MoMA’s Provocative Cocktail Collaboration

By Justine Sterling Posted September 20, 2012
Crushed Nun Cocktail

Crushed Nun cocktail; Photo by Leah Herman.

Ehren Ashkenazi, bar director of The Modern at the New York Museum of Modern Art, often collaborates with Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Brewery on specialty brews (like the French painter–inspired Paul Saison), but he recently unveiled the restaurant’s first project with exhibiting artists. The two avant-garde filmmakers behind "The Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist's Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets," which runs through January, worked with Ashkenazi on a cocktail called The Crushed Nun (Light on the Veil). Its name comes from a scandalous portrait, by 19th-century painter Jean-Jacques Lequeu, of a nun exposing her breast. The dark, herbaceous riff on a Champagne cocktail combines absinthe, fresh blueberry syrup infused with Strega (an herbal liqueur similar to Chartreuse), sparkling rosé and Angostura bitters. Here, Ashkenazi discusses what it’s like to make drinks with artists.

How does the cocktail relate to the exhibit?
You’re imbibing this medicinal cocktail to get you either prepped for the exhibit or treated afterwards if you were shocked by what you saw. We essentially came up with it as an extension of the exhibit.

How were the Quay Brothers involved in the creation of the drink?
They love sparkling wine from northern Italy. So that became our foundation. Then they came up with The Crushed Nun, which provided the framework for a story.

What’s it like to create a cocktail based on art?
The great thing about cocktails is that you can always root them in history. So if we’re dealing with a 19th-century artist, we can harken back to what they would have drank, or if in the case of the scandalous nun, we can ask what would push her to the brink of scandal. Would it be the drink? Would it be a hallucinogenic drug?

Why choose "The Crushed Nun"?
The artist Jean-Jacques Lequeu’s work is somewhat on the edge—it’s stored in the pornographic section of the library. The Quay Brothers are a lot about provoking people. A couple of their films have a lot to do with anatomy, a lot of medieval kind of dark, interesting things. I think as inspiration, Lequeu is in their lexicon.

How did the painter’s life and work inform the cocktail?
We thought that a 19th-century artist would probably be drinking absinthe for creative inspiration. And then there’s the darker aspect of Lequeu’s work, and there’s a comedic darkness to the Quay Brothers’ work. We wanted to evoke that with the aesthetic of the drink, so we take a sparkling rosé that has this beautiful color and make it look murkier, a bit darker. That’s where we got the idea to use blueberry. It’s not really there as a flavor component; we’re macerating the skins to pull color.

What does "Light on the Veil” mean?
There’s a filmmaker, Luis Buñuel, who’s a big influence on the Quay Brothers’ work. There’s a point in one of his films where Buñuel is drinking a Punt e Mes Champagne cocktail and there’s light shining on the drink. But you can interpret it so many different ways. It’s like the nun branching out, drinking, exposing herself, living on the edge.

Related: Beautiful Cocktails
Champagne Cocktails
Sparkling Cocktails

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