The Robert Johnson Swizzle

Try this at home!

When this blog was still but an emptyish Google docs folder, my webmaster/husband, at one point needing to throw some dummy text into WordPress, cut and pasted a few grafs from a paper he’d presented at McGill University in March. He studies musicology, so next to a photo of the Autumn in New York, it read:

“The modern conception of the blues has come to be associated with two essential elements; a strict formal construction of twelve bars in common time divided into three four-bar phrases, and a cyclical repetition of that construct featuring melodic, textural and timbral variation. Blah, blah, blah.” [Ed. note: “Blah, blah, blah” mine.]

We joked about how awesomely trippy it'd be to just make the blog nothing but photos of cocktails juxtaposed with chunks of musicological academia, and leave it up to the reader (of which there’d surely be even fewer than there are now; bless you (plural?) all!) to divine what the hell it all meant. There is one drink, however, which would’ve let the two appropriately coalesce: the Robert Johnson Swizzle, a cocktail invented at my own, personal Valhalla, Death & Co., and named after the father* of the Delta blues.

Defined by their combination of liquor, liqueur, fruit juice and crushed ice, their mixing via swizzle stick and their likeliness of being served in conical, Pilsner glass-like glassware (all the better to make use of the swizzle stick’s length), swizzles fall under the (cocktail) umbrella of tiki drinks, but the Robert Johnson strikes me as one that can easily be enjoyed year-round. It's got port, which adds a palpable lick of curled-up-by-the-fireplace-ness, and overall the drink feels substantive and hefty, a little darker than typical cabana froth.

The ingredients listed here are fudged slightly from Death & Co.'s recipe, while the measurements are what I came up with to best replicate the cantaloupy color and tongue-fuzzying tartness of the original.

The Robert Johnson Swizzle

(adapted from Death & Co.)

1 1/4 ounces Buffalo Trace bourbon

3/4 ounces Otima 10 Year Tawny Port

3/4 ounces lemon juice

1/2 ounce vanilla syrup

3 or 4 dashes Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters

2 or 3 dashes Peychaud's bitters

Crushed ice

Lemon twist, to garnish

Fill cocktail shaker with cubed ice. Pour in all liquid ingredients and shake vigorously. Fill a glass (a Pilsner recommended) with crushed ice; strain contents of shaker over crushed ice into glass. Insert swizzle stick into glass, and "swizzle" vigorously by twisting the top of the swizzle stick fast between your palms, a la Mister Miyagi healing Daniel's leg. Garnish with lemon twist.

Tasting Notes:

Death & Co. employs Evan Williams Single Barrel bourbon for this drink. I used Buffalo Trace because, as I've mentioned before, it's pretty much our go-to bourbon around here. I did use Death & Co.'s chosen brand of port (by blind luck, I happened to pick that one out at the liquor store). Death & Co.'s menu doesn't note which brand of whiskey barrel-aged bitters the bar uses, however, I gotta believe it's Fee Brothers, which has pretty much become the industry standard.

We crushed our ice by hand -- wrapped in a kitchen towel, bludgeoned by a muddler -- which does the job but doesn't yield those puckish, featherweight ice nuggets (seen here forming a lovely summit) that you can get from a high-tech gizmo or even from a hand-cranked ice crusher. (Get a vintage one!)

More importantly, I tried this cocktail served regular on-the-rocks style, and it was not good! Or maybe it was too much of a good thing, but either way, the cocktail clearly needed the copious ice, the way it only allows for tiny sips at a time, to temper the otherwise outsized flavors.

Sean made the vanilla syrup using plain, old vanilla extract (actually, it's whiskey barrel-aged vanilla extract; sorry, we're just like that around here), sugar and water. He says a Google search of "vanilla syrup" will net you a perfectly fine how-to.

Death & Co.'s swizzle sticks are these nifty, wooden sinews with prongs sticking out the bottom end, which are meant to really agitate the liquid and bear a resemblance to Tinker Toys. Our closest at-home approximation were the Lorre family's heirloom iced tea straws. They are awfully neat, and I love the tactile sensation of drinking through a metal straw. (I'll get a pic up of them soon.) Because we don't have proper swizzle sticks, I decided to first shake the cocktail and then swizzle it in the glass.

*Robert Johnson, my husband has told me, was the Kurt Cobain of the Depression-era South: a guitarist of preternatural talent now renowned for his breathtakingly self-destructive life choices as much as his singular contributions to, if not whole creation of, an entirely distinct musical genre -- in Robert Johnson's case, the blues. He died at age 27 from causes unknown (there's some controversy as to whether or not he was poisoned, and if so, by which of his many enemies). Eric Clapton considers him to have been the most important blues musician of all time. I have no idea what any of this has to do with a swizzle drink.

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