One sip, and you’ll be singing its praises
The Opera Cocktail was a classic in pre-Prohibition days. And no wonder—its lightness and clean, crisp flavor make it the perfect palate cleanser before a summer dinner.
We’ll be drinking it to celebrate the opening of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, a summer opera festival that runs from late May through late June. Tonight marks their second performance (Mozart’s The Magic Flute), and in June they’ll be presenting the world premiere of Gordon & Vavrek’s Twenty-Seven. More about all of this later.
Even if you can’t make it to a performance at Opera Theatre, you might want to celebrate another opening: This post marks the beginning of our Summer Sippin’ and Snarfin’ Series. And the Opera Cocktail makes an excellent opening number. It’s a celebration in a glass!
Recipe: The Opera Cocktail
This cocktail is a mixture of gin, Dubonnet, and maraschino liqueur. So if you bought some Dubonnet to make The Dubonnet Cocktail, which we discussed a few weeks ago, now you know what to do with the rest of the bottle.
Our post offers the “standard” recipe for this drink. In the Notes, I discuss a rum-based version that’s also worth your consideration.
This recipe serves 1, and takes about 5 minutes to prepare.
- 1½ ounces gin (use “London” dry gin; see Notes)
- ½ ounce Dubonnet (the rouge—red—variety)
- ¼ ounce maraschino liqueur
- dash of orange bitters (optional, but improves the drink, IMO)
- twist of orange or lemon peel, or slice of orange, as garnish (optional)
- Place the gin, Dubonnet, maraschino liqueur, and bitters (if using) in a mixing glass that is half filled with ice. Stir vigorously until the ingredients are well chilled—about 20 to 30 seconds.
- Strain the mixture into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of orange or lemon peel, or a slice of orange, if desired. Serve.
- Dubonnet is a sweet-tasting, wine-based apéritif that, like vermouth, incorporates herbal flavors. It also contains a bit of quinine, which gives it a slightly bitter tinge. In fact, Dubonnet originally was concocted to entice French legionnaires in North Africa to consume quinine, which helps combat malaria.
- Because Dubonnet has a relatively low alcoholic content (19 percent, or 38 proof), I always store it in the refrigerator after I open a bottle (to retard oxidization). Dubonnet won’t necessarily go “bad” if you don’t refrigerate it, but after a couple of months its flavor won’t be as bright.
- Maraschino liqueur is made from Marasca cherries, including the crushed cherry pits. It’s a clear liquid with a taste that’s the polar opposite of the sweet, brightly colored “maraschino” cherries you might put on ice cream or use as a cocktail garnish. This liqueur was developed at a Dominican monastery in Venetian Dalmatia during the 16th century. It wasn’t named “Maraschino” until about 200 years later, when industrial production began.
- When a cocktail recipe specifies gin, it’s usually understood these days to mean London dry gin—which is also the type most commonly found in liquor stores. Any good name-brand dry gin will work well in this drink.
- In addition to London dry, you might see Dutch or Belgian gin (sometimes called jenever or genever), which is made from malt rather than grain. There’s also Old Tom Gin, which has a sweeter taste. Both of these varieties are less common than London dry.
- Why stir this drink rather than shake it? Because the main ingredients in it are clear liquids. Shaking forms oxygen bubbles, which give drinks a somewhat cloudy appearance. That’s no problem when you’re using opaque ingredients like citrus juice, but slightly unattractive when you’re serving a drink like this one, which should be crystal clear.
- Speaking of citrus, David Embury mentions a version of this drink that substitutes white rum for gin and includes lime juice instead of maraschino. To make it, add 1½ ounces white rum, 1½ ounces Dubonnet, and ½ ounce fresh lime juice to a cocktail shaker half-filled with ice. Shake until cold (you’re shaking rather than stirring this time because of the lime juice), and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist or an orange slice. I may like this drink better than the gin version—but then I like lime, a lot.
- Is Embury’s version really a variation on the Opera Cocktail, or is it another drink entirely? Cocktail historian extraordinaire David Wondrich says the rum/Dubonnet/lime juice mix should be called a Rum Dubonnet. He also insists that the rum should be golden, not white. All of which proves once again that cocktails (and their history) can be confusing.
- So what’s Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL)? Well, it’s a small production company that presents multiple performances of four different operas each year. The setting (Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster University) is small and intimate, with dreamy acoustics. Every seat is excellent—indeed, most seats are closer to the stage than the first row at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. This year OTSL will be performing Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, Gordon & Vavrek’s Twenty-Seven, and Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites.
- OTSL performs all their operas in English—which, in the case of established works, mostly means “in translation.” This annoys some opera fanatics (such as, well, Mrs. Kitchen Riffs). But OTSL often presents newer, edgier works written in English, like this year’s Twenty-Seven. And Corigliano and Hoffman’s The Ghosts of Versailles. Not to mention John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer, which they did a few years ago (that was a real treat—one of the best performances we’ve seen anywhere, ever).
- The sheer variety and depth of what they perform, and their ability to attract young opera singers—many of whom go on to become featured performers in more prominent opera companies, like New York’s Met—make Opera Theatre of St. Louis a wonderful experience (in fact, it’s almost enough to make Mrs K R forgive them for singing everything in English.) Not surprisingly, Opera Theatre of St. Louis attracts visitors from around the world, and many of its productions are reviewed in prominent publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
- What’s the deal with the Summer Sippin’ and Snarfin’ Series? Well, for the past couple of years on Kitchen Riffs, we’ve featured the Summer Sippin’ Series (from Memorial Day through Labor Day, we’d feature a cocktail each week). We were doing two posts a week then, so the other post would generally be food related. Now that we’re doing only one post a week, we decided to modify the series to make sure we offer plenty of food recipes. So the Summer Sippin’ and Snarfin’ Series will feature many cocktails (even a couple of weeks with back-to-back cocktails; next week’s post will be a cocktail too), but we’ll also post lots of summer-appropriate recipes. That’s our idea of win-win.
“Delicious,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs, tasting her Opera Cocktail. “This puts me in an operatic mood.”
“It’s a smooth sipper,” I said.
“Hey,” said Mrs K R. “I just watched Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen again on DVD. The Ring Cycle, you know. Want a recap?”
“That’s the one with four operas, right?” I said. “And it goes on for something like 15 hours?”
“Yes, indeed,” said Mrs K R. “All of them glorious!”
“Think I’d rather hear about that opera we’ll be seeing in a couple of weeks,” I said. “You know, Twenty-Seven.”
“I don’t know much about it,” said Mrs K R. “It hasn’t been performed yet. We’ll be attending the world premiere.”
“So you don’t really know the story line?” I said.
“No, because this will be the world premiere,” said Mrs K R. “I just know it’s about Gertrude Stein and the Lost Generation of expatriates in Paris. You know, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and all. The title refers to 27 Rue de Fleurus, where she lived with Alice B. Toklas and held her salon.”
“Any idea what the music is like?”
“What part of ‘world premiere’ don’t you understand?” said Mrs K R. “It’s never been performed, so there are no recordings and no reviews. Only a very few people—mostly the composers, the performers, and the musicians—know the details.”
“Well, at least we know what this Opera Cocktail is like,” I said. “And it makes me want to sing with joy!”
“Right,” said Mrs K R.
“In fact, I’m discovering vocal ability I never knew I had,” I said, clearing my throat. “Maybe I should debut my talents.”
“Um, don’t think so,” said Mrs K R. “One world premiere is enough for me.”
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