The first written definition of a cocktail comes from a periodical called The Balance, and Columbian Repository, in May 1806. A reader had written in asking what the term referred to, and editor Harry Croswell responded: “Cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” A staunch Federalist, Croswell added, “It is said also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else.”
In 1862, bartender Jerry Thomas published the first manual on the subject, How to Mix Drinks; or, The Bon Vivant’s Companion. In that book, cocktails were one among many kinds of mixed drinks, which included shrubs, smashes, toddies, flips, sours, and slings. As enterprising bartenders began to introduce variations to the original blueprint, they became known as “Improved” cocktails. Ordering an “Old Fashioned” cocktail would get you the basics. At some point, because the basic formula was so open to revision, “cocktail” became an umbrella term for all mixed drinks.
This was the case by the time of the publication of a 1941 book called Crosby Gaige’s Cocktail Guide and Ladies’ Companion, by the aforementioned Crosby Gaige. The author was a well-known Broadway producer and man-about-town. He also ran a printing press from his house, hoarded wine overseas during the Prohibition, and collected recipes as a hobby. According to the book’s foreword, by journalist and dandy Lucius Beebe, it addresses itself to the subject of “the scholarly and considered art of absorbing alcohol.” This book is where my favorite cocktail first appears in print.
The drink is frustrating to discuss, for reasons I will return to. But let’s first go over what it consists of and what it tastes like. This cocktail is a combination of whiskey, maraschino liqueur, and both aromatic and orange bitters. It is, essentially, a slightly more complex Old Fashioned. The synthesis of these elements epitomizes what can be so sublime about cocktails, why their creation is so commonly described by the metaphor of alchemy. These substances, in sum, yield what appears to be an entirely new substance altogether. It is of an order beyond the Old Fashioned, or even the Manhattan, where complexity has been added in the form of vermouth.
This drink tastes not like a potable liquid, but like an aromatic wood. It tastes like a waft of incense at the site of an epiphany, like the fragrance worn by a passing stranger who is just your type, like the first days of spring in a meadow untainted by the intrusion of human technology. It tastes as though you traveled to Mysore, visited a grove of sandalwood trees at dusk, and harvested the dew that had collected on their branches. There are few things I’ve ever tasted that taste as good. Yes, I just had one.
The most unusual ingredient in this drink is maraschino liqueur, about which there is some confusion, due to the ubiquity of so-called maraschino cherries. In most cases, it hardly seems fair to call them cherries anymore. The poor things have been bleached with lye, their flavor supplanted by high fructose corn syrup and their color by Red #40. A brandied cherry, when available, can be a highly satisfying discovery at the bottom of a glass. The neon orbs that adorn ice cream sundaes have made a solely cosmetic contribution.
The liqueur, however, is a sweet, viscous fluid distilled from both the flesh and the pits of the marasca cherry, a fruit native to the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. It isn’t sour as much as it is slightly bitter, with a quality frequently described as “funky.” It does taste of earth, and you might say it has the scent, in a pleasant way, of human skin. It is a key component of several classic gin cocktails, like the Aviation, the Last Word, and the Martinez, the sweeter, redder precursor to the Martini. By the way, it’s pronounced with a hard “ch”: “mar-uh-skeeno.”
The other primary ingredient, whiskey, also presents a slight complication. In the United States, distinctions between whiskey are mandated by law. During the 19th century, what was labeled “whiskey” could easily have been neutral grain alcohol colored and flavored with tobacco spit. The Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 changed that, applying to “any distilled spirits deposited in the warehouse of a distillery having a surveyed daily capacity of not less than twenty bushels of grain.” It was introduced to make sure that when you bought whiskey, you got whiskey. The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits require that “bourbon whisky,” “rye whisky,” “wheat whisky,” “malt whisky,” or “rye malt whisky” are produced “from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively.”
Gaige originally recommended Fine Arts Whiskey, which is no longer available, and has not been for some time. It was a blended whiskey, made up of five separate components and aged for five years, produced by the Canada Dry company. That suggests that Gaige’s general recommendation was to use a Canadian Whisky. This is surprising to a modern reader/drinker, but Gaige was not the only advocate of using Canadian Whisky in certain American cocktails. In bartender Harry Craddock’s influential 1930 book, The Savoy Cocktail Guide, he recommends the use of Canadian Club whisky (still available) as the base of the Old Fashioned itself. During Prohibition, this may have been the safest option.
To make matters even more confusing, because bourbon is legally required to be made up of 51 percent corn, Canadian Whisky has often been colloquially referred to as “rye whiskey” in America. But there is no requirement that Canadian Whisky include any particular amount of any particular grain. It’s usually mostly corn, like bourbon, with some bonus flavors from rye or wheat.
In the second half of the 20th century, rye’s prominence was almost entirely overtaken by bourbon, to the point that distilleries hardly bothered to distribute it. During the revival of interest in cocktails in the 2000s, historically-minded bartenders made an effort to restore the use of rye whiskey to drinks that were, at the time, more often being mixed with bourbon. It’s usually a good idea—a Manhattan is acceptable with bourbon, magnificent with rye—and a historically sound one. Gaige always distinguishes between bourbon and rye.
The closest thing to Gaige’s prescription would be a relatively complex, but mild bourbon, one that is not too sweet (avoid wheated bourbons like Maker’s Mark, for example). The spicier intensity of rye upsets the delicacy of this drink’s balance.
It would not have taken great ingenuity to make an Old Fashioned cocktail with Maraschino instead of sugar syrup, and with the addition of a second type of bitters. It was simply a miraculous discovery, like penicillin or LSD.
It brings me no pleasure to inform you that this drink is called a “Fancy Free.”
I would venture to guess you have never tried a
In fact, it has a rather more distinguished history, first appearing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It comes from a speech by Oberon, king of the fairies:
But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quench’d in the chaste beams of the watery moon,
And the imperial votaress passed on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.
It’s true that you can’t get much more reputable than the author of this passage. But when were you last impressed by someone quoting “to be or not to be,” or “to thine own self be true,” or, I don’t know, the one about roses and names?
I have racked my brain to think of specific recent instances of the phrase’s use. The only one I could remember is in the song “Movin’ Right Along” from 1979’s The Muppet Movie. “Movin’ right along—footloose and fancy-free!” Muppets can afford to be uncool. An alcoholic beverage cannot.
The book that the Fancy Free comes from does admittedly have an excellent title, if not quite a cool one. It’s unlikely Gaige invented the concoction, as many of the book’s entries can be found in earlier cocktail guides, but it’s a safe bet that he named the drink himself. He admits in the book’s introduction to imposing his own sobriquets on innocent, unsuspecting cocktails:
Just one parting word about terminology. It is my honest and considered opinion that cocktails are living organisms like the cells in your body. They fluctuate like the tides. They are subject to the law of supply and demand, and are ruled and governed either by the caprice or the creative instinct of each individual mixer. Thus it may be that they are now and then entitled to new and different names. I have indulged myself somewhat with this notion in the present work. If you should happen to quarrel with my designations you have my blessing and my permission to deal with your own christenings.
In his memoir, Footlights and Highlights, Gaige recalls having once produced a play called Fancy Free, by the British playwright Stanley Houghton. He describes it as “the forerunner of Noël Coward’s drawing-room comedies.” It’s about a woman named Fancy, who seeks freedom from her marriage. Following is a sample of its dialogue:
ETHELBERT. Believe me, Alfred, it is a mistake to have too many principles.
ETHELBERT. Because if you have too many it is quite impossible to stick to them all. I content myself with one only.
ALFRED. What is that?
ETHELBERT. Never be a hypocrite. It is an excellent maxim. It permits you to do whatever you please, provided you don’t pretend you are not doing it. I advise you to adopt it and to drop all your other principles.
ALFRED. Do you insinuate that I am a hypocrite?
ETHELBERT. Not at all.
ALFRED. Then you are wrong. I am.
If your barroom conversation resembles any of the above, it might seem suitable to stroll in and say, “Fix me a Fancy Free, would you Ethelbert?” For the rest of us, it is something of a deterrent.
That being said, Fancy Free is not even the weirdest name in the book. Though the volume includes many classics, the Old Fashioned among them, it also includes the following:
- Ants in the Pants
- Retreat from Moscow
- Don’t Give Up the Ship
- Lord Helpus Cocktail
- The Pediatrician
- Call the Undertaker
- Elephants Sometimes Forget
- Whoops, My Dear
- Apricots for Little Tots
- Change Cars Here!
- Psychopathia Sexualis
- Pardon My Glove
- The Naked Lady
- You’d Be Surprised (for 6)
- Once Aboard the Lugger
- Let’s Slide Downstairs
- Mrs. Solomon Wears Slacks
- She Couldn’t Say No
- Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight
- Don’t Wake Up the Ladies
- Miss O’Hara Misbehaves
- The Caucasian Blues
- Her Sarong Slipped
- Yo Ho
- Kiss Me, Doctor
- Death in Los Angeles
- Grounds for Divorce
- The Kitchen Sink
- Angel’s Tit Cocktail
- Madame, Can You Walk?
These are all real. I haven’t tried any of them, and for the most part, I don’t intend to. But I hope to make my contribution to achieving one modest goal: the rehabilitation of the Fancy Free. I believe this will require us to take Gaige up on his offer and rename it.
I’ve considered a few ideas. One would be to name it for the aromatic woods it reminds me of, but none of them sounds particularly convincing as the name of a drink, and I’ve already started to worry I oversold it with my rhapsodizing earlier. I also considered borrowing from the title of the book, and calling the drink a Lady’s Companion. This has the unfortunate drawback that it may discourage men from ordering it, which, as distasteful an expression of social mores it might be, would not help the cause. The simplest option may just be to give credit where credit is due: to the first person to commit the formula to posterity. You could call this drink a Crosby. Let people think of Bing, or even David, if they are so inclined. Another approach would be to both nod to, and brush off, Gaige’s name for the drink; a Nothing Fancy.
This is a lot of responsibility, and I can’t decide. All I know is, something has to change. Anyway, here’s the recipe.
- 1 ½ oz bourbon whiskey (Buffalo Trace is my go-to for mixing)
- ¼ oz maraschino liqueur (Luxardo is the standard)
- 1-2 dashes aromatic bitters (Angostura always works)
- 1-2 dashes orange bitters (Regan’s is my preference)
Stir with ice, until the glass’s exterior is cold to the touch. You can serve it up, in a chilled martini glass or coupe, or on the rocks, built directly in the glass. Personally, I drink everything on the rocks at home—who has the time to wash two separate glasses for one drink, unless you’re trying to impress a date?
Garnish with an orange twist, but again, if you’re not trying to impress anyone, another dash of orange bitters will get you most of the way there. As always, though, a proper garnish will reward the effort.
Postscript: On Ratios
Though our goal with any cocktail is to produce the best tasting drink, the starting point should certainly be the original recipe. This often presents a problem, in that we can’t always tell how exactly some cocktails were made in the past; certain kinds of spirits are no longer available, and units of measurement are not always clear. In Gaige’s book, sometimes units are in jiggers, sometimes merely “parts.” Sometimes the generalized “part” is used alongside quantifiable measurements, say, “1 egg white” or “juice of one half lemon.” It would be difficult, if not impossible, to figure out how to make such drinks according to the intended recipe.
The recipe for the Fancy Free is not as ambiguous, but slightly so. According to Gaige:
1 jigger Fine Arts Whiskey
Dash of Angostura Bitters
Dash of Orange Bitters
2 dashes maraschino
Frost the rim of a cocktail glass with lemon juice and fine sugar. Shake the ingredients with ice and strain into prepared glass.
A jigger measures 1 ½ ounces, as in my recipe. That much is clear. Bitters bottles dispense dashes with relative consistency, at fractions of a teaspoon—though the first few dashes will be scant, until you make some room for momentum in the bottle.
The maraschino is a trickier question. Attempting two dashes from my Luxardo bottle, I found that it added up to ½ ounce. This would result in a 3:1 ratio of spirit to sweetener. I have no idea whether bottles sold in 1941 yielded the same result. It does seem possible that they dispensed a volume closer to bitters dashes, at less than a teaspoon, making the ratio significantly wider. But it’s also likely that the drink was intended to include a much higher quantity of maraschino than we would today.
A sweeter tooth was the norm in the first half of the 20th century, partly in order to drown out the taste of cheap—sometimes illegal—liquor. Gaige went as far as to suggest a sugared rim, which I advise against in all cases. With improved base spirits now available, much of the contemporary revision of cocktails has been to make them “drier,” by reducing the proportion of flavoring agents. In some cases, like Martinis and Manhattans, this is misguided. Here, I think it’s justified. I want it to alter the taste of the whiskey, but I don’t want to taste the maraschino itself.
Since the liqueur has such a unique and powerful flavor, it threatens to take over the whole thing at 3:1. Most modern recipes up the whiskey to two ounces, which results in a 4:1 ratio. Much better, but I prefer to go even further, with the 6:1 ratio in my recipe above. This has the added benefit of reducing the alcohol content, so you don’t have to feel as bad about having another. If Gaige’s bottle of maraschino dispensed bitters dashes, this would be closer to the original recipe. You could go further still—2 oz whiskey and ¼ oz maraschino will result in a ratio of 8:1. This, to my palate, just tastes like whiskey.
Perhaps you disagree. You’ll have to experiment. I can think of worse ways to spend an evening.