left, Joe Danno, the legend; right, Crème Yvette, the defunct
by Dr. Cocktail / Ted Haigh
I was, I must admit, depressed.
Charlie, had suggested the night before that “It” might be the place for me. I was eager to give it a shot, but good ole Charlie couldn't remember the name or address of This Particular Joint.
“Old stuff, Ted,” he’d said. “He has lots of old bottles, old liqueurs, and I heard he makes some of his own. It’d be just the place for you. I think it’s on Belmont, just east of Cicero....it’s the Blood Bucket....Bucket O’ Blood....Bucket something” he said helpfully, scrawling down that information on a cocktail napkin.
In the old days, I was a constant and enthusiastic habitué of the Ambassador East, home of the Pump Room, where Sinatra held court – or relaxed – as mood dictated, when he was in Chicago. I was a fixture, and Charlie…Charlie was the most celebrated of Pump Room bartenders. Outside of Charlie, though…finding a real cocktail in Chicago in 1988 was no easy task, not even for a guy who would someday be known as Dr.Cocktail.
Now it was midnight a night later and, without exaggeration, I’d been into or past a good twenty little neighborhood bars that could’ve--but didn’t--fit the bill. In the latest incorrect venue, I disconsolately ordered a Martini. The bartender nodded, walked over to the booze selection, and stared at it for a little while. I leaned over the bar. “What are you looking for?” I asked softly.
She gazed at the liquor, and back at me. “mar-tee-nee?” she said, smiling shyly, looking for a bottle that said it on the label.
“I’ll help” I sighed wanly. I leaned over the bar. “Take that bottle of gin and....” but it was no use. There was no dry vermouth in the house – none. It might’ve been the 80s, but dammit if I’d wanted a shot of gin….
I trudged out. Not a one of them was the Bucket anything; not on the street, not in the whole Chicago phone book. I had one more bar, right smack on the corner of Belmont and Cicero. Had you been there that night 20 years ago, you might’ve seen me through the window, slumped like a disaffected refugee from an Edward Hopper painting. I was nursing a gin & tonic with my head in my hands. The bartender and owner of the place were my sole company. They looked quite ready to close, and with that, the best lead I had would snap shut, over and out, like the click of a lock tumbler at my back. I shared my lament with the two, as I had done so many times before that night as I turned to go.
“Oh,” says the owner, “you mean the Bucket O’ Suds. That’s right around the corner, three doors down, just South of Belmont on Cicero.” Charlie had transposed the streets.
I thanked them, skeptically feeling my anticipation level rise again with every step closer to the Bucket’s affirmed address. My reserved reverie was short-lived. The entire block was dark. Nothing looked remotely like a bar in business. I craned my neck and, in the gloom, grimly noted a sign; a rusty pre-neon light bulb production. It read “Bucket O’ Suds” and looked as though it hadn’t been lit in years. Below, the door and windows of the shabby building were dark, covered over with newspapers from the inside. The door was locked.
Ah, rhapsody on a windy night; the last twist of the knife. I turned away, but I paused. There was an eerie sense of motion, of illumination, hazy through a chink in the door’s yellowed news. Hesitating a moment, suddenly sober with unease, I knocked. After interminable seconds, the door creaked open a face-width. An old man peered out at me sharply.
“I’m sorry, you’re closed.” I blurted out.
“No.” he said, as though by suggesting such a thing I was challenging him.
This was going well. I regained my breath. “You were highly recommended to me by Charlie at the Pump Room,” I said. “I’m an aficionado of obscure liqueurs.”
The door swung open wide and the man’s face lit up in unison. There were late ‘50s cool jazz horns leaking out onto the sidewalk.
“Well, well. Come on in” he chuckled.
Hundreds and hundreds of old dusty bottles lined the wall on the right, continuing along the length of a sagging bar that looked to be sixty feet long. Row upon row of cobwebby translucent receptacles were packed into every possible space. Several other people sat at the bar, leaning earnestly over the uneven counter; it was a place for disciples. The old guy owned the place and his name was Joe Danno.
I was utterly beside myself. Now I looked like the subject of some saucer-eyed Keane illo. This was Ali Baba’s treasure-trove. For a time I could do nothing but squint and stare into the murky mysteries behind the bar. I wondered how long some of those bottles had been there. I wondered at their contents. I wondered what he would serve and what he would not. I was somehow certain I would taste things that, before, I had only read of... and dreamed about.
I was afraid to ask.... did he have any.... Parfait Amour? My heart pounded. Joe beamed.
“I have not only have it, I have the rare Garnier RED Parfait Amour!” he said with an almost grateful pride that suggested to me that he didn’t get too many cocktail historians in the Bucket. It was an old, oddly shaped bottle, and at that time, I had never seen another like it. Its contents were indeed red. I inspected it as he poured some out for me. My first taste of Parfait Amour brought associations of muddled fruit, marshmallows, and vanilla. I savored the liqueur and with it, the serendipity that brought me here. I grew bolder and my excitement mounted. People were beginning to notice my ill-concealed intensity.
“How about Crème Yvette; do you have any Crème Yvette?
“You know,” he said seriously, “they don’t make this stuff anymore,” as he pulled out a hidden bottle of transparent lavender liquid. Once again, he poured me a glass.
Crème Yvette was everything I had imagined it could be: delicate, ethereal. It had a floral scent and the violet flavor of pastilles. I shook my head in a sort of out-of-body experience. I viewed myself sitting there in the movie my memory was making.
At my third wish, Joe Danno furrowed his brow discouragingly. The potion that, so many years before, had first kindled my interest in the cocktails of the past was named, appropriately enough, Forbidden Fruit liqueur.
I know from books that Forbidden Fruit had been made from shaddock, honey, and brandy; that shaddock was a kind of grapefruit, that this Victorian cordial was presented in a glass orb with ornate metal filigree. You couldn’t make a Tantalus Cocktail without it (and consequently, I’d never had one.) Forbidden Fruit had ceased production years before. Its demise invalidated seventy-five years of accumulated drinks calling for it. Decades have passed since this unique American cordial last saw the inside of a glass.
“Forbidden Fruit?.... I dunno...” Joe muttered, poking around behind a bottle of nineteenth century grenadine. He then deftly pulled out the only full-sized bottle of Forbidden Fruit that I had ever seen. It was a regal orb indeed.... full of transparent golden liquid. Only from research did I know this bottle. Now I knew it personally. At this point, everyone in the bar was rooting for Joe to let me behind the bar to explore. My poker face must’ve slipped, I guess. I finished this, the first of many long wonderful nights inspecting the back bar’s wealth, at Joe’s gracious invitation, at the Bucket. My magic toy store, that’s what The Bucket o' Suds was, an enchanted portal where anything was possible. Of the Forbidden Fruit… I still can’t describe the flavor.
Eventually, Joe made me the owner of that bottle of Forbidden Fruit, just for being such a goofy illustration of boundless rapture.
I was a committed young man with a lot of quirky dreams, some including cocktails. Twenty years is a long time to hold lovingly onto a complex cocktail of wonder and memory. The road from the Bucket to this point was a maze of paths that led apart before twining back together again in a different world. The Bucket is long gone, Joe long dead. In a way, he made me the Doctor I am today.