The Sunday Magazine: The Merry X-Men Holiday Special

This has been a solid week of opening my imaginary Marvel Advent calendar. Tuesday was the latest trailer for March’s “Captain Marvel” movie. Seeing her in all her badass mohawk goddess glory was awesome. Friday saw the release of the trailer for “Avengers: Endgame”. As Cap shed a tear for the loss of his friends I was shattered. The other thing I received this week was one of this year’s two Holiday comic books from Marvel, “The Merry X-Men Holiday Special”.

Every year the two big comic book companies DC and Marvel release Holiday special issues. Most of the time they are single one-shots with a silly shoe-horned intersection of holidays and Heroes (or Villains). Even so they can be memorable enough to rise above it all. One from DC was in the 1994 Batman Adventures Holiday Special #1. The story “The Harley and The Ivy” is about Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy drugging Bruce Wayne with poisoned lipstick which allowed them to force him to take them on a shopping spree for gifts. The art, by Ronnie Del Carmen, would portend the jump to the animated series three years later virtually unchanged.

You’ve probably seen ads for the movie “Once Upon a Deadpool” where the PG-13 cut of “Deadpool 2” gets a new framing device around the Holidays. In the 2008 Marvel Holiday Special Deadpool took on Santa Claus to change his rich client’s name from the Naughty to the Nice list. Santa catches him at it and they fight it out with an interruption from the Abominable Snowman. Santa eventually pays Deadpool a price which cannot be matched to turn the tables on his client.

I think you can tell I usually enjoy these efforts. For this year’s “The Merry X-Men Holiday Special” I was interested for two reasons. One, was that it was laid out like an Advent calendar with each day represented by a one-page story written and drawn by different teams. The second reason was the return of the man who made the X-Men great, writer Chris Claremont. There were also some pages by celebrities which showed that they shouldn’t quit their day jobs. The exception to that was hip-hop artist Jean Grae who wrote a funny Jean Grey and Deadpool which I would be happy to see expanded in next year’s Holiday special.

The best work was done by the regular writers of the X-Men books. As a pet owner watching the happy couple of Rogue and Gambit trying to give medicine to their cat was great. The return of Wolverine from the dead with “#hotclaws” gets a smirky send-up.

We get to Mr. Claremont’s entry which is an inner dialogue of Kate Pryde as she lights a menorah in the remains of the mutant land of Genosha. She decides that the way to make a change for mutantkind is to become President. It is a fascinating thought from one of the originators of the X-Men.

This is a fun issue of X-Men for any comic book fan you have on your holiday shopping list even if they haven’t been reading the regular books.

Disclosure: I purchased my issue of all comics described within.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Carol of the Bells

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Sometimes it seems like the readers of this regular Sunday column have as many questions as the ones from my regular perfume writing. Every year I take this time to write about my favorite Holiday things. For the first four years I have really enjoyed telling the stories of some of my favorite rock and roll Christmas songs. After last year’s column on the song “A Merry Jingle” by The Greedies I received two e-mails asking what my favorite traditional Holiday song was. I not only have one, but it is top of my personal Christmas countdown by a mile. It also has an interesting story and I thought for this Holiday Season I’d tell the story of how the song “Carol of the Bells” came to be.

This is a Christmas song which a lot of people don’t know the actual name of. I’ve heard it called “Sweet Silver Bells” or “Ring, Christmas Bells” or even “Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry Christmas”.

“Carol of the Bells” began its life in 1914 as a very different choral piece based on a slightly different time of year. It was a piece commissioned by the Ukrainian Republic Choir conductor, Alexander Koshetz. The song composer, Mykola Leontovych, wrote was called “Schedryk”. It roughly translates to “Little Swallow” and tells the story of the bird entering a house as the harbinger of the spring to come. The four-note pattern which repeats throughout the song comes from Ukrainian folk music. It was part of the Christian celebration of New Year and would fall out of favor as Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union.

It would be almost twenty years later when Peter J. Wilhousky would provide English lyrics to the same melody from Mr. Leontovych. The reason was Mr. Wilhousky wanted to premiere it as part of the NBC Radio Network’s symphony orchestra Holiday Program. He came by the lyrics because the melody reminded him of hand bells. After its radio premiere the song became a staple of the Christmas music rotation.

One reason I like the song as much as I do is how resilient it is to different interpretations. I have included three of them here. Up top is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir giving you the straight choir version. In the middle is a version for drumline as the percussion part of the orchestra gets to shine. The last version is the one most have come to know; the synth-rock version by Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I like all of them and more. I counted on my Mega-Holiday playlist and I have fifteen versions of Carol of the Bells. More than any other.

There you have it “Carol of the Bells” is a song that began as a little sparrow in Ukraine to become a Christmas classic in the US. Along with being my favorite traditional Christmas song.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Gremlins

Now that Thanksgiving has passed, I begin to queue up my favorite Christmas movies. Like everyone else I’ll watch the classics sometime over the next month. I also have a list of some different Christmas movies which are less about the spirit of the season. These are darker fables with a bit more bite to the moral of the story. One of these which I break out early in the season every year is the 1984 film “Gremlins”.

Gremlins was directed by Joe Dante. Mr. Dante had been known for low-budget horror films “Piranhas” and “The Howling” before producer Steven Spielberg asked him to direct the comedy horror script written by Chris Columbus. It was released in the summer of ’84 on the same weekend “Ghostbusters” premiered. Both movies would show there was an appetite for some funny to go with your scares. Gremlins would be the fourth highest grossing film of the year; two slots below Ghostbusters. Even though Gremlins was a summer movie in regard to its release date the story itself takes place on Christmas in the small town of Kingston Falls.

The story is a simple one; that a father who has been too busy promoting his inventions away from home wants to give his son a fantastic present. The father steals a one of a kind creature called a Mogwai from a shop in Chinatown named Gizmo. When he presents it to his son, Billy, he repeats the three rules you know will be broken over the next thirty minutes. Don’t get the Mogwai wet. Do not expose it to bright light. Do not feed it after midnight. The last rule is the funniest. Isn’t it always after midnight? On a snowy Christmas Eve the rules are broken unleashing the violent versions of the cute Gizmo led by Stripe. The rest of the movie is Billy trying to find a way to rid the town of the pests while they spread out around town wreaking havoc.

What makes it a Christmas movie is the monologue from Billy’s girlfriend Kate which happens towards the end of the movie. It is a macabre story of how her father died on Christmas Eve which is why she hates Christmas. That she will be part of the team which solves Kingston Fall’s Gremlin problem is a perfect Seasonal moral.

While there are truly scary moments. The scene where Billy’s mother defends her kitchen from one of the gremlins is a classic as her weapons are all the things you find in a typical kitchen. There is a wink here to a woman defending “her” turf. It is the comedic elements overlaid atop that which makes Gremlins such a favorite for me.

Once the Gremlins get out of hand, we see jokes all around in the way they are dressed. From a set of Christmas Carolers to a group of card players all cheating. There are sight gags everywhere to be seen and giggled at.

If you need something that will give you a different Holiday charm, put a shot of brandy in the egg nog, queue up Gremlins, and settle back for a new Christmas addition to your movie list.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Stan Lee

There is a saying that says, “you should never meet your childhood heroes.” The idea behind that is that what you perceived with childlike affection will wither in the sunlight of maturity. There are many people who I would put on a list of childhood heroes which upon learning more about their life some of the adulation wore off. Near the top would be Stan Lee the man who created the Marvel superhero universe. He just passed away earlier this week and it has taken me a few days to process my feelings about my childhood hero.

I’ll start with the childhood hero part. My father read comic books and his favorites were the DC heroes of Batman and Superman. As his son I read them, but I wasn’t as excited about them. On my sixth birthday I was given my first allowance; $2.00. I had looked at the rotating wire rack of comic books before and was curious about this “Spider-Man”. The issue that was on sale was #29 where Spider-Man battles with The Scorpion. Right there on the splash page were the names of two men who would influence my entire life through their creation; Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. They created Spider-Man and they created an entirely different style of storytelling. Their characters lived in the world I lived in. They had some of the same day-to-day problems I had. They just had to use their special powers for good. The credo given to Peter Parker by his Uncle Ben, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Is true whether it comes from a radioactive spider or something lest fantastical. This is what created my enduring love for stories told in comic book format.

Over time as I became more immersed in the comic book community, I began to hear that Mr. Lee was not the one responsible for the creation of the Marvel Universe. It was the artists; Steve Ditko on Spider-Man and Jack Kirby on Fantastic Four who were the real creative minds and Mr. Lee was taking undue credit. In these pre-Internet days it was through going to comic book conventions that I would interact with the people who made my favorite comic books. It was also in those days when I could sit down with them and have them tell me their story of working in the comics. At least from the artists point of view Mr. Lee took more credit than he should have. It led to times when Mr. Ditko and Mr. Kirby would stop working for Marvel only to return. What I was able to piece together as a reader was that Mr. Lee did provide something special to the story he was taking credit for. When Mr. Ditko or Mr. Kirby were on their own the art was still vibrant, but the story was less so. What I believe now is the Marvel Universe needed all three of them to come to life.

Back to the childhood hero part. As a kid there were things I liked others tried to make me feel bad for. That I had stacks of comics in my bedroom was pointed out in a derisive way many times by my friends and family. I was asked constantly, “when are you going to stop reading those funny books?” The answer is not yet. One of the things which made me even more attached to them was a column that was in every month’s issues of Marvel comics called “Stan’s Soapbox”. In a little yellow box Mr. Lee told me I was part of a large community of people who read comic books. He called me “true believer” and he encouraged me in his signature of “Excelsior!”. Even though I was the only one of my friends who read comic books; once a month I was told I was not alone. It is a powerful thing. It was the community of the Internet decades before it existed. Mr. Lee used his monthly Soapbox to speak out about things like racism. The column below came out in December of 1968. Mr. Lee created a Marvel community which stood for something more than just selling funny books.

For the final phase of my remembrance it was the joy that was evident in his cameos in the movies which make up the Marvel cinematic universe. If there was a Marvel logo which preceded the movie you knew that somewhere in the movie Mr. Lee would show up with a one-liner. I guess we have director Bryan Singer who cast him as a by-stander on the beach in the first X-Men movie to thank for that. I remember being in the theater and giggling delightedly. I still giggle whenever he shows up. Although when I see his final cameo sometime next year, I think it will be a more wistful smile which greets that one.

Thank you, Stan for a lifetime of stories.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio

I was very fortunate to have a very good friend living in New York City when I got my first job in 1984 in Connecticut. It allowed me to explore one of the great cities of the world as a young man. Current events got me to thinking about one of my favorite experiences seeing a play in a theatre.

In 1987 Eric Bogosian produced a new play called “Talk Radio” for the New York Shakespeare Festival. Mr. Bogosian had made a name for himself with his one-man shows. They were series of monologues by different characters. They would attract the attention of the biggest Broadway producer of the era Joseph Papp who asked Mr. Bogosian for a new production for the NY Shakespeare Festival which Mr. Papp oversaw. This was the opportunity for Mr. Bogosian to have his play “Talk Radio” produced.

Eric Bogosian as Barry Champlain in "Talk Radio"

“Talk Radio” tells the story of one night in the life of talk radio personality Barry Champlain. The night the play takes place is the day before his show becomes syndicated nationally. Barry is shown early on as the master of his domain, toying with his callers. One encounter is with a caller named Josh who worries that international bank policies will harm the Third World. Visually over Mr. Bogosian’s shoulder there is a screen which shows the headlight of a train as he bores in on the caller. As he humiliates Josh for his inability to properly define Third World the picture of the train gets larger and larger until as it fills up on the screen he hangs up on the caller.

Another encounter takes place when a caller questions Barry’s ethnicity; suspecting him of being secretly Jewish. Barry tells a story of a visit to a concentration camp. As he walked through the camp, he recalls how he found a Star of David among the gravel. He wonders who it had belonged to. He then says he pocketed it and returned home with it. In fact, as he is talking to the caller, he is looking at it on his console. Except we as the audience see him looking at his glass of whisky not a Star of David. He then brutally takes down the caller before she hangs up on him.

Throughout the play the people in Barry’s life provide background as they step forward during commercial breaks to tell how they met him. Linda who also works at the radio station tells how she met him and eventually slept with him. She finishes her monologue with this line, “Barry Champlain is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” The play ends with the realization that Barry is the creature behind the microphone; leaving it up to the audience to decide what that means.

In 1987 talk radio was in its infancy. It is still amazing to me how right Mr. Bogosian would be as the future of the form was syndication. These voices in the dark spread from their town to the nation at large. Because I saw this prior to that I have always imagined every talk radio personality as a version of Barry. Which means I take all of them with a huge grain of salt because I am not sure when they are actually holding a Star of David or talking to a glass of booze. I suspect that like Barry it is all about being entertaining enough to your audience without stressing out too much about accuracy. It is why I never see them as purveyors of truth but entertainers. It also means I can listen to any of them because I don’t take them seriously.

“Talk Radio” would become a movie a year after it was produced, directed by Oliver Stone. In just that short time a Denver talk radio host Alan Berg was shot by a listener. They would graft some of Mr. Berg’s life onto the play to produce the movie which has a different ending. At the time I found the movie ending to be unrealistic. Recent times have shown me that might be a false assumption.

Of all the memories I have of New York City the night I saw Eric Bogosian perform “Talk Radio” is among my favorite and long-lasting ones.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: When TV Shows Kill a Main Character

I am currently watching three TV shows which are, or about to, kill of one of the main characters who have been around since the beginning of the series. They are Roseanne Barr on The Conners, Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood on House of Cards, and Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes on The Walking Dead. These choices are foisted upon the writers of each show not because they want to do it but because the actors involved caused themselves to be removed voluntarily, or not. I’ve thought back to other shows which have killed off main characters to find one commonality; the bigger the cast the less effect losing the character has.

The first character I remember being killed on a series I watched was when Col. Henry Blake played by McLean Stevenson on M*A*S*H died on his way home at the end of season three. The series would adapt by becoming less comedic and more dramatic. It was probably one of the first series that could have been called a dramedy. If Col. Blake had continued it seems unlikely that M*A*S*H would have become the sharply written anti-war series it did.

McLean Stevenson as Col. Henry Blake on M*A*S*H

“Grey’s Anatomy” was a show which shuffled characters off the show under tragic circumstances constantly. So often it became a part of the writing. Which was why when they killed off Patrick Dempsey’s Derek Shepherd it became the place where I parted ways with the show. One reason was it was that relationship of Meredith Grey and Derek which made me a fan in the first episode and its loss was what drove me away. When a character is part of the reason you watch a show even if it is a large ensemble their loss can make it easy to walk away.

One which worked differently for me was the death of Josh Charles’ Will Gardner on “The Good Wife”. Much like Grey’s Anatomy it was the relationship between Will and Juliana Margulies’ Alicia Florrick which brought me to the show. I expected to drift away after his death in season 5. What surprised me was the show reminded me that the title referred to Ms. Margulies’ character. Watching her deal with the loss of what might have been in such a final manner made for great television.

I haven’t yet watched the shows I mentioned in the first paragraph since the departure of the characters. I suspect that “The Conners” is going to become more like M*A*S*H with a sharper focus on a mixture of comedy and drama. I suspect that “House of Cards” is going to miss Frank Underwood I’ll probably get through this final season, but I think it might be a chore. The Walking Dead can remind me that there are some other main characters who can expand into the space vacated by Rick Grimes’ departure. I believe this might become closer to the way I felt about “The Good Wife”. Over the next few months I’ll answer my own question.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Axiom Series by Tim Pratt

One of my favorite lines in all of science fiction comes at the end of Blade Runner when the android Roy Batty is about to hit his expiration date. He says, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” For years I have filled in those visions with vast space battles in my imagination. There is a sub-genre of science fiction which scratches that itch for me called space opera. As you can tell from the name it is a story told in easily plotted installments usually following the crew of a ship on their journeys. There have been some good stand-alone versions, but it has been a while since a series has caught my attention. The new Axiom Series by author Tim Pratt has done that.

I have a feeling Mr. Pratt is also a fan because the Axion series is a step away from his typical fantasy books. I think because space opera is not as buttoned down as some other science fiction authors are granted a bit more leeway to play with their plot.

In the first book in the series, The Wrong Stars, we are introduced to our crew of proto-rebels aboard the White Raven. Captain Callie is a tough exterior head of the crew. Her second-in-command and doctor, Stephen, is in the curmudgeonly questioning type pioneered by Dr. Leonard McCoy in Star Trek. The mechanic is a cyborg, Ashok. Drake and Janice are the other members of the crew as pilot and navigator respectively. In the very first chapter the crew comes upon a “goldilocks ship”. These were ships launched hundreds of years prior looking for new worlds that were “just right”. They weren’t supposed to return. As the crew investigates they find Dr. Elena Oh who says she has returned to announce first contact with an alien race. Except since she has been gone humanity had already made contact with an alien race called “The Liars”. They have been the bridge to the stars for humankind, but they are unable to tell the truth; about anything. Once the crew brings Dr. Oh and her ship The Anjou back to their base The Liars take one look and flee.

Tim Pratt

From here the uncovering of the other alien race encountered by the crew of The Anjou; The Axiom and what that portends is what drives the story. By the end of the first book Callie and the White Raven are the only ones who know and can deal with the threat posed by The Axiom. Book 2 “The Dreaming Stars” follows their journey further. That there will be book 3 next year tells you The Dreaming Stars is not where things end.

Mr. Pratt has written an incredibly enjoyable space opera I zipped through both books in a few days. They carry you along with them as the find figurative attack ships and c-beams among the stars. If you want something like that the first two books of The Axiom Series are what you’re looking for.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Netflix Marvel Universe After Two Seasons

I remember sitting at New York Comic Con in 2012 and being told by Jeph Loeb, the head of Marvel TV, that they had struck a deal with Netflix. The plan was to have four “street level” superheroes living in New York City of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In 2013 this began with the release of Daredevil followed by Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. The plan was to do as they had in the movies to introduce each character and then team them up in a series called The Defenders. At the beginning of September, the second season of Iron Fist gave each of those original heroes two seasons. It also spawned a spin-off series in The Punisher who was introduced in Daredevil season 2. As Daredevil Season 3 has just started, which I haven’t started watching, I thought it was a good time to look back at what works and what doesn’t.

The first thing which is paramount to success is a good villain. The Kingpin as played by Vincent D’Onofrio in Daredevil has been an omnipresent influence even while in prison in Season 2. As long as he is part of any Daredevil season it will probably be worth watching. The other great villain was from Jessica Jones where David Tenant portrayed the mind controlling Kilgrave. Kilgrave would lead to the PTSD suffered by Jessica in season 2 which again shows how a well-drawn villain has a longer effect than their time on screen. Both Luke Cage and Iron Fist suffered from having villains who were interested in political or corporate power. They are stories but The Kingpin and Kilgrave felt like threats. At no time watching Luke Cage and Iron Fist did the villains really seem threatening.

The one thing they all got right was the supporting cast. So much that many of the characters were able to show up in multiple series. They were working with solid source material but the performances of all the actors in the roles has been remarkable. I want to especially point out Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing and Simone Messick as Detective Misty Knight. If I wasn’t enthralled by the villains in Luke Cage and Iron fist these two women and their interaction was awesome. They are a duo within the comic book world and I am hoping to see a version of that team in the Netflix world.

The one thing they all mostly got wrong were the number of episodes. Even in the best cases thirteen episodes were too many along with a rhythm of storytelling which got repetitive. Six episodes leading to a minor victory which revealed a bigger enemy in the next episode who pressured the hero for four more episodes to a seeming victory only to have the final two episodes culminate in the final ending. If they cut these down to 8-10 episode seasons, without the filler, all of these would have been better across the board. My evidence for that is season 2 of Iron Fist was 10 episodes and it was much better.

It turns out Netflix was doing some assessing too. Both Iron Fist and Luke Cage have been canceled in the last week. I am hoping that this might mean a new series rises from these ashes teaming up the two characters along with Misty Knight and Colleen Wing. There has been no announcement of that but that seems like a series with potential.

My assessment is that the Netflix Marvel series are still a work in progress with the two best, Daredevil and Jessica jones, entering third seasons. The Punisher suffered from many of the flaws of Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Which makes me think season 2 for that series will be pivotal to its survival. At least for now the Netflix Marvel Universe has still not lived up to its potential but that opportunity remains depending on what comes next.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: A Star is Born

I am not a fan of the movie remake. The great majority of the time it seems like an exercise in laziness infused with vanity. A modern set of movie stars want to see if they can do better than what came before. The answer almost every time is “No!” It turns out that there are some stories which can be told again and again because they are about celebrity. “A Star is Born” seems to be one of them.

The first version of “A Star is Born” was released in 1937 and revolved around the acting business. It sets the template for all the successive versions. Older popular male star meets younger unknown female talent. The trajectories of their careers go in different directions exacerbating the addiction problems of the older man leading to tragedy. The story is simple. The plot is as straight as an arrow if not a bit trite. Yet all four versions of this movie succeed because the actors in the leading roles have something to say about stardom and fame. Fredric March and Janet Gaynor showed us the Hollywood studio system. In 1954 it was transformed to a musical starring James Mason and Judy Garland. This was still a story about the motion picture business, but Ms. Garland’s character was an aspiring singer, too. By 1976 Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand turned it into a commentary on the music business. In the most recent version Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga retain the music business setting.

Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine and Lady Gaga as Ally in "A Star is Born"

The new version was one of those projects stuck in development hell for many years. Beyonce was going to be the young singer and every A-list actor you can name was rumored to be interested in playing opposite her. Then she stopped waiting. In the interim Mr. Cooper became interested not only as an actor but as a director. When the studio gave the green light to move forward he chose Lady Gaga as his co-star.

Lady Gaga plays Ally as songwriter sometime singer at a cabaret. When she has her first encounter with Mr. Cooper’s Jackson Maine singing “La Vie en Rose” I was reminded of the movie “Cabaret”. Lady Gaga stalks the room handing out roses until she stretches out on the bar in front of Jackson handing out her final rose. From there they spend the night roaming through the after-hours life of a big city cautiously opening up to each other. Throughout this introductory sequence Mr. Cooper uses a directorial technique of close-up on the two faces when they become the most connected. I found it effective because it felt like I was being drawn into a secret conversation. It also visually cues that when these two characters are connected there is nothing else to be seen. Throughout the movie the close-up of both characters is used effectively.

The music is a mixture of the roots rock of Jackson Maine to the almost everything else by Lady Gaga. If there are people who dismiss her as spectacle over substance I think a couple hours in the theatre will change some minds. She is not going to be seen as lesser than Gaynor, Garland, or Streisand. Although in this case on the acting front a star truly is born. She is going to have some interesting places to go on the movie screen after this.

I always wait to see what song manages to find purchase in my head. Which song am I hearing over and over. For this movie it is “Always Remember Us this Way”. I laugh to myself because when the Streisand version was released in 1976 the song “Evergreen” was my high school, and many many others, prom song. I have a feeling “Always Remember Us This Way” is about to have a similar popularity. It is the best song in a movie of many because it starts slow and builds allowing Lady Gaga’s voice at times to be the sole instrument playing. It is one of the best ballads in her career.

I wrote a few backs about movie star v. celebrity. “A Star is Born”, in every version, is a story about the latter how it lifts you up only to tear you down. That it turns out to be a timeless story has something to do with the original screenplay. It also has something to do with eight incredibly talented actors who have shown it to be true. The new version is part of that.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Applejack

I know fall has become pumpkin spice time for many people. I am not one of them. Growing up in Florida fall was just extended summer. I never understood the whole change of leaves, harvest celebration that takes place throughout most of the country. My first jobs were in New England where I spent 28 years. In that time, I did come to embrace the fall harvest culture. Every October I looked forward to apple picking trips. Which is why apples will always be the thing I overdose on in the autumn.

On one of my farm trips I walked into the barn to pay and found people sipping something. As I approached I was asked if I wanted some applejack. Never shy to try something new I was handed a small amount. It was very alcoholic with a tart scent of apples. My host explained it was apple brandy. As I took a sip I was enthralled by the way the apples made it all palatable and smooth. The farm wasn’t licensed to sell it, but I knew I wanted more because I felt it was going to be a great cocktail ingredient. Turns out the story behind commercial applejack is a great historical tale.

The most prominent commercial seller of applejack is Laird and Company. They began when Alexander Laird settled in New Jersey in 1698. He was a distiller and the material he had to work with was apples. Over time he would go from supplying family and friends to stocking the local Inn which was a stagecoach stop. By the time of the Revolutionary War George Washington requested the recipe. In response the Laird family supplied the troops with applejack. Once the war was over Robert Laird received Federal Liquor License #1. Lisa Laird is the ninth generation of the family to be part of the applejack business as Vice President of the company.

Applejack is a fall substitute for the whisky in cocktails like a Manhattan or Old Fashioned. It gives an apple kick to both of those. I am a big fan of the classics and there is a classic cocktail which I regularly make with applejack; The Pink Lady.

The Pink Lady is one of those drinks derided in the movies of the as a “lady’s drink”. The name is descriptive but if you think a “lady’s drink” has less of a punch The Pink Lady will knock you out. The better the ingredients you use the more impressive the simple mixture becomes. The recipe is three parts gin to one part applejack plus half part lemon juice and half part grenadine plus one egg white. Combine all the ingredients in a shaker minus the ice and shake. Add ice after the egg white has been absorbed shake some more and then strain into a glass.

I like using a strong herbal gin, like my local Green Hat, and I make the effort to make fresh grenadine. I’ve seen many a house guest smirk when I say I’m serving them a Pink Lady only to ask for seconds. It is a fantastic autumn Happy Hour choice.

While everyone else is drinking their pumpkin spice whatever I’m happy to stand to the side sipping my Pink Lady.

Mark Behnke