At first glance, Hugo R. Ensslin’s self-published 1917 cocktail guide does not promise much in the way of excitement. No image graces the dull paper-bag-brown cover. Thin, black, off-center type announces what could be the dullest title ever: “Recipes for Mixed Drinks.”
It doesn’t get much flashier on the introduction page, which offers perhaps the world’s most boring preamble: “The object of this book is to give a complete list of the standard mixed drinks that are in use at present in New York City, with directions for preparing same in the most simple manner to get the best results. It is intended for use in the home, as well as a guide for those employed in Hotels, Clubs, etc.”
There is practically no other text, save for recipes, throughout the rest of the book’s 75 pages. To make matters worse, there’s a typo — memorialized for eternity — in the copyright date on the title page: “1016-1917.”
Who was Ensslin? “He wasn’t anybody special,” writes cocktail historian David Wondrich in the preface of the “Recipes” facsimile edition. “Head bartender at one of New York’s second-rank hotels, as far as can be determined, he never made enough of a splash with the newspapermen to get his name in the papers, nor did his prowess or demeanor earn him a place in the oral tradition of New York bar lore.”
So given all that, why is “Recipes for Mixed Drinks” considered to be such an influential and sought-after book in the evolution of cocktails? After all, last year, Imbibe magazine named Ensslin one of “the 25 most influential cocktail personalities of the past century.”
I know why the book is my absolute favorite guide in my library. It’s simple. Every time I dip into Ensslin’s collection of more than 400 recipes, I turn up a gem. I don’t have an original copy; a second edition recently sold on eBay for $660. “Recipes for Mixed Drinks” had nearly disappeared from this Earth. It was “so rare, in fact that nobody was actually looking for it,” writes Wondrich in his preface to a facsimile edition published by Mud Puddle Books two years ago. Like other Mud Puddle offerings, the facsimile was meticulously designed and printed to maintain the look and feel of the original.
As for the book’s wider influence on cocktail culture, it has as much to do with circumstance as anything else. Ensslin’s book is probably the last cocktail guide published before Prohibition began. Wondrich calls it “an ark, although its author didn’t know he was building one at the time. As it happened, Ensslin’s book was the last train out.” If you want an accurate guide to what people were drinking before Prohibition, this is your book.
Its influence also has to do with the recipes. Unlike other cocktail guide writers of the era, Ensslin published mostly his own recipes from his own bar, instead of collecting from various bartenders. One of the best-known cocktail books of all time is Harry Craddock’s 900-recipe “Savoy Cocktail Guide,” published in England and widely credited with keeping certain recipes alive during our dark, dry era. By Wondrich’s count, Craddock pinched at least 146 recipes from Ensslin. Another book I often cite, Patrick Gavin Duffy’s 1934 “The Official Mixer’s Manual,” takes even more of Ensslin’s recipes.
I’ve found some of my own favorite recipes within Ensslin’s pages, including the Phoebe Snow (equal parts cognac and Dubonnet, with a dash of absinthe) and the Deshler (equal parts rye and Dubonnet, with dashes of Cointreau and Peychaud’s bitters). But you can see Ensslin’s influence in modern interpretations of such recipes as the Duke of Marlborough (equal parts sherry and vermouth, dash of orange bitters) and the Perpetually Rosy, my valentine twist on his Perpetual Cocktail (dry and pink vermouth, creme de cacao and Creme Yvette).
Most recently, I dipped into “Recipes for Mixed Drinks” when I was looking for martini variations to try with a bunch of new gins I’m tasting for an upcoming column. Back in the early 20th century, dozens of drinks involved gin, vermouth and one or more dashes of bitters, curacao or maraschino liqueur, and in nearly five years of cocktail research, I’ve tasted just about all of them.
But I knew Ensslin would have a surprise for me, and I had to flip no further than Page 18 to find one I’d never tried: the Ideal Cocktail, with gin, sweet vermouth and three dashes of maraschino. I found it worked particularly well with Greylock Gin, from Berkshire Mountain Distillers in Massachusetts, and St. George Spirits’ new line of three gins from the Bay Area.
I’ll save talk of my ongoing quest for the Ideal Gin in my next column. Until then, raise an Ideal Cocktail to old Hugo Ensslin, who proves the adage true: Don’t judge a book by its cover.