Growing up, there were exactly four bottles in the Sussman family liquor cabinet — if you could call an out-of-the-way cubby above the microwave, reachable only by footstool, a “liquor cabinet.”
The Kahlua was used for brownies or chocolate cake when we ran out of vanilla extract. Chocolate-and-orange-flavored Sabra, an Israeli invention, served no purpose other than to allow us to use our last liras at Ben Gurion airport, simultaneously reaffirming our Zionism. (I’m not convinced anyone has ever actually tasted Sabra.) Throat-clearing, high-alcohol Slivovitz was an occasional tipple my dad would share with his father-in-law, and also served as the inspiration for my one misguided preteen attempt at a flambé dessert.
Then there was the Drambuie. Sweet and very mildly spiced, golden in color and housed in a mysterious smoky brown bottle, Drambuie was my mother’s preferred way to take the edge off a particularly busy day — especially on a Friday night. From her perch on our oversized, celadon green embroidered sofa, she’d oversee the ceremonial making of the drink, letting me pull out the red-topped cork stopper, fill a glass with ice and splash the liqueur over it. The drink would form wispy, translucent strands in the glass as the sweet honey froze slightly, mesmerizing me every time. The Drambuie also served as the de facto medicine in our house, replacing Robitussin to soothe a sore throat or ease a nagging cough. Though we were never given more than a thimbleful — it probably had about the same amount of alcohol as a dose of Vicks Formula 44D — it always felt deliciously illicit to be served booze by your mother. By all accounts a rule follower, I think she took equal pleasure in this slight rebellion against convention as she tried to cure whatever ailed us.
In later years, when she was battling cancer, I’d often rack my brain for ways to bring her comfort. On a few occasions, as she rested on that very same couch, I’d bring her a glass of Drambuie over ice. Whatever actual impact the liqueur had, re-enacting a ritual we’d carried out dozens or possibly hundreds of times brought a much-needed, 80-proof sense of normalcy to our lives. On the Jewish New Year I’ll toast her with this cocktail, which, in more ways than one, encapsulates the sweet along with the bittersweet in one little glass.
Adeena Sussman is a food writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in Food & Wine, Martha Stewart Living, Epicurious and Gourmet. Her most recent cookbook, co-authored with Lee Schrager, is “Fried and True: More than 50 Recipes for America’s Best Recipes and Sides” (Clarkson Potter, 2014).