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Cocktails

Bring Back the Brainstorm

March 07, 2022

Story: Al Culliton

photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

Bring Back the Brainstorm

March 07, 2022

Story: Al Culliton

photo: Lizzie Munro

In his revival of the 1917 recipe, bartender Al Sotack lets Irish whiskey shine.

Al Sotack has been championing the Brainstorm for over a decade. He began serving the Irish whiskey, dry vermouth and Bénédictine cocktail back when he was at the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company in Philadelphia, and brought it with him to Brooklyn’s Jupiter Disco, where he’s a partner, in 2016. For Sotack, the appeal is in the unexpected alchemy of three ubiquitous ingredients. “I think it’s cool that it stands up despite only being three ingredients, and three common ingredients. I mean, almost every bar on earth has a bottle of Bénédictine on the backbar, right?” 

Hugo Ensslin’s 1917 book, Recipes for Mixed Drinks—one of Sotack’s favorite bar manuals—contains the first mention of the Brainstorm (spelled Brain Storm). Ensslin’s spec calls for “1 drink” (about two ounces) of Irish whiskey and two dashes each of Bénédictine and dry vermouth, served over a cube of ice in an Old-Fashioned glass, garnished with an orange peel.

At the time of the Brainstorm’s creation, Irish whiskey was landing in a number of spirit-forward cocktails, stepping out from the shadow of its more famous Celtic cousin, Scotch. Notably, Harry Johnson’s Black Thorn combines Irish whiskey with dry vermouth, absinthe and bitters. Other stirred drinks calling on the spirit followed, among them Manhattan variations like the Tipperary and Emerald, and oddballs like a Stinger riff called the Lord’s Cocktail, which married Irish whiskey and crème de menthe, garnished with a stuffed olive. 

Brainstorm Cocktail
Recipe

Al Sotack’s Brainstorm

A pre-Prohibition Irish whiskey cocktail with dry vermouth and Bénédictine which drinks like a modified Old-Fashioned.

No longer relegated to the realm of punches and slings, bartenders began to create drinks specifically tailored to the Hibernian spirit’s distinctive profile. Sotack sees the Brainstorm as a notable example of this trend. “These guys, they used Irish [whiskey] in a specific way. It’s not the same as Scotch,” Sotack says. To him, this particular spirit requires special attention and can’t be plugged into any old whiskey-driven template. “Irish whiskey is lean and the reason that it doesn’t get used a lot in cocktails is because it gets beat up,” he says, contrasting it with rye’s dominant structure. Not so in the Brainstorm. Sotack asserts that one of the drink’s biggest assets is its ability to cater to the more delicate character of the base spirit.

Exactly where the Brainstorm fits in the canon of classics is hardly clear cut. In Jupiter Disco’s zine, which Sotack and his business partner, Maks Pazuniak, published in 2021, Sotack likens the Brainstorm to “a Bobby Burns’ weird Irish cousin.” Though both call for Bénédictine and feature ingredients that land them in the Manhattan family, the Bobby Burns traditionally calls for a classic late 19th-century structure of equal parts Scotch and sweet vermouth, with a much smaller measure of Bénédictine. Some, however, would say that the Brainstorm more closely resembles an “improved” cocktail, that is an Old-Fashioned formula made complex by multiple modifiers—in this case, dry vermouth and herbal Bénédictine bolstering the base spirit. Sotack recognizes its unique makeup as part of why the drink shines. “It’s a somewhat familiar style, but an unfamiliar formula.” 

Sotack’s recipe by and large sticks to the original ratios—but exactly what constituted a dash in 1917 is a matter of serious contention in cocktail circles. Sotack believes it would have been a substantial measure, significantly more than what’s in a dash today. He’s always made his Brainstorm with two ounces of Irish whiskey (his go-to is Jupiter Disco’s well whiskey, Paddy) and half an ounce each of dry vermouth (he favors “tight and austere” Dolin dry, which he describes as “not super oily”) and Bénédictine. In a nod to Harry Craddock’s Savoy recipe, he serves it up. Sotack’s biggest departure from the original is ditching the typical orange twist in favor of a lemon twist, expressed over the drink for added lift. 

Though Sotack thinks “balance” is an overused concept in cocktails, he finds just that in the symbiosis of the Brainstorm’s three ingredients. “Historically, they leaned on sugar content to kind of make up some of that structure [that Irish whiskey lacks], but they also went light … with dry vermouth instead of sweet vermouth,” he explains. To him, the Brainstorm’s unusual combination yields a finished cocktail that defies the typical whiskey cocktail profile. “It’s not this round, soft, warm, comfort-foody thing,” says Sotack. “It’s a more angular cocktail.”

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