For those of you who are familiar with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, you know exactly why there is a skull in the picture above, and you know exactly which character I’m writing about today. For those of you who did not read the play or were not necessarily fans of Hamlet’s histrionics, I’ll explain in just a few minutes. Many of Shakespeare’s tragedies deal with the concept of death, but none has a main character that ponders the subject quite as much as Hamlet does. The play opens with him having learned of his father’s death and that causes him to ask a series of hypothetical questions as to exactly what happens when we die. Will we still go to heaven if we’re murdered? Do kings get in no matter what they’ve done in their earthly lives? Is there a hierarchy in heaven that matches the social class differences we find between us here on earth? Such thoughts cause Hamlet to contemplate his own existence, captured perfectly in his famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Even though no less than nine characters die in the play, Hamlet does not necessarily find an answer until the graveyard scene in which he comes face to face with the skull of Yorick, his court jester from his childhood whom he knew and loved. It’s a pivotal moment in the play, and the point at which Hamlet is finally confronted with the reality of death, rather than with the concept of it he has been turning over and over again in his head. It is also the point at which he realizes that death places us all on an even playing field, and that it does not matter what our social status was while we were alive. Once we are are dead we are all equals.
The name of today’s cocktail comes from Hamlet’s reaction to seeing Yorick’s skull. “Let me see. (takes the skull) Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!” For the David Foster Wallace readers out there, you all know that Infinite Jest is also the title of one of his most beloved books. Hamlet is most definitely its source, and the connections between the two works are endlessly complicated, but that’ll have to be the subject of another blog post! For today’s cocktail, I decided to go with spirits that are Danish in origin since Hamlet takes place in Denmark. I used Rowhouse Spirits Nordic Akvavit, locally distilled right here in Philadelphia, as my base spirit. I combined it with some Lillet Blanc that I infused with a small amount of honey to make a kind of a mead wine, also Danish in origin. I added lime juice next, and became aware that I was working on a riff of a Last Word cocktail, so I needed one last ingredient. I decided to use something completely unexpected that would bring warmth to the drink, and would fit in with the caraway and fennel flavors in the Akvavit. To my complete surprise, Ancho Reyes Chile liqueur worked perfectly! I liked the juxtaposition of the cooler flavors in the Akvavit and the warmer ones in the Lillet and the Ancho Reyes. For me it paralleled the confrontation between Hamlet, who is very much alive, and Yorick, who is quite the opposite! Cheers everyone. Happy Wednesday!
Combine all the ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously until very cold. Double strain and pour into a chilled cocktail coupe. For the photo I used fennel seeds, but if I were intending to actually serve someone this drink I’d go with fennel fronds. Enjoy!