Come fly with me
Ernest Hemingway once wrote that a traveler shouldn’t “bother with churches, government buildings or city squares,” suggesting rather, “if you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.” Despite (or perhaps, in spite of) Prohibition, cocktail culture came into vogue in America during the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age, with the rise of the underground speakeasy and socialites delighting in the taboo of drink.
Around the same time, man was beginning to traverse the globe with more agility, particularly via air travel. Charles Lindbergh achieved great international attention as the first pilot to fly solo over the Atlantic Ocean, traversing from Roosevelt Airfield (Long Island, New York) to Paris in 1927. A commercial aviation boom led to the founding of passenger service criss-crossing America, South America and Europe. By the early 1930s, Pan-American World Airways, United and KLM had begun commercial passenger service, followed soon after by Air France and others.
When the 18th Amendment repealing Prohibition passed in 1933, the world was suddenly the imbiber’s oyster. Throw on Sinatra's “Come fly with me” as we go on a tour of some of these otherworldly drinks.
An American in London
The Savoy Hotel in London was known as a cocktail paradise. Manned by head bartender Harry Craddock, the Savoy’s American Bar developed its reputation in thanks to the scores of Americans who fled U.S. shores during Prohibition to enjoy drinks they could no longer imbibe Stateside. Craddock (who also was an American fleeing Prohibition), meticulously notated his drinks, publishing them as a book of 880 recipes in 1930. Now known as the Savoy Cocktail Book, Craddock’s manual has been reprinted at least six times, and is required reading for any serious bartender.
Many of Craddock’s recipes have since become favorites among 21st century cocktail enthusiasts, including the Corpse Reviver #2—made with gin, lemon, Lillet, Cointreau and a few drops of absinthe; the Pegu Club—named for a Burmese lounge and made with gin, curacao, lime and two kinds of bitters (orange and aromatic); and the Aviation, known for its use of crème de violette, an Alpine cordial made carefully from Queen Charlotte and March Violets, that was unavailable in the U.S. until fairly recently.
Beyond the West
Also seeking exotic libations beyond American shores was the travel writer Charles H. Baker Jr., whose globe-trotting took him from Singapore to Egypt, across the U.S. (including Hawai‘i) and to Europe. Baker, who wrote on his escapades for Esquire and Gourmet, published a two-volume treatise in 1939 on his adventures titled The Gentlemen’s Companion. Baker’s second volume (titled Jigger, Beaker, Glass: Drinking Around The World) shamelessly sought to reveal “pleasant fluids” that make possible “ethical social intercourse.”
It is Baker’s stories behind the drinks that make his book as amusing and timeless as the drinks themselves. His recollection of the curiously-strong Gin-Blind—made with gin, cognac, curaçao, orange bitters and an orange twist—recalls a warning from British navy Commander Livesey: “We
don’t prescribe this just before target practice.”
Or his description of Tiger Milk, which Baker says was made for him by “a chap named Seaholm, who was related to the King of Sweden,” in Peking, China in 1931. The drink, which sounds more like a Brandy Alexander, was made from brandy, grenadine (or sugar), heavy cream, milk and grated nutmeg. Taking Baker at his word, the Tiger Milk is certainly exotic for China and even for Westerners unfamiliar taking with dairy with their alcohol.
One of my favorite drinks from Jigger, Beaker, Glass comes not from a specific port-of-call but rather from the notebook of a pilot Baker encountered. Named the Pan-American Clipper (presumably for the Boeing 314 flying ship that Pan-Am World Airways flew between 1939–46), the Pan-American Clipper is made from calvados (apple brandy), grenadine, lime and a bit of absinthe. Baker is careful to note that his pilot friend will only seek one “when off-duty.” After whipping one up yourself, you’ll know why.
Post-World War II, and into the midcentury, cocktail parties and tiki bars became the bee’s knees. The “Tiki” aesthetic, also known as “Polynesian Pop” played up Westerners’ escapist dreams of tropical, romantic holidays, forbidden islands and trans-Pacific exploration. Bars covered in thatch, square bamboo and Hawaiian-inspired wood carvings ruled the landscape from Beverly Hills to Fort Lauderdale and literally everywhere in between.
Drinks made at Tiki palaces like the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale or Don the Beachcomber’s in Los Angeles were both tasty and challenging. Although they were smooth, rummy and delicious, it was difficult to figure out how they were made. The combination of specific rums and housemade syrups played up spice notes like ginger, allspice, coffee and clove; yet the inclusion of citrus and other fruits made the exact makeup hard to place.
Whimsically-named drinks like the Nui Nui—created by Donn Beach in the 1930s, with three rums, cinnamon and vanilla syrups, orange and lime; the Old Fashioned Voodoo—made by Joe Scialom of the Caribe Hilton in 1957, with apricot brandy, rum, guanabana juice and milk; and the Jet Pilot did exactly that. Because the recipes—and even the ingredients—were kept secret, these drinks at competing bars could never be alike.
Exotic Booze in Far Bombay
Though perhaps one doesn’t immediately think of the Indian subcontinent for cocktails, its connections to the United Kingdom suggest otherwise.
India is known for its healthy production of English-style rum, which results in dark, rich varieties. One of the more popular brands is the pot-stilled and cask-aged Old Monk, which has deep caramel, vanilla and butterscotch notes, though technically isn’t a spiced rum. Old Port, another Indian brand, has similar characteristics; while I’m told that Khodays Rum, while similarly dark, has a smoky, almost peaty personality like some Islay scotches.
Interestingly, Old Monk is popular in Boston, Massachusetts, where it was introduced to market by a fellow named Brother Cleve, an Irish-American who, among other things, once toured the U.S.S.R. as ZZ Top’s DJ and later had a career as video disc-jockey for MTV-India under the pseudonym “Sharaabi Kapoor.” Cleve, who is popularly known as the “godfather” of the Boston cocktail revolution that began in the mid-1990s, has since created many drinks that evoke Indian flavors, using ingredients like sandalwood syrup, cardamom and saffron.
Bringing us back full-circle, Cleve’s Air India is a play on Charles Baker’s Far Eastern Gimlet, which Baker described as a “stroke of genius.” (Note: While the recipe printed below suggests gin as a primary spirit, the drink works equally well with the same measure of Old Monk, if available.) It’s amazing how so little cardamom can increase the ‘ordinary’ gimlet’s flavor profile.
In the words of Charles Baker, we wish you “salud y pesetas, sköl, santé, salute, and here’s mud in your eye!”
2 oz London dry gin
1 oz fresh lemon juice
½ oz maraschino liqueur
1 barspoon creme de violette
Combine all ingredients in shaker, fill with ice and shake. Double strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a marasca cocktail cherry and lemon twist. Adapted by Randy Wong from a 1930 recipe by Harry Craddock, barman of the American Bar at The Savoy Hotel in London.
Pan American Clipper
2 oz Calvados (apple brandy)
½ oz pomegranate syrup or hibiscus grenadine
½ oz fresh lime juice
1 barspoon absinthe
¼ oz cava or champagne
Combine spirit, syrup and citrus in shaker, fill with ice, and shake. Prepare a double-old fashioned glass with an absinthe rinse and a big ice cube. Double strain shaker contents into the glass and top with ¼ oz cava or champagne. Adapted by Randy Wong from Charles H. Baker, Jr.’s recipe from The Gentlemen’s Companion, 1939.
1 oz aged Demerara rum
1 oz unaged rhum agricole
½ oz aged Jamaican, navy-strength rum
1 oz fresh lime juice
½ oz fresh grapefruit juice
½ oz orgeat
½ oz allspice dram
¼ oz vanilla syrup
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 barspoon absinthe
Shake with cracked ice. Strain, over freshly crushed ice, into a tall tiki mug or Collins glass. Adapted by Randy Wong.
2 oz London dry gin
½ oz fresh lime juice
¼ oz maraschino liqueur
1 tsp. green cardamom
1 sugar cube
Muddle cardamom pods and sugar cube in a pint glass. Add gin and let sit a minute or two, allowing the alcohol to act as a solvent and pull flavors from the cardamom. Add other ingredients. Fill with ice, cover with tin and shake hard. Double strain (using Hawthorne and tea strainers) into a copper goblet or coupe. Adapted by Randy Wong from a recipe by Brother Cleve.