Spirits: The Murky Depths of Old-School Cocktails

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Twenty-nine months ago, I published a recipe for the Aviation Cocktail, a classic drink from the early 20th century and one of my favorites. At the time, I called for gin, freshly squeezed lemon juice and maraschino liqueur, all stirred over ice and served in a cocktail glass. I also wrote that no one really knew why this drink was called the Aviation. Well, it turns out I was all wrong.

Don't blame me (at least not totally). I gleaned my misinformation, and adapted my recipe, from the august body of cocktail knowledge to which I had access in May 2007. Specifically, I relied on "The Savoy Cocktail Book," one of the bibles of its genre. My error illustrates a couple of important points about the swift evolution of cocktail making.

First, it's mind-boggling how many interesting, well-used spirits disappeared during Prohibition -- and how many of those have been "rediscovered" and become available just in the past 18 months.

Second, it's amazing how much more cocktail acumen -- more historical insight, finer technique, cooler tools -- exists in the world now than did, say, only two or three years ago. It often feels as if it took us seven decades to move from the Dark Ages (Prohibition) to the Early Renaissance of Cocktails. Then, in a matter of months, we leapt from the Renaissance to the baroque and the rococo.

The Aviation is case in point. As cocktail geeks delved further into dusty, out-of-print cocktail guides, we soon learned that our Aviation was missing a key ingredient: a purple, floral liqueur called creme de violette. Adding a tiny amount of it to the gin, lemon juice and maraschino results in a sky-blue drink. So the name Aviation suddenly becomes self-explanatory. Today, of course, you can find any number of speak-easies that will serve you a historically correct Aviation. But that's a recent development: Creme de violette didn't come back on the market until last year. (Another long-lost violet liqueur called Creme Yvette will return next year; for more on that, check out today's Food blog.)

I recently received a half-dozen replicas of antique cocktail books, beautiful facsimile editions newly released by Mud Puddle Books in New York. Scanning them, I was struck by how much murky, unreliable information has always surrounded cocktails.

Among my favorites of the Mud Puddle replicas is "The World's Drinks and How to Mix Them," a 1908 compilation by "the Honorable William T. (Cocktail) Boothby," a legend who dedicated his book "To the Liquor Dealers of San Francisco who unanimously assisted in my election to the legislature." His advice on how "To Correct Sourness in Wine": "Put in a bag the root of a wild horseradish cut into bits. Let it down in the wine." His recommendation on how "To Sober a Drunk" is equally dodgy: "A small dose of sal volatile or volatile salts in a wineglass of water . . . will effectually sober any one intoxicated. . . . Half a whiskey glassful of pure olive oil is highly recommended also. . . . "

I also enjoyed "Cocktails: How to Mix Them," a slim 1922 guide by Robert Vermeire, a famed London bartender who apparently never let the facts get in the way of good cocktail lore. Among other dubious claims, Vermeire assures us that the Cooperstown Cocktail (a martini with two sprigs of mint) is "very popular amongst the cowboys in America"; that his Diki-Diki cocktail (Calvados, Swedish punch and grapefruit juice) is named after the chief of a South Philippine island "who is 37 years old, weighs 23 lb., and his height is 32 in"; and that the name of the Meehoulong cocktail (sloe gin, bitters and two kinds of vermouth) is Chinese for "fire-eating devil."

One title, Hugo Ensslin's 1917 "Recipes for Mixed Drinks," turns out to be an important addition to my cocktail library. Historian David Wondrich, who wrote the introduction to the replica edition, calls the book an "ark." Wondrich writes: "Ensslin's book was the last train out; the final bartender's guide from New York before Prohibition set in." Ensslin's recipes are wonderful, but more than that the book is an artifact of social history, a glimpse into another era, with cocktails named for early-20th-century personalities including comic-opera queen Mabel Berra, lightweight pugilist Dave Deshler and comedian Raymond Hitchcock.

And then there's the Phoebe Snow, a simple mixture of cognac, Dubonnet and absinthe. The drink is named after one of the most famous advertising mascots of the 20th century, a fictional woman in flowing white who extolled the virtues of the "clean" anthracite rail travel on the Lackawanna Railroad: "Says Phoebe Snow/about to go/upon a trip to Buffalo/My gown stays white/from morn til night/Upon the Road of Anthracite."

Why anyone named this particular drink -- which is brownish red -- after Phoebe Snow is anyone's guess. Which means that in all likelihood, maybe 29 months from now, someone will have uncovered the reason.

Jason Wilson can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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