Bring Back the Cloister

New Orleans bartender Christina Rando updates the Chartreuse-laced sour that first debuted in 1971’s Playboy Bartender’s Guide.

The term “cloister”—religiously speaking—conjures visions of clerics secreted away in clandestine grottos, or oath-bound mystics who spend their days scratching runes onto vellum scrolls. In cocktail parlance, however, a Cloister is something altogether different—an underappreciated cocktail drawn from the pages of the most secular source text imaginable: Playboy.

The Cloister’s monastic moniker is a nod to the drink’s use of yellow Chartreuse, the ancient herbal liqueur produced by French Carthusian monks, which joins London dry gin, grapefruit and lemon juice. Despite exuding a centuries-old aura in name and composition, the Cloister is, in fact, a child of the 1970s, the same age as Winona Ryder. While a similar recipe called the Chinese Lady appears in 1937’s Café Royal Cocktail Book, it’s the 1971 version from Playboy Bartender’s Guide, written by Thomas Mario, the magazine’s longtime food-and-drink editor, that caught the eye of bartender Christina Rando.

Rando, who works at Cure in New Orleans, came across the Cloister almost a decade ago while bartending at The Franklin in her hometown of Philadelphia. “This was early in my career, and I hadn’t yet assembled a library of cocktail books, like many of my colleagues,” she recalls. A coworker loaned her a trove of research material, Mario’s work included, which she found to be “kitschy to its core.”

By modern standards, the Playboy Bartender’s Guide is dated in almost every way, its pages populated by illustrator LeRoy Neiman’s infamous “Femlins,” suggestive cartoon women who, per Rando’s observations, are decked out in “nothing but opera gloves, thigh-high stockings, and spike heels.” But Mario, the pen name of former chef Sidney Aptekar, took seriously his approach to schooling the “modern man” on the finest points of mixology, countering bawdy visuals with thorough instruction. “Familiarize yourself with the basic barman’s skills that follow,” he wrote, “and every time you pour drinks, you’ll generate among your guests the mood described superlatively by novelist Henry Fielding as ‘one universal grin.’”

“I was intrigued,” says Rando of the motivation to pull the Cloister from the dusty pages of Playboy. “I found it delightful and refreshing—not as robust as, say, a Last Word, but out of the ordinary, with an air of sophistication.” Though it includes just half an ounce of yellow Chartreuse, its honey and saffron notes remain pronounced in the finished drink. The sour elements worked for her, too. “Two types of citrus in a gin sour is something I can get behind,” says Rando.

Still, she felt Mario’s suggested spec could be improved. Today, she defers to the Cloister recipe included in Jim Meehan’s PDT Cocktail Book, published in 2011. A quarter-ounce of simple syrup is the only addition Meehan makes to the Playboy prescription, a tiny-on-paper tweak that makes a marked difference. Rando notes how effective it is at softening the citrus, without overwhelming the personalities of either spirit. “I think what makes this drink successful is the harmony between simplicity and complexity. It’s just odd enough to catch your attention,” she says.

The bartender has the real-world receipts to back it up, too. A few months ago, a guest at Cure expressed interest in trying Chartreuse for the first time but was “skeptical about diving headfirst into the unfamiliar world of herbal liqueurs,” recalls Rando. In response, she recommended a Cloister: “The guest was so happy that she ordered three more.”

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Tagged: chartreuse, d list