The Art of the Twist

"A good twist is an accoutrement to a well-lived life"

So there we were fishing in northeast Ontario. It was a guy thing—me, my brother, my bro’s two sons and his twin twelve-year-old grandsons. We had just pulled into a cove for a shore lunch on a bright June day. I grabbed a rod while my more talented kin filleted and cooked the morning’s walleyes. First cast—bam! Got me a northern.

One of the boys ran to the shore to net the pike. Not a good idea. The lure, a Rapala, has three treble hooks, and with one mighty life-affirming shake, the northern sank a hook in the soft palm of young Reid’s hand. Past the barb.

Now, that’s a problem. You can’t pull out a barbed hook without ripping up a good chunk of meat. My nephew Aaron, who’s a volunteer firefighter in Baraboo, was cool as a cucumber as he pulled out a pair of sidecutters. He calmly explained to his son that he had to push the hook all the way out, snip the barb and reverse spin the barbless hook out of his hand.

Fortunately, Aaron had packed the right tool for a hook removal. Me, I had packed my own special tool for a week in the Canadian wilderness: My prized channel cutter, French made and purchased long ago at Orange Tree. How could I possibly drink my Campari and sodas after a hard day of fishing unless I could add an expertly cut twist of organic lemon rind for flavor?

It’s safe to say that I was the only guy at Cedar Point Lodge who had packed a bottle of Campari, a flamboyantly red-orange Italian bitters not known to be favored by the fishing community. The hooting of the Eisen males, who tend to Irish whisky and LaBatt’s, did not faze me.
A good twist is an accoutrement to a well-lived life. How often have I been flummoxed by Madison bartenders who substituted a citrus wedge for my requested twist. Sacrilege! Have they no standards?

I want the aromatic oil of lemon floating on my Stoli—not the acidic bite of lemon juice or the bitterness of the white pith that resides just below the citrus rind.

A scandalous number of times I’ve ordered vodka on the rocks with a twist at Overture, Monona Terrace and Olbrich Gardens events only to receive a ho-hum citrus wedge cavalierly tossed in the glass. Even well-known bistros and bars sometimes don’t know a twist from their elbow. A kir royale without a twist of orange or lemon? Shockingly, I’ve silently endured that affront at a trendy Madison restaurant just off the Square.

Such outrages call for an investigation ... or so I told Madison Magazine editor Brennan Nardi when I snookered her into agreeing to this story. Thus followed my six weeks hanging out with bartenders and restaurateurs and calling up experts on both coasts in the name of research.

The answers came quickly: College towns like Madison are filled with clownish drinkers and uninvested bartenders dreaming of their post-doc careers. And it’s foolish of me to expect twists at big events. Those portable bars gear up for Wal-Mart-style demand by prepping
garnishes earlier in the day. The beauty of a twist, of course, is that the bartender lovingly prepares it on the spot. Banquet bartenders don’t have that luxury.

The good news I discovered is that serious cocktail bars are doing just fine downtown. Just as Slow Food has taken root in Madison, so has Slow Drinking. The kids may be sloshed to their gills on that wretched rum and coke concoction (featuring the ubiquitous lime wedge), but grownups have staked out their own turf at bars like Genna’s, The Greenbush, Samba Brazilian Grill, The Capitol ChopHouse, Restaurant Magnus, The Tornado Room, Sardine and The Old Fashioned. At these joints you can find real bartenders.

My thanks to Samba’s Bob Hemauer for demonstrating the importance of cutting the twist over the glass. “You want the essential oil to spray over the drink,” he tutored. “It’s wonderfully aromatic and adds a small bit of flavor.”

Barkeep Kristi Genna concurs: “Sometimes you don’t taste the citrus flavor—you want to smell it. That’s the critical point.”

Indeed, in the 1860s the very first American cocktail book counseled squeezing the peel while making the cocktail, says David Wondrich, the award-winning spirits historian and contributor to Esquire, Saveur and The Malt Advocate. “But then people figured out if you squeeze it in after the drink is made, you get a nice little slick of lemon oil on top that is very appetizing to the nose.”

In his marvelous book Imbibe!, Wondrich traces the use of lemon peel back to the seventeenth century and the then-ubiquitous hot alcoholic punches offered in English pubs. Lemon peel was a punch ingredient, providing a lemon flavor, he notes, “without the acidity of the juice, which is important, because hot lemon juice is unpleasant and can do a number on you.”

The twist was very much an ingredient and not a garnish. “It wasn’t there to look good,” he stresses. Americans put their own twist to the twist when cocktail making took off in the 1860s. Wondrich identifies “the classic age” lasting from 1885 to 1920. But then catastrophe! The Great Darkness descended. That would be Prohibition. The lore of the great cocktail faded away.

“A sort of game of telephone ensues for decades from half-trained bartender to half-trained bartender,” Wondrich recounts. “It winds up with people dumping in wedges and having no idea that lemon skin is actually an ingredient. People would do things for the ritual, but not for the purpose.”

Wondrich credits the Slow Food movement’s focus on quality ingredients for reviving the interest in quality cocktails. Good point. Like a homegrown tomato, a well-made drink is one of life’s pleasures. Who hasn’t tasted a perfectly mixed Manhattan or Old Fashioned and not felt a wave of satisfaction? Is there a better reward for having soldiered through a difficult day exposed to idiots, blowhards or, say, Vicki McKenna’s radio show?

Or even worse, watching my nephew Aaron cut the treble hook off my lucky Rapala and give the lure to Reid as a souvenir. Hey, what about me? Who’s replacing the best lure I brought to Canada? I got no sympathy from the other Eisen men, who thought it hilarious. I could, though, look forward to the afternoon’s Campari and soda.

Marc Eisen is a Madison-based freelance writer.

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