There are moments that touch your heart. You never know when they are going to come, when something is going to slip through our carefully constructed armor to find home. I am often struck by poetry. The way you can read a few lines and be forever changed by their message. I remember having to memorize Longfellow’s “The Tide Rises and the Tide Falls” in school. How those few simple words on a page encapsulated the permanence of nature and our short journey through it. How wonderful to be so fleeting. A moment in time, never to exist again. I kind of love that. How our true beauty as individuals and a species lies in the fact that we are both ephemeral and eternal. Not only that, but we are acutely aware of how small our place in the grand scheme of things may be, how we strut and fret our poor hour upon the stage, knowing that we are only a moment in the larger story of humankind. Yet we strive to make things better, to take the music further, if just for a little while. So, with that in mind, won’t you please join me as we stand and make, the Yardbird.
That’s a pretty heavy intro for a drink named after a chicken, I get that, but stick with me. Nothing is ever as simple as it appears. This cocktail originated at Smith in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, allegedly. It’s an awesome spot, so check it out, go ahead and order a Yardbird, tell ’em Brad sent you for free perplexed look of confusion. This one is booze forward, reminiscent of a Manhattan but closer to a Monte Carlo, it could just as easily present itself as a specialty Old-Fashioned, like the Oaxacan version, only with rum. Like I said, it’s complicated.
Grab your mixing pitcher and toss in 2 ounces of rum, I chose Appleton Estate Signature to get some of that Jamaican funk in there; 1/4 ounce of artichoke based Cynar, 1/4 ounce of Amaro Montenegro, 1/4 ounce of Demerara syrup, 2 stabs of Cardamom bitters and 1 stab of Angostura. Add some ice and give it a good stir to the beat of Howling Wolf singing “Smokestack Lightnin’“. Sure, “Little Red Rooster” might be more appropriate, but Lightnin’ was covered by The YardBirds in ’65, so it’s way more meta. Besides, we already used the rooster over in The Chanticleer. The important thing here is to stir this one a lot, you want to really get a good chill and some dilution going on in there. When those cubes are nice and rounded, strain into a rocks glass, or in this case a Rauk tumbler, over a king cube, express a lime peel over the drink and pop it in as garnish.
I think I am in love. To be fair, this one has got a lot going on. The banana funk from the rum, is balanced by the bitter Cynar, and that amaro montenegro just fills in all the gaps with its amazing blend of herbal orange and vanilla and so many other things, then that cardamom hits. This drink works. If anything I might back off the demerara, it is a bit sweet for my taste. Not at first, but as the drink went on I wanted a little more bitter and less sugar. That said, I am really being nit-picky there trying to find issues, I think. It’s a damned fine drink.
So why is this one named after a chicken? I have no idea. In fact, I don’t even know that it is named for a chicken. Growing up in the South, I never heard that particular nickname until I was in college and one of my buddies invited me to his house because his mom was frying up some yardbird with mashed potatoes and peas. Doing a little research I found that “yardbird” also refers prison inmates or fresh recruits in the military who spend a lot of time drilling and doing exercises in the yard. Not seeing a lot of inspiration for the drink in those definitions, or in a connection to the B-17’s given that name in WWII. Maybe it was inspired by the band that would introduce the world to Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. I am not sure who was doing the guitar scouting for them, but that kid knew his stuff.
So, we don’t know much about this drink, as it turns out. Sure, it might have been any of those things or something completely different. Our desire for knowledge, that consuming need to know “the rest of the story” always reminds me of the incredible poetry of Ecclesiastes. There is a lot of discussion of the vanity of man and reminders of how little we will ever know and how that is ok. But the opening lines bring me back to the beginning, as the unnamed preacher closes the circle we started while observing the tides with Longfellow.
A generation goes, and a generation comes,Ecclesiastes Chapter 1, verses 4-9
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
I like that and I think I believe it for all of its Battlestar Galactica circularity. As I have explored the world through the lens of a cocktail glass, I am often surprised at just how interconnected everything is. One drink inspires another recipe and then those ingredients are recombined into something completely different. Bartenders travel the world sharing their techniques, inspiring the next generation to build upon the foundations they laid down. There is a lovely continuity to it all. Think of all the time and effort that stands behind this simple drink. A drink created to share with a friend, to have that ephemeral moment in time, together. It’s heady stuff. You can trace this need to connect and share all the way back to when the first whatever it was climbed from the muck to live on the shore. I bet if you concentrate hard enough, you can envision that moment, when it first gasped for air, fighting for a place in this new world, all so it could eventually evolve, grow legs, and move about on the surface of the planet, taking to the trees just in time to survive the rule of Yardbirdus Overachievus, known today as the dinosaurs. In those days after the big chickens were roasted by the fire from the sky, early humans would come down and learn to walk erect, go on to build a community, transition from hunting and gathering, establish agriculture and create a larger society full of scientific breakthroughs, all so its descendants could get together and have a drink while the Yardbirds played on the jukebox in the background. We owe a lot to that common ancestor for having that basic realization that you can’t drink if you live under the water. Here’s to you, oh great unrecognizable common ancestor. Stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friends; so say we all.