33. Blue Bird cocktail

2 Oct

And so remember this:  Life is no abyss. Somewhere there’s a bluebird of happiness.

— Sandor Harmati and Edward Heyman, “Bluebird of Happiness” (1934).

If the Café Royal Cocktail Book is any guide, mixed drinks entered their blue period during the 1920s and 1930s. That collection, compiled by Bill Tarling, the head honcho of the Café Royal and president of the United Kingdom Bartenders’ Guild, to showcase the most recent contributions to the art of the cocktail, includes such creations as Blue Barn Farm, Bluebeard’s Passion, Bluebottle,  Blue Bouquet, Blue Fleet, Blue Jacket, Blue Lady, Blue Peter, Blue Riband, Blue Skies, Blue Star and  . . . the Nervo-Knox, named after Jimmy Nervo and Teddy Knox, a pair of British slapstick comedians who were members of the Crazy Gang.

Let’s try one, shall we? How about Tarling’s very own Blue Bird.

1/2 Vodka.

1/4 Cointreau.

1/4 Lemon Juice.

3 dashes Maraschino.

3 dashes Blue Extract.

Café Royal Cocktail Book (London: Pall Mall, 1937), p. 37.

This is basically the blue-rinsed grandmother of the Cosmopolitan and a cousin of the White Lady. As we’ve mentioned before, vodka was a pretty rare cocktail ingredient before the Second World War; only in the 1950s did it become popular in the west. So the Blue Bird has novelty value, but little else: vodka is a notoriously undemonstrative base, and the citrus flavours of the Cointreau and lemon juice (as well as of the 1/2 tsp of blue Bols that I used instead of food dye) dominate to produce a perfectly pleasant drink, albeit one lacking distinction and complexity. (The Nervo-Knox is similar, though more lurid in colour, consisting of 1/3 vodka, 1/3 blue Curaçao, 1/6 lemon juice and 1/6 lime juice. That’s a lot of blue Curaçao.)

Given its cerluean hue, the Blue Bird’s name is at first glance self-explanatory, but I wonder if there’s more to the moniker than a simple ornithological reference. One possible inspiration was the great Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1908 play L’Oiseau bleu, about two children, Tyltyl and Mytyl, who are sent by the fairy Bérylune to search for the legendary bluebird of happiness.

The play was a huge success throughout Europe, was twice filmed (first in Britain in 1910, then in the US eight years later), before being adapted into an opera by its author in collaboration with the composer Albert Wolff. Maeterlinck travelled to New York in December 1919 for the premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House. His visit, as well as the opera’s opening, created quite a stir:

During the first week Maeterlinck was in America, New York went Blue Bird mad . . . At quarantine, Maeterlinck was handed a box of lead pencils; they were blue and his name was stamped upon them. The small wife, who stood by his side, was presented with an enamel blue bird in the shape of a pin. Alas and alack—and here Maeterlinck shrugged his shoulders over the tragedy—no Blue Bird cocktail in a prohibition country, where the Blue Bird for Happiness has alighted.

— Montrose J. Moses, “Maeterlinck, the Robust Mystic”,  The Independent, vol. 101, no. 3705 (17 January 1920), pp. 97- 9, 118 (pp. 97-8).

Madame Maeterlinck, a mere slip of a girl at 19 years old, was presumably too young to remember bluebird-themed accessories from the first time around. When the original play began its Broadway run a decade previously, the New York Times assured its women readers that they would want to emulate their counterparts in London and Paris, who for the past season had been wearing bluebird charms, brooches,  pendants and hatpins. English ladies went even further: the latest thing was to have “a good-sized blue bird fashioned in plush to perch on top of a motor car” (“The Bluebird of Happiness”, New York Times, 18 December 1910).

But we’re getting sidetracked. More important is the suggestion, in the above description of  Maeterlinck’s arrival, that by 1919 a Blue Bird cocktail had already been invented and very possibly in tribute to the poet’s best-known work (or at least its recent cinematic and operatic adaptation).  That this one was Tarling’s, however, is doubtful, not least because Manhattanites would hardly be familiar with a cocktail “made in Britain”. And anyway, it seems too early: although the first American bar in London had opened at the Criterion in 1878, the cocktail craze would not truly take off until the mid-1920s. Or perhaps Tarling named his creation after the 1934 song “Bluebird of Happiness”, written by Sandor Harmatti and Edward Heyman. It was a hit for tenor Jan Peerce in 1936 (under the name Paul Robinson) and an even bigger hit for him when he recorded another version in 1945.

Whatever the source of Tarling’s inspiration, one thing is clear. He knew, like we know, where the bluebird of happiness could always be found:  at the bottom of a cocktail glass.

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2 Responses to “33. Blue Bird cocktail”

  1. Alan Gair March 11, 2015 at 4:05 pm #

    Researching W.J. Tarling and came across this site. I have a copy of the Cafe Royal Cocktail book signed by W.J. Tarling in August 1938. Can anybody tell me what it is worth?

    • Cocktail 101 March 11, 2015 at 5:25 pm #

      A lot. Is it hand-signed? (The frontispiece of the book features a sketch of Tarling and the reproduced signature “At your service – WJ Tarling”.) Even unsigned, the first edition is extremely valuable. I saw one for either $500 or £500 a few years ago; there is one available here for $1800 (!): http://www.thecarycollection.com/products/30100

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