A few weeks back, we asked you to send us your questions with the promise that we would take a sincere and reasonably conscientious crack at answering them. We got to some of them before but we still had plenty of ’em left over. So here are some more; as always, if you don’t see your query here there’s a good chance we’ll get to it next time—unless it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t really have an answer, like “where do you see cocktails in 20 years.”
Let’s begin in the Dark Ages of mixology—the TV-dinner-&-a-Screwdriver age—with this query from @LibationsSpirits:
Q. “Mom’s fave was a Smith & Kerns but there are a million recipes. What’s the best?”
A. The Smith & Kerns, a.k.a. Smith & Kearns or, properly, Smith & Curran is a drink that never really made it out of the Heartland. It was invented in 1952 at the Blue Blazer Cocktail Lounge in Bismarck, North Dakota (as Eric Felten explains in his fine 2010 book of cocktail biographies, How’s Your Drink) when Gebhard “Shorty” Doebber, the veteran bartender, threw together something soothing for a pair of hung-over oilmen, Wendell Smith and James Curran: a big slug of crème de cacao, a littler slug of cream, rocks, soda water. They liked it. (“They must have been really hung over,” I hear some of my more macho-drinking readers interjecting.) Before long their friends were drinking it, and then those guys’ friends and then oilmen all over the world. But not just oilmen: by the 1970s it had, under one name or another, colonized supper clubs and lounges throughout the Midwest.
But that’s not the question, is it? The question is what’s the best way to make the drink. That’s never a question with an easy answer (except when it comes to the Daiquiri, for which there is one way and only one way). “Best” depends on the drinker’s palate and expectations and my best might be your worst. It is particularly difficult when it comes to mid-century drinks like this White Russian offshoot, where there’s no issue with balancing the sour tang of citrus or nailing the precise obscure old brand of spirit. You can change the amounts of booze, cream and/or soda and it will still taste like an egg cream. You can replace the crème de cacao with Kahlua, as many do, and it will still be…fine.
But the question has come to me, and I will answer it for me. In drinks like this, I like to cut some of the sweetness back and pump up the booziness, within reason. And as long as we’re reaching for the brass ring of best, we’re going to use the best spirits in here, while still keeping things soothing enough for a pair of oilmen with the williwaws. So.
The Improved Smith & Curran
1 oz VSOP-grade cognac
.5 oz Tempus Fugit Crème de Cacao
.5 oz Coffee Heering (or, if you don’t mind a therapeutic hint of bitterness, Rieger Caffe Amaro)
1 oz Organic half and half
1-2 oz Sparkling water
Add all the ingredients except the, sparkling water, to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake and strain into highball glass full of fresh ice (big, dense cubes, please) and top with 1-2 ounces chilled sparkling water.
As long as we’re in the Dark Ages, here’s a question from @petevolkmar:
Q. “Here’s one for the unsophisticated. What’s the name and history of one of the most often ordered drinks; Vodka, Club, Splash of Cran?”
A. I don’t know about unsophisticated here—I’ve known a number of pretty interesting people who drank this humble mix—but this is certainly one of those drinks that is so simple and so universal that it’s almost hiding in plain sight.
Bottled cranberry juice was introduced in the 1930s (before that, you had to make your own: boil the cranberries until their skins split, strain off the liquid, add sugar, etc.; few bothered). It took a while to seep into the bartender’s armory, though, and when it did it seems to have been paired mostly with white rum, as in Crosby Gaige’s “Cape Cod Collins” from 1944, which used cranberry juice instead of citrus. The first occasion of it being paired with vodka in an individual drink I’ve been able to find is from 1953, from an ad for a Northern California market, where it lists Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail and adds, “mix with vodka and watch your friends come rushin’.” (Life was simpler then.)
In 1956, people were calling vodka and cranberry juice a “Red Rover” or simply “Cranberry Juice Cocktail” and claiming it was “something new in summer drinks.” In 1959, they were splashing a little lime juice in it and calling it a “Redhead.” In 1960, there was no lime and it was a “Santa Baby.” In 1961, again with the lime, it was a “Yankee Doodle.” In 1962, it was a “Turkey on the Rocks”—no lime. So on and so forth. By the time I was drinking the things, in the late 1970s, without lime it was a “Cape Codder” and with it was a “Madras.”
And yet, with all those names, people still order a “Vodka Cranberry.” That tells us something: the name of the drink is in fact “Vodka Cranberry,” and thus it shall remain.
But that’s not what Mr. Volkmar asked, is it? He asked about vodka, cranberry and soda. That’s a “Rangoon Ruby,” and has been so since Trader Vic christened it thus in the late 1950s.
To switch gears, here’s one from @TanyaLynnYoung:
Q. “Are there any cocktails that we can attribute to (or are representative of) Weimar-era Germany?”
A. In the 1920s and early 1930s it’s doubtful if Germans left any aspect of decadent nightlife unexplored, and that includes the fine art of mixing drinks and making ‘em strong. Mostly, they stuck to the American classics, the Martinis, Manhattans, Bronxes and what have you. But among all those, there was one local concoction that was widely popular, perhaps because it used a little bit of protective coloring: the Ohio Cocktail, as it was called, seemed American, so that was OK. It does not, however, appear in any American drinks books of the era, and was apparently a European creation. It was widely popular—so popular, in fact, that there were a number of different ways to make it, with not so very much in common. My favorite version dates from Kaiser Wilhelm’s day, and is made thus:
2 oz Straight (American) rye whiskey
1 oz Sweet vermouth
1 tsp Imported orange curaçao
1 dash Angostura Bitters
Garnish: Quarter orange wheel, maraschino cherry and a wedge piece of pineapple
Add all the ingredients, except the Champagne, to a mixing glass and fill with cracked ice. Stir and strain into chilled cocktail coupe, top off with the cold brut Champagne and garnish with a quarter orange wheel, maraschino cherry and, if you must, and a wedge piece of pineapple.
Or there’s this version, a little more eccentric:
1.5 oz Dry white wine
.75 oz VSOP-grade Cognac
.75 oz Imported orange curaçao
Add all the ingredients, except the Champagne, to a mixing glass and fill with cracked ice. Stir and strain into chilled cocktail coupe, top off with the cold brut Champagne and garnish with a maraschino cherry.
While we’re poking around Europe in the interwar years, @MatthewWyne wants to know:
Q. “Who created the Monkey Gland, Frank Meier or Harry MacElhone?”
A. Frank Meier and Harry McElhone were the twin pillars of Paris barkeeping in the 1920s and 1930s, Meier at the Ritz bar and McElhone at Harry’s New York Bar. I’d hate to have to choose between them. In this, however, we must award the Monkey Gland, named after a quack cure for lack of virility (don’t ask), to Harry—and not only because he claimed it in his 1922 ABC of Mixing Cocktails, but also because when it is first noticed, in 1919, it is at Ciro’s Club, in London, where he was the bartender (he didn’t get to Paris for another couple of years), and because at the time Meier, newly discharged from the French Foreign Legion, had not yet begun working at the Ritz. On the other hand, if you sip one of these you just might think that Meier got the better out of this deal.
For the record, here’s how:
1.5 oz London dry gin
1.5 oz Fresh-squeezed orange juice
1 teaspoon Grenadine
1 dash Absinthe
Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail coupe. Pour it down the sink. Drink a slug of whiskey and enjoy your lucky escape.
Finally, another question from our old friend @AngusWinchester, who asks,
Q. Do you “have a recipe for the Central Park South cocktail?”
A. The Central Park South cocktail was the object of some nostalgia during the 1920s among New Yorkers who remembered how things were before the American electorate, in a fit of anti-urban face-spiting, voted to shut down all those nice saloons that city folk seemed to be patronizing. A specialty of the bar at the Plaza Hotel (where in fact Harry McElhone had worked before the First World War), it has not to the best of my knowledge survived. Count me stumped.
And keep those questions coming! @DavidWondrich