Prince and the Evolution of a Concept Cocktail
What does the name “Darling Nikki” evoke in you? Is it the indignant arousal on Apollonia Kotero’s face as she watches The Kid’s electric writhing in Purple Rain? Is it Tipper Gore’s peculiar insistence that the concept of “masturbating with a magazine” is inappropriate for her 10 year-old child? Or is it simply The Purple One himself, His Royal Badness Prince Rogers Nelson, and the blistering guitar solo of “Computer Blue” giving way to the atonal sweaty thrusting of strings and keys that introduce our favorite “sex fiend”?
Now take all of that emotion, sweat, scent in the air and the first time your LP of Purple Rain started spinning in your grandma’s basement and turn it into a cocktail.
Behind the bar, ideas can come out of nowhere: The lingering taste of a cough drop mixes with the taste test of a white wine and voila, a mint melon white sangria. It comes in clumps: one day, a vodka infused with blood orange gets added to a Moscow Mule and then three shifts later a lemon-cranberry kombucha top is added to the recipe and it becomes The Cosmonaut. Or you just think of something that might be good. You grind away at it, adding ingredients, subtracting ingredients, consulting your coworkers, giving up on it, coming back to it, and giving up again until it becomes something you don’t hate.
What I like to do, using all those methods, is work from a concept. It’s a method that will almost guarantee an endless number of deeply humiliating failed recipes, but now and again, you hit one out of the park (with a little help from your friends), and you can justify pulling a drink idea out of the ether and/or your ass. What do I mean by a concept? I’ll let the craft cocktail bible Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails do the heavy lifting:
“Sometimes a new drink will be born out of a simple stroke of inspiration, be it an ingredient, a flavor combination, a song, a movie, a mood, or just about anything else. Such cocktails, created to express a unified idea, are what we call concept drinks.”
Some may find this idea daunting, but I pooh-pooh that. A concept drink is your personal expression of an idea in cocktail form. It’s your interpretation. The only way it can be wrong is if you don’t like it. Whether or not it’s up to par for bar service is another question entirely, but I have faith in you. If this all seems very abstract, don’t worry, it is. Take advantage of that.
Here’s an example mixed in with concrete.
Prince makes me think of purple and lushness. A juiciness melded with an otherworldly sensation. Like listening to When Doves Cry with headphones on, letting it vibrate your spine out to your fingertips. His sexuality was strong, but never threatening. His music made you want to FUCK but not fuck like clocking in on a Sunday night after Westworld; Prince makes you want to fuck like you know it won’t last and can’t last, so you grind and push and lick and moan like there’s nothing in existence but your bodies.
So obviously it’s a lot to consider.
Darling Nikki makes me want to start with a strong base, something clear, steely, high in alcohol. Let’s piggyback off another Bookstore Speakeasy cocktail, the Tiny Dancer, and begin with a muddled cucumber slice and Plymouth Gin. While the muddled cucumber adds the softest suggestion of a mouthfeel, Plymouth, a classic that dates back to 1793 (it’s a breed and a brand all to itself), has a blunt smoothness that insists on its 82 proof and doesn’t let you forget it. It’s a gin for bold martinis (it was Churchill’s preferred gin) made up like a world-weary working class warrior on a dressed up night out. Plymouth is like drinking perfectly smooth plate glass; harsh rivulets of alcohol riding in your mouth that level off into clarity.
Plymouth alone as a base, however, is too cold, too angry for something like a Darling Nikki. It’s supposed to be a funky time in a spinning castle, not anonymous bondage set to German industrial music in a cold meat locker. To soften the edges without tarnishing its core, the base is split 1 to 1 with Pimm’s No. 1. For those unfamiliar with Pimm’s, first of all, my condolences, and second, Pimm’s is a gin-based lightly-spiced liqueur from England. It’s technically a “fruit cup”, a British highball drink usually topped with lemonade or ginger ale, so its low proof (50) and gently dark spice made it ideal to cushion the Plymouth from the coming waves of sweet and sour in the cocktail.
Now that I have my foundation, it’s time to furnish and design. Quick, what does this make you think of? I think of changing teams, just for a second.
What I want now is purple complexity in the second layer of this cocktail. I go with three ingredients: first, Creme Yvette, a violet liqueur deep and rich in blackberry, raspberry, cassis, and other subtle flavorings. Second, Creme de Violette, the flipside to the same coin as Creme Yvette, with a highly floral nose and delicately sweet, almost medicinal taste. And thirdly, Lavender Simple Syrup, a cordial so simple and elegant, you’ll regret the entirety of your life when you didn’t have it: Take one part hot water, one part plain cane sugar, mix, then cover the surface with dried lavender. Let it brew for 10-20 minutes. Strain out the leaves. Done. Magic floral deliciousness. We go through quarts and quarts of the stuff at the Bookstore Speakeasy and people speak in tongues at the taste of it.
Now a quick recap: what we have is a lovely violet cocktail with the backbone of Plymouth Gin, the even spice of Pimm’s, the crisp sweet of muddled cucumber, the deep berry sweet of Creme Yvette, the floral shine of Creme de Violette, and a grounding flowery sweet from the Lavender Simple. Where to now?
At this juncture, the concoction is too sweet and juicy, to the point it would become overwhelming after three or four sips. What it needs is a hint of sour, a mid to upper level sweetness, and a touch of dry. For the sour, we go Lemon Juice. Easy peasy. Adding lemon to nearly any cocktail will tighten the fat and trim away any excess salivation. For the upper level sweetness, it’s a little trickier. We have several heavy hitting ingredients already so what the cocktail requires is something strong in proof, a tiny touch of the astringent, and a sweetness more along the lines of an apple, rather than a berry. Enter Art in the Age’s Rhubarb Tea, a shockingly light 80 proof liqueur that tastes like your high school combination of Arizona Tea and purloined vodka from dad’s cabinet. And finally, we finish with sparkling wine. The dry bubbly ties off the top like a little bow and no garnish is necessary (obviously, don’t shake the cocktail with the champagne in it unless you want to lose an eye).
Last consideration is the glass. I settled on a martini for a touch of elegance, but a champagne flute will suit the Darling Nikki and all that grinding you’re about to do as well.
All in all, it took several hours worth of experimentation across three shifts to complete the recipe. I had a great deal of help fleshing out the finer details and flavors, so credit for this cocktail goes as much to the Bookstore Speakeasy superstar bartender Neil Heimsoth as it does to myself. It takes a village to raise a killer drink.
The only truly important part of the process is to have fun while doing it. My favorite part of the craft cocktail creation machine is workshopping with customers on a slow Wednesday night. Who doesn’t like free drinks and contributing to something new? In an industry like ours where we thrive on hard work and creativity, the real gift isn’t in the fat checks and phone numbers written on napkins; it’s in sharing warmth and ideas between the stick.
Now drink, be merry, absorb art, look at the sky, smell the sweat in the air, feel the viscera at your fingertips, and make me a cocktail.
The Darling Nikki
1 oz Plymouth Gin
1 oz Pimm’s No. 1
0.5 oz Creme Yvette
0.5 oz Rothman & Winter Creme de Violette
0.5 oz Art in the Age Rhubarb Tea Liqueur
0.5 oz Lemon Juice
0.5 oz Lavender Simple Syrup
Muddled Cucumber Slice
Top with Sparkling Wine
Serve in Martini Glass