24. Iris and Khartoum cocktails

6 Sep

In 1890 Sid Holland, the presiding genius of the Kimball House bar in Atlanta, unburdened himself to one of the local newspapers: “the fashion of drinking,” he observed, “changes just about as rapidly and is just about as uncertain as the fashion of dress, or any other fashion. Our trade is constantly changing; one season brings a rush for one kind of drink, and for that season we get sick and tired of pushing that one article over the boards with rapid and monotonous routine” (Atlanta Constitution, 6 July 1890, p. 14). He had a point. In the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, Americans were extraordinarily faddish about their drinks. Every year  something new captured the public imagination—and, in an age without air conditioning, golf shorts and expensive bottled water, the search was always on in the summer months for a beverage that would truly refresh parched throats and reinvigorate lethargic bodies. Newspapers ran articles reporting on what happened to be in vogue. In Atlanta, Holland said, the demand was for Apollinaris lemonade, claret punch and Manhattans.

A few years later the New York Times rattled off the succession of recent thirst-quenching trends: rum and ginger ale preceded the “Remsen Cooler”, which gave way to the gin fizz, which in turn was followed by the gin rickey. And despite there being “a movement in favor of the restoration of the famous mint julep of the South”, the paper declared that it was “about time for a new Summer tipple to be due, and some inventive genius in this line is probably at present devoting his abilities to its concoction” (New York Times, 28 June 1896). That story was confirmed by the Washington Post: “One should avoid too many ‘soft’ drinks in hot weather; their effect is as bad as too many of the intoxicants. […] Philadelphia just now is completely given over to gin rickeys, so much so that not much of anything else is called for, and the consumption of the drink in cafes, restaurants, and at bars in the City of Brotherly Love is enormous. […] New Yorkers have done their stunts for the last three seasons on rickeys, both gin and whiskey, and now they are turning their attention to other things in the way of liquid refreshments. They have found from unpleasant experience that so much lime juice is bad for their stomachs. Most New Yorkers take kindly to the Scotch high ball, while many are returning to their old love, the mint julep” [Washington Post, 25 June, 1899, p. 19].

While an excited New York Times in May 1904 had the scoop on novel spring cocktails, including the “tip-topper”, the “brain duster”, the “gin-gin cocktail”, the “Boulanger” and the “Scotch Whistler” (New York Times, 8 May, 1904), it seemed disappointed just a month later that there was “not much different in Summer drinks this season”. At the Union and Knickerbocker clubs the gin fizz and gin rickey were back; the mint julep was once again déclassé (New York Times, 12 June 1904). Nothing, though, that jaded urbanites hadn’t seen before.

Things were looking up in 1910. “Few persons realize just what an expenditure of gray matter is devoted each Summer to the invention of hot-weather drinks,” the Old Gray Lady assured its readers. “The demand for something new in the thirst-quenching line increases apparently with the advent of each Summer, and the professional drink mixers find themselves at their wit’s ends to supply the demand.” The newspaper painted a picture of desperate, pale-skinned alchemists, locked away in the “icy sub-basements” of the big hotels, experimenting with ever more outlandish concoctions as the city baked in the July heat. But their experiments had indeed borne fruit (“Fine Art in Making Cool Summer Drinks”, New York Times,  24 July 1910).

Here are two of the most fashionable summer drinks of 101 years ago, which I assembled based on their descriptions in the New York Times. Both are worthy of resurrection.

The Waldorf-Astoria’s offering was the “Iris”, which proved “the most popular cocktail of the season”. It was made of “one-third lemon juice, two-thirds gin, and half a teaspoonful of sugar, well shaken, and served with a sprig of fresh mint.” It’s lemonade with a kick—and very good.

The drink on the left, the “Khartoum”, was made at the Astor bar and supposedly “first concocted by a newspaper correspondent who accompanied Lord Kitchener on his famous expedition.  It is really an elongated cocktail, and is served in a tall glass with figure ice. The ingredients are a big dash of Angostura bitters, half a jigger of Italian vermuth [sic], half a jigger of French vermouth, a full jigger of gin, and a bottle of club soda.”

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