I’ve taken a fair amount of flak over the past year or two for having the audacity to take some of the most reviled drinks in recent history and actually make them better. The Grasshopper. The Long Island Iced Tea. The Amaretto Sour. These relics from a time when the quality of a cocktail was surely superseded by its ability to hide its alcohol are now being taken seriously. The outstanding, late, food writer Josh Ozersky wrote about the Long Island earlier this year. Our bar in the basement of the Ace Hotel in Portland sells out of Grasshoppers on a nightly basis. And the Amaretto Sour can now be found on respectable cocktail menus all over the world.
But there’s one ingredient deemed so untouchable that only the bravest of cocktail bartenders dare mess with it, and that’s Blue Curaçao. Now, pretty much any quality-minded cocktail bartender you’ll talk to will tell you that Blue Curaçao is off limits for one reason, and one reason only: It’s artificially colored.
To really understand Curaçao, you have to know a thing or two about the history of the orange. Spanish settlers in the sixteenth century tried to cultivate Valencia oranges on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, and failed. The intense heat and dry climate produced oranges with little to no juice, and thick, oily peels. Not much use for juicing, but great for making a bitter orange liqueur that would eventually become known as Curaçao. The Senior Company in Curaçao was likely the first to begin adding artificial colors to their line of orange liqueurs.
We’re programmed these days to think of artificial colors being limited to the more neon areas of the spectrum, but that sort of naïveté ignores the fact that most fine single-malt Scotches contain artificial or processed coloring. Cognac is an even bigger offender of the practice. As is Armagnac. And if you pick up a $100 bottle of aged rum and don’t think it contains artificial color (and flavor!) I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.
While there is practically no end to the number of terrible drinks that employ the blue stuff, one cocktail stands out: Harry Yee’s faux tropical refresher, the Blue Hawaii. The traditional version is a menacing mixture of canned pineapple juice and sweet and sour mix, it can easily be fixed with some fresh ingredients and proper proportions.
While summer is still heaving its last gasp and you can still drink one of these things without looking completely insane, just try it. The color is beautiful and it’s a balanced cocktail when made right, it’s named after a Bing Crosby tune, and it even inspired a pretty bad Elvis Presley movie. Things could be worse, believe me.
1 oz. light rum (try Banks 5 Island Blend)
½ oz. vodka
¾ oz. pineapple syrup
¾ oz. lemon juice
¾ oz. blue curaçao
Shake ingredients with ice cubes and strain over fresh crushed ice in a tall glass. Garnish with a pineapple wedge.