So how much gin is too much gin?

Those familiar with illustrator Edward Gorey may recognize this article’s title as the caption from one of his drawings, the final frame in an alphabet-driven collection called the Gashlycrumb Tinies, about children who meet curious untimely ends. Poor Zillah.

Z is for Zillah” is also the name of a bright, summery gin cocktail invented by Johnny Michaels, formerly of La Belle Vie in Minneapolis. Michaels’ cocktail inventions often start as riffs on song lyrics or unusual phrases; the Zillah was no exception, directly inspired by his discovery of Gorey and our poor heroine’s demise.

Zillah starts with 4½ ounces of gin—it’s basically designed as a double from the get-go. Michaels makes it work with a touch of St. Germaine and a bump of Meyer lemon. It is a big gin sour, with just enough citrus and sweetener to make it interesting.

My only problem with Z is for Zillah is how to drink it while it’s still cold. It’s a large portion of alcohol, along the lines of, say, a Hurricane or a Zombie. Not something to toss back lightly. One approach might be to offer half in the glass and half in an iced carafe on the side. Or you can just make a half recipe—it undoes the dark humor of the drink’s name, but then you can always make another.

Z is for Zillah, Cold Glass photo © 2012 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
Z is for Zillah

Any way you serve it, the Zillah is a delight of a cocktail, refreshing and bright. I first had one at the end of a hot summer day, and it was a wonderful way to welcome the rest of the evening.

Z is for Zillah

  • 4½ oz Bombay Sapphire Gin
  • ½ oz St. Germaine
  • ½ oz Meyer Lemon Juice
  • 1–2 dashes Orange Bitters
Stir all ingredients with ice, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon peel spiral; float a thin wheel of blood orange on top. Michaels presents the drink with a copy of Gorey’s “Zillah” illustration on the cocktail napkin

Michaels recommends Bombay Sapphire for this drink; the citrus notes and somewhat restrained juniper of the Sapphire make it a good match with the St. Germaine.

Balancing Meyer lemon and St. Germaine is the key to the drink. When it’s icy cold, the brightness of the lemon is the first impression, then there is a long trailing floral flavor from St. Germaine’s elderflower. As the drink warms, this flowery sweetness comes to the fore.

The specified garnish is a blood orange wheel. As with Meyer lemons, these are seasonal. Both are available in the late winter and early springtime (in North America.) Already, I have to make do with alternatives for the garnish. In another few weeks, I suspect I’ll be working out a blend of orange and standard lemons to approximate the Meyer lemon, too.

Michaels tells a story about making the Zillah in his new recipe collection, Northstar Cocktails (2012). It seems that St. Germaine caught his fancy long before we could get it here in Minneapolis, so he would special-order it from New York. It was fashionable to the point of cliché on the coasts by the time it got to our region; Michaels’ nonconformist streak began to get the best of him, and he lost interest in both the liqueur and in Zillah. With the passage of time, he returned it to the lineup—“My head has cooled and logic has returned to the scene,” as he puts it.

It’s a good thing—I would have been sad to have missed out on Z for Zillah.

(Afterthought: Thinking again about the Hurricane and Zombie, I suspect Z is for Zillah would be good over crushed ice, or served as a tall drink, Collins-style, topped up with soda. Something to try on a hot day.)