Food & Drinks

Bring Back the Gem

When Ned King was developing a tropical-themed menu for Gigantic, his Easthampton, Massachusetts, bar, he turned to a variety of sources for sun-drenched inspiration. Some of the cocktails hailed from the tiki canon, while others were tropical drinks born abroad, and the rest were original to the bar. But, with King intent on adding a pre-tiki drink to the mix, one recipe stuck out as a genuine antique, a relic of Gilded Age New York: the Gem.

Five years before the Daiquiri actually made its debut, the Daiquiri-esque Gem—a rum and Cognac sour featuring lime juice, pineapple syrup and cinnamon—was published in William Schmidt’s substantial 1891 tome, The Flowing Bowl: What and When to Drink. King asserts that, given the nature of the book, the Gem may have existed for a decade or more before its publication. “[The Flowing Bowl] is a documentation of his life’s work, and it was very much a way to express how impressive he was as a bartender,” King says, pointing to Schmidt’s healthy ego. “I mean, he called himself ‘The Only William.’”

A couple of factors drew King to the Gem. The drink’s title caught his eye right away, especially in contrast to some of the wackier, if charming, names found in Schmidt’s book, like the Brain-Duster (sherry, vermouth, absinthe), Hot Benefactor (hot rum, Chianti and lemon) and Palate Tickler (rum, molasses, lemon). Compared to these drinks, the Gem sounds “elegant and simple, which reflects the drink’s build,” says King. 

The other draw was the cocktail’s ancestry. The Gem is clearly descended from the original “flowing bowl”: punch. Its split base of aged rum and French brandy reflects a classic combination found in countless pre–Civil War punch recipes. Though the original Gem recipe calls for Santa Cruz (or St. Croix) rum—a popular style during the late 19th century—King opts for an easier-to-source Jamaican rum, specifically Appleton Signature, and calls on bar-world darling Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac for the brandy in his version.

As for the drink’s other elements, King’s spec pays homage to the original, with a few notable departures. He keeps the lime juice, of course, but ditches the small measure of sugar Schmidt called for, finding the secondary sweetener to be unnecessary. The pineapple syrup remains a central feature, and it really steals the show, pushing the Gem into overtly tropical territory while also giving the finished drink a pleasing frothiness. King prefers a pineapple gomme syrup for its heft and richness, not to mention its historical accuracy, but says a 2:1 pineapple syrup works well, too. He also skips the “slice of lemon on top” that the original recipe called for, due to the suggested garnish’s incongruity in the lime-tinged drink and the fact that it distracts from the otherwise pristine layer of foam that crowns the cocktail. 

King’s boldest addition to the recipe is a dash of Angostura bitters, which he likens to seasoning food with salt. “I knew that having a little bit of spice was going to tie the rum and the pineapple together,” he says. That spice also supports the original recipe’s dusting of cinnamon, which King maintained in his version. 

The fact that Schmidt’s original spec calls for cinnamon over the far more common nutmeg—the ultimate punch-topper—bolsters the Gem’s status as a prototypical example of pre-tiki. 

For King, the topping, pineapple syrup and punch-inspired split base made the Gem the perfect cocktail to represent the pre-tiki era on his tropical menu. Though that menu’s since been archived, the drink has landed a spot on Gigantic’s “classics” list, alongside more well-known cocktails like the Dry Martini and New York Sour

“The Gem is pre-tiki in that it’s a tropical drink without the acknowledgement of it being a tropical drink,” says King. Unlike pre-tiki cocktails experienced in situ around the globe—like the Queen’s Park Swizzle and Singapore Sling—the Gem is a testament to the influence of equatorial ingredients (acquired, it should be noted, through mass colonization and American and British imperialism across the Caribbean, Pacific and Latin America) on the Yankee bartender’s palette, and in turn, their compositions. 

The Gem may not have had a direct role in changing the course of tropical drinks, but its very existence highlights a moment in history: the start of sugar, rum, tropical fruit and spices becoming ubiquitous and relatively affordable stateside. Between its historical significance and its overall flavor profile, King is baffled as to why the drink hasn’t garnered more attention. “Maybe the Gem is overlooked because the beauty of Schmidt’s recipe isn’t immediately obvious,” he suggests. “But after a little bit of tweaking, it’s a masterpiece.”

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