Brandy History

Happy Thanksgiving!

I believe the most historically appropriate spirits to enjoy on Thanksgiving are rye whiskey and applejack/apple brandy. If you’re a stickler for historical accuracy, both spirits should be unaged, as was the style of Colonial America.

I don’t have any white lightning on hand, so I’m cheating a bit and having a taste of Laird’s Old Apple Brandy, 7 1/2 years old. Laird & Company is the oldest registered distillery in the United States, licensed in 1780 although in business for longer than that.

Before the Revolution, George Washington, who ran a small distillery at Mount Vernon, wrote to the Laird’s and asked for their applejack recipe, which they shared with him. All of Laird’s apples are grown here in Virginia — a couple million pounds a year — so Washington presumably had plenty of raw materials for his efforts.

The Pilgrims, although quite strict in many practices, had no problem with alcohol. While aboard the Mayflower they were allocated a gallon of beer per person per day. As a result, they were half in the bag most of the time. Including the kids! Supposedly they landed at Plymouth Rock* in Massachusetts, rather than their approved destination of Northern Virginia, because they were out of beer.

So drink up if you’re of a mind to do so. And Happy Thanksgiving!

*The story of Plymouth Rock is almost certainly fiction.

Amaro History Ingredients Recipes

Whatever Happened to Amer Picon?

If you’re a casual drinker, you’ve probably never even heard of Amer Picon — which is probably a good thing, since it’s not available anymore, and thus you don’t know what you’re missing. But if you’re an experienced imbiber, bartender or Basque, you probably know Amer Picon. And to know it is to miss it, since it’s all but impossible to acquire.

Amer Picon is a bitter-sweet French aperitif. (“Amer” is the French version of the Italian “Amaro,” which translates as “bitter.”) It is sometime drank before a meal to stimulate the appetitite, but more often it’s mixed in cocktails, most notably the Picon Punch (the “National Drink of the Basques”) and the Brooklyn Cocktail.

Amer Picon was invented by a Frenchman named Gaétan Picon in 1837, and produced by the company he started, the House of Picon. The aperitif starts with dried orange peels that are macerated (soaked) in alcohol and then distilled. (This basically creates a flavored vodka.) The distillate is then infused with gentian root and quinquina (to add bitterness), and topped off with sugar (for sweetness) and caramel (for coloring).

The Picon brand was purchased by one of the predecessor companies of the British drinks conglomerate Diageo years ago. It is no longer produced in its original form, although two replacements — Amer Picon Club and Amer Picon Biere — are supposedly available in France. No version of it has been exported to the United States in at least a couple of decades.

To deepen the pain even further, the recipe of Amer Picon was changed sometime in the 1970’s, and its proof was lowered steadily from 52 to 42 to 36, cutting its alcohol content by over half. (The original version made by Gaétan Picon was much stronger, coming in at 78 proof.) So even if you can find a bottle from the last 30 years, it won’t be the good stuff. But if you do find a bottle, please send it to me anyway.

Torani Amer is the substitute for Amer Picon that is used most often. As far as I can tell, it’s only distributed in California, where it’s cheap and easy to find. Or it can be ordered online. Those who know more than I say that the Torani version is a shadow of the real stuff, with far less complexity and orange flavor. It does, however, restore the spirit to its original strength of 78 proof.

Some bartenders, most notably the great Jamie Boudreau of Canon in Seattle, have created recipes of their own to try to duplicate the flavor of the original Amer Picon. Amer Boudreau (Jamie’s version) is relatively easy to make, although it does take some time due to the infusion process. I’ve made some and it really is worth the effort. I think the flavor is clearly superior to that of Torani Amer.

However, if you don’t want to go to the trouble of making your own, Torani does fill in well enough. It would be a shame not to enjoy such a great drink as the Picon Punch for want of the key ingredient.

Picon PunchPicon Punch

2 1/2 oz. Amer Picon (sub Torani Amer or Amer Boudreau)
1 tsp. Grenadine
1-2 oz. Club Soda
1/2 oz. Brandy

Build in a highball or collins glass filled with ice. Add Amer Picon and grenadine, then give a quick stir. Top with club soda, then the brandy float. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Topa! (That’s the traditional Basque toast.)

Cocktails History Recipes Tequila

Celebrate Mexican Independence Day with Cocktails

September 16 is Mexican Independence Day. I know what you're thinking: Isn't that Cinco de Mayo? Good question! But no.

September 16, 1810 was the day that the war of independence broke out between Mexico and Spain. (Mexico, of course, was part of the Spanish Empire back then, and under the rule of a Spanish Viceroy.) Various factions of Mexican life formed an uneasy alliance to rebel against Spanish rule.

The war continued for the next 11 years, after which Mexico finally defeated the Spanish. Peace was declared with the Treaty of Córdoba and Mexico was free…to appoint themselves an emperor. But don't worry, he was gone within the year.

So where does Cinco de Mayo (the Fifth of May) come into play? That was 40 years later. Mexico once again came under the thumb of a foreign power, this time the French. In 1861, French forces invaded Mexico, trying to capitalize on the political instability and general chaos that were the order of the day. But on May 5, 1862, the Mexican Army won a decisive battle near the town of Puebla.

Sadly, the Mexicans were to go on and eventually lose the war. This lead to the installation of Emperor Maximilian I as El Jefe. He's the guy who was buddies with Napoleon III, in case you remember him from your history classes. But Maximilian I only ruled for three years before Benito Juárez and his rebels got ahold of him and introduced him to a firing squad.

Cinco de Mayo as a holiday is largely an invention of Mexican-Americans, popularized in particular by the Chicano student movements of the 1960s. It has little meaning in Mexico itself, and here in the United States it has become little more than a marketing-driven holiday, used to promote partying and beer sales. (Not so different from the Fourth of July, really, which we use to sell mattresses.)

So if you want to celebrate the real deal Mexican independence, today is the day. History lesson aside, we can always use a good reason to celebrate, and September 16 is an important day in Mexico. Let's join with our neighbors to the south and do a little celebrating of our own.

Tequila on bar
For suggestions of some different brands of agave spirit to try, check out Professor Cocktail's Tequila Taste Test. Or see this review of Z Tequila (Blanco, Reposado and Añejo).


2 oz. Tequila
1/2 oz. Lime Juice
2-3 oz. Grapefruit Soda
Pinch of Salt (if desired) 

In a highball or collins glass, add tequila, lime juice and salt. Add ice and stir. Top with grapefruit soda and garnish with a lime wedge.

Professor's Note: For grapefruit soda, I like Jarritos (if you can find it) and San Pelegrino Pompelmo. For the record, I prefer mine without salt.

El diabloEl Diablo

Adapted from a recipe by Trader Vic.

2 oz. Reposado Tequila
1/2 oz. Crème de Cassis
1/2 oz. Fresh Lime Juice
2 oz. Ginger Beer

Shake the first 3 ingredients with ice, then strain over fresh ice in a highball glass. Top with ginger beer. Garnish with a lime wedge.

Tequila CriollaTequila Criolla

1 1/2 oz. Tequila Don Julio Blanco
1 1/2 oz. Guava Nectar
1/2 oz. Fresh Lime Juice
1/3 oz. Agave Nectar
1 Slice Jalapeño

Shake ingredients vigorously with ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. (If desired, you can salt the rim of the glass.)

Professor's Note: Kern's makes a good guava nectar. There are also Mexican brands like Jumex and Goya that you can find in the Latino aisle at the grocery store. To make this cocktail really "top shelf," try using Tequila Don Julio 70, a clear añenjo tequila.


2 oz. Tequila ArteNOM Seleccion 1580
1 oz. Apricot Brandy
1 oz. Fresh Lime Juice

Shake with ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass.


La perlaLa Perla

Recipe by Jacques Bezuidenhout

1 1/2 oz. Partida Reposado Tequila
1 1/2 oz. Manzanilla Sherry
3/4 oz. Mathilde Pear Liqueur

Stir ingredients with ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Want to know how Professor Cocktail makes a Margarita? You'll find out here: Margarita recipe. (Scroll to the bottom.)


Drink Recipes History Rum

Cohasset Punch: Chicago’s Own Cocktail

Cohasset is a small town on the coast of Massachusetts, not far from Boston. It can fairly be described as tiny, barely mustering a population of 7500 souls. So how did it come to be the namesake of one of Chicago's signature cocktails?

According to Eric Felten, the drink was created for Victorian-era actor William H. Crane by a Chicago bartender named Gus Williams. Crane was a very successful comedian and would throw lavish parties at his summer house in Cohasset. One year he brought Williams along with him to mix drinks, and it was there that he invented Cohasset Punch.

Williams brought the cocktail back to Chicago with him and began serving it in his bar on Lake Street. It caught on with customers and became one of the town's most popular tipples, a status it maintained until at least the mid-20th century.

CohassetSavvy businessman that he was, Williams kept the recipe secret. When he retired, he sold it to the owners of the Lardner Brothers saloon on West Madison Street. There the cocktail proved so popular that they billed themselves as "Home of Cohasset Punch" and even sold it in bottled form.

Admittedly, it doesn't sound like a delicious concoction. It's a mixture of rum, vermouth and lemon juice, sweetened with the syrup from a can of peaches. (Here's a recipe, circa 1917, from Tom Bullock's The Ideal Bartender. So much for keeping it a secret.)

In 1936, the Chicago Daily Tribune described it as "harmless looking, pleasant tasting." Not exactly a ringing endorsement, although it apparently had plenty of fans. I didn't mix any up to try — I'm not a fan of canned peaches, so we didn't have any in the house — but Felten did and he pronounced the end result "not bad" but "bland."

Through experimentation, he discovered that the drink was improved by reducing the amount of Vermouth and adding a touch of Grand Marnier, the Cognac-based orange liqueur. Here is his recipe:


Cohasset Punch
Courtesy of Eric Felten 

1 1/2 oz Dark Rum
1 oz Sweet Vermouth
Juice of 1/2 Lemon
1/2 oz Syrup from Canned Peaches
1/2 oz Grand Marnier
2 Dashes Orange Bitters

Start by putting half a canned peach in the bottom of a saucer champagne glass; then half-fill the glass with shaved ice. Put all the liquid ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake and strain into the glass.


Recently, Professor Cocktail's Chicago Correspondent, Bob Montgomery, paid a visit to The Drawing Room, one of the city's finer eating and drinking establishments. He discovered there on the menu a drink he knew I'd be interested in: Cohasset Punch #2.

Created by bartender Mathias Simonis (from Distil in Milwaukee), Cohasset Punch #2 is an updated — improved, I'd say — version of the original drink. Simonis' version still has rum, vermouth and lemon juice, but replaces the canned peach syrup with cinnamon syrup, a change that works very well. (You can see Mathias' recipe and watch a video of him making one here.)

Inspired by his creation, I did some tinkering on my own, playing around with it to find what would best suit my palate. Here's what I came up with:


Cohasset Punch #2

2 oz Pyrat XO Rum
1 oz Sweet Vermouth
3/4 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
3/4 oz Cinnamon Syrup

Shake with ice, then strain into a rocks glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with a lemon twist.



It's a very tasty drink. Big thanks to Mathias and The Drawing Room!

Note: The reason I recommend using Pyrat XO Rum for this cocktail is because Pyrat is a dark rum with pronounced orange accents. You can substitute a different high quality dark rum, but in that case I'd advise adding some orange bitters to the mix. The orange flavor really helps bring it all together. For the Cinnamon Syrup, I used the Sonoma Syrup brand. They make excellent products, and I highly recommend them.

Drink Recipes History Rum Tiki

Planter’s Punch – The Original Tiki Drink

The Planter's Punch is one of the oldest rum cocktails, a classic combination of rum, lime juice and sugar that dates back to 18th-century Jamaica. There the drink was originally made according to a recipe with the rhythm of a nursery rhyme: "One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak." (That would be: lime juice, sugar, rum, and water.)

The first recorded appearance of Planter's Punch in the United States was in a New York Times article from 1908. (They ran a gussied up version of the traditional Jamaican ditty.) Although punches of all sorts had been very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, it's hard to determine how popular the drink was by the 1900s. Rum-based cocktails in general tended to find little favor with most of the public.

After Prohibition ended, however, things began to change. The great Donn Beach had discovered Planter's Punch during his travels and brought it back to the States with him. When he opened his first Tiki bar/restaurant in 1934, not only was the drink on the menu, it also served as the inspiration for many of the other rum concoctions he invented. As the Tiki craze grew in popularity, so did the thirst for Planter's Punch.

There are as many recipes for this drink as there are bartenders and cocktail books. Some have lime or lemon juice; some have pineapple or orange juice (or a combination of all four). Some have light rum, gold rum, dark rum or all three. They often have grenadine, and some add triple sec or orange Curaçao. I even have a recipe that calls for crème de cacao. (I don't think I'll be trying that one.)

Don the Beachcomber served at least five different versions of Planter's Punch. His most popular recipe called for three different types of rum, lime juice, simple syrup, grenadine, falernum and Angostura bitters. This makes a very good drink, but I was looking for something a little simpler.

In The Gentleman's Companion (1939), Charles H. Baker Jr.'s story of his spirituous travels around the world, the author discusses ten different methods for making Planter's Punch. He pronounces all of them excellent, but advises, "Get decent well-aged rum…[And] don't try to use canned fruit juices of any kind." Solid advice for this, or any, cocktail.

Most of Baker's recipes are variations on the basic theme, although some of them call for Cognac or bourbon, which I don't think would work very well at all. (I didn't even try it.) He piqued my interest, though, with his suggestion of using grapefruit juice.

As Wayne Curtis points out in his excellent And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the World in Ten Cocktails, Planter's Punch is less a specific drink than it is a class of drinks, and that's a good way to think of it. This is a cocktail that cries out for experimentation. It's like a melody that a jazz musician can take and improvise on — based on such a solid foundation, there are unlimited directions in which it can go.

So that's what I did, trying out several different variations in an attempt to come up with a cocktail that tastes great, but doesn't require too many ingredients or too much work to make. The recipe I've settled on (for now, anyway) has quickly become a favorite in our house.


 Planter's Punch

2 oz Rum
1 oz Grapefruit Juice
1/2 oz Lime Juice
1 oz Grenadine
1 tbsp Sugar Cane Syrup
1/2 oz 151 Rum (optional) 

Shake all the ingredients (except 151 Rum) with ice until well-chilled. Strain into an ice-filled Collins glass, or use something pretty if you've got it. Float the 151 Rum on top.



If you don't have cane syrup, you can use regular simple syrup, although the cane syrup gives it a richer flavor. Try to find some decent grenadine — Rose's should only be used in an emergency.

You can use whatever type of rum you have on hand, although it's going to change the flavor of the drink quite a bit depending on what you use. I prefer a gold or dark Jamaican rum, like Appleton or Myers's.

Recently I made a batch with Pyrat XO Reserve Rum and it was delicious. (This makes sense, as the Pyrat XO Reserve has more than a hint of orange flavor to it.) My wife had a Planter's Punch at the Columbia Room that Derek Brown mixed up for her with Banks 5 Island Rum and it was amazing.

The 151 Rum float gives the drink a nice kick and a delicious accent of burnt caramel. If you'd like a lighter cocktail, however, you can omit it and the drink is still a delight.

So the next time you feel like trying something new, mix up a Planter's Punch and put your own twist on it — and then share the results with the rest of us.

History Miscellaneous

Drinking during Prohibition

Yesterday (December 5) was the 78th anniversary of the end of Prohibition, the thirteen-year Dark Age in which it was illegal to produce or sell alcoholic beverages in the United States. (Interestingly enough, it was not illegal to consume alcohol.)

December 5th is celebrated in many of the nation's bars as Repeal Day, one of those rare occasions when drinkers and constitutionalists both have something to salute. (The 18th and 21st amendments, which respectively began and ended Prohibition, were a triumph of the spirit of popular, progressive government in action. Sure, it led to misery, violence and the rise of organized crime — but nobody ever said democracy ain't messy.)

Prohibition is often viewed as something of a romantic time in drinking culture, despite the hardships that its official illegality created. Speakeasies were roaring, flappers were flapping, bootleggers (like Joe Kennedy) were making fortunes, and drinking (ironically) became a popular public pastime.

But what did people actually drink during Prohibition? There's where the romanticism quickly fades. As bartender and author Gary Regan explains, it was a depressing time for those who enjoyed a good drink.

If you desire a real speakeasy tipple, you can have either a glass of Champagne or a whiskey-and-ginger-ale highball. That’s about it. All that talk of the fabulous cocktails made in the midst of Prohibition in order to mask the flavors of badly made alcohol is wrong. When your drinking experience is an illegal one, you just want to get down to drinking.

That whiskey they were drinking wasn't the good stuff either. It was poor quality Canadian rye smuggled over the border. In certain parts of the country (Florida, for example) where rum-running was feasible, it was possible to get some lousy Caribbean rum. And in the big Eastern cities English gin was occasionally available. But there were no fancy cocktails to be had. Even a decent Martini was impossible. As a a wag once said, "Nobody bootlegs vermouth."

So the next time you enjoy a well-mixed cocktail or a bottle of fine spirits, remind yourself: where drinking is concerned, we've never had it so good.

History Whiskey

The Whiskey Rebellion

Today's Trivia Question:

Who was the only sitting U.S. president to personally lead an army into battle?

If you answered "George Washington," then you earned yourself a shot! I'll wait while you go drink it. In fact, even if you guessed "Benjamin Franklin" (who was never president and never lead an army into anything except a tavern), you can still have a shot. What the heck, it's not like I'm buying.

You back now? Good. (And you thought learning about history was going to be boring.)

The Whiskey Rebellion was one of the more interesting episodes in U.S. history because it occurred at the intersection of two great American pastimes: making liquor and bitching about taxes.

Back in the early days of the Republic there was no income tax. The government didn't spend a lot of money (nobody had thought up Social Security or aircraft carriers yet), so they didn't need a lot of revenue. Most of what they required was gotten through tariffs on imports. Nobody liked paying taxes (remember, that was one of the things the colonists hated about the British), but an import tariff was indirect enough that nobody complained too much.

Well, as is so often the case, the government found themselves a little short when it came time to pay its bills. The Revolutionary War had cost a pretty penny and back then the Treasury couldn't just sell bonds to the Chinese; they actually had to come up with some real money. So in 1791, they slapped a tax on whiskey.

Although this move was no doubt highly offensive to the drunkards of the day, the people it really pissed off were the farmers. The highest cost a farmer on the American frontier (we're talking Western Pennsylvania or Ohio) faced was transportation. They were growing a lot of corn and wheat and other grains, and hauling all that stuff to market was expensive. So someone hit upon the genius idea of turning a lot of that grain into alcohol, thus concentrating its value in a much smaller volume of merchandise.

Since these farmers were essentially in the whiskey business — they even used sometimes booze for currency — the government's new tax hit them particularly hard. And as the colonists' experience with the Brits had so recently shown, when people were pissed off about taxes, a little rebellion could be a very effective tool. Anger and resentment starting brewing, and eventually reached a boil in 1794.

The farmers began to organize, pledging not to pay the tax, and harassing the tax agents when they tried to collect it. (You think it's hard being an IRS agent today? Back then they used to get tarred and feathered — literally!)

Eventually things escalated to the point where 500 armed men marched on the estate of General John Neville, the local tax inspector. Shots were exchanged, the general's house was burned down, and at least two men were killed.

Emboldened by this action, the farmers next gathered a militia of 6000 men who massed in Braddock's Field, a few miles outside of Pittsburgh. They paraded around, flexed their muscles, contemplated sacking Pittsburgh, and even threatened to secede from the Union.

Enough was enough. In the face of such a serious challenge to the authority of the new federal government (keep in mind this was only 7 years after the adoption of the Constitution), President George Washington pledged to take action. He got his old uniform out of mothballs and, with Alexander Hamilton by his side, led an army of 13,000 men towards Western Pennsylvania. This was a larger army than Washington generally led during the Revolutionary War — the man meant business.

By the time Washington and his troops arrived in Pennsylvania, the rebellious farmers had dispersed. They may have been stubborn, but they weren't stupid. A couple of the ringleaders were captured and tried, but were later pardoned. The army went home and Washington went back to Philadelphia (the capital at that time). The anger gradually faded away.

In the end, protesting the tax was as much a pretext for standing up to the government as a legitimate beef. And the farmers had seen what standing up to the Feds can get you. Besides, a tax on whiskey really just meant the consumer paid a little more for his jug — it wasn't worth getting killed over.

As a result of the events of the Whiskey Rebellion, it became abundantly clear that the new federal government was firmly in charge of the United States and its peoples, not just in the settled cities of the East, but in all the states and territories. There was a role for the state and local authorities, but the ultimate power lay in the hands of the Feds — and they were willing to use force to back that up.

We've been paying taxes on our whiskey ever since.

Note: In preparation for writing this essay, I pulled several volumes off the shelf to consult. The primary book I used was The Age of Federalism by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick (Oxford University Press, 1993). It's a well-regarded and learned treatise on early-American history. Just don't drop it on your foot.