Back in 2004, in his watershed book, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, my good friend Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh resurrected a number of old drinks. One of the recipes that caught my attention was the pre-Prohibition gem, the Monkey Gland. While its ingredients were fairly staid, the name was unique to say the least. So, I began to look into its history and what I found was stranger than any story I could have imagined.
The cocktail was a cheeky reference to the controversial work of Dr. Sergei Voronoff, a Russian-born surgeon who spent most of his career in France and Switzerland. His raison d’être was centered around the theory that the sex glands of living organisms hold the key to health, vigor, and drive. It only gets weirder. There is no delicate way to say this, he grafted the testicles of monkeys onto his patients. He sums up his theory in his 1920 book, Life: A Study of the Means of Restoring Vital Energy and Prolonging Life:
“The sex gland stimulates cerebral activity as well as muscular energy and amorous passion. It pours into the stream of the blood a species of vital fluid which restores the energy of all the cells, and spreads happiness, and a feeling of well-being and the plentitude of life throughout our organism…The idea of capturing this marvelous force, of placing it at our service when its natural source begins to dry up as we advance in age, had haunted my mind for a number of years…”
In the early years of his work, he claimed that his patients were enjoying Fountain of Youth-like results from the procedure. Patients flocked to France to meet with this modern-day Ponce de Leon. By 1927, Voronoff had done more than 1,000 procedures, promising, in a story that ran in the Asbury Park Press, “a life span of 125 years and an old age of a few months.”
Inevitably, as the years rolled on, a chorus of critics grew louder and louder, expressing their skepticism of Voronoff and his work. By the 1940s he and his research were largely discredited. He died in September of 1951, still believing in his theories and the validity of his life’s work.
Okay, let’s get back to the world of drinks, you look like you could use one right about now. Just like contemporary times, when every spicy news event, scandal or epic feat yields a new cocktail, it was no different back in the day. The last year before the start of Prohibition, 1919, saw reports from Britain that one of London’s bartenders had created a new drink to commemorate Voronoff’s work. A widely-syndicated New York Times story carried the headline, “MONKEY GLAND’ LATEST COCKTAIL,” noting that “The ‘monkey gland’ cocktail has arrived. Orange juice, gin and a dash of absinthe are the principal ingredients.” By 1923, the Monkey Gland was reportedly all the rage in Paris.
How did the drink get from London to Paris? My theory is that the drink was invented in London by legendary bartender Harry MacElhone (who was at Ciro’s in London at the time), and he brought it with him to Paris when he bought the famed New York Bar in 1923, and, of course, renamed it Harry’s New York Bar.
That said, in 1923 the Philadelphia Inquirer, (reprinting a syndicated item in the New York Herald) claimed that “Frank (Meier), the noted concocter behind the bar of the Ritz, has devised a new series of powerful cocktails, favorite of which is known as the ‘monkey gland’ or, as it is popularly called, the ‘McCormick.’” And for those who couldn’t get their hands on the banned absinthe, the story noted that bartenders “have found anise a substitute with a sufficient kick.”
But it wasn’t just the bartenders of the day who riffed off ol’ Sergei’s work, the drink found itself on the silver screen. In the very first Marx Brothers film (The Cocoanuts, made in 1929), you’ll find an Irving Berlin tune called “The Monkey Doodle Doo,” and it a-went a-something like this:
“Let me take you by the hand over to the jungle band.
If you’re too old for dancing, get yourself a monkey gland,
And then let’s go–my little dearie, there’s the Darwin theory,
Telling me and you to do the Monkey Doodle Doo.”
I know, hard to believe the same man who wrote the epic “White Christmas” could be capable of such nonsense, but there you are.
Voronoff’s procedures even graced the pages of poetry of the day; here’s an excerpt from E.E. Cummings’ poem “XVIII” from his 1926 collection “is 5”:
“How did the traffic get so jammed?
bedad it is the famous doctor who inserts
monkeyglands in millionaires a cute idea n’est-ce pas?
(whereas, upon the other hand, myself) but let us next demand.”
But this being a cocktail column, let’s get back to the libations of the day inspired by Dr. Frankenstein, er, I mean Voronoff. In the 1928 book, 370 Recettes de Cocktails, Jean Lupoiu (a French bartender plying his trade in Saigon, then the capital of the French colony of Indochine) offered the potent and aptly named Voronoff Cocktail. (It was a mix of vodka, rum, Scotch and Zubofka, which I think was a herb-and-bison-grass-infused spirit.)
Dr. Voronoff wasn’t able to forstall his own death and passed away on September 3, 1951, at the ripe old age of 85. It’s not known if he ever performed his vaunted procedure on himself, or if he ever enjoyed one of the drinks he inspired.
- 1.5 oz London dry gin
- 1.5 oz Fresh orange juice
- 1 tsp Grenadine
- 1 dash Absinthe
Glass: Cocktail or coupe
Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass or coupe.
Note: This recipe is from Harry MacElhone’s 1923 book ABC of Mixing Cocktails, which includes the notation, “invented by the author, and deriving its name from Voronoff’s experiments in rejuvenation.”
For more tales from 1920s Paris, pick up Philip Greene’s new book, A Drinkable Feast: A Cocktail Companion to 1920s Paris, which comes out on October 9th.