It was a clear day, we were on the playground, playing handball or lounging under the shelter. We had the option of watching in Mrs. Cerniglia’s room, but a bunch of us would rather be outside, besides you could always see the smoke trail going up, which was cooler than watching on TV anyway. The launches had become fairly mundane, the only reason this one was being played in a classroom was because our teacher had been involved in the program, and had a vested interest. Not us though, we were outside in our Guess jeans and Swatches, listening to Mr. Mister cassettes on the Walkman. Looking off to the north we saw the smoke trailing into the sky and then it stopped, expanded, almost like a bloom opening, at that distance. We did not get it, and went back to gossiping about who liked who and whether Dave and Maddie were finally gonna do it. A bell rang and the loudspeaker instructed us to make our way to the cafetornasium, for a special assembly, where we learned that the bloom we had seen, was the Space Shuttle Challenger being lost. In the spirit of those who went before us, won’t you please join me, as we stand and make the Explorer Martini.
Hard to believe that was 35 years ago today. Where does a lifetime go? I remember lots of weird pieces about that day, people crying, teachers trying to console and explain things to us. A bunch of the guys not really understanding why everyone was so upset. Or at least, pretending that we did not know, since we were all feeling the shock too, only we were too scared to admit any sort of weakness or empathy. I remember the jokes began almost immediately, and that I was deeply uncomfortable with some of that, but I played along. I did not want to draw the spite of the crowd down on myself. It is weird remembering those days when I was afraid to speak up. I understand, that is who I was and I was not in a particularly good place. The confidence to speak up and do the right thing, doesn’t come easy and 8th grade me was having all sorts of issues. I was a stranger in a strange land, as all preteens are. I remember kindnesses too. The girl who gave me a random hug in the hallway, not sure if it was for me or for her, but I never forgot how we made each other feel better for a moment. The way Ace called me into his office to give me an errand to run, his way of checking to make sure I was doing ok. It really is funny what sticks with you. I guess that is a pretty good argument for always being kind, when you can.
We had all grown up with the Space Shuttle as a symbol of the promise of our future. Even before Columbia launched for the first time, we had a sneak peek of the wonder to come, when something that looked suspiciously like it appeared in Moonraker with 007. This was seriously cool American know how, part of that new morning President Reagan kept telling us about. I was all for it. I had built a space shuttle model and everything. There would be a total of 135 launches between that first one in April of ’81 and the final mission in July of 2011. For over 30 years, they went up and down like clockwork, mostly without incident, but when there were issues they proved disastrous. Today in 1986, an O-ring failure led to an explosion during the launch of the Challenger, killing all on board. In an odd twist of fate, I would be back in Florida in February of 2003 when the original shuttle, Columbia would burn up on re-entry due to damage sustained during launch. Originally, the plans were to have four shuttles in the fleet: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis. After the Challenger disaster, Endeavour was built as a replacement. There were other notable models, Enterprise was created to test the flight characteristics in atmosphere and though it never went to orbit, it flew five missions launched from the back of a specially constructed Boeing 747-100. There were three other full scale mockups built for testing purposes, Inspiration, America and Independence. Actually, Independence was originally named Explorer before it was relocated to Houston, placed atop the 747-100 carrier and rechristened, which bring us to today’s drink.
Let’s get something very important out of the way, the Explorer Martini is not a martini, in the same way that the Explorer Shuttle was not a shuttle. Sure they both look like the things they claim to be, but they do not qualify, functionally. I actually kind of hate this whole category of drinks that are not remotely martini’s but have the name because they are served in the traditional martini glass, which is not even called a martini glass. Seriously, that triangular shape that comes to mind immediately when I say martini, that’s a cocktail glass. Look it up. So, this one should probably be called an Explorer Cocktail, but that’s not how it was written down. Now that we have established what this drink is not, let’s see what it is. It’s actually closer to a Manhattan than a martini and looking for history did not turn up many clues. The closest thing is a drink by this name but made with cream sherry served at Sandals in Barbados and I’ve got no truck with that. Let’s make the thing and see how we feel about it afterwards.
This is an equal parts cocktail so grab a mixing pitcher and pop in 1 1/2 ounce each of blended Scotch, I chose Dewar’s; Amaretto, I went with DiSaronno and sherry, I chose a dry because it was handy. Since sherries can vary widely, your choice here is going to make a big difference in your finished product. Try it with cream or fino or an amontillado, you do you. Add ice and give it a good stir to the sounds of 1986, something like Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings“. When well mixed, strain into a cocktail glass, if you wish to maintain this martini lie, and garnish with a luxardo cherry on a pick and maybe a Matchbox shuttle, if you have one handy.
It’s all right. I am not raving about this new sensation but I am not having any Explorer regret. The scotch and amaretto thing is kind of surprising, glad I went with a drier sherry to balance the sweetness. It kind of grew on me as I sipped, nothing wrong with this one at all. The wife, on the other hand, loved it. Which surprised me. The sherry definitely shines through and balances the amaretto nicely, the scotch almost disappears entirely in the flavor profile, but it’s providing a base you’d miss if it were gone. So, ok I was wrong. It’s a good drink, but it’s not a martini.
As much as I recall the day, I also remember watching the president that evening, speaking to us all. It was about the time I decided I liked President Reagan. I connected with the way he spoke to us, especially the message, specifically to us, the children who watched the disaster, “sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.“ I was less cynical then, but those words still ring true. The courage of those pathfinders who lead us into the future is immeasurable. So raise your glass this evening in honor of those explorers who light the way for the rest of us and especially to the Challenger Seven who waved goodbye 35 years ago as they “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.” Stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friends.