A friend (why not? To paraphrase Rjmbaud, Réginald-Jérôme de Mans est un autre) writes: “Live to be a hundred, I’ll never forget it. In a cheesy import superstore, there it stood in all ridiculousness among the rattan furniture and foreign candy: Omar Khayyam Champagne. Yes, Omar the Tentmaker, who wrote the Rubaiyat a millennium ago, who now found his name on sparkling wine instead of sparkling verse. Nor, pedants, did the wine come from the Champagne region of France… or indeed from Khayyam’s native Khorasan province, Persia. Instead, small type on the label indicated the wine was a product of Maharashtra. Maharashtra, India, 1500 miles away and two countries away from where Khayyam lived and died, Maharashtra, the place my mother hailed from, and yet no other famous personage from anywhere closer had come to mind. Tentmaker in life, winemaker in death. Of Indian champagne.”
India is a large enough place to host the right pockets of soil and climate to make decent wine, even though neither my friend nor I dared buy Omar’s bubbly. I’ve looked for it in recent years hoping to make up for decades of curiosity without finding it again. South Asia is better known for its scotch: dutiful scion of empire, India is the world’s largest whisky market and produces almost half of all the whisky in the world, tending usually to suave blends, while Pakistan itself hosts a reputable single malt distillery. However, a trip to my liquor store a few years ago turned up another surprise: a squat bottle whose crude-looking label announced itself to be Old Monk rum, India’s favorite export.
Sentimental favorite though it be, this is rather far from the sophisticated sippers of Haiti, Venezuela and Nicaragua found in nice duty-frees (alongside vintage wines that may have passed through the kitchen of the dearly deported Rudy Kurniawan. It tastes warm, sweet, and distinctly of vanilla. Who is the monk and why is he venerable? Accounts aren’t clear, although the brand suggests it was inspired by the distillate contentment of. Benedictine monks. The rum itself is not particularly old, having been introduced in the 1960s by a distillery founded by the father of one of the worst colonial murderers of the British Raj. Colonial history is usually a mixture of such superficial twee charm overlaying enraging bloodshed.
We can thank colonialism for many of our favorite cocktails, including the simple gin and tonic, intended to sling antimalarial quinine and scurvy-fighting limes to the tippler. Various more complex recipes rely on such literal fruits of the tropics as limes, sugarcane distillates like rum, and the mysterious potions of native herbs known as bitters, leavened with products of the colonial power, the myth of civilizing colonialism in microcosm. Such is the case of the Old Cuban, a complicated standby of such outposts of tradition as the Carlyle Hotel’s Bemelmans bar. Faith Middleton’s recipe evokes the South American travels of Ludwig Bemelmans himself to draw a connection to distinguished cultural lush and Cuban resident Ernest Hemingway, America’s would-be avatar who makes those hot-country connections safe, sanitized by a bit of Old World-champagne.
His noted love of cats aside, I tend to agree with Gore Vidal on Hemingway (“What other culture could have produced someone like Hemingway and not seen the joke?”). Anyway, Papa didn’t ask to be dragooned into this particular drink recipe, so I’ve made it my own without the buffer of a familiar credentialed intermediator, using Old Monk, the mint that grows wild in warm climates, and considerably more tropical bitters to cut the sweetness. And rather than the Canard-Duchêne champagne that imparts Old World élan, I’d love to be able to use that lost misnomer Omar Khayyam. In his absence, the insecurities of my reflexive postcolonial Europhilia drive me to use pink champagne, ideally Billecart-Salmon Rosé, although Mumm Cuvée Napa Brut Rosé pink sparkling wine works just as well. I’ve dubbed my riff on the recipe the Old Desi, not for late old Cuban-American Desi Arnaz, but in honor of my friend’s invisible countrymen, the Indian desis behind the portrait of the European old monk on the bottle and Omar Khayyam’s Marathi grapes.
The Old Desi, a bastard cocktail by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans:
2 oz Old Monk Indian rum
2 oz fresh lime juice
½ oz simple syrup, which you can make dissolving one part confectioner’s sugar in one part hot water
Liberal and repeated slugs of Angostura bitters
Fresh mint sprigs
Splash Billecart-Salmon Rosé pink champagne
Add the simple syrup to a shaker (if making your own, you can dissolve it together now), followed by the lime juice and a generously leafy mint sprig. Muddle gently. Fill with ice. Add the rum, then repeatedly have at the concoction with the bitters. Shake vigorously. Strain into a martini glass until ¾ full. Top with the champagne. Garnish with a mint sprig. Sip thoughtfully and wonder at what made thee.