Booktails From the Potions Library, With Mixologist Lindsay Merbaum

Embrace your inner magic and mystery with this enigmatic cocktail inspired by Stephanie Feldman’s “Saturnalia”

The book "Saturnalia" rests on a plate dotted with a candle, a tarot card, and a skull candy.

In a not-too-distant future, the world is plagued by extreme weather, mosquito-borne fevers, and corresponding economic decline. Civilization seems on the verge of collapse. And if the world is ending, why not do what you want?

In Stephanie Feldman’s novel Saturnalia, this is the vibe in Philly on the eve of Saturnalia, a winter solstice carnival honoring Saturn, the ancient Titan, father of Zeus, who ate his own children to keep them from usurping his power. Anyone who’s anyone belongs to the Saturn Club, or another of its ilk, like Pan’s or Baldur’s clubs, where the rich and powerful party on Saturnalia in tuxes and masks, doling out coveted jobs and viable futures to friends and fellow members. If you’re not in the inner circle, then you’re out in the wilderness. And Nina and her college friends very much want to be in the inner circle. Though they all began as pledges together at Saturn three years ago, tonight Nina’s ex-friends are dressed in gold and running the show, while she’s scrounging for rent. When Max—her last, tenuous connection to the club—hires her to infiltrate the party and retrieve something precious, Nina’s errand quickly turns into a race against time. And death. Before the solstice is over, everyone and everything that matters to her will be called into question. Will she find herself alone? Is there anyone she can trust in this morally bankrupt world? 

Saturnalia is a fast-paced tale that’ll have you turning pages as fast as any good mystery. Plus there’s magic. 

This booktail’s recipe offers two paths: in honor of the trick-or-treat-ish Saturnalia chant of “give us whiskey, give us gin, open the door and let us in,” this booktail can be made with either whiskey or gin. The potions priestess prefers whiskey—rye specifically. Those with a sweeter palate may prefer gin. If desired, you can cut the sweetness by topping it off with champagne. Either liquor is combined with blackberry syrup for the strangely purple Draught of Oblivion served at Saturn. Both are likewise accompanied by vermouth, a fortified wine, for ceremonial and recreational wine-drinking, including the weak mulled wine served at Max’s Blue Christmas hangover party. Finally, chicory pecan bitters are a reminder of those rich little moments of joy, like sweetened chicory and spiked cider from street carts, and burned chicory coffee spiked with cheap rum, and shared with a good friend. 

The booktail and novel are presented as offerings atop a moon-like marble platter that’s set against a gold backdrop. An empty potion bottle, such as might contain the Divine Quintessence, rests beside an intoxicatingly bright elixir, the glass garnished with a plump blackberry. The draught and three candles form a sacred triangle. Representing the harvest, bunches of dried red flowers frame the offerings, set alongside stylized gold tarot cards for Nina’s own deck. One card alone appears next to the drink and book—the Death card, topped with a white chocolate skull for the token chocolate Saturns handed out during the festival. The scene is dotted with tiny dried red flowers that resemble flecks of blood. 

Saturnalia

Ingredients

Gin instructions

Prepare the syrup. Once cool, add it to a mixing glass filled halfway with ice, along with the gin, dry vermouth, and bitters. Stir until well-chilled. Strain and serve over fresh ice, if desired. Or top off with champagne. Garnish with a blackberry. 

Whiskey instructions

Prepare the syrup. Once cool, add it to a mixing glass filled halfway with ice, along with the whiskey of your choice (rye is recommended), sweet vermouth, and bitters. Stir until well-chilled. Strain and serve over fresh ice, if desired. Garnish with a blackberry. 

Blackberry Syrup ingredients

  • 1 c water
  • 1 c sugar
  • 6 oz container blackberries

Blackberry Syrup instructions

Mix all ingredients in a medium pot and bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once cool, strain and discard solids. Store in a glass bottle or jar and keep refrigerated.  

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