Another week, another Terribleminds Flash Fiction Challenge completed. I’m planning to post other things this year, really I am, but so far these have been too fun to resist. Take this week’s: a story coupled with a drink, title and all. The timing really couldn’t have been better. A short while ago I got a bottle of Creme de Cassis, and was looking for recipes I could use it in. In searching I came across Jeffrey Morganthaler’s very tasty recipe, called Bourbon Renewal in it’s regular form. I decided to tweak it, re-title it “Never Talk to Strangers,” and build a story with that title to fit the challenge. The story’s below. It’s a meeting at a bar, with a tasty drink helping break the ice. The recipe follows, hopefully you’ll find it – and the story – delicious.
Never Talk to Strangers
The Preston was busy, but not full, when Molly walked in. The vibrant, upscale room was alive with potential. She looked out over the crowd, and considered mingling for less than a minute before her nerves wavered and she resigned herself to an open space at the far corner of the bar.
“I’d like a Manhattan, please.” One quick drink, then she’d put her new black cocktail dress to full effect.
The bartender nodded and reached for his shaker, when a blonde woman in an elegant red dress spoke up. “Hold up, Tom. She’s not ready to order just yet.”
He shrugged and, before Molly could protest, moved to take another order.
Molly turned, annoyed at the woman’s rudeness. “What? No, wait – this is a move, right? This is your thing?”
“My ‘thing?’” Molly’s sarcastic half smile was returned warmly.
“You see a girl alone, and get your buddy to hold off on her drink. So what’s the follow up? ‘Have we met?’ Maybe ‘what’s your sign?’”
The blonde laughed, a charming, crystalline sound radiating from ruby lips. “I’m Laura. I just stopped you because that Manhattan you nearly ordered would’ve been a mistake.”
“Really.” Despite the dry tone of Molly’s voice, curiosity had gotten the better of her, along with a growing interest in this attractive – if forward – woman. She sat down beside her, turned to lean on the bar, and waited for a fuller explanation.
Laura continued. “You’re too experienced a drinker to settle for what I guarantee is going to be a substandard cocktail – no offense to Tom, who’s very good at his job.”
“I’m sure you’d know if he was, but I’m not convinced. What makes you so certain I’d be let down?”
Laura smiled at the challenge before launching into an explanation. “First off, I’m just guessing about your taste in cocktails, but most of the women who frequent this bar tend to be vodka drinkers, more of the Cosmo set? They prefer their alcohol hidden, which is a tragic thing to do to rye or bourbon. Plus, you knew what you wanted right off the bat so I guessed you order Manhattans out of habit.”
Molly arched an eyebrow. “I’ll give you clever, but that doesn’t explain my impending disappointment.”
“They ran out of Carpano Antica just before you came in, and the other sweet vermouth they use here is weak sauce. I was getting ready to leave, but I saw you and changed my mind. Anyway, don’t you get tired of the same old? Isn’t the crowd here disappointment enough for one night?” As Laura spoke, she leaned in conspiratorially.
Molly leaned in closer as well. “So, that’s your line? I just got here, so I’m not ready to say everyone in the place is a lost cause quite yet, but why should I suppose you’d be any better?” It was meant to be a playful question, but didn’t come out that way.
Laura blinked, and some of the warmth went out of the air between them. “Okay, I get it. Friendly conversation disagrees with you. Let me buy your drink and then I’ll get out of here, okay?”
“Wait, I’m sorry, that wasn’t nice.” Molly set a hand on Laura’s, and told herself it was only to stop her flagging down the bartender, not to keep her from leaving. “I’m trying not to show it, but it took some bucking up on my part to even come in here tonight and I guess that’s put me on edge. A drink would probably do me good, and I’m curious about what you were going to recommend.”
Laura looked at Molly’s delicate, warm hand on hers and, after a moment, smiled. “Well, if you’re truly interested. What I’m suggesting is a clever variation, and not too far from the drink you ordered. But it’s worth it if you’d like to give it a try.”
The warmth of their conversation restored, Molly relaxed and tried out her “playful” tone again. “I guess it depends on what you’re talking about.”
“Well, you’re comfortable with whiskey, so let’s keep the rye the same. We’ll still include bitters, but orange instead of angostura.”
“Those aren’t impressive changes. I thought you were offering something to surprise me?”
“We’re just getting started. When we replace the Carpano things get more interesting. .”
“But they’re already replacing that. Subbing in cheap vermouth, you said.”
“If we were just making a Manhattan, we’d go with that, and take our chances, right? It’d mostly be the same drink, but that only works when you’ve got quality ingredients. With good vermouth and rye, you’d get something deserving of the setting and present company. But in this case something downmarket’s hiding in there instead. The problem is that the expectation diminishes the overall experience. You’re hoping for the good stuff, and what you end up with leaves a bad taste. So let’s take the threat of cheap vermouth out of the equation entirely.”
“What about switching to dry?”
Laura shook her head, never breaking contact with Molly’s soft green eyes. “Nothing wrong with a Brooklyn, but it’s hardly a Manhattan, is it? In any case it’s the same problem. Regardless if it’s dry or sweet, vermouth can be wonderful or awful. The brand matters, and coming to a nice place like this you’d be right to expect wonderful. Anything else disappoints. Use a different liqueur you’re less familiar with…say Creme de Cassis…and you’ve got no preconceptions. Right? Unless you frequently dabble in Kirs, the flavor would be a surprise.”
“I suppose it would, but changing a familiar taste for something you’ve never tried before hardly seems inviting on its own.” Suddenly aware that her hand was still on Laura’s, Molly moved to push a lock of hair behind her ear.
If she was disappointed by that move, Laura hid it well. “Perhaps, but that’s why you don’t stop there. You back it with a kiss of lemon, and a hint of honey syrup, to punch up the tart and the sweet. And you increase the rye a bit for a stronger kick.”
“Hmm. And what do you call it?”
Laura paused, as if in consideration. “‘Never Talk to Strangers.’ I know it sounds more like a motto than a cocktail, but it’s really the truth, if you think about it.”
“Because you never should?”
“Because you never do. You never talk to strangers because, really, every stranger is only unknown until they’re not. In the same way you never really know someone, even if you’ve been acquainted for a time. After all, weren’t we perfect strangers when I stopped your order? I don’t even know your name, but that hasn’t stopped us talking. I’d go so far as to say there’s a rapport here, an ease of conversation that has potential, don’t you think?”
Laura continued. “You’re used to a Manhattan. You’re willing to trust its rusty red hue even if it disappoints when cheap booze is slipped in unawares. This cocktail’s more honest about its difference from the expected. That rusty red is now the purple of a tender bruise. If you tried it, say out of curiosity …or possibly even trust in the person recommending it …I assure you you’d find it warm and familiar, even though it’s completely new.”
To resist returning her hand to Laura’s, Molly brushed her fingers across the delicate silver chain around her neck. “I like that. It suggests a little more bravery on both our parts than I’m sure is justified, but I like it. I’m Molly, by the way. And perhaps you’re right, perhaps there is potential. I just wonder if you’d mind explaining something else first?”
“Well, Molly, I suppose that depends on the question?” The purr of her voice was a coy response to an equally flirtatious question.
Molly looked briefly away, towards the crowd she’d nearly forgotten occupied the room, before deciding no one out there was more important than the fascinating blonde next to her, or the last question she needed answered. “I’m wondering how you knew I’d be interested.”
“Well, I saw you walk in, beautifully dressed for a night out. I saw you scan the same room I did when I came in earlier, and note the paucity of singles. I saw you start towards the bar, where the only open space doesn’t have a very good view of the door.”
“If it doesn’t have a good view, how’d you see me come in?”
“Well, to confess, I wasn’t here when I noticed you. I moved when I saw you decide to stay.”
“So all that told you I’d be interested?”
“It gave me the courage to stop you ordering. I wasn’t sure of anything else until you sat down.”
A moment later, Tom brought two crystal glasses of the much discussed cocktail. A flush touched Molly’s cheeks as she took up the offered glass. “Wait, we should toast this.”
“You always toast the first time you try a new drink?”
She nodded. “I like to toast beginnings, for luck. In the hopes they linger.”
Laura smiled, and took her own glass. “I think I’ve monopolized the floor enough for now. Maybe you have one in mind?”
As they raised their glasses, Molly said, “To perfect strangers; may they soon be strangers no more.”
Recipe for Never Talk to Strangers
2.5 oz Rye Whiskey (ideally Bulleit)
.5 oz Fresh Squeezed Lemon Juice
.5 oz Honey Syrup (see below)
.5 oz Creme de Cassis
Couple of dashes of orange bitters (angostura will work if you have those instead)
To make the honey syrup, combine equal parts good honey and water by first warming the honey in a saucepan, then stirring in the water. Let it cool some before using. I’d recommend making extra and using it in place of simple syrup, a good clover or blueberry honey syrup adds an extra dimension to cocktails.
Add the lemon juice, syrup, Creme de Cassis, rye, and orange bitters to an ice filled cocktail shaker and stir vigorously to combine ingredients thoroughly. Can be shaken if preferred, in which case shake until the shaker is cold enough it hurts your hand a little.
Strain over fresh ice in an old fashioned glass (or serve neat in a chilled martini glass). If you’re into garnishes, a twist of lemon would serve nicely. Makes one drink so I’d encourage you to double everything and share.