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Chris Amirault

Cocktail Historiography

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Elsewhere in the Cocktail forum, we've seen little flareups concerning the original details of this drink or that recipe. While those particular discussions can be fascinating, this topic is devoted not to those sorts of donnybrooks but to the methods of researching and writing cocktail history.

We have, of course, several well-known cocktail historians among the Society's membership, and from the looks of things, we have a fair number of amateurs who have well-thumbed Savoys atop their armchair's nearest table. So here are a few questions to get us started:

  • What are the guiding questions in your research?
  • What are your research methods? Where and how do you do that research?
  • What primary and secondary sources do you rely on most heavily? Are there documentation sources (such as research libraries) that are particularly valuable?
  • How do you know when you've identified sufficient support for a claim? Just as importantly, what process do you use to identify an illegitimate claim?
  • How do the descriptions of the characteristics of particular drinks affect your understanding of how we would now make those drinks today, with (in many cases) radically different ingredients?
  • Finally, are there examples of cocktail historians who have done it perfectly? What makes their methods so admirable?

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Elsewhere in the Cocktail forum, we've seen little flareups concerning the original details of this drink or that recipe. While those particular discussions can be fascinating, this topic is devoted not to those sorts of donnybrooks but to the methods of researching and writing cocktail history.

We have, of course, several well-known cocktail historians among the Society's membership, and from the looks of things, we have a fair number of amateurs who have well-thumbed Savoys atop their armchair's nearest table. So here are a few questions to get us started:

  • What are the guiding questions in your research?
  • What are your research methods? Where and how do you do that research?
  • What primary and secondary sources do you rely on most heavily? Are there documentation sources (such as research libraries) that are particularly valuable?
  • How do you know when you've identified sufficient support for a claim? Just as importantly, what process do you use to identify an illegitimate claim?
  • How do the descriptions of the characteristics of particular drinks affect your understanding of how we would now make those drinks today, with (in many cases) radically different ingredients?
  • Finally, are there examples of cocktail historians who have done it perfectly? What makes their methods so admirable?

Hi there:

I'm up to my ears at present, so can't add an awful lot. The research thing has gotten way better and way worse, because of the internet. It's far easier now to find information on the web, but there's so much mis-information out there, too.

Wondrich is probably the best researcher we have on these boards, and he will probably add his two-cents (which is just as well cos trying to get 2 cents out of him to pay for a drink is nigh-on impossible

:wink:)

I've found social history books to yield some good stuff, but you do an awful lot of reading to find very few facts. Some books, though, will contain tid-bits that were written at the time of a cocktail's appearance, and give better clues that we get from other places.

The following is taken from a piece I wrote for Cheers magazine:

"The story I find most plausible about the creation of the Manhattan, though, lies within the pages of a book called Valentine’s Manual: 1923, wherein William F. Mulhall, a bartender who plied his trade at New York’s Hoffman House in the 1880s, wrote this: “The Manhattan cocktail was invented by a man named Black who kept a place ten doors below Houston Street on Broadway in the [eighteen] sixties—probably the most famous drink in the world in its time.” In its time? The darned thing is still going real strong in 2005, nearly 150 years after “its time” in the 1860s. Why do I believe this story? It’s the only one I’ve heard that mentions a person, a place, and a period of time that makes sense. Plus the story was written by a bartender and we all know that bartenders never lie . . . "

Hope this helps. I've taken to letting Wondrich do the research, then stealing it from him. Not a bad ploy . . .

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[*] What are the guiding questions in your research?

1) Earliest Citation.

2) Original recipe, if available.

3) How the recipe has changed over time.

[*] What are your research methods? Where and how do you do that research?

1) Newspaperarchive.com

2) books.google.com

3) Asking other people.

4) Local Library (though this is a very limited resource).

5) Modern Cocktail Books (though these are a last resort).

[*] What primary and secondary sources do you rely on most heavily? Are there documentation sources (such as research libraries) that are particularly valuable?

For earliest citation, it is the books or the newspapers.

[*] How do you know when you've identified sufficient support for a claim? Just as importantly, what process do you use to identify an illegitimate claim?

If the earliest citation comes before someones claim, then I eliminate them. I also like to trace the creation stories found on the internet, and then find where they first appeared. Sometimes a popular myth can be traced back to just one newspaper article.

To identify whether I have sufficient support for a claim is down to personal judgement; Would I be able to convince a layperson of the facts? etc.

[*] How do the descriptions of the characteristics of particular drinks affect your understanding of how we would now make those drinks today, with (in many cases) radically different ingredients?

The recipes used today to make the Classics are usually just someones personal preference, and usually have nothing to do with being historically accurate. And why should people drink cocktails just because they are historically accurate? They shouldn't. The problem is that people want to illustrate their books and cocktail menus with "facts", but do not want to verify them first. They want to be associated with history, but do not want to do the legwork. I would prefer to see cocktail menus full of delicious drinks, rather than incorrect historical facts.

Cocktails are a culinary art, so they should be defined by the taste-buds of those drinking them, rather than by historical citations etc.

You could ask then, "is there a point in researching historical facts about cocktails, if you are saying that the taste-buds should define the art?". Well I would say that historical facts are very interesting, and may lead to a better understanding of what cocktails can be, but it is down to taste, and dusty old books can't be a substitute for taste sensations.

[*] Finally, are there examples of cocktail historians who have done it perfectly? What makes their methods so admirable?

If I were to mention one person, then it would have to be David Wondrich; The guy researches the drink, the building, the town, anything in anyway connected to the drink, no matter how remote. Covering all the angles is a concise way of putting it.

Ted Haigh is a close second (Sorry Doc).

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See, the reason I won't buy Gary a drink is so that nobody can say that he's only saying nice things about me since I keep him in Pink Squirrels (well, that and the incident in Petaluma, but I swore not to talk about that).

But seriously, thanks, Gary--coming from you the kind words mean a lot! Still no P.S., though.

And thanks, George, as well--we have our disagreements, but they are at least informed ones.

I, too, am under the gun here and don't have the time to get into this topic--and thank you, Chris, for starting it (is this sounding tlike the Oscars yet?)--with both feet right now, but I would like to add a couple of quick observations.

I think much of the contentiousness in this little subcategory of historiography is due to a clash of cultures, the old, book-based social history approach and the new, machine-aided internet one.

It used to be, to say anything intelligent about the history of any particular cocktail, or of cocktails in general, you'd have to amass a respectable heap of scarce old bar books, compare the recipes they contained and any nuggets of anecdote, and attempt to come to some kind of judgment as to which was the most authentic and reliable (that's not necessarily the first one published). To make this judgment, you had to read a good deal of social history--travel books, biographies, memoirs, historical monographs, novels, etc. And, as Gary rightly observes (from bitter experience), you'd have to do a whole lot of reading for only a few little nuggets.

Then came the database revolution. Now, you suddenly can quickly search old newspapers and magazines (which, being unindexed, at least as regarding things like cocktails, and on microfilm, used to be the ultimate haystack), as well as a whole lot of books that it would have taken you months to wade through. A lot of those insights painstakingly gained by the social history/bar books method can be exploded in half an hour's Googling (or equivalent in newspaperarchive, etc.).

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. The first one misses a lot, and has a tendency to be wrong on specific facts. But reading all those sources (rather than Googling through them) tends to fit one out with an excellent feel for the period studied, and provides a good deal of context. If you're lucky, this occasionally gives you a little bit of historical judgment.

The second one is excellent at amassing facts, but it's not so good at creating a feel for the age; it might tell you when a drink (or whatever--these issues are applicable to many another historical field) was popular, but not necessarily why.

Personally, I try to combine both, although my sympathy is probably with the first. This means, of course, that it takes me twice as long to finish anything....

The people I admire in the field, if it is a field, tend to be the ones who surround their facts with a framework of insight (and good writing); Gary Regan, William Grimes, Ted Haigh, Lowell Edmunds, Barnaby Conrad III and the (very) late Stanley Clisby Arthur.

That said, I think our Mr. Sinclair is a truly excellent researcher and hope he keeps it up.

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[*] How do the descriptions of the characteristics of particular drinks affect your understanding of how we would now make those drinks today, with (in many cases) radically different ingredients?

The recipes used today to make the Classics are usually just someones personal preference, and usually have nothing to do with being historically accurate. And why should people drink cocktails just because they are historically accurate? They shouldn't.

I think that we may be in a turtles all the way down situation here. Aren't the "classics," originally, "someone's personal preference"? I mean, someone decided that it would be a good idea to combine X with Y and call it Z because they liked it. I don't think that preference gets you out of this dilemma about historical accuracy, which may be more about naming conventions than it is about recipes.

BTW, the reason why I and others like to try "historically accurate" cocktails is to better understand how tastes evolve. This is a tricky endeavor (liquor production has changed, citrus sweet- and tartness aren't stable, many ingredients are defunct), but I can imagine that Erik's excursion through the Savoy is fueled in part by that desire to connect to the past and its tastes.

The problem is that people want to illustrate their books and cocktail menus with "facts", but do not want to verify them first. They want to be associated with history, but do not want to do the legwork. I would prefer to see cocktail menus full of delicious drinks, rather than incorrect historical facts.

I'm not so sure that my local barkeep using the word "classic" in front of a Cosmopolitan ought to be held to the same research standards we're discussing here! However, to the larger point: we all know that facts change as sources are revealed. That's the precise point of doing the archival history, right? A reference to Thomas today might be illegitimate in a few years when a translation or newspaper article reveals new things.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. The first one misses a lot, and has a tendency to be wrong on specific facts. But reading all those sources (rather than Googling through them) tends to fit one out with an excellent feel for the period studied, and provides a good deal of context. If you're lucky, this occasionally gives you a little bit of historical judgment.

The second one is excellent at amassing facts, but it's not so good at creating a feel for the age; it might tell you when a drink (or whatever--these issues are applicable to many another historical field) was popular, but not necessarily why.

I think that's an excellent point. The brief sections in, say, Gary's Joy on different drinks evoke a time and place that locate the drinks in the contexts of the drinking itself -- more a social history of drinks than a drink history.

But these comments raise a larger question. Why bother doing the history at all? I mean, what are you trying to accomplish with this research and writing? I mean that sincerely. I can't imagine that Thinking Bartender's statement, "historical facts are very interesting, and may lead to a better understanding of what cocktails can be" is the sort of thing that gets one up every morning to face the dusty stacks (or endless links). But, then again, I lean toward the social history of drinks perspective, I suppose, so perhaps I'm missing something.

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But these comments raise a larger question. Why bother doing the history at all? I mean, what are you trying to accomplish with this research and writing? I mean that sincerely.

I gave my answer a few years ago in Esquire Drinks, which with everyone's indulgence I shall quote:

Consider, on the one hand, 5 cl of C2H5OH—alcohol—administered orally in a semifrigid aqueous solution. On the other, a bone-dry vodka Martini. Chemically, the exact same thing. But in the real world we live in, as different as Madonna and The Madonna. Drinks (the best of them, anyway) are more than just the sum of their ingredients. Each recognized formula, if it’s been around for a while, has had to make room for the lingering presence of all the people, places and events with which it’s been associated.

Some are able to ignore all the baggage and focus on what's in the glass. I would prefer not to. For me, that added dimension of historicity is the most fun part of the cocktail.

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Some are able to ignore all the baggage and focus on what's in the glass. I would prefer not to. For me, that added dimension of historicity is the most fun part of the cocktail.

Amen


Edited by thirtyoneknots (log)

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As long as people go around saying "thats how it is meant to be made", then you can only refute such statements with historical facts. Refuting bartenders' tales with facts gives one a sense of smugness that winning the lottery never could!-)

Even showing a bottle of Grand Marnier to a customer, and proving to them that their favourite brandy is actually a liqueur ("right there on the label") gave me a sense of pleasure.

If someone wants an historically accurate cocktail, and appropriate banter to go with it, then fine I enjoy doing that. But if they just want a fine tasting libation, with no interest in the past, then that is fine too.

Classics is a good word, that is abused too often; Modern Classics, Contemporary Classics, these just seem to be buzzwords, perhaps created where the realms of historical and marketing meet, though more likely to just be a marketing ploy.

Historical research into cocktails helps me to try and understand the original character of the drink, and what it was meant to taste like in the originators mind. Whether or not I want to go with that original recipe is up to me.

The first recipes for the Side-car did not have sugar on the lip of the glass, however it snuck in later, and leads many to believe that the Side-car is derived from the Crusta. Now, of course, people go with or without the sugar rim on their own personal preference.

Just for the record, I believe that the Side-car is more of a Brandy Daisy (a la Jerry Thomas), than it is a Brandy Crusta. Same goes for the Margarita/ Tequila Side-car. IMHO.

Chronology is what I like most about historical research.

Cheers!

George

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For myself, I enjoy reading the history of cocktails and the culture that surrounds them for two reasons.

One, I find it fascinating how certain drinks or spirits fell in or out of favor and what the norms of the day were. Basically, I enjoy the story.

Two, by reading how successful, classic cocktails (and those forgotten ones) were created when bartending was being elevated to a craft, I’m able to learn (through others) what I have come to call “balance in a glass”.

I enjoy sharing what little knowledge I’ve gained with those who are curious, even if just for the moment. I also benefit from discussing this subject with those who are very interested in the subject and I have no problem questioning their statements either to clarify what they said or make sure my understanding of the topic is correct.

But I feel I’m secure enough to not have a need to refute or prove others wrong.

For me, it’s just an enjoyable journey…

Rich

PS Odd. I feel as if I too should list those “I wish to thank”.

Edit: Left out an "I" in my run-on sentence, so now it's even longer.


Edited by JerseyRED (log)

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As long as people go around saying "thats how it is meant to be made", then you can only refute such statements with historical facts. Refuting bartenders' tales with facts gives one a sense of smugness that winning the lottery never could!-)

Of course, how it's meant to be made and how it ought to be made can come apart... Once you've found the original version of something, the very first recipe called by that name, then what? Maybe it's awful, but a later (or contemporary) version is excellent. Why assign pride of place to whatever happened first to bear the name, simply because it was first?

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Just popped back for a moment to see how this thread was doing.

Thanks for kind words from various poeple, Wondrich included, but of course he'd say nice things about the guy who picks up his bar tab every time they see each other.

The real reson I popped back today, though, was that I awoke in the middle of the night thinking, oh, hell, I didn't mention what a terrific researcher George is. His site will bear me out.

I'll sleep better tonight now.

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Now I know the truth is always a tricky thing, when human invention and imagination get involved; but, it seems like cocktail history is particularly treacherous.

When you read something like Asbury and Beebe's Account of the Creation of the Blue Blazer, it sounds great. It has a mythic quality almost like those stories of Paul Bunyon. However, as Mr. Wondrich so wittily points out, "it is most unlikely that it has the added advantage of being true." This was a mere 50 years later.

Is it that so much of the history, stories, and recipes are passed verbally for a few years before being written down?

Or are bartenders and cocktail historians, present company excepted, just a charismatic; but, unreliable lot.

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As I always say, cocktail history is history that happens in a bar, and you know what goes on there.

A quick note about making old drinks--one thing I've learned from making them as close to the recipe as you can (however close that may be) is that it sometimes takes a while to appreciate them. Often, their flavor profiles are a lot boozier and less zingy than we're used to, but just as often they make up for it with subtlety and pleasantness. But it can take a certain recalibration of the palate to appreciate them.

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something that rivals flavor in a drink and maybe even the buzz too is the cultural depth of a drink....

i love studying classics and doing research so i can understand how the cultural depth aspect works and try to synthesize it....

people drink for different objectives and identify with so much more than mere flavor.... a way to add alot of value to my drinks is the back story that surrounds them.

right now i'm making a classic blackberry shrub but with a twist.... the fortifying spirits are infused with a sturdy black tea cultivated by sherpas in a nepal during their off season for depth....

this leads to my second favorite part of researching classics and is in many of the flavor tricks that they teach....

the black tea technique was learned from retooling the punches of the bon vivants companion. using it in a newer more approachable modern context is so much fun!

besides some classic drinks from research i started using the shrub dessert pairings. for berry desserts its the perfect foil when other dessert wines would be smothered under that intense flavor....but has enough depth and complexity to amuse the most intense wino....

serious wisdom and pedigree from jerry thomas and christian schultz.... depth and frivilous fun from the sherpas....

thanks for your inspiration....

its so much fun to discover how advanced and resourceful drinkers of the past could be....hopefully we are catching up!

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This seems like a particularly relevant passage:

As more museums and archives become digital domains, and as electronic resources become the main tool for gathering information, items left behind in nondigital form, scholars and archivists say, are in danger of disappearing from the collective cultural memory, potentially leaving our historical fabric riddled with holes.

"There's an illusion being created that all the world's knowledge is on the Web, but we haven't begun to glimpse what is out there in local archives and libraries," said Edward L. Ayers, a historian and dean of the college and graduate school of arts and sciences at the University of Virginia. "Material that is not digitized risks being neglected as it would not have been in the past, virtually lost to the great majority of potential users."

Dave, do you have a sense of what some of those potentially lost sources are that are of particular interest to cocktail historians?

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Dave, do you have a sense of what some of those potentially lost sources are that are of particular interest to cocktail historians?

I think in this case we're talking largely about newspapers and periodicals that are left on microfilm. Searching for cocktail- and saloon-related stuff in them is incredibly daunting--there may be one full article of relevance every two or three months in a newspaper, along with a few passing asides that are buried on the bottom of the third column of page four; without an army of reserachers or nearly unlimited time it's practically impossible to get through the run of one newspaper (and I'm talking about the large, urban dailies), let alone all the ones that need to be searched. As of now, key, sporty newspapers like the New Orleans Picayune, the San Francisco Alta California, the New York Sun, Herald and Post and a heap of others are undigitized. From dipping into them, i can attest that there's gold there, and in abundance.

Another source is cocktail books and other ephemera locked in the collections of people who aren't plugged into the informal network of collectors willing to share or grant access to what they have.

And yet another is cocktail books in the Libranry of Congress. I've explored their collection and most of it is missing already, and what isn't is crumbling and won't last for much longer. unless they digitize it now, it won't be there to digitize in the future.

Pity.

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One hopes that there will be some effort made to scan all these microfilms with OCR at some point. Maybe someone will invent a fast and economic method of doing so.

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I just popped in to ask if anyone had seen the NYT article and its relevance to cocktology. Once again, Dave is already on it. What really caught my eye and impressed on me the vastness of the "holes" was the graphic on pg 2. Granted, it was delivered by way of a big assed graphic, perfectly suited for digestion by my bartender's attention span but still: it would take the National Archives, f'rinstance, 2300 years to digitize their collection.

This thread and the NYT article did much to spur me into exploring why I collect the things I do. I'm not building an archive--not in a scholarly sense--nor is it for research, really, though I read a lot and some of it inevitably sticks. I don't have that hoarder gene where I'm surrounded by towers of newspapers, coffecans and cats, and yet there's a lot of clutter here at the Casco Bay Institute for Advanced ntoxicological Studies.

I guess it boils down to this: Digitalization (which already sounds a little dirty, from a Freudian standpoint, with its connections to fingers etc) denies an object its very "thing-ness".It's even in the way the digitizer refers to the un-digitized or pre-digitized as "objects"--it's no longer a book or a letter or a...whatever it "really" is. The irony is that digitalization even removes an object from the realm of the hands and fingers.

There's value in the very thingy-ness of some of this stuff far beyond the presciptive CSI (Cocktail Scene Investigation) research impulse of, say, George who wants to bore down to the bedrock of a cocktail's creation. Yes, there are stacks and stacks of stuff here that are carriers for factual errata but there is beauty in many of them too. Some are simply beautifully made--the autobiographies of the Temperance people are truly handsome. Some even foster a sense or even a connection to a particular zeitgeist, as Dave and Gary have alluded too. Always there is a sense of the author, sometimes the publisher and often, in the background, you can catch a glimpse of the marketer and salesman who may also let slip what he thought of the times as well.

And then there are the things themselves--the Jim Beam cars and trains, the strainers, the worn out wallet stamped with the Bartender Union of New York City with Jack Townshend's phone # in the phone book and on and on.

So maybe I'll think of it as a Rescue Project--like a Whippet Rescue. Or better yet a Preserve. Like a Wildlife preserve, but more like a Wild Life preserve.

myers


Edited by fatdeko (log)

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Running around the office, skimmed the title of this post as I was searching for something else, misread it, and had my first double-take in a long time. What a shame it isn't really "Cocktail Hagiography" – I was all ready to review the case for the sainting of Jerry Thomas.

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[*] What are your research methods? Where and how do you do that research?

[*] What primary and secondary sources do you rely on most heavily? Are there documentation sources (such as research libraries) that are particularly valuable?

Interlibrary loan access from the local library combined with a good starting bibliography is how I do it.

The bibliography provided at CocktailDB (thanks, Doc) is a good place to start, as well as the library catalog of the Bartender's School of Santa Rosa. AW Noling's Beverage Literature

is also fairly helpful.

Access to newspaper archive databases can also sometimes be helpful, as can be sites such as this, which allow multiple people to work on the same problems. :)

[*] How do you know when you've identified sufficient support for a claim? Just as importantly, what process do you use to identify an illegitimate claim?

[*] How do the descriptions of the characteristics of particular drinks affect your understanding of how we would now make those drinks today, with (in many cases) radically different ingredients?

It's important not to take anything for granted. If you recreate a vintage drink that was once highly regarded, yet it ends up tasting horrible, you have to find out the cause. :)

Where did your source get its source? Could there have been a typo in the recipe somewhere along the chain?

Do all the ingredients named mean today what they meant back then? Is powdered sugar powdered sugar? How large were the lemons? Is Jamaican rum made the same way today it was made when the recipe was recorded?

It's also important to understand context, global and local. Drinking attitudes of the time in question, and an understanding of the drink inventor's quirks can often give you the clues you need to clear up ambiguity.

Add the global context to the Golden Fizz (a Tom Collins/Gin Fizz with... egg yolk???) and you discover that a lot of hangover cure drinks had egg in them, because egg was considered easy to digest and a good source of vitamins. You also discover that it was a common belief at the time that you needed to drink the same thing you'd gotten drunk on ("hair of the dog that bit you") if you wanted a complete recovery, and that Gin Fizzes were quite popular at the time. Viewed through that lens, the Golden Fizz doesn't seem quite so odd.

Local context is also important, since sometimes it can clear up confusion caused by global context.

Global context would tell you that Trader Vic's Fogcutter (a drink made with rum, gin, and brandy, among other things) was a surefire way of getting too drunk and having a terrible hangover, as it was believed at the time that mixing spirits like that was a big no-no. So why would Vic have done it? Local context in the form of reading his books and studying his mixing style would have told you that he had a habit of selecting a unique spirit, designing a drink around it, then blending things together to form a substitute when the unique spirit ran out. It would also show that he used a similar rum/gin/brandy combo in his Scorpion Bowl, which he claimed to be inspired by a punch made with okolehao, a defunct Hawaiian spirit. Put local contexts one and two together, and things begin to clear up. :)

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