I considered writing the Charlie Chaplin up for Raiders of the Lost Cocktail. I decided not to in the end though. Partly I wanted to write up a drink that combined Lillet with apricot brandy, and partly I was not sure if the Charlie Chaplin qualifies as being ‘lost’. I have occasionally seen the Charlie Chaplin on bar menus. Still, the name of the drink is rather old worldly, as is the use of sloe gin, so I won’t argue with anyone who wants to label it a lost drink.
The one bar where I have drunk a Charlie Chaplin was a little Japanese place in Shanghai. This time the bar in question was not Constellation, but rather the little bar inside the Garcon Chinois restaurant on Hengshan Rd. That bar is much smaller than Constellation, and does not have nearly the same range of spirits, but the cocktails used to be very carefully and expertly made by a Japanese woman who knew exactly what she was doing.
She looked nothing like a bartender. In my experience bartenders are almost never Japanese women with greying hair and the homely dress sense of a church goer. Walking into her bar was like visiting a Japanese aunt you had only recently discovered you had. Things would begin with a friendly but slightly distanced greeting – understandable given that the pair of you had only just found out about each other. Then she would get busy behind the tiny bar. Were it not for the bottles piling up around her hands you would assume her meticulous and busily leisured movements were eventually going to produce a small batch of dumplings, or perhaps a plate of cold tofu sprinkled with chives and sesame oil. Instead, after the type of interval that builds anticipation without seeing it collapse into distraction, you would be presented with an excellent and carefully measured cocktail. It was slightly incongruous, but the results were very competent. Unfortunately I heard she has since left.
When I asked for a Charlie Chaplin she warned me that they didn’t have Gordons sloe gin (for which they relied on customers carrying bottles from Japan). She offered to substitute Bols while complaining about its bad quality and saying the taste would be too artificial. Warming to her theme she was soon lamenting that even single malts were often artificially flavored these days. I am not so sure if that is true. Regardless of that though, it is not often a bar cares enough about getting their drinks perfect that they will warn their customers before using what they feel are inferior ingredients. I had the Charlie Chaplin anyway and even with the Bols it tasted OK.
I made my own Charlie Chaplin as follows:
2 oz apricot brandy (I used Marie Brizard)
1 oz sloe gin (I used Gordons)
1 oz lime juice
Shake over ice and strain into a highball glass. The drink isn’t going to fill the glass without something extra, so consider pouring onto a couple of large rocks.
You would think that a drink comprising three parts liqueur and one part citrus juice would be extremely sweet. It is sweet, but less than expected. The slight sourness in the sloe gin boosts the lime, pushing the drink more towards fruity acidity than complete sugar bomb territory. Something about the lime and sloe gin helps the apricot brandy come across more as a fresh apricot flavor than a cloying liqueur. There is an interesting hint of almond flavor in the background as well, almost like an amaretto sour. This may not be the most exciting drink in history but it makes a nice showcase for apricot brandy, and is refreshing and neither too strong not too sweet. This is a drink that deserves to be made a little more often. The sweet and sour flavor profile also fits well with modern tastes, while the sloe gin and apricot brandy introduce a couple of ingredients not often called for in modern bars. Obviously apricot brandy is going to dominate the taste so try to use the best you can find.
Looking at the recipe I couldn’t help wondering whether it dry apricot brandy hadn’t been intended. My natural inclination to use eau de vie at every opportunity was probably at work here – I just love the stuff. So I made up another drink with an apricot eau de vie. Coincidentally I was watching a Buster Keaton movie at the time, so naturally I dubbed the new drink (if indeed it is a new drink) the Buster Keaton.
2 oz apricot eau de vie (Barrak Palinka)
1 oz sloe gin (Gordons)
1 oz lime juice
Hmm. . . This really wasn’t particularly good. In fact it seems a shame to attach the venerable name Buster Keaton to such a bad drink. I find relatively few experiences involving alcohol to actually be unpleasant, but this one ventures into dubious territory. The dry apricot brandy and lime are amicable enough companions. The sloe gin is very out of place though, and there isn’t much sugar around to smooth the rough edges. The drink is thin bodied, sour, and arguably more alcoholic than necessary – not unlike myself. You can certainly gag it down but is unlikely to be an experience you’d want to repeat. Sorry Mr. Keaton.
Well that wasn’t very pleasant but at least I think I have learned something. The Charlie Chaplin is definitely supposed to be made with a sweet apricot brandy, so get the best one you can and give it a try.