On an operating table, his mind anesthetized blank, his rib cage butterflied, his harvested arteries set atop a stainless-steel tray like ghastly hors de oeuvres, my father not long ago had quadruple bypass surgery. He was sixty years old. The night before the operation, he and my mother ate at a restaurant in downtown Cleveland (he was a patient at the Cleveland Clinic), where he dined lightly on steamed mussels and linguini. He indulged in two glasses of Valpolicella and, after supper, a few sips from a snifter of Cognac. This represented a deviation from custom. As he paid his check he cadged from the waitress a cigarette, of a make and a model—white from filter to tip, possibly Menthol, possibly Ultra—no doubt less fulfilling than his traditional Marlboro Red. Fifteen days prior he had quit, forty-eight years after taking his first drag—two packs a day, essentially, ever since. The smoke he snuck (my mother, in the loo at the time, would never have let him get away with it) was a small indulgence, a last nod to a past perhaps no longer to be tasted. But in no way did it satisfactorily replace the two most important items of a post-supper ritual he first developed as a 25-year-old insurance salesman in Erie, Pennsylvania. In no particular order those items were A) a cigar, preferably a Montecristo No. 1, and B) a Stinger on the rocks. It is unclear which is the more significant. "If I couldn't have a cigar," my father said recently, recalling that last supper in Cleveland, "than I wasn't going to have a Stinger."
I'm certain that many of you have never heard of a Stinger, let alone tasted one, and you should not feel ashamed. An obscure after-dinner drink, 80 years past the prime of its popularity, it is enjoyed now, when enjoyed at all, not really as a digestive but almost as a kind of liquor dessert. As such, the Stinger is sometimes not even considered a "cocktail," which implies a libation to be consumed in quantity during pre-sit-down hours set aside for affected, if well-oiled, conversation. But a cocktail it certainly is and, as with all classic cocktails, the Stinger holds its singular pleasures. If the martini, piercing and astringent, is primarily consumed—at bars after work, at three in the afternoon on weekday business junkets, at parties made up of the insufferable, at ill-timed wedding receptions during frantic summer holiday weekends—to burn the anxiety of adult life quickly and decisively from the lower spinal chord, then the Stinger, decadent and ameliorative, is consumed—preferably following a meal of sizeable dimension, prix fixe, multi-coursed, large and fine enough to cause a person all at once to feel satisfied beyond want yet desirous nonetheless of one thing more—then the Stinger is consumed to prolong and heighten that experience, to keep those fine times gunning along, to delay the inevitable anti-climax of getting into the cab and heading home to bed. The medicine of the Stinger doesn't kill the germ. It's a preventative.
According to the most popular cocktail recipe books of today, a Stinger is built of three parts brandy to one part white crème de menthe. Shake, strain, pour over crushed ice into a brandy or cocktail or old-fashioned glass. Serve. Golden-brown, translucent, a well-made Stinger looks, somehow, like liquid marzipan. Sip, however, and you will not detect the faint essence of almond. Instead, a quivering of mint over the cask-wood wine-depth of brandy. Some bartenders, and some drink recipe volumes, including Playboy's Host & Bar Book, 1971, counsel an equal ratio of ingredients. This inevitably results, however, in a drink that tastes, as the uninitiated often complain, like mouthwash. Recently, at the bar of the Drake Hotel in Chicago, the keeper, a mid-50s fellow with a large capillary-burst nose, passed over a Stinger proportioned equally between brandy and menthe. Straightaway I could tell, from its weak-Lipton's shade, that his personal recipe had produced a sickly sweet confection, its value as a dental hygienic somewhat in question. I asked for a little help. He drained some Korbel into my glass, burnishing the drink like wood stain. David Wondrich, former professor of literature at St. John's University, cocktail autodidact, Esquire's resident drinks expert and self-proclaimed Stinger hobbiest, says, "It's strange. You wouldn't think so, but Stingers are easy to screw up in bars." When overly menthed, the drink to a discerning palate can seem "disgusting, syrupy." Gary Regan, British-born bartender and author of The Joy of Mixology, likes his Stingers with three ounces of brandy plus a quarter- to a half-ounce of white crème de menthe—a dry Stinger indeed. "And I like to use a dryish Cognac like Hennessy," he goes on. "If you make it that way, you know you're having a real drink. Meanwhile, the white crème de menthe makes it refreshing." Perhaps a bit of the iconoclast, Wondrich prefers Armagnac, which, he says, has "more of a funkiness to it. It's funky, and it fights against the medicinal tendencies of the crème de menthe." He describes a correctly made Stinger in this way: "The clean, fresh taste of the mint rises above the mellow roundness of the cognac without obscuring it. A very dangerous drink, though."
Dangerous, indeed. Many nights have I made Stingers for myself and a few friends, looked down at my watch sometime later, and discovered that it was five in the morning. One Stinger can easily turn into more than one and, on occasion, not that many less than six, in which case it is important not to take the next day too seriously. Something about the drink fords the paths of conversation. My father and his companions were infamous for following the Stinger along this uncertain course. Cause and effect: Gin rummy matches, dollar a point, until sunrise; unspeakable weekends in places like the Bahamas. Epic times have been related to me in which these men would mix Stingers by the pitcher. I am filled with terror and envy. In restaurants, chairs up on all the other tables, waiters powerless and impatient and hovering in corners to await the end of the tab, it often became important for my father to stoke the smithy of his words with a glass of pure brandy, which he measured as necessary into his waning Stinger of melting ice cubes and ever less menthe. I've seen him do this a hundred times, irritating whole unions of food-service personnel.
Younger men then, in their thirties and forties, my father and his friends had yet to experience their heart troubles and their joint ailments and their cancers of the varying organs. Some have since died. Others have just eased up. My father has not had a Stinger since 4 October 2003, four days before his quadruple bypass surgery. He does not know precisely when he will drink one again. "Probably a couple weeks," he said the other day in the midst of an uneven recovery at home. "I don't have any cigars here, either. I've got to stop and order some." He said this somewhat noncommittally. We were talking on the telephone. There was a pause. He apologized and suggested we carry on the conversation a little later. "I just took a pain killer," he said. "Let's wait until that kicks in."
For late-night Stinger episodes to occur outside your own home, however, you need to hit upscale restaurants, possibly a hotel bar. Popularly, the Stinger has fallen to its nadir. Rarely does even a so-called professional know what it is, and many bars do not stock one or both of the ingredients. As my father has said, "They almost have to know you're coming." Neither neighborhood taverns nor sports bars, of course, will do. Even supposedly urbane drinking places, fashionable lounges and clubs, will have a hard time summoning a Stinger. Following dinner at Mia Francesca, a popular and quite good Italian restaurant on the northside of Chicago, a friend and I tried four different bars—the restaurant's included—in attempts to order the cocktail. Looks of bewilderment met each request. One bartender even consulted a cocktail guide. She flipped to the "S"s and read for a few moments. "Huh," she said, apparently edified. She tossed the book onto the back-bar and poured us two vodka gimlets, a drink that seemed to me at that moment as vulgar as afternoon television.
At the final establishment, an unlikely sounding place called the Nissei Lounge, our bartender nodded and returned with two highball glasses filled with a nauseous murk the color of the puddles on the lot of a gasoline distribution facility following an afternoon of heavy rain. He apologized. The bar, he said, stocked only green crème de menthe. Green crème de menthe, though identical in flavor to its transparent sibling (the only additive is food coloring), induces in the drinker some kind of psychological synesthesia, resulting in a Stinger that tastes like a cross between baby aspirin and a fluoride treatment. But we thanked the bartender for his trouble, and sipped our Stingers just the same. We live lives of compromise, after all, and when the Stinger fix is in—or any fix, for that matter—a person has a way of surrendering aesthetics before anything else. Under no circumstances, in other words, do you turn away the murk. "When you're in dire straights," my father has said, with the force of parable, "you use the green crème de menthe."
Recent scholarship has determined that the modern Stinger was likely invented sometime in the first or second decade of the twentieth century, thus debunking the myth that the drink, with its palate-cleansing quality, originated during Prohibition to remedy the taste of bath-tub hooch—a myth that has become attached to many other cocktails, as well. "People were just worried about getting some whiskey down their throats. They didn't have a lot of time to be messing around mixing up cocktails," says Gary Regan, in a voice so deep and slurry one has the sense that his account of Prohibition constitutes a primary source. Perhaps the first reference to a Stinger in a widely available cocktail recipe book came in 1914, with the publication of Rawling's Book of Mixed Drinks, by Ernest Rawling, a San Francisco bartender, and Drinks, by Jacques Straub, "formerly wine steward at the Blackstone, Chicago, and the Pendennis Club, Louisville," according to the volume's author bio. Tom Bullock's The Ideal Bartender, 1917, perhaps the classic of the genre, has a recipe for a Stinger, Country Club Style. Bullock tended bar at the St. Louis Country Club, among other exclusive places around the country, and apprenticed under the man who invented the julep. Bullock's Stinger calls for "1 jigger Old Brandy," and "1 pony white Crème de Menthe," essentially the modern formulation. Something called the Judge was being consumed in the late nineteenth century, according to a recipe that appears in an 1892 volume called The Flowing Bowl, by one William Schmidt, and this cocktail is widely regarded as the Stinger's predecessor. A hyper-sweet version of its offspring, the Judge contained brandy, crème de menthe and simple syrup.
Just when the simple syrup was removed, and by whom, and the resulting mixture named a Stinger, no one knows. Nor do we know the reason behind the nomenclature. Other concoctions have, over the centuries, been referred to as "Stingers," an understandable enough name for anything alcoholic. British colonialists in nineteenth-century Malaya, for instance, used the term for a scotch-and-soda. And at one point, something called a "Stinger," with a primary ingredient of Amer Picon, a kind of Campari-like liqueur, except orange in flavor, moved across the opulent bartops of Gilded Age New York.
But the appellation stuck to none of these other drinks, and by the time Prohibition arrived, the Stinger as we now know it had reached the height of its esteem, due, really, to the libationary predilections of one man. In nineteen-teens Manhattan, Reginald Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius, scion of the fortune, among the era's most notable bon vivant, drank Stingers not just after dinner, but any chance he could. He sucked them down visibly, ostentatiously, in large amounts, at the Colony, his favorite restaurant and speakeasy, or at the famous Café des Beaux Arts. There is a school of cocktail scholarship that annoints Reginald as the Stinger's inventor, though the evidence for this is circumstantial, and probably overly romantic. But among the Vanderbilt set, smart and not like you or me, Reginald's taste quickly became the fashion. One can envision these people like characters out of early Fitzgerald standing around in tuxes and sequined dresses on the roofs of Midtown speakeasies, in their hands rocks glasses that flash golden brown, and, inside them, ice crystals that glow like jewels. In the 1930s, the ultra-exclusive Gun Club of Princeton, New Jersey, put out a cocktail guide that contained just ten recipes, the members' favorite drinks and, therefore, the only drinks worthy of their erudite attention. In the book, of course, was the Stinger. For many years an aristocratic air persisted in the nose of the cocktail.
(Thank you to David Wondrich and to Gary Regan for the historical detail presented here.)
The Stinger remained relatively popular all the way up until the 1970s, when the whole of American cocktail culture, at the hands of the then-young baby boomer generation, plunged into its bottled-water, jogging-regime abyss, casting into obscurity and nostalgia many fine cocktail institutions, not the least of which was the lunch of the three martinis. My father, born three years prior to V-Day and perhaps a little behind his own times, had his first Stinger in 1968, following the lead of a Philadelphia executive of the Traveler's Insurance Company, in town to recruit my father to the firm. Following dinner, the executive, a rather sophisticated fellow of forty or so, wearing a modishly cut suit and a dashing mustache, an echo in his carriage and his taste of Vanderbilt at the Colony, offered my father a cigar and suggested the he accompany his smoke with a Stinger on the rocks. "I had both," my father says. "And I've been having them ever since."
From probably the age of ten, I was my father's Stinger maker. This was, by far, my most important chore. Almost every weekend a meal of proper dimension would be prepared at our house. Filet of beef, rack of lamb, perhaps a cutlet or chop of veal—these were the most common entrée. And, of course, following the meal, I would be instructed to prepare a Stinger. So accustomed to the routine did we become that over the years my father stopped even saying the words "Stinger" and "son." From across the dinner table, his wine glass empty, plates cleared of food, napkins sprawled on the tabletop, his legs crossed and his coffee on the way, his eyes would meet mine and flash wickedly. Despite the obvious pattern, almost always his silent request would come to me as an annoying surprise. Why is he looking at me like that? And then a sigh of recognition, a glance at the ceiling, and up wordlessly from my comfortable spot at the table, over to the liquor cabinet, and off with my bottles to prepare the kitchen counter for my work. (This feeling, however, has not persisted, not since I came of age and starting making pairs of Stingers instead of one at a time.)
The experts recommend brandy from Cognac and crème de menthe from at least somewhere in France—Marie Brizzard and Get are the most well-regarded brands (the Get company, in fact, claims to have invented crème de menthe in the eighteenth century). Inexpensive crème de menthe, the poorly made stuff, can be far too sweet. My father, on the other hand, had a pragmatic mind. Of working-class stock, he cut the elitism of the Stinger with frugality. "I find that the cheaper the brandy the better the Stinger, except for a little splash of the good stuff," he has said. And the crème de menthe? "The cheapest you can buy." His rationale is based on the notion that for Stingers, the white ingredient serves the same function as garnish. Thus my father's cabinet almost always contained the American brandy E&J and a plastic bottle of some near nameless crème de menthe, the kind that has on its label a big green cartoon mint leaf, marijuana-like. In recent years, though, as he indicated, my father has taken to dribbling on top of his Stingers a layer of Curvoisier, of Hennessy, of something with a cork in it.
I don't quite recall my first lesson in Stinger mixology, but I do know that I worried some about screwing up the proportions. My father wanted them extremely dry, two-and-a-half parts brandy to a whisper of white crème de menthe. For the first few attempts, my naïve mind equated cocktail balance with one-to-one ratios, and I'd have to bring my father the brandy bottle so he could repair the damage. But it wasn't exactly French pastry cooking, so it didn't take long to master the things. Also, lacking the proper bar tools, we never shook our Stingers, just stirred them right in the glass. Fill three quarters full with brandy, float the menthe on top. Bingo, perfect.
The key, too, was to taste your own work, a little nip before serving, so as to sense firsthand when you had it right and when you had it wrong, the scientific method. My first draught of Stinger caused the familiar neck-shiver. It was as if I'd sipped some alien ipecac, and I wondered about the wisdom of growing up at all. But soon I became accustomed to the flavors, began even to like them, and soon I began to enjoy very much the process, the craft, of Stinger construction. Among my father's friends, who occasionally came over to our cottage on a lake in Upstate New York for a day and a night and a difficult morning, I became rather famous for my dry, carefully built Stingers. Tending bar, always a seat of power, I had a boy's pride in creation, in celebrity, in the novelty of a 12-year-old mixing drinks. It was a kid's thrilling glimpse into the life of adults, a kid's chance to participate on the fringes of that life and, in a sense, to facilitate it. With Stingers in mid-make, I was only a few steps away, now, from the dream of manhood. And, a few minutes or hours later, with Stingers in mid-drink, as I listened in on the resulting conversation and laughed at jokes I did not understand, my longing only increased.
Out of all that Stinger talk, drips of wisdom fell my way, directly and indirectly, from lecture and from eavesdrop. Late one night, at one of his favorite restaurants, my father sat across from me, man and boy. The place was empty. I was thirteen years old. Beside him the waitress placed a coffee, a Stinger. She disappeared, and my father took a sip from his glass, took a draw from his cigar. He exhaled slowly, pointing the smoke toward the ceiling. His eyes were far away and at ease with the world. I sensed philosophy on his lips. "Son," he began, his legs crossed and his body addressed to me at an angle that in my imagination now suggests an old ward healer about to divulge his secrets. "Do you know what a blow job is?" There proceeded a long and discursive discourse on sex in which, nonetheless, most of my private confusions and humiliations were laid to rest, made to seem as natural as the wind. And inevitably the thirteen-year-old moved on, entered high school, entered college and, sooner than that, began to get the jokes, just as my palate had since got the Stinger.
In making my father's Stingers, the most difficult task was the first step in the process, the preparation of the ice, about which he was quite particular. Most Stinger recipes recommend crushed ice as opposed to cubed for those who want them on the rocks. (The Stinger is sometimes, though rarely, served straight up, as it typically was pre-Prohibition, in which case it came and comes in a martini glass.) My father, however, demanded cracked ice, which bars in modern times hardly ever offer, for the ice must be cracked by hand. This causes pain. Depending on how many Stingers have been ordered, frostbite becomes a real concern. Into the palm of your hand place a cube—although if a refrigerator has produced it, it's less a cube than a crescent moon—and grasp in your other hand a soupspoon, the larger the better. With the curved back of the spoon, take aim. Thwack. Thwacked properly, the cube explodes compactly in your hand, a geology of schist and powder. Thwacked improperly and you must thwack again, escalating the hurt, your palm as pink as a Swede in a sauna. If you fear pain, and do not cup your hand enough, ice pieces will shower about the kitchen, off walls, onto the floor, over the countertops, landing and pooling. It can get messy. My mother, mostly struggling alone to contain the pans, pots, plates and glasses of the post-dinner situation, would be driven nearly insane by my Stinger making. I felt guilt.
It took me years (I'm not lying) to reach the point of ice-crack mastery; I can now splinter enough for two Stingers—around fifteen cubes per drink—in about a minute flat. To crack ice with any efficiency or aplomb, you must first master a certain wrist action, floppy, like a bunker shot. This is best achieved by holding the spoon's handle loosely between thumb and forefinger in order to generate enough club-head speed. Thwack. It is impossible to reproduce on the page the sound of spoon-metal striking ice and exploding it, but the cracking of cubes each Stinger evening at our house and the tinkling of their debris as it hit the glass bottom became to me a kind of music. It meant that it wasn't bedtime yet.