— Jenny Neill

House Cocktails: To Sip with Soup

A few weeks ago, I was on the prowl for drinks that used lime. I juiced a few too many for the meal I was making and thought, “No way can I let good citrus go to waste!” My aim was to find a libation suitable to sip with the layered flavors of Tom Yam Gai, the chicken version of a spicy soup from Southeast Asia. The one I chose has a name that might offend some.

Classic ingredients for the Oriental Cocktail

Classic ingredients for the Oriental Cocktail
Photo courtesy of Mike Russell. All rights reserved.

The recipe for The Oriental first appeared in Harry Craddock’s classic The Savoy Cocktail Book published in 1930. Supposedly, a doctor was given the recipe in exchange for saving an American’s life. The origin of the drink itself or, for that matter, where the doctor was from are very much open questions. That this (fictional?) exchange took place in the Phillipines likely lent more credibility to the bartender who first told the tale.

Might the feverish engineer’s illness been scurvy? Perhaps, though the more probable source of a high temperature would have been malaria. Could a beverage with lime juice have saved him? Not likely, even if what he suffered was an extreme case of vitamin C deficiency. That didn’t stop Limey from becoming a common nickname for British immigrants. (Experiments in the early 20th century proved that lemons were far superior to West Indies limes for scurvy prevention.)

Let’s return to the 21st century, however. The Oriental features a very American alcohol as its base: rye whiskey. Shake a shot of that up with the orange liquor of your choice, sweet vermouth, and some lime juice then serve it up in a chilled glass. (For the precision mixologists reading along, the ratio for this cocktail is 1:1/2:1/2:1/4.)

Craddock’s recipe may call for rye. I tried it with a blended scotch, which lent the resulting drink a deeper complexity, the night I made Tom Yam Gai. That extra depth meant this cocktail sang a beautiful duet with the soup, enhancing the spice from the roasted chili peppers and the pungency from the fish oil. But don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself the next time you have Thai food.