Rye on the Rocks
Rye on the Rocks
Yquemistry Lab: Parsing Pnin’s Punch
By Clark Moore
Pullquote: Young Yquem has all the magic of a first kiss, aged Yquem evokes…well, other firsts.
“My, what a lovely thing!” Betty Bliss exclaims, as her ogling eyes settle on Professor Pnin’s punch. In fairness, it’s unclear whether it’s the bowl she swoons over — “brilliant aquamarine glass with…swirled ribbing and lily pads”— or its contents: “a heady mixture of chilled Chateau Yquem [sic], grapefruit juice, and maraschino.” The bowl does sound lovely. But somehow, “lovely” doesn’t quite capture the exotic, outré, and over-the-top aspect of the elixir itself.
I’ve been fascinated by “Pnin’s Punch” for years, having read the recipe in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1957 novel, “Pnin”. The protagonist, Timofey Pnin, is a classic, bungling-yet-lovable, head-in-the-clouds academician. Always out of step, and invariably out of touch, his every gesture produces cringe-worthy results. Of course, in the meticulously aestheticized universe of Nabokov, no folly is accidental. Though Professor Pnin was clearly clueless as to why his concoction was so beguiling, Nabokov, the unlikely teetotaling mixologist who concocted him, was certainly not.
If you are unfamiliar with Chateau d’Yquem firsthand, you’re in good company. With price tags that begin at $250 for half-bottles and reach skyward of $100,000 for banner vintages (in 2011, a bottle of 1811 Chateau d’Yquem became the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold, fetching $117,000 at auction), this is far from everyday drinking, even for the most extravagant budgets. Ask anyone outside of Hungary’s Tokaji region, and they will tell you that Chateau d’Yquem is the world’s most compelling sweet wine. The estate is located in Sauternes in Bordeaux, France, where records show evidence of wine production as far back as the Middle Ages. Situated on the choicest site atop the region’s highest hill, production methods are laborious and exacting. The grapes — Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc — are handpicked, individually, at the peak of ripeness, and only after a certain fungus, botrytis cinerea, has settled upon them. That’s right, <after>. The botrytis is actually a good thing, helping to impart some of the wine’s distinctive characteristics.
In its youth, Chateau d’Yquem is pure honey-dripping gold, with tropical vibrancy and ethereal notes of vanilla and cream. But it only truly realizes its potential after thirty to fifty years of aging — sometimes more — taking on deeper, darker coloring along with rich, spicy, caramelized, bruléed qualities. If young Yquem has all the magic of a first kiss, aged Yquem evokes…well, other firsts. It’s difficult to go wrong either way.
Obviously, Nabokov is having a little fun with us. Nobody but his pitiable Pnin would pour such a precious potable into a pedestrian party punch. But despite the surface-level buffoonery, conceptually, as a barman, I keep returning to it. What would it be like, I wonder, to gild the lily in this way? If budget weren’t a factor, would it be worth it? And for those who are budget-minded, and not <insane>, what might provide a compelling alternative?
Leaving the Yquem aside for a moment, grapefruit and maraschino do make an excellent pairing. Perhaps the most famous meeting place for the two is in the Hemingway Daiquiri, combining white rum, grapefruit, maraschino, and lime. To be clear, by maraschino I mean maraschino liqueur, and not the Day-Glo maraschino cherries of Shirley Temple fame. This is a subtle, delicately perfumed liqueur, with an almost almondy nuttiness, made from the aromatic fruit of the Marasca cherry.
If you don’t have a speed pour on your Yquem, and you’re curious about the flavor profiles of the other players, the Hemingway is a respectable option. I’ve also had success with a variation that includes gin in place of the rum, along with Cocchi Americano — a sweet, gold, Italian aromatized wine, balanced by a bracing, quinine bitterness.
But I’m still avoiding the real questions. What would this punch, as Pnin fashioned it, actually taste like, and is it reasonable to take up the challenge? As with any cocktail, it comes down to balance and proportion. In my own attempts at approximation — using lesser wines, vermouths, and aperitifs in place of Yquem — the flavors cohere blissfully. But to avoid a cloying sweetness, it’s necessary to up the level of the grapefruit, and reduce the maraschino and wine to minor players. Even then, as I’ve often found in cocktails, a little lemon or lime tends to pick up the acidity in the grapefruit, the same way coffee subtly picks up chocolate in baked goods. And for that matter, a base spirit such as rum or gin actually serves to balance the overall sweetness most effectively.
What am I ultimately saying? As difficult as it is for the English professor in me to champion Hemingway over Nabokov, if you’re thirsting for a cocktail, Papa’s potion is your best bet. And if you have it in your budget to acquire Yquem, I’ll recommend drinking it alone. Better still, bring it down to The Red Pony — I’ll drink it there with you.