By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass
Shake with ice and strain into a coupe
Sprinkle cayenne over the top
Do not garnish like we did
* * *
There are two sides to everything in this world. Even killing. For every rushed, impassioned hatchet job, there’s a cold, calculated assassination. The professional killer treats his career like an art form, honing his skills and techniques much as a chef masters his craft. “The rifle is the first weapon you learn how to use, because it lets you keep your distance from the client,” Leon, The Professional tells us. “The closer you get to being a pro, the closer you can get to the client. The knife, for example, is the last thing you learn.” That being so, the razor blade must be reserved for the rare virtuosos of the trade.
Such is the case with the Eric Alperin’s Holland Razor Blade, a delicious variation on the original drink documented by Charles H. Baker. At first glance, the drink is little more than a strong Genever Sour. A closer look, however, reveals its beautiful simplicity– the larger proportion of spirit gives the cocktail a bigger alcoholic kick while the cayenne provides a surprising burst of heat.
What the Holland Razor Blade captures so perfectly is how, in an age when too many drinks overindulge in baroque whimsy, all that’s needed to demonstrate true mastery of the form are a few simple flourishes. This idea is deeply rooted in classic cocktail know-how. Back in the pre-Prohibition days, one subtle substitution could beget an entirely new category of drink. In the case of the Holland Razor Blade, the Dutch gin makes for a headier brew than the English gin most often used in a gin sour. (While Alperin’s recipe calls for Bols Genever, Anchor Distilling’s Genevieve works wonders here as well.) As noted above, the proportions change the drink’s profile both subtly and substantially, and despite what you may believe, the cayenne pinch has been with us since at least our grandparent’s time.
As for the name, it couldn’t be better, particularly for our Halloween purposes. Like the traditional Sour, the actual razor blade has been around for some time. In 1905, King Camp Gillette received a patent for his disposable ‘safety’ razor. Gillette may have saved us from accidentally slitting our throats, but he was a Johnny-Come-Lately in the world of hair removal. Our Prehistoric cousins shaved their stubble with clam shells, shark’s teeth, or sharpened pieces of flint. Apparently, a five o’clock shadow was frowned upon in the Egyptian afterlife – gold and bronze razors have been found in mummy’s tombs. It was the Greeks and Romans who developed the more familiar prototype of the aptly named ‘cut-throat’ razor, used by barbers well into the 1900’s . With its long blade and handle, it was deceptively elegant, concealing its darker potential. One miscalculation and the customer would lose more than his beard.
This is exactly what happened to the unfortunate clients of one Sweeney Todd, a barber who enshrined the straight razor in all its ghoulish glory. While most people know of this character from the Sondheim musical “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, Todd’s character was first seen in a Victorian “penny dreadful”, a serialized story published weekly in 19th century England. The dreadful, also called the penny horrible or the penny blood, was known for its rather sensationalized and often bloody tales. It’s no wonder that the audience was composed mostly of working class youth, making the dreadful the comic book of its day.
The original Sweeney story, “The String of Pearls”, simply presented him as a psychotic killer, who slashed the throats of his clients and dumped them in his basement by means of a mechanical, tipping barber’s chair. The bodies were then disposed of by his enterprising neighbor Mrs Lovett, who made them into meat pies, the most popular in the neighborhood. Todd and Lovett were exposed in a quasi-“Soylent Green” (It’s made of people!) announcement by a fellow who claimed, “Ladies and Gentlemen — I fear that what I am going to say will spoil your appetites; but the truth is beautiful at all times, and I have to state that Mrs Lovett’s pies are made of human flesh!”
Whether Sweeney Todd was a real person is much disputed, making him a sort of early Victorian urban legend, much like the proverbial razor blade in the apple. Prior to the penny dreadful story, there were numerous references to razor-wielding, food-producing sociopaths, who may have inspired Todd’s creation. In Dickens’ “Martin Chuzzlewit” (1843-1844), Tom Pinch comments that “evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many country legends as doing a lively retail business in the metropolis”. And before that, in 1824, “The Tell Tale” told of a barber/wig maker in Paris slit his customers’ throats, took their money, and then employed a nearby pastry chef to make the victims into meat pies.
Whether Sweeney and friends were real or imagined, their bloody rampages are worth contemplating while you enjoy a Holland Razor Blade and ponder the long-seated connection between the culinary arts and the “barberic” ones.
- The Myth Of Razors And Razor Blades (techdirt.com)
- Projects ” How-To’s ” Mrs. Lovett From Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (cutoutandkeep.net)
- The Shorn Identity (online.wsj.com)