1.3 Fairbanks Cocktail

18 Aug

Chalmers: That speech will do more to break his influence—

Hubbard: (Interrupting) Than a Fairbanks cocktail. (Both laugh.)

— Jack London, Theft (New York: Macmillan, 1910), p. 8.

Indiana: A literary colony inhabited by major and minor poets, romancists, realists and dramatists. […] Indianapolis, the capital, is the home of the Fairbanks Cocktail Bottling Works.

— Stuart B. Stone, The Nonsensical USA (New York: Caldwell, 1912), p. 8.

Now that all the expected frontrunners for the Republican nomination for president in the US 2012 election have declared their candidacy, and the tedious, protracted, life-sapping process of elimination has begun, let us remember a scandal that, just over 100 years ago, thwarted the ambitions of Vice President Charles W. Fairbanks (1852-1918) for the top job. On Memorial Day in 1907 Fairbanks hosted at his Indianapolis home a lunch for 40 guests, among them President Theodore Roosevelt. One item on the menu caused the Patriot Phalanx, a Prohibitionist weekly, to splutter with rage and start a storm in a martini glass: cocktails (according to some sources: Manhattans). Why was a teetotal Methodist, a man notorious for championing buttermilk over booze, serving (and perhaps drinking) liquor at his table? The increasingly powerful Prohibition Party passed a motion condemning Fairbanks, and the national press gleefully followed suit, denouncing him over what quickly became known as the “cocktail incident”.

When, in July, Fairbanks jumped into Yellowstone Lake to save a drowning waitress, he must have hoped that he would rescue his reputation, too, but many suspected the stunt had been staged. The New York Times wryly suggested that, while the VP’s supporters  saw his actions as an opportunity “to nail the canard about the cocktail” and were confident “he will appear in his true light before the country as a man so fond of water that you can’t keep him away from it”, his enemies “scoff at the story, and assert that it is impossible that anything, even the plight of a waitress, could have stirred the Vice President to do anything so smacking of haste and precipitancy and so indecorous” (9 July 1907).

Despite his strenuous denials that he had any foreknowledge of the apperitifs or that any alcohol had passed his lips (other guests, too, were eager to assert their dry credentials: Indiana Governor J. Frank Hanley insisted that he “did not even eat the cherry that lay in the bottom of the glass” (New York Times, 6 July 1907), the affair cost the man now dubbed “Cocktail Charlie” election as lay delegate to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and eventually the nomination for president. Why was this seemingly innocuous misstep so politically lethal? The answer lies with the growth of the abstinence movement. By the end of 1907 six states were already dry and, south of the Mason Dixon Line, 981 counties had declared for prohibition—and that, Gerald Hoover surmised, once the foam had settled, was the probable explanation of the “uproar occasioned by the recent famous Fairbanks cocktail  incident”.¹

The kerfuffle did have one positive outcome, though: the invention of the Fairbanks cocktail in ironic commemoration of the episode. Already in July 1907 the New York Times was reporting: “A heavy demand for the Fairbanks cocktail has been noticed to-day, and it is predicted . . . that it will yet supersede the Martini and the Manhattan. Any druggist will put you up a Fairbanks cocktail at his prescription counter for $1 or thereabouts. His soda-water clerk will sell you a tolerable imitation for 5, or at most 10, cents” (New York Times, 10 July 1907). The Old Gray Lady was being facetious: the ingredients mentioned in the article amount to nothing more than “aquae limonata” or lemonade.² But a couple of weeks later the Chicago Tribune carried the following story under the headline “More Fame for Fairbanks; Cocktail Bears His Name”:

St. Louis has the Fairbanks cocktail. It was invented last night at McTague’s. It is to be served as a frappe and is as cool as Fairbanks, and it has a cherry in it, too.

It was suggested not by the cold water dip the Vice President took in saving a waitress a watery grave [sic], but by that one lone cocktail the Indiana man took at the dinner given by President Roosevelt.

Henry Hoffman, who wears a white apron, is the inventor. His formula is as follows:

One glassful of cracked ice, one third part of French vermouth, two thirds of dry gin, three dashes creme de noyoux [sic], a dash of orange bitters, a real cherry, and then some more ice—because it’s a Fairbanks cocktail.

In honor of the vice president it is served in tall, thin glasses.

Chicago Tribune, 22 July 1907, p. 1.

The cocktail, a relative of the martini, caught on: it is listed, decades later, in the Savoy Cocktail Book and Vermeire’s Cocktails: How to Mix Them (in the latter instance together with a brief note stating that it was named in honour of Charles Fairbanks, “a friend of Roosevelt”, which is somewhat misleading, since the president was widely suspected of having stitched up his deputy). There is at least one other recipe for the (Charles Warren) Fairbanks cocktail (confusingly, there is another, quite distinct Fairbanks cocktail, named for the actor-producer Douglas Fairbanks, whose Hollywood career didn’t start until 1915). It can be found in Jack’s Manual (1910) : a dash of Boker’s bitters, 90% rye, 10% apple brandy.

Here’s Robert’s formula:

2 dashes of Noyau Rose.

2 dashes of Orange bitters.

1/4 gill of Gin.

1/4 gill of French Vermouth.

Squeeze orange-peel on top.

The recipe in the Savoy Cocktail Book, where the cocktail is listed as Fairbanks No. 2 (and implies it’s named after “Doug” rather than Chuck), sticks closer to the one described in the Tribune story; it’s dryer than Robert’s half-and-half gin and vermouth combination. I also substituted the more widely available Amaretto for creme de noyau:

2 Dashes Crème de Noyau.

2 Dashes of Orange Bitters.

1/3 French Vermouth.

2/3 Dry Gin.

Fairbanks was finally exonerated, but the damage was done. In October 1907 the New York Times decided that “the blame for the disagreeable affair is placed on the shoulders of a woman” and went on to quote from a story in The Interior, a Presbyterian publication in Chicago:

A lady leaving near the Fairbanks home and an intimate friend of the family was about the house on that day, assisting Mrs Fairbanks in the arrangements for the great company to be entertained. When the house and the yard were already full of guests and the attention of Mr and Mrs Fairbanks was occupied with greetings to the visitors, this lady entered the dining room and noted that there were no drinkables on the table.

In her judgement it was impossible to entertain the President of the United States fittingly without some beverage furnished to give the spread the tone to which she believed he was accustomed, and on her own responsibility she undertook to repair the supposed omission. She hastily ordered the cocktails up from her husband’s club. The club steward prepared them and an automobile brought them to the house in great haste.

The first that Mr Fairbanks knew of the violation of his Methodist habits was when he came to the table with his guests. He did not touch the glass at his own plate.

— New York Times, 11 October 1907.

It is one thing for a political career to be ruined by such a manufactured outrage. Worse, though, is the fact that the man on whose behalf the cocktails were speedily procured didn’t even appreciate them. During the controversy, Roosevelt confided to Congressman (later Senator) James E. Watson: “I don’t like cocktails anyhow. I like champagne, and that made the incident at Fairbanks’s home all the more gruesome to me.”³


¹ “The Triumphal Progress of the Water-Wagon”, The Scrap Book, vol. 5 (1908), pp. 343-349 (p. 343).
² This wasn’t the only teetotal cocktail named for Fairbanks: students at the University of Chicago devised a “buttermilk cocktail” on the occasion of his  visit to the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. It was a “snakeless combination of two thirst cures recently encountered by the Vice President”, namely a “cocktail” and “buttermilk”, supposedly his beverage of choice. The recipe: “Take a tall, thin glass, drop in a chunk of ice; insert a long slice of cucumber, then fill with buttermilk. That’s all!” (“Buttermilk Cocktail”, Washington Post, 27 July, 1907, p. 6)
³ James E. Watson, As I Knew Them: Memoirs of James E. Watson, former United States Senator from Indiana (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1936), p. 86.

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