow in his face. The door of the hut had been forced open; and, by the snow-light, he saw a woman in the room, a woman all in white. She was bending above Mosaku, and blowing her breath upon him; and her breath was like a bright white smoke. Almost in the same moment she turned to Minokichi, and stooped over him. He tried to cry out, but found that he could not utter any sound.”
Japan is replete with stories of ghosts, goblins, and yokai, and the country’s most diligent collector of such tales was actually a European named Lafcadio Hearn, who moved to Japan in 1890 to work for a newspaper but quickly found himself unemployed. He was inspired by the country, however, and eventually married into a samurai family and became a naturalized citizen, now under the name Koizumi Yakumo. He wrote several books on Japanese culture but is probably best
known as one of the country’s foremost folklorists, collecting, translating, and publishing hundreds of tales. His most famous collection, thanks to a later adaption into a film, is Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. One of the most memorable stories in both the book and the film is “Yukionna,” a story about a woodsman who is saved during a blizzard from certain death by a ghostly woman. His salvation does not come without conditions, however.
To celebrate such a chilling tale with such a snowy setting, we turn to Bar Goto of New York, where they offer the Sakura Martini: sake, gin, Maraschino liqueur (such as Luxardo), and a cherry blossom. Sakura is the first sign that you have survived the winter and spring is on the way. Just make sure you’ve told no one else the tale of the snow witch who saved your life.
Nights of the Round Table, Margery Lawrence
“Mingled with the intense religious belief in these remote islands is more than the priests suspect of the older pagan dread of and belief in all manner of demons, spirits, witches and so on, and deeply as Shelagh McCodrum longed for advice, poor woman, she’d not the courage to appeal to Father Flaherty. No, no, for the Father disapproved of any talk of sian or rosad, charm or spell…so she did not mention in confession that Sunday that she had furtively sewed up in the hem of Morag’s ragged frock a scrap of paper scribbled with all she could remember of an old runic charm against the Powers of the Sea.”
Few tales of terror are as perfectly arranged for drinking as Margery Lawrence’s collection of sinister stories told by a group of people who gather once a month to eat, drink, and relay tales of the strange and uncanny to one another over libations. And what nightmares they spin for one another across a dozen creepy tales, the best of which, “Morag-of-the-Cave,” is a classic of folk horror and the “Celtic Twilight” movement that dwelt upon the mystical past of Old Albion and was championed by writers such as W.B. Yeats. Lawrence summons up images of craggy cliffs and coastal caves populated by an ancient, unspeakable something.
One must steel oneself to face such terrors, and nothing girds you against the darkness quite like a good sherry. Or even a bad sherry, for that matter. So when you convene your own fellowship of fright to swap scary stories, serve them an Adonis. It is the Celtic Twilight, after all, and the coming and going of pagan deities is appropriate for the occasion.
- 1.5 oz/45 mL Dry Oloroso sherry
- 1.5 oz/45 mL Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
- 2 dashes orange bitters
Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice until well chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad, M.R. James
“The light was obscure, conveying an impression of gathering storm, late winter evening, and slight cold rain. On this bleak stage at first no actor was visible. Then, in the distance, a bobbing black object appeared; a moment more, and it was a man running, jumping, clambering over the groynes, and every few seconds looking eagerly back. The nearer he came the more obvious it was that he was not only anxious, but even terribly frightened…”
M.R. James is the quintessential English author of ghost stories. Taking its title from a song by the patron poet of drinkers, Robert Burns, “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad” is about an academic who discovers an old whistle amid the ruins of a Knights Templar church and unwisely gives it a toot. What happens next will make you forever wary of staying in a hotel room with two beds. Set on a remote, windswept English coast, pulling its title from Rabbie Burns, and having a bit to do with golf, it seems appropriate that a toast to this most terrifying of accounts involve a similarly salty, windswept spirit. And one can find no distillery more windswept and remote than Highland Park on the far northern island of Orkney.
One can, of course, simply enjoy a dram neat, but since M.R. James was a master of scary stories that often involved ancient religious ruins and modern theologians who always seem to blame supernatural terrors on a resurgence of Papistry, cocktail bar Death & Co.‘s Orkney Chapel, created by Jason Littrell, seems the best tribute:
- 2 oz/60 mL Highland Park 12-Year-Old Scotch
- .5 oz/15 mL Dry Vermouth
- .25 oz/7 mL Lustau Amontillado Sherry
- .25 oz/7 mL Grand Marnier
- .25 oz/7 mL Sugarcane syrup
Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice until well chilled. Strain into a chilled Martini glass. Garnish with orange twist.
The Cask of Amontillado, Edgar Allan Poe
“Thank you, my friend. I drink to the dead who lie sleeping around us.”
“And I, Fortunato — I drink to your long life.”
When it comes to toasting Poe with a Poe-appropriate drink, we are spoiled for choice. Perhaps no other author of strange fiction has as many bars and cocktails named after him and his works. But really now, if you’re going to pick one to which you can raise a glass, it must be “The Cask of Amontillado,” in which the endlessly put-upon Montresor urges insufferable braggart Fortunato into a wine cellar to sample an extremely rare cask of Amontillado sherry. One can assume the story doesn’t wrap up with the two men peacefully enjoying a glass of sherry together. Fortunato loved his Spanish Amontillado, but Poe was a son of America, so we honor him with a cocktail that combines both and comes to us from bartender Sahil Mehta of Boston tapas bar Estragon (by way of the blog cocktail virgin slut), the Edgar Allan Poe:
- 1.5 oz/45mL Applejack
- .5 oz/15mL Alvear Amontillado Sherry
- .5 oz/15 mL Frangelico
- .25 oz/7 mL Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
- .75 oz/22 mL Lemon juice
- dash Allspice dram
Shake all ingredients with ice except the Allspice Dram until well chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and add the dash of Allspice Dram.
For years, a mysterious cloaked figure known only as “The Poe Toaster” would arrive, under cover of night, by chauffeured car at Poe’s grave in Baltimore and raise a toast to the author. The identity of the Poe Toaster was never firmly established, but the spirit with which they toasted Poe was: Cognac. So it seems only fitting, as the witching hour approaches and the band starts in on “Moonlight Becomes You” that we raise one final glass before they come for us.
- 1 oz/30mL Cognac VSOP
- 2/3 oz/20 mL Amontillado Sherry
- 1/3 oz/10mL Pedro Ximinez sherry
- 1/3 oz/10mL Espresso
- 1/2 barspoonful Honey
- Dash of black walnut bitters
Shake all ingredients with ice until well chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe glass.