I usually don’t name my cocktail after the song itself, but today is Halloween after all, and this is one of the greatest song titles ever, so I decided to make an exception. “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” was released by Blue Oyster Cult in 1976 as part of their Agents of Fortune album. It charted as high as number 12 here in the U.S. and Rolling Stone Magazine actually went on to name it Song of the Year. Prior to that, Blue Oyster Cult was exactly what their name suggested: a cult rock band whose songs gravitated towards the macabre (“Harvester of Eyes”) and the strange (“She’s as Beautiful as a Foot”). That second one is weirdly romantic depending on whose foot “she” is being compared to, but I’m still guessing that it’s not high up on the list of possible first dance songs on the website The Knot. In any event, “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” is unforgettably spooky with its eerie guitar riff, driving drums, and that haunting interlude in the middle that I was afraid to listen to alone in my room. Add to that the fact that the lyrics seemed to be about some kind of strange suicide pact with Romeo and Juliet as brand ambassadors, and you have the perfect Halloween anthem. There’s a link at the bottom of the post so that you can listen and follow along with the lyrics.
As it turns out, guitarist Donald Roeser was appalled that most people thought “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” was related in any way to suicide. Roeser had just received some unsettling health news and was pondering his own mortality when he began writing the song. He is quoted as saying, “I wrote the guitar riff, the first two lines of lyric sprung into my head, then the rest of it came as I formed a story about a love affair that transcends death. I was thinking about my wife, and that maybe we’d get together after I was gone.” He saw the word “Valentine” as a metaphor for eternal love, and Romeo and Juliet as “an example of a couple who had faith to take their love elsewhere when they weren’t permitted the freedom to love here and now… It’s basically a love song where the love transcends the actual physical existence of the partners.” His lyric “40,000 men and women everyday” was meant to refer to the number of people that die on a daily basis. It was a total guess on his part and off the mark by a considerable amount, which added more fuel to the suicide theory. The actual number is 151,600 worldwide, a statistic that I found to be staggering.
Since it is Halloween, why not spend just a few minutes talking about the Grim Reaper himself? He is neither a ghost nor some sort of deity, but rather something called a psychopomp, which is a creature or angel whose purpose is to guide souls to the place of the dead. (Ah psychopomp, I may have to add that to my list of favorite words!) He is portrayed as a terrifying figure with a hooded, skeletal face, wearing a long black robe and carrying a scythe for the purpose of reaping souls. He does not walk, but glides among us instead, never actually using his scythe, but needing only a gentle touch to do his work. He arrives in a rickety horse-drawn coach that makes terrible noise because it is filled with the stones he leaves behind when he claims his victims. Although we fear him, he is often depicted embracing a young girl who represents life, so as to remind us that he is part of the natural order of things, that life and death are always intertwined, and that we have only a short time on this earth to do our very best. Death is also the 13th card in the Tarot deck, but is often read as positive when seen in a spread because it indicates a symbolic end rather than a literal one. Whenever there is an ending, it is always followed by the possibility of a new beginning.
For today’s cocktail, I was thinking along the same lines as this past Monday’s drink. I wanted something that had a bare minimum of ingredients, yet also had presence and understated power. I decided to go with a riff on a martini with Prairie organic vodka as its base, Dolin Blanc to give it just a bit of sweetness, and Etrog liqueur from Sukkah Hill Spirits to add citrus and a hint of anise. That led me to a dash of Absinthe, which is always just a bit spooky to me, and so incredibly powerful. The end result tasted like a black licorice martini that had to be sipped slowly, giving us plenty of time to listen to Blue Oyster Cult and ponder transcendental love, life, and death on this Halloween day. Cheers everyone. Happy Wednesday and Happy Trick-or-Treating!
(Don’t Fear) the Reaper
Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass with ice and stir until very, very cold. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a skewered piece of black licorice. Enjoy!