Booktails from the Potions Library, with mixologist Lindsay Merbaum
Sit back and take a drink while the devil runs amuck in Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”
Imagine a city in the grip of a dictator, where bureaucracy is revered with religious fervor, citizens regularly disappear, and arrests can happen at any moment. Now, imagine the devil himself pops up in this city. This is the basic premise of Mikhail Bulgakov’s famed novel The Master and Margarita, where absurdity is not the exception but the rule. Here, a strange-looking foreigner with one black eye, one green, and all the trappings of wealth runs amuck, his oddball henchmen and nude witches in tow. He’s a historian, he claims, when he inserts himself into a conversation between two men of letters sitting on a bench. He also says he’s an expert on black magic. From that moment, the fates of all whom he encounters are sealed.
Soon, more citizens disappear, or turn up in impossible places. Someone loses his head—literally. More patients are sent to the asylum and theater-goers are thrown into riotous turmoil. A pair of bereft lovers—a novelist living in a psychiatric hospital after he was rejected by the Moscow literati, and his beautiful, wealthy, yet depressed and devoted mistress—are offered a chance at an eternity together. After all, in a country governed by fear, where a man without papers is a man who does not exist, God’s omnipotence is not allowed, so the devil may merrily take his place. And who’s to say redemption is not also within his power?
The Master and Margarita is a delightful novel, an unusual classic that offers a large, mustachioed cat who speaks and eats pickled mushrooms with a fork, but never wears pants. (“How ridiculous,” he exclaims, “cats don’t wear pants! Bow ties, yes. But not pants”). Plus a flying pig, a trip to the ball of the year in hell, and a brilliant and beautifully crafted story-within-a-story involving Pontius Pilate and the execution of Jesus Christ. There is also an abundance of champagne, caviar, and other hors d’oeuvres, flowers, assorted trees, and frequent lunar appearances.
Much champagne is drunk in this novel, including the bottles popped at Griboyedov, the coveted residence of Moscow’s most respected writers, and a fountain of bubbly at the Grand Ball of the Full Moon. Therefore it seems fitting that this booktail recipe riffs off the classic champagne cocktail containing sugar, bitters, cognac, a lemon twist, and, of course, champagne. In this version, the sugar cube is soaked in rose water for the roses the Master and Margarita love so much, as well as those found in Yershalaim, and the roses decorating hell’s ballroom. As is traditional, cognac–a precious, golden liquor–is added, a nod to the libations drunk during a fateful conversation between the Master, Margarita, and a figure of a certain power. Lemon juice adds a sour note and botanical Velvet Falernum complements the rose water, a reference to the Falernum wine drunk by Pontius Pilate. Finally, a twist of lemon serves as a reminder of the lemon Pilate chews as he consumes his oysters.
The drink is presented against a tableau laden with black velvet, framed by curtains of red and gold paper. The folds of the red paper mirror the flames of hell, while the material itself references the terrible trick played on Moscow’s theater-goers, who snatch at a cascade of bills only to later find they’ve turned to bottle labels and other such refuse. On the left, beside the novel itself sits a pomegranate, a symbol of Margarita’s descent. On the opposite side is an amethyst orb, which resembles the devil’s own living globe. In between is a silver mirrored backdrop, which reflects the theater patrons’ greed as they behold the performance on stage. To the left of the orb stands a tier of champagne and a shot of vodka, a liquor that makes a frequent appearance throughout the novel, usually accompanied by hors d’oeuvres. Front and center stands the booktail itself on a slab of fluorite, decorated with olives, a mushroom, soft cheese with a mustard and wine rind, and dried rose buds. Letters from the book cover behind appear to float in the glass.
The Master and Margarita
- 1 oz cognac
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- 1 tsp Velvet Falernum
- 1 sugar cube
- ¼ tsp rose water
- Twist of lemon
Add a sugar cube to a champagne flute. Douse it with the rose water and stir gently, as needed, so the sugar absorbs the liquid. Next, add the lemon juice, then the cognac and Falernum. Top with champagne. Garnish with a twist of lemon.