The Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, aka TCMFF, is alive and well in 2023 and so, I hope is Drink of the Week. This time, I’m returning to an old tradition where I come up with a series of new, or at least newish, cocktails inspired by some of the main classics that were shown this year
Co-written and directed by a George Lucas we’d never recognize today, 1973’s American Graffiti is to baby boomers what Dazed and Confused is to Gen Xers and millennials. It’s also one of the more profitable movies of the 1970s, with a reported budget of $777,000, $140 million in box office revenues, and a Best Picture Oscar nomination.
These were times when studios were sometimes willing to take a chance, and save money, on movies without stars and sometimes made them instead. The only actor in American Graffiti with any name recognition at all was Ron Howard, who became TV’s Richie Cunningham on Happy Days and then a director, and then a movie mogul. In 1973, however, he was still known only as little Ronnie Howard, who had won America’s heart as the ginger moppet of The Andy Griffith Show and two major motion pictures, The Music Man and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. The gangling but self-assured 19-year old he had become was almost unrecognizable to audiences.
Set in the distinctly unglamorous Northern California city of Modesto, American Graffiti follows a group of high school graduates on the last Saturday night of the summer of 1962. Howard plays the the likable but self-serious Steve. He is set to go to a prestigious east coast university, which means leaving behind his girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Williams, later Shirley on Laverne & Shirley). On this night, he floats the idea of him being able to date girls at college while still maintaining a long-distance relationship as a sort of proof-of-love. The problem: Laurie isn’t an idiot.
Laurie’s big brother and Steve’s good friend, Curt (Richard Dreyfuss, who became a major star with Jaws), isn’t sure he wants to go away at all, especially after an attractive blonde driving a white 1956 Thunderbird mouths “I love you,” at him. The blonde, who remains unnamed and never says another word, was Suzanne Somers, later a temporary superstar thanks to Three’s Company. But our drink this week has nothing to do with any of these people.
Nor does it have much to do with Paul LeMat’s proto-Fonzie, hot rodder John Milner. He spends the film fending off a bratty 12-year-old (actress and singer Mackenzie Phillips, later of the original One Day at a Time) as well as an aggressive hot-shot racer named Bob Falfa. (He is played by Harrison Ford – and why the hell not?) Milner’s license plate reads THX-138…and that’s about the only sign contemporary audiences will see that George Lucas had anything at all to do with this move. (It’s very well-acted. What’s that all about?)
And so we finally arrive at Terry “the Toad,” Fields (the underrated Charles Martin Smith, later the Tommy gun-toting accountant in The Untouchables). With his awkward ways, short stature, horn-rimmed glasses, and outsize bat ears, today we might call Terry a nerd. But Terry is not an expert in anything and doesn’t seem very academically inclined. Maybe he’s just a dork in search of adorkability which, sadly for him, wouldn’t be invented for another 30+ years. His challenge this night is to see how he can leverage the souped-up Chevy with tuck-and-roll upholstery he’s been loaned by college-bound Steve as a sign of his great trust. The car will, of course, be stolen within a few hours.
But first, the girl-chasing gods are briefly good to young Terry. Whilst cruising the main drag – the only thing young people apparently did on a 1962 Modesto summer night – he meets Debbie, a sweet-natured free spirit in the body of a mid-shelf Marilyn Monroe (the wondrous Candy Clark, who not long after enchanted David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth). Debbie is, of course, way out of Terry’s league but it turns out she has a fetish for quality upholstery.
Next thing you know, Terry is lying like a mid-century George Costanza and his nickname is now Terry, the Tiger. At Mel’s Diner — it turns out the chain we know comes by its 50s diner gimmick naturally — he orders two Double-Chuckie-Chucks and, fatefully for this post, two cherry Cokes. There’s more, however. Debbie may be either gullible or unconcerned, but she is not the cheapest date. She wants “brew” by which she means Old Harper whiskey, and she believes underage Terry is smart enough to get it. Supercharged by a vote of confidence and a surprise smack on the lips, Terry peels out in the borrowed car before the burgers and flavored colas arrive. He will pay for that error later on for, after he finally lucks into that Old Harper whiskey, things go very well and then they don’t.
Today, I offer a libation that would have sated Debbie’s craving for good ‘Murican whiskey while also providing Terry the Toad with some wholesome ice-cold cherry and Coca-Cola to help him keep up with his stronger-stomached love. Debbie and Toad’s cocktail is a fizz, a very specific sort of drink that is served ice-cold but with no actual ice and a nice, foamy head. It’s a very sweet but also very refreshing treat that might have saved Terry some agony and Debbie some unpleasant smells.
Debby and Toad’s Fizz
2 ounces whiskey, probably bourbon or Canadian whisky, perhaps a brand that existed in 1962
1-ounce juice from a jar of Tillen Farms Bourbon Badabing Cherries (or similar) or ¼ to ½ ounce cherry syrup.
2 dashes Angostura bitters (optional)
6 ounces Mexican Coca-Cola (chilled)
Cocktail cherry (garnish)
Chill the Mexican Coke by keeping it in the fridge or putting it in the freezer if you haven’t given it enough time…but make sure to do that no more than maybe 10 minutes maximum or things could get explosive. Caution!
Next, put the whiskey, doctored extra-sweet cherry juice, and optional bitters in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake very vigorously into a very well-chilled Collins or medium-sized rocks glass. Crack open your Coke bottle and top it off. This is fizz so do not stir it!
You should get a nice, but relatively short-lived head on the drink. Sip the icy brew and contemplate the joys of real adulthood, which for some of us begins the day we learn how to drink without risking sudden illness.
This may surprise you but Coca-Cola Cherry, as it is officially known, didn’t exist until 1985. This factoid surprised me and I was an adult and everything by 1985! What Terry ordered would have been regular Coca-Cola with the addition of some cherry syrup, likely made by the same San Francisco-based Torani company that provides most sweet syrups to this day. I tried using Torani cherry on my first attempts at the D&T Fizz but it was a bit overly sweet for me, though it was acceptable if I kept the syrup to only half or a quarter of an ounce. Adding Angostura, which has cola-like notes, helped. Later, I found that using the juice from my Tillen Farms’ Bourbon Badabing cherries brought some very desirable freshness…and perhaps some slight additional whiskey flavor.
I’m sure many of you will guess my reasoning for using Mexican Coke. As modern beverage aficionados and literally every hipster knows, the Mexican Coca-Cola formula uses cane sugar and not the hated high-fructose corn syrup which came around in the 1970s. I wonder if I could tell the difference between US and South of the Border Coca-Cola in a blind taste test but I admit using Coke from Mexico feels better.
Old Harper, if it ever existed, is long gone and has left no trace on the Internet though it did get namechecked/homaged by Homer Simpson. I.W. Harper, which may or may not be related, remains but is not that easy to find and probably a lot better than the stuff that made poor Terry so ill. I did find a brand called Old Crow but, in all good conscience, I can only recommend it to purists who want to somehow replicate what the drink might have tasted like in ‘62. It’s okay on its own but I found that it lends a medicinal taste to Debbie and Toad’s Fizz.
Bulleit, a quality bourbon you know that’s entirely of our time, however, blended in nicely. If you want, you can’t try the fizz with rye instead of bourbon, except that rye whiskey mostly disappeared from shelves worldwide during the late 1940s and didn’t reappear until the 21st century. On the other hand, Canadian Club is called rye in Canada and it was probably widely available in ’62 Modesto. It’s simple but tasty and its smooth flavors work great in a fizz.