Sometime around 1972 Rock & Roll died. Its death-rattle went almost unheard, drowned out as it was by the distorted, meandering guitar solos, the synthesized beeps and squawks, the tabla-and-sitar chanting, and the massed acoustic strumming of the serious business that was Rock (no Roll need apply). Yet there were still a few kindred spirits here and there who remembered the short, fast, and loud adrenalized joys of the old stuff. Lenny Kaye, a guitar-playing 25-year-old record-store clerk and music writer from Greenwich Village, was one of them. He even managed to do something about it.
In that pre-internet age, any record that was more than a couple of years old had to be tracked down in thrift stores and yard sales and oldies shops like the one Kaye worked in. If you wanted the old stuff, you had to listen to it on Tijuana radio, if you could pull that in (for some reason Mexican radio stations really went for that stuff) or dig for it. But Kaye managed to get Elektra records to put out a double-LP anthology of real Rock & Roll: amped-up garage-band ravers from the likes of the Amboy Dukes, the Count Five, and the Strangeloves, all from the mid-1960s, before the Beatles blew everything apart with Sgt. Pepper. “Nuggets,” as the anthology was called, would serve as a manifesto for a new sound that was forming to fight the ELPs and James Taylors and Eagleses for the soul of Rock & Roll. “Punk rock,” it was dubbed, and it seemed like everyone who bought a copy of “Nuggets” started a punk band.
Jump forward three years and Lenny Kaye’s in one of those bands, and it’s got a record out. (I’ll get to the drinks, I swear.) “Horses,” the record in question, has got crude, jabbing guitars and a lot of raw energy, sure. But the songs are long, spiraling and poetic, with as much Joni Mitchell in them as 13th Floor Elevators. Patti Smith, the lead singer, was punk as all fuck, but there’s no way the Standells would have let her sing “Dirty Water,” or step anywhere near the mike. But that’s what happens when you try to bring something back from the dead: it may come back, but it will come back changed. Maybe not always Pet Sematary changed, but changed nonetheless.
In the first years of this century (and here’s the drinking part) the loose fraternity and sorority of bartenders and deep-sipping barflies who considered themselves cocktail geeks wanted the old days back: they—we, I should say, since I was one of them—wanted to be able to walk into any reasonably well-appointed cocktail lounge, order a Daiquiri or a Manhattan or some other drink from one of the major pre-Prohibition drink families, and have it made to a reasonable standard of perfection. We wanted Cocktails, Cobblers, Fizzes, Juleps, Punches, Slings and Sours, just like every decent bar in America used to make back before the Great Drought.
We got that, sort of: like Lenny Kaye, who wanted loud electric pop and got mental cases with safety pins stuck through their cheeks and electric-socket hair screaming and spitting about the Queen, we wanted pre-Prohibition saloon drinks and got cricket-infused mezcal stirred with white port, amaro Braulio and Xocolatl bitters, served up with a satsuma twist.
In fact, the deeper you dig into what they drank back then, the more different what we’re drinking now seems. It’s not just all the recherché ingredients that our mixologists are splashing about with such abandon. It’s not just the additions, in other words. It’s also the omissions; the things they used to drink that we haven’t revived. It’s the Pousse Cafés in all their layered, polychrome glory, the cooling, soft and pleasant Sangarees, the Claret Cups and the Hot Toddies. Above all, though, it’s the egg drinks.
Sure, modern bartenders have brought back the decorous dash of egg white, even where it doesn’t belong (New York Sour, I’m looking at you). Back before Prohibition, however, their use was as common as McGinty’s mule and anything but decorous. Consider Henry Carl Ramos, inventor of the eponymous Gin Fizz, and his popular saloon in New Orleans, which made some 3,000 fizzes a day, each with the white of an egg in it. To keep up with the demand, he bought an egg farm in Northern Louisiana, which Leslie’s Magazine pronounced in 1899 to be “the largest hennery in the country.” He sold most of the yolks to be used in industrial baking, but the free lunch buffet at his saloon also featured egg-yolk omelets, and the bar’s second specialty was its Sherry Flips, each of which used one of the yolks, plus sherry, sugar, cream and what was described either as “pousse café” or “squee gee”: a secret mix of “between 14 and 19” liqueurs. (As that “squee gee” implies, this was perhaps not too carefully compounded; in any case, it would have had the standard liqueurs of the day, including Bénédictine, Chartreuse, maraschino, orange curaçao, absinthe and crème de noyau.)
That said, there was perhaps no greater advocate of the creative use of the egg in mixed drinks than New York bartender William “The Only William” Schmidt, who held court in various downtown bars from the late 1880s until just before his death in 1905. The most famous, and talkative, mixologist in America, William did not hold back in the composition of his drinks. One of his many tricks was to top a beverage with a thick egg-white foam, which he would then use as a canvas upon which to stencil a name or commercial logo in nutmeg. But William reached for eggs the way modern mixologists reach for their obscure brands of amaro.
Take, for example, the time a gent sauntered into his saloon by the Brooklyn Bridge, one day in the summer of 1890. He wanted something for his “dumb dyspepsia.” William reached for a goblet.
Then, as the New York Sun recounted, “he broke a fresh egg into the goblet, followed it up with a bar spoonful of powdered sugar, and packed in a liberal portion of finely cracked ice. Then he poured in two-thirds of a glass of sherry, and a third of a glass of port wine, shot one dash of cream of vanilla into the mixture, carefully poured two ponies of pure cream over the whole, and clapping the silver shaker over the goblet, shook the mixture long and enthusiastically. He drained it into a thing glass and pushed it toward the dyspeptic.”
That was William’s “Life Prolonger.” It was pretty typical of his repertoire. Not every drink had an egg, but he certainly wasn’t shy in deploying them, particularly when he had an excuse. Such as, for example, Easter.
“What are the proper things to drink during Easter week?” asked a “good but thirsty” young man who worked for the New York World. William suggested beginning with an “Easter Crocus”: an egg, of course, whole; then lemon juice, sugar, Old Tom gin, a few drops of maraschino liqueur and a dash of crème de vanille, shaken thoroughly and strained into a delicate, chilled V-shaped glass. After that, he proposed a “Calla Lily” or “Easter Lily,” with the yolk of an egg only, plus brandy and rum and a whole lot of other stuff. Then there were other drinks, several of them, each with egg as its foundation. The young man “began to feel particularly light and airy.” Well, sure, with all that egg white.
If these drinks sound ridiculous—which, I must confess, to me they do, at least a little—they’re no more elaborate that what many bartenders are mixing today. But to us, the egg is a step to far, particularly the whole one. We’ll eat raw eggs in mayonnaise, no problem, but chuck one into the shaker and we start to get queasy. “But think of the calories,” I hear modern barflies objecting, and “that’s just too much protein.” This from people who will think nothing of downing huge goblets of sugar-laden Tiki drinks or drinking bone-marrow luges.
Do we need egg drinks? I think of Lenny Kaye when I try to answer that question. Each resurrection of something old, if it wants to be more than a fad, has to blend the new into it. After all, if Christ had come back as the same charismatic carpenter he was before Golgotha, only historians would be talking of him now. The Patti Smith Group wasn’t authentic, but that lack of authenticity made it crackle; otherwise, it was just Sha Na Na with louder guitars. If we tied our modern bars down and made them do just what the Only William was doing, we’d get a lot of delightful egg drinks, but we’d only go to them once a month at most. And with the world the way it is today, that ain’t nearly enough bar time.
All that said, this Easter I’m going to treat myself to one of them Easter Lilies. A recipe is below.
The Only William’s Easter Lily
2 tsp Superfine sugar
1 oz VSOP-grade Cognac or Armagnac
1 oz Old Jamaican rum, such as Appleton Reserve
.75 oz Organic heavy cream
1 tsp Luxardo Marachino Liqueur
.5 tsp Crème de roses liqueur, if available, or 2 drops rosewater
Glass: Champagne flute
Separate a small egg. In a cocktail shaker, whip the white into a foam by shaking it vigorously. Add the egg yolk and the rest of the ingredients to another cocktail shaker and fill with ice. Shake viciously and strain into a Champagne flute. Top with the foamed egg white.