The Hunt

The Search for Lost Classic Cocktail Recipes

Ferreting out the winners and losers from the world’s library of ancient drinks book.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

People have been writing books devoted to the art—science, craft, practice, habit, perversion, paraphilia, whatever—of mixing drinks since 1827, when Henry Slatter, publisher of the Oxford Herald, supplied the booksellers of that great English college town with a little pamphlet titled Oxford Night-Caps, Being a Collection of Receipts for Making Various Beverages Used in the University.

It’s not much as far as books go: a table of contents, 40 drink recipes, most of them already antiquated (the six recipes for Posset, a drink last in vogue in the 1660s, were at least five too many), and done. Still, it’s a start.

The next book out of the gate moved the talking stick in the matter of drink recipes across the Atlantic, where it would rest for 58 years. Jerry Thomas’ 1862 Bar-Tenders Guide was a mixed bag, with lots of old recipes thrown in for padding, but it also contained recipes for all the crazy American notions that had completely remade the whatever-it-is of mixing drinks: Cocktails, Sours, Cobblers, Juleps, Fixes, etc., etc. This was followed in due course with important books from Americus V. Bevill of St. Louis, Harry Johnson and William “The Only William” Schmidt of New York, “Cocktail Bill” Boothby of San Francisco, Patsy McDonough of Rochester, and a tribe of others too numerous to mention. These books defined the parameters of mixology.

They didn’t tell the whole story, though: by the 1870s, American-style bars; ones that served iced drinks to order just like you got in New York or Cincinnati, St. Louis or Fort Worth, had begun appearing all over the world, and in their wake came the inevitable bartender’s bibles. England weighed in first, with E. C. Ricket and C. Thomas’s Gentleman’s Table Guide in 1871 and Leo Engel’s American and Other Drinks in 1878 (there were sections devoted to American drinks in earlier books, but in this one they were the focus).

France joined in in 1889 with Émile Lefeuvere’s Méthode pour composer soi-même les boissons Américains (“Method for Making Your Own American Drinks”). Ten years later, the floodgates opened, and there were cocktail books appearing in Austria-Hungary, Germany, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Mexico, Cuba, Argentina and a host of other places.

Most of these books were, however, deeply derivative of American works, with the only major deviations from their models coming from the lack of ingredients, tools or glassware. There are, of course, exceptions, but it would be a slim volume that one could compile of recipes found in these books that weren’t originally American.

Then, in 1920, came Prohibition, and that talking stick moved back across the water. Ten years later, Harry Craddock, the English-born, American-trained barman at the Hotel Savoy in London published the most important cocktail book since Jerry Thomas. To put together the Savoy Cocktail Book, Craddock hoovered up recipes from pre-Prohibition New York, from Paris, from London and all over, threw in a goodly number of his own, and handed them over to a design genius named Gilbert Rumbold, who turned them into perhaps the most beautiful cocktail book of all time, and certainly one of the most influential. It would hold the field as the one cocktail book you had to have until 1976, with Stan Jones’ Complete Bar Guide, put together by a young bar manager from Canoga Park, California, and probably even Dale DeGroff’s magisterial Craft of the Cocktail in 2002.

But the radiance of the Savoy book throws into comparative darkness a host of interesting European bar books written in the decade leading up to it and the one after it; dozens of books, from pamphlets self-published by one cocktail bar or another, to testament-books of famous bartenders, to serious works of research and education such as A. T. Neirath’s magisterial Rund um die Bar (“All Around the Bar”), published in Dresden in 1934.

Now, you would think that these books are crammed with cocktail recipes ripe for the plundering, each just waiting to be dropped into a modern cocktail menu where it can show off its historical pedigree and its unfamiliar, but not awkward or weird, combination of ingredients.

Unfortunately, Sturgeon’s Law applies here as everywhere else: 95-percent of the drinks in these books are indeed crap (don’t worry, it also applies to the American books of the time). A great many of the recipes are either standard—Martinis, Manhattans and the like—or derivative of standard ones. Thus, for example, the “Berenguer Cocktail” by Pedro Chicote, the leading Spanish barman of his day, which consists of Old Tom gin stirred with bitters and orange curaçao, and is nothing more than what Jerry Thomas would have called a “Fancy Tom Gin Cocktail.” Likewise his “Chinita Cocktail,” with gin and Dubonnet—a formula known to various American bartenders of the 1900s and 1910s as a “Dubonnet Cocktail.” (I don’t mean to beat up on Chicote; his 1930 book, La ley mojada (“The Wet Law”), from which these are drawn, has more than its share of good recipes, as do his many other books.)

A great many of the non-derivative recipes found in these books are simply dull. Sure, the combination of, say, brandy, and vermouth with a barspoon of grenadine isn’t a standard one, but neither is it particularly interesting. There are also a few drinks that avoid being dull or derivative, which is good, but only do that by being quite bad, which is not.

Take, for example, the “White Lydia Cocktail,” found in an interesting and attractive little book from 1938 simply titled Cocktails, by Jean Lupoiu, a Parisian bartender who was at the time president of the Association of the Barmen of France. The drink, too, is simple: one-third each fresh cream, Pernod and Canadian whisky. When I first came across this formula, I was of two minds. Sure, the ingredients seemed almost picked at random, and might not blend all that well. But on the other hand, it seemed possible that the slight sweetness of the Pernod would combine with the cream to give it body and the whisky would balance out the anise-driven herbal force of the Pernod and I might end up with something surprising and pleasant.

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I was wrong on both counts. Well, not about the surprising part: it was surprising, all right. The ingredients did in fact blend, but not in a good way: the whisky did tone down the anise, as did the cream, but what was left was something that tasted and smelled remarkably like cockroach spray. Thin, astringent, and chemical-tasting, it was both nasty and persistent. One sip, a second to confirm, and down the sink it went. I tasted it for the next two hours, and when my wife walked into the kitchen even later than that she made note of the unpleasant odor lingering there.

Fortunately, among all the copycats, dullards and misfit toys to be found in these books, there are some real gems; cocktails that are both different and delicious. My current favorite comes from another French book, a jaunty little volume published in Nice in 1930 by Edgar Baudoin, the director of the Municipal Casino at Juan-les-Pins, in the South of France. Les meilleurs cocktails (“The Best Cocktails”) contains a number of unusual drinks, apparently created by either “Henri” or Emile Borens, who ran the two bars in the Municipal Casino.

With the “Sunny,” whichever one of them it was, he came up with something really delightful. The drink is quite simple: half dry vermouth, a quarter lemon juice, an eighth each kümmel and Grand Marnier. The vermouth and lemon juice make for a light, bright-tasting drink. The caraway notes of the kümmel reinforce that brightness with a little spice, without overpowering the other ingredients, and the Grand Marnier adds a little body. As a whole, the drink is harmonious and pleasant and low in alcohol. Les meilleurs cocktails has 400 recipes, and the Sunny comes near the end of the book, after a lot of rather uninteresting drinks. In old cocktail books, as in anything, it pays to sift through that 95-percent that’s crap, because you never know how that 5-percent of awesomeness is going to be distributed or where it’s going to turn up. But to my mind at least it’s always worth the search.

Sunny

INGREDIENTS:

2 oz Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth

1 oz Lemon juice, fresh-squeezed and strained

.5 oz Kümmel (look for the Gilka or Combier brands)

.5 oz (and a generous half ounce at that) Grand Marnier

Glass: Cocktail

DIRECTIONS:

Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake well and strain into a large, chilled cocktail glass.