25. Polo cocktail (No. 1)

8 Sep

I also advise against drinking cocktails between the play and dinner. The system does not need excitement or stimulant; it needs rest.  While I doubt if one cocktail does any harm, to take several or more than one I believe to be injurious to polo men who want to be in condition to play matches and have their nerve and eye in the best possible shape for the game.

— William Cameron Forbes, As to Polo, 6th edn (Boston: Ellis, 1929), p. 13.

Polo is one of the oldest (and worst) games in the world. The British, who popularized and standardized the modern sport, as they did so many others, picked it up in India in the nineteenth century. Returning pukka sahibs then brought it back to Blighty with them, an event breathlessly reported by the New York Times: “The British aristocracy is looking up! It has invented or discovered a new game, and has gone in for it with a fresh enthusiasm which show how groundless are the charges sometimes brought against it of being worn out and effête.” The newspaper told how, on Tuesday 16 July, 1872 , six officers of the Life Guards played a polo match against the Ninth Lancers at Windsor Park in the presence of the Prince and Princess of Wales. The spectacle was as “near an approach to a tournament of old as modern habits and circumstances will permit”, even though these knights were clad not in armour but flannel jerseys, buckskin breeches and gaiters. The occasion was marked by all the pomp and pageantry mid-Victorian Britain could reliably muster: a trumpeter summoned the contestants to the field of honour, which was flanked by guardsmen in plumed helmets and glistening breastplates and the horse-drawn carriages of the watching ladies-in-waiting. A few days later the same teams played their “hockey on horseback” in front of a more mixed audience of thousands in Woolwich, probably the last time polo has ever attracted an audience of that size: “it is certainly very kind of lords and gentlemen of high degree to exert themselves in this vigorous way, and in such hot weather, for the amusement of the masses,” the reporter respectfully wrote. (“Affairs in England”, New York Times, 3 August 1872). In the same issue of the newspaper an editorial expressed the hope that this ancient game might be revived in America, too, which was relatively poor in “outdoor pastimes” other than boating, baseball and “perhaps” croquet: “‘Polo’ would make an admirable recreation for the country, or even for any city whose suburbs afforded a suitable playground. Not to speak of its interest as a game, or its usefulness as an exercise, the proficiency it would necessarily develop in the noblest of physical accomplishments ought to insure for it general popularity and favor.”

Those democratic sentiments, if they were ever seriously felt, proved to be groundlessly optimistic. Polo quickly established itself, both in Britain and America, as a game for the rich and highborn. Polo clubs sprang up wherever there was money, but did not become, as the Times had hoped, a means of renewing and expanding the ancient equestrian order (knight schools?). Instead they served as exclusive bastions of waspish privilege. Still, at least we, the people got the polo cocktail. Or cocktails, to be precise, because, as so often, there are several variations of the “polo cocktail” in circulation. The “No. 2”, as it is referred to in the Savoy Cocktail Book or Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual (1934), looks about as tasteful and sophisticated as a polo shirt: a mixture of gin, grapefruit and orange juice. “Polo Cocktail No. 1”, however, is much more promising, like a Bronx with lime instead of orange juice. Here’s Duffy’s recipe:

1/3 Italian Vermouth

1/3 French Vermouth

1/3 Dry Gin

Juice of 1/3 Lime.

By the way, an interesting schism opened up between British and American polo players on the subject of cocktails. In 1913 the British polo team was in New York to play in the Hurlingham Cup (a competition between the two nations named after the Hurlingham Club Polo Committee, which had drawn up the first rules of the modern game in 1874). Team members made waves, or least a ripple, when they criticized their American counterparts for downing highballs when the Brits, in accordance with their ancient gentlemanly ritual, were taking high tea. Society hostesses, somewhat sensitive about the manners of New York men, wondered “whether the tea habit after all wouldn’t be safer and better all around than the higball [sic] habit.” One Lillian D. Wald lent her voice to the allegedly growing “tea-in-place-of-highballs-movement” among the smart set: “I have found a great deal of pleasure sitting about a tea table. And I have found that young men could participate in this pleasure to a marked degree. I can’t say, of course, whether they has as much enjoyment out of such afternoons as they could have gained from highball sessions, but I suspect they did. I am sure all of us who come in contact with the highball habit after it has gone far beyond its preliminary stages would be glad to see a shutting off of the habit at the point where young men first come in contact with it” (“Plan to Substitute Tea for Highballs”, New York Times, 5 June 1913). Needless to say, the highball glass was not replaced by the teacup, especially when the Yanks went on to lift the trophy that year; I can’t help but wonder, though, whether the sour remarks of the visiting Limeys inspired the choice of mixer for this particular cocktail.

From: Recreation, vol. 49:1 (July 1913), p. 8.


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