29. Ben-Hur cocktail

18 Sep

Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?

— John 18:11; Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (New York: Harper, 1880), p. 522.

Here’s an interesting Italian take on the vodka martini. The Angostura bitters that were traditionally added to a martini have been replaced with the native Campari, that distinctively bitter liqueur that goes into the negroni.

Saint Vincent, Italy. Dec. 1—A new cocktail, packing the kick of a chariot horse and named “Ben Hur”, was awarded first place last night in a barmen’s contest.

Devised by Lazzaro Baglietto, it contains two-thirds vodka, one-third white vermouth, two drops of bitter campari apperitive, an orange rind and a cherry.

Baltimore Sun, 2 December, 1960, p. 3.

The cocktail was obviously devised as a tribute to the Charlton Heston vehicle released in 1959. That classic film, which won a record-breaking 11 Oscars, was actually the third adaptation of Lew Wallace’s epic 1880 novel Ben-Hur: a Tale of the Christ to be brought to the silver screen. Two silent versions preceded it: the first, in 1907, was just 15 minutes long and the second, in 1925, which starred Ramón Navarro as the Jewish prince, was a huge, early hit for MGM, the same studio that made the later movie.

The novel itself was a bestseller and has never been out of print. Almost immediately after publication there was a clamour for it to be dramatized, but for years Wallace steadfastly refused, objecting to the very idea of portraying Christ on stage. Only when William W. Young proposed an ingenious solution—that Jesus be represented by a beam of light—did Wallace relent. The resulting play ran for 21 years and was seen by over 20 million people. The show-stopper was the live chariot race involving four teams of real horses running on a giant treadmill, their hoof-power turning a 35 ft panoramic backdrop to create the illusion of speed.

The success of both the novel and the play led, in true American fashion, to all sorts of attempts, by private individuals and businesses, to bask in the reflected glory of the “Ben-Hur” name. In 1894 the composer and sheet music publisher E.T. Paull issued the Ben Hur Chariot Race March and the Supreme Tribe Of Ben-Hur, a fraternal beneficial society, was founded in Crawfordsville, Indiana, where Wallace lived. A year later, Cottonwood, a small community in Limestone County, Texas changed its name to Ben Hur. There were Ben-Hur bicycles and Ben-Hur flour and Ben-Hur coffee and Ben-Hur race horses. So why the hell not a Ben Hur cocktail?

Collier's Weekly, vol. 31 (9 May 1903), p. 24.

Lippincott's Magazine Advertiser, Supplement of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, vol. 55 (March 1895), p. 23.


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