Picture Luis Buñuel during his final years in Paris, holding court at home by making drinks on the patio for his guests. The old footage begins with a classic martini: a drop of angostura and dry vermouth into a glass with ice, twirled and drained, then the English gin for another twirl before straining into a chilled glass. To the delight of the crowd, his next drink, made with gin, Carpano, and vermouth, is one of his own creations, the Buñueloni, and the boyish smirk on his face reveals one of the great passions in his life: inventing cocktails.
Drink plays a small but persistent role in his work during this period, in the 1960s and 70s when he was living as a wealthy Parisian satirizing cinematically the lives of wealthy Parisians. Of all the conventions and institutions subverted in these films—family, church, military, dinner, sex—the great European tradition of drinking manages to escape unscathed. Instead, his characters drink magnificently while delivering rather earnest critiques of the declining art of indulgence. In the brothel of Belle de Jour, for example, the patrons complain that the champagne is never served at the correct temperature. In The Phantom of Liberty, the chief of police laments the trend of playing loud music in bars. Fernando Rey’s character goes through great pains, in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, to create the perfect martini, even chastising his chauffeur for gulping it down.
“The decline of the aperitif may well be one of the most depressing phenomena of our time,” he said once, and I couldn’t agree more.
I think anyone with a Catholic upbringing will likewise have a certain reverence for bartending, from those childhood memories of the priest turning wine into blood. Even before I could speak I used to mimic this ritual, breaking the imaginary eucharist, adding the wine with a dash of holy water. As I turned through pages of Buñuel’s autobiography, My Last Sigh, I realized he did the same, and this is the religiosity which we, as lapsed Catholics, can never fully distance ourselves from: the beautiful culture which produced Chartreuse, Trappist beer, and Vin Santo.
At home, my bar is on a sideboard to the right of the kitchen counter. It dawned on me only recently that this is the exact configuration used in churches, where I served as an altar boy, bringing the priest the cruets of wine and holy water from this right hand bar cart. Sitting on the bar are a line of reused bottles stuffed with leftover herbs and fruit steeping in alcohol, sprigs of rosemary, spices, fruit peels. From time to time I’ll return to a classic like the Manhattan or Old Fashioned, but I prefer drinks created on the spot, improvised with the moment’s flavor. Capturing the ineffable is at the root of the matter, like the blessed sacrament, to create a drink greater than the sum of its parts.
Those who have been over for dinner have tasted these inventions and will remember how terrible some of them were, like the poor man’s gin of juniper berries, coriander, and lemon peel steeped for days in vodka. But I reject the idea that all drinks should be pleasant and good tasting, for it is against the ecclesiastical roots of bartending to seek only pleasure. They must instead capture something like a distant memory, a mood, a fading caprice. Bad taste resulting from carelessness is another matter.
In the spirit of Buñuel’s epic explorations of memory and the subconscious, I created a cocktail entitled Grandmother’s Pocketbook in honor of my maternal grandmother Genevieve, a devout Catholic whose purse is like a sachet of potpourri and loose peppermints.
5 drops peppermint spirits or a sprig of peppermint, slightly muddled
2 oz. gin
splash of rosewater
Stir all ingredients in ice long enough to say a Hail Mary and strain into champagne coupes. Garnish with lemon peel.