Some cocktails never get any respect from anybody: they’re created, born, spawned, whatever, and placed lovingly before the public, which gently pushes them back across the bar and says as one, “I guess, I’ll have the usual.”
Others, a sun-kissed, rainbow’s-end few, are snatched off the bar almost before the barkeeper’s hand has left the stem of the glass, drained, and it’s been “keep ’em coming, Ed” ever since. (Thus I imagine things were with the mighty Manhattan.)
Then there are the ones you have to be educated to like—and by “educated,” I mean “have a bunch of theories about what people should like and also have learned not to complain about things that are mouth-puckeringly dry, grimacingly bitter, or both.” These are the ones that the mixologist and the woke customer exchange knowing nods about as the Joe-off-the-street leaves his half-finished on the bar.
Finally, and conversely, there are the drinks that make those same professors of cocktail Deconstruction look away in embarrassment for the poor slobs who are drinking them with apparent enjoyment. Like, for example, the Alexander.
The Alexander cocktail—gin or brandy, crème de cacao and heavy cream—was invented in the early 1910s, at, as best as can be determined, Rector’s restaurant in New York. Rector’s was one of Broadway’s famous “lobster palaces,” huge barns where fashionable men and women flocked to see and be seen while irrigating themselves liberally with Champagne and dining on the kinds of high-value foodstuffs that proclaimed to anyone who was looking that they weren’t part of the poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free, or at least weren’t any longer.
Some officials of the Lackawanna Railroad, the story goes, booked a banquet at the restaurant, and bar manager Troy Alexander, who worked at Rectors from 1904 until 1913, wanted to come up with a special cocktail to start things off—special cocktails being as important to 1910s lobster palaces as they are to today’s farm-to-table chef-curated dining laboratories. The Lackawanna’s advertising at the time featured a young lady they called “Phoebe Snow,” who always wore pure white while riding the railroad (the Lackawanna used smokeless coal; if it didn’t she would have arrived at her destinations soiled and unclean). Alexander, therefore, wanted a drink that was pure white. His solution: gin, white crème de cacao and heavy cream, shaken together. Instant success. (There are other claims to the drink’s creation, but this one, first advanced by a correspondent to Walter Winchell’s column in 1929, is the best-documented one.)
The success was with the public, though, not with the critics. Cream was not a common cocktail ingredient at the time; indeed, cocktail drinkers were only just getting use to citrus juice in their beverages. Cream struck some—many—of the cognoscenti as out of bounds, as an unmanly addition that rendered the drink contemptible. As Virginia Elliot and Phil Strong put it in their 1930 cocktail compendium, Shake ’em Up: a Manual of Polite Drinking, the Alexander was fit only for “tender young things, who have just been taken off stick candy.” Even the drink’s few confessed fans were apologetic: it was, conceded New York nightlife columnist Archer Winsten, who used to order them all over town in the 1930s, “an ignoble drink” and, worse, a “ladies’ drink.”
And yet, people drank them anyway, and enjoyed them, and many of those people were men; some men, at least, don’t really give a shit about the opinions of anyone who judges someone else’s masculinity based on what they drink, or judges someone else’s masculinity at all. The Alexander made it without the critics’ approval. As the drink percolated through the world’s cocktail bars, it took on other names—the “Panama” was the most popular—and was subject to experimentation. In 1922, Harry MacElhone, soon to take over Harry’s Bar in Paris, included it in a little drink manual he put out, but instead of gin it he used brandy. That version soon edged out the gin one, even if it was a poor advertisement for the Lackawanna’s coal.
By the 1960s, the Brandy Alexander had become the sort of drink that newbies and old soaks drank: a place to hide alcohol and cushion its landing in the stomach. It’s in the suitcase of old drinks that the cocktail revolution left behind as it stepped into the 21st century. But here’s the thing: it’s damn tasty. You might not want three of them, but an Alexander, made with one of the lighter, more interesting new gins, can be a surprisingly pleasant drink, not too sweet and even a little bit bracing. Here’s how:
1.5 oz Soft-flavored, medium-proof gin, such as Plymouth
.75 oz White crème de cacao
.75 oz Heavy cream
Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake viciously and strain into chilled cocktail glass.