Coronado’s crowned king of cocktails

Try to find a cocktail Jose Palma doesn't know.

Jose Palma at the Hotel Del
  • Jose Palma at the Hotel Del

“Every cocktail has a story,” says Jose Palma.

And the man ought to know. He’s been creating, serving, and keeping up with cocktails for 26 years. And always here at the Hotel Del, where patrons expect their barkeeps to know every little mix from all the gin joints in all the world.

And, yes, he even knows that Casablanca cocktail, the one Humphrey Bogart’s girlfriend and her Nazi suitor drank in the movie, the French 75.

“It’s a gin, simple-syrup sweetener, and fresh-squeezed lemon-juice cocktail, topped up with champagne,” Jose says.

Here’s looking at you, kid. But “French 75”?

“The French 75 was an artillery field gun in World War One,” he says. “It packed a punch.”

Whew. So does this French 75. I’m having it with cognac instead of gin, the way they do it in New Orleans. So, technically, this is called a French 76.

Then there’s the Del’s own Manhattan. It’s what Marilyn drank in Some Like It Hot.

Manhattan is usually rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters, maraschino cherry. Always has a fruity, spicy thing going, and with those vermouth herbs and the bitters, it feels tinged with romance, loss.

Martinis? The story is the 007 one, of course: “So when should a martini be shaken, and when should it be stirred?” I ask.

“If it’s with gin, you stir, so you can release the flavor of the juniper. That’s the main ingredient. But good gins also have other flavoring plants, like coriander, nutmeg, cardamom, even cinnamon, though juniper must be the stand-out. With vodka, you just shake.”

I’m sitting here at the outside Sunset Bar, which looks across the hotel lawn to the Pacific, and, right now, into the setting sun. First off, I ordered a “French and Italian,” the cocktail my daddy used to mix up about this time of day. Jose is the only barperson I know who recognizes the name. Secret’s getting a magic balance of French (dry) and Italian (sweet) vermouths, with gin and Angostura bitters.

“So, Jose: The Roffignac?”

I’m trying to find a cocktail he doesn’t know. I looked up the Roffignac. And discovered how ancient some of these cocktails can be. Turns out we got Roffignac, thanks to Count Louis Philippe Joseph de Roffignac, who escaped the guillotine in the French Revolution and high-cocktailed it to New Orleans, where he became a beloved governor of that city. They named this libation after him. It’s basically cognac and grenadine, or raspberry syrup, topped up with soda. Brilliant red and tasty-sweet, a great summer drink.

“We can do a Roffignac,” Jose says.

Okay, the cocktail called Retreat From Moscow? It’s gin-based but built around kümmel, a slightly sweet liqueur that people have been drinking since 1575. Erven Lucas Bols (he of the Bols distillery) created it from fennel, cumin, and caraway. Oh, yes, Jose knows about it. Three parts gin, two parts kümmel, one part freshly squeezed lemon juice. No vodka! Even though it’s more popular in Russia than in the U.S. Seems Peter the Great of Russia fell in love with it in 1696 when he was in Amsterdam learning about ship design for his Navy. He took the kümmel back home. His subjects dutifully embraced it. Of course, Napoleon’s retreat, and this cocktail, came later.

But that’s what I like about cocktails. They’re so often clever takes on history. Like, just the fennel flavor of Retreat from Moscow takes me back to Laos, Vientiane, and a little outpost of empire, the French Officers’ Club. Great French food. I was a green kid, but this was where I learned to love what seemed the ultimate sophistication, pastis cocktails. Pastis has a licorice flavor that you’ve got to make yourself love (me, at least). But I wanted to partly because pastis resembled its forbidden fruit cousin, absinthe. Absinthe is the green stuff people blame for Oscar Wilde losing his mind and Van Gogh losing his ear. It’s derived from wormwood (also used in the making of vermouth, which is just the German word for “wormwood”). Pastis (Pernod, the biggest brand, has been making the stuff since 1792, a medicine back then) is flavored by star anise. Both have that licorice thing going, but absinthe’s greenish color holds the mystique. No coincidence that “happy hour” back in the day was called “the green hour.”

Whatever, it was the ceremony that entranced me: Pernod, nice and clear and yellowish in the glass, then putting the slotted spoon across the top, adding a lump of sugar, pouring in water, watching the liquid cloud up, and drinking. That sweetish licorice taste started to seduce you. They say it makes you mentally perkier. It certainly made me feel I could conquer the world.

Back home, I tried a concentrated Pernod cocktail called Asylum, which should give you superman courage. It’s basically lots of Pernod and gin, with some grenadine added. That’s it. Ouch. Short-term gain, long-term pain.

“The most popular Pernod drink we serve here is the Sazerac,” says Jose. He says it’s Pernod with rye or bourbon, a little syrup sweetener, a couple of drops of bitters, and a lemon twist.

But it turns out the Sazerac has deep roots in the whole birth of the cocktail idea. Sazerac started off when an apothecary from Haiti arrived in New Orleans in the early 1800s with his own patent stomach medicine of bitter herbs. To make them more palatable, he added a bit of brandy and would dole out doses in egg cups. “Egg cup” was “coquetier” in French. Some believe “coquetier” became “cocktail.” Soon this “cocktail” became a pleasure drink with side benefits. The Sazerac Coffee House came to be identified with it. And now, 150 years later, here’s Jose serving up pretty much the same thing, except with whiskey. It’s sweet enough, but it can still remind you of its medicine origins.

Fact is, I can’t haul out any cocktails this man doesn’t know. From the richness of Brandy Alexander (brandy, crème de cacao, heavy cream, and strawberry slices) to a simple scotch and soda. Jose even has a story for the latter.

“Remember Johnny ‘Ace’ Harris? Played the piano here, at the Prince of Wales restaurant. He had played with Duke Ellington, with Billie Holiday. A legend, even in his 80s. Every night after he’d finished up he’d come back to the bar for a nightcap. Scotch and soda. Always scotch and soda. Then one night, in 2000, he didn’t come back to the bar. I found him on the stairs, sitting. ‘No scotch?’ I asked him. ‘Not tonight,’ he said. ‘Feel a bit tired, strange.’ Then he drove home, and died in his sleep that night. Every time I make a scotch and soda I think of him. He was part of the history of this place.”

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