Why the Bullshot Cocktail Is No Joke
The classic and unusual beef broth drink was born in a Detroit bar.
The Bullshot started with a conversation at a bar. The bar was Detroit’s Caucus Club. Opened by Lester Gruber in 1952, the swank cocktail lounge and supper club was across the street from another Gruber establishment, the London Chop House. The LCH, as it was known, was Detroit’s finest restaurant, and Detroit was Motor City. Everyone came to Detroit, and everyone who came wanted to eat at the London Chop House. There were lines. The Caucus Club was Gruber’s solution; a place to park the overflow.
Gruber was very much a hands-on, full-service operator. So, when he got to talking one night with John Hurley, a local public relations man who was handling the Campbell’s Soup account for the advertising and marketing behemoth BBDO, and Hurley told him he was having a hard time boosting sales of the company’s canned bouillon—a fancy name for beef broth—Gruber pitched in to help.
Their solution to the bouillon conundrum was to do it what Americans at the time had been doing with a great many other liquids, from orange juice to French vermouth, clam broth to crème de menthe: hit it with a stick of vodka. They also added a spice mix: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce and a few dashes of this and that so they could say it wasn’t just a beef-broth Bloody Mary.
What they came up with that day at the bar of the Caucus Club was bedrock simple, but so are the Bowie knife and the wine key and the hoodie and any number of other useful items. And sure, it took its basic structure from something else, but so did rock & roll and we still listen to that. (Well, I do, anyway.)
When they had the drink just the way they wanted it, they tested it out on a couple of handy guinea pigs. This being the Caucus Club, those pioneers turned out to be Harlow Curtice, the president of General Motors, and his deputy, Anthony De Lorenzo. They liked it. Indeed, a lot of people liked it: the “Bullshot,” as it was called (among other things; we’ll get to that in a minute), was one of the most popular drinks of the late 1950s and ‘60s. It was a weird drink for a weird time. It’s also surprisingly tasty if assembled with care, although it must be acknowledged that it’s not for everybody.
The combination didn’t appear in print until mid-1956, although there’s a flurry of newspaper articles from the previous summer about the new trend sweeping the nation of drinking “Soup on the Rocks”—bouillon and spices on ice. That, coupled with the fact that Campbell’s doesn’t seem to have used the Bullshot recipe or name in their advertising, raises a suspicion that when Hurley approached his client with the results of his brainstorm they suggested the drink would be better without the vodka—Campbell’s being a family company and all—and without the vulgar name.
Needless to say, Soup on the Rocks went nowhere. The Bullshot, however, got loose and started popping up everywhere, although not always under its own name. The moniker Gruber and Hurley hung on the drink was a close sound-alike to a commodity essential to the PR business and, as the New York Post’s theater critic noted, it had to be “pronounced with considerable care” to avoid falling into vulgarity. Some preferred to rechristen it: “Ox on the Rocks,” “Amber Tail,” “Jumping Bull,” “Matador” and “Bulldozer” are a few of the replacements, none nearly so good as the proper one.
Earl Wilson, the Post’s nightlife correspondent and a man who mined mild vulgarity for a living, predicted at the end of 1957 that the concoction would “catch on” in the new year “because ‘it’s so full of vitamins.’” He was right about it catching on, anyway. For the next few years it enjoyed a vogue as a “freak drink”; as the sort of thing you ordered to show that you were ahead of the curve and unfettered by common, tired notions of aesthetics. Celebrities drank it, although Marilyn Monroe balked (“what a horrible thing to do to vodka,” she famously uttered).
Eventually, though, the Detroit in the drink asserted itself and it found its natural niche as an alternative to the Bloody Mary for those who find fruit juice (tomatoes are a fruit, if you will recall) somewhat sissified. As such, it soldiered on through the 1980s before fading away in the decade after that, done in by a combination of factors, including a return to freshness, general aversion to canned goods and a growing public sweet tooth among vodka-drinkers. The current paleo-diet bone-broth craze suggests, however, that it might be ripe for revival. Of course, it will need a new, artisanal name, preferably one with an ampersand in the middle. “Bull & Stalk,” something like that. BBDO, are you listening?
3.5 oz bouillon or beef broth (Campbell’s is traditional, although some prefer it diluted; I find 2 parts broth to 1 part water is about the maximum dilution for a good drink)2 oz Vodka1 tsp Lemon juiceSpice mix to taste*
Garnish: Lemon wedge
Add all the ingredients and ice to a mixing glass. Gently roll back and forth between mixing glass and mixing tin (or two glasses). Strain into Highball glass full of fresh ice. Garnish with lemon wedge.
*The Caucus Club’s spice mix was compounded from Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces with celery salt and Angostura Bitters. I recommend 2 parts Worcestershire to 1 part each Tabasco and Angostura, with celery salt to taste.