42. Corpse Reviver cocktail

11 Nov

“Offer him a cocktail. What’s the French for corpse-reviver? Get busy, Crump.”

— P.G. Wodehouse, The Prince and Betty (New York: Watt, 1912), p. 89.

Jimmy stood before the table mixing fresh cocktails, the shaker in violent action. While he was asking Ruzzini whether he preferred a Manhattan or a Corpse Reviver, Lady Diana inspected her guest. She had been immediately impressed by the agreeable sound of his voice—the voice of a man irresistible to women …

— Maurice Dekobra, The 13th Lover (London: Payson and Clarke, 1928), p. 65.

In 1898 the joint forces of France and Germany launched a surprise attack on Britain. Their aim: to dismantle the Empire and share the spoils between them. When (not for the first time in the years to come) an initially hesitant America could no longer ignore its cultural ties to the mother country and announced it would stand firm with Britain against its European enemies, there was jubilation in London, as Britishers and expatriate Yankees felt a renewed sense of kinship.

Everyone spoke to everyone else, and over a whisky and soda a reign of brotherhood began. “I can’t do much,” said one of the crowd to his own circle of excited listeners. “But blow me if I don’t go in for American drinks. Here, miss, a corpse reviver, please.” Never were the American bars so popular as through the next week or so. It was a tribute that the least might pay to a new ally!

— Louis Tracy, The Final War (New York: Putnam, 1896), p. 200.

For at least half a century British writers had been fascinated by the weird and wonderful world of “American drinks”. But it’s telling that, in Tracy’s novel, one of many in the 1890s and early 1900s predicting a future conflict with Germany, it is specifically the  “corpse reviver” that is poured in celebration. Just as, to later generations, the martini and the manhattan would become synonymous with the cocktail, so for the Victorians the “corpse reviver”, along with a few other exotically-named and largely extinct beverages (and always the same ones),  was iconic and instantly evocative of the whole species. So, for example, one vistor noted, correctly, that “every thing you drink in America is iced; whether it is brandy-cocktail, gin-sling, corpse-reviver, stone-fence, eye-opener, New Jersey lightning, mint-julep, Japanese, or Catawba cobbler” (“American Hotels and American Food”, Temple Bar, vol. 2, p. 353 [1861], pp.  345-56 [p. 353]). Another observer of American hostelries sounded an awestruck note when he recited what would become a familiar litany: “The number and variety of the ‘drinks’ themselves is extraordinary. I should not have room for a list of them even if I could remember one half the strange titles. But there are the ‘cocktail’, ‘smash’, “sling”, ‘julep’, the ‘back straightener’, the ‘corpse reviver’, ‘moral suasion’, the ‘bottomless pit’, and many others (Stephen Buckland, “Eating and Drinking in America: A Stroll Among the Saloons of New York”, Macmillan’s Magazine, vol. 16 [October 1867], 453-64 [p. 458]).

From: Judy, vol. 33 (31 October 1883), p. 216.

By the time Tracy’s novel was published, however, and even by the time these accounts were written, the bolder British bibber had been able to enjoy American drinks without leaving London.  In the early 1860s “Professor” Jerry Thomas himself was demonstrating the novel art of mixology in a bar on Coventry Street (near Haymarket), and by 1880 there were several American bars operating in London, foremost among them the one run by Leo Engel in the Criterion (in Piccadilly Circus and still open today). One of the drinks Thomas was reported to prepare was called “Corpse Reviver”. The U.S. exhibits at both the London Exposition of 1862 and the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867 featured mock American bars dispensing potations native to the great republic, among them the corpse reviver (the Parisian display, incidentally, was called the “Professor’s Bar”). That drink figures in a tale published in 1862, in which James Payn is taken to “the American Bar” as a way of avoiding a bothersome social obligation. After paying lip service to the established pantheon of spirits, he is served a “Corpse Reviver” by the “Transatlantic gentleman” presiding there—presumably Jerry Thomas:

As I watched the liquid fly from one crystal vessel to another in his nimble hands, I perceived that milk was an ingredient, and my heart sank within me. He promised, however, that a tumbler of this would make another man of each of us, and, in a certain limited sense, he was right. The immediate effect of the Corpse Reviver was to fill us with an extraordinary courage and determination.

— “How I Stopped the Brownes from Asking Me to ‘Come in the Evening’”, Chambers Journal, vol. 17, no. 431 (5 April 1862), pp. 220-3 (pp. 222-3).

The “corpse reviver”, even if it was just the name rather than the thing itself, was so familiar that it could be mentioned in a treatise on angling or an article on the development of photographs.¹ This repeatedly drew the ire of Americans. For them the corpse reviver was an ersatz drink, about as authentic as  Dolmio pasta sauce or an Irish pub in Kuala Lumpur.  A writer styling himself simply “An American” despaired of the “beverages called ‘corpse-revivers’ sold as American drinks near the Haymarket” and “an American restaurant totally misrepresented at the Paris Exposition”. Genuine Yankee drinks, he continued, “have names strange enough; but the fact that certain decoctions are called ‘brandy-smashes’, ‘mint juleps’, and ‘sherry-cobblers’, scarcely justifies the invention of the Haymarket ‘corpse-reviver'” (“English Hotels”, Every Saturday, vol. 5 [30 May 1868], pp. 691-4 [p. 691]). James Maitland, author of The American Slang Dictionary, and therefore someone who ought to know, was just as scornful of “the names invented in London and Paris for the so-called ‘American drinks’—the ‘corpse reviver’, the ‘nigger-girl’s smile’ [!] and the ‘Pride of Columbia’. No man living in the United States ever heard of the one or drank the other, or if he did he never lived to tell the story” (The American Slang Dictionary [Chicago: Kittredge,1891], pp. 8-9). Let’s call one more witness, just to prove that this corpse reviver business really did irk the purists:

The popular idea of American drinks in London as paraded on programmes at some of the hotel and public bars seems to have been derived from the Western stories of Davy Crockett’s time or the dime novel series of cow-boys and mining life. Perhaps the author has not been in the right locality in America, but certainly, in a pretty extensive series of rambles in his own country he has failed to find such titles for mixed drinks as Pick-me-up, Corpse Reviver, Buckshot, Bull’s Eye Hitter, Lay me out, Cock of the Walk, Cowboy’s Delight, Lightning Swizzle, Sherry Slap Up, Whiskey wake’em up. Why, in the name of all that is absurd it should be thought such appellations as these are American and would be attractive to Americans in London, none but the genius who contrived them can tell.

— Curtis Guild, Britons and Muscovites, or Traits of Two Empires (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1888), pp. 37-8.

This was wounded national pride: before the twentieth century a still-young American culture had exported little beyond its shores apart from Mark Twain and cocktails. And here was a bunch of Limeys taking liberties with their libations!² But surely these commentators were not suggesting that the term “corpse reviver” itself was of European provenance. By the late nineteenth century it was clearly established as a colloquialism, both in American and British English—one that could refer to a morning bracer or a patent medicine or any improvised combination of alcoholic fluids designed to lubricate the human machine. Here are a few examples of that use:

1. And if a critic follows at a respectful distance in the wake of his author, and tries to understand the man he passes judgment upon, he becomes tame, his sentences flag; he must—like a New Yorker at a drinking-bar—have his ‘nip’ to screw him up. He is languid without acid; his mental stomach wants something that bites; but after he has taken, again to quote our Cousins, his ‘gum-tickler’, or ‘corpse-reviver’, he is galvanized by the venom into being slightly amusing.

— J. Hain Friswell, “On Health of Mind”, in The Gentle Life: Essays in Aid of the Formation of Character (London: Sampson, Low and Marston, 1870), pp. 287-pp. 293-4.

2. . . . and it is not impossible that somebody may yet advertise a ‘corpse-reviver’ at only one dollar a bottle.

— “Some Old Patent Medicines”, Popular Science News, vol. 24:8 (August 1890), p. 126.

3. I had the distinguished honour to be with Chamley Turner the joint inventor of a most successful ‘corpse-reviver’, as we called it, the potency of which was so great, as Turner used to say with a roar of laughter, either to kill or cure at 100 yards. Turner used to sit upon a bed holding up a dying Egyptian soldier in his brawny left arm, with a cup of the corpse-reviver in his right hand. It being Ramadan, we had always the greatest difficulty to make them during the daytime take medicine even which would contain brandy . . .

— Andrews Haggard, Under Crescent and Star (London: Blackwood, 1895), p. 65.

4. Once on board, a ‘corpse reviver’ was the first thing we demanded. A ‘ reviver’ for one man consisted of an egg, a squeeze of lemon, a little sugar, a dash of Angostura, worked up with a swizzle-stick. To this was added a wine-glass of square gin or whisky.

— Alfred Searcy, In Australian Tropics (London: Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1907), p. 189.

So that was one, general sense in which the phrase was used. But at least since Jerry Thomas, who, as I say, seems to have peddled a drink in London called the “Corpse Reviver”, the name designated a specific beverage, too. The trouble is, that name seems to have been promiscuously attached to all manner of compounds. And that may have been the real problem for the American grumblers. ( After all, if a drink was mixed by Jerry Thomas, the famed alcoholic resurrectionist, surely there can be no question of its authenticity?)

What was in these Corpse Revivers? If Payn’s anecdote, which I quoted above, does in fact feature a cameo from the “Professor”, as I suspect it does, then Mr Thomas’ mixture involved milk at the very least. Perhaps it was a kind of flip or milk punch. The French writer Prosper Mérimée, who visited the London Exposition, mentions mint juleps and corpse revivers among the beverages “more or less diabolical” to be had there: “All these drinks are made of gin, more or less disguised” (including the julep?) (Letters to an Unknown, Letter CCLI [6 June 1862], in Writings of Prosper Mérimée, vol. 8 [New York: Croscup & Holby, 1905], p. 167). A former teacher recalled a “corpse-reviver” among the “amazing concoctions that passed for American drinks” at a Paris café . He never knew its ingredients “but in a small tall cylindrical glass one saw disposed in due order a lovely set of bands  of cherry red, yellow and green”  (Pierce Butler, Laurel Hill and Later (New Orleans: Crager, 1954), p. 40). So a pousse café, in other words. The earliest recipe I’ve found is from The Gentleman’s Table Guide, and this medley bears no resemblance to later versions: “Half wineglass of brandy, half glass of Maraschino, and two dashes of Boker’s bitters” (E. Ricket and C. Thomas, The Gentleman’s Table Guide [London: Warne, 1873], p. 45).

Some 60 years later, the Savoy Cocktail Book includes two recipes for the Corpse Reviver, which I followed here. No. 2 is undeniably a more refreshing and interesting drink than No. 1:

Corpse Reviver No. 1:  ¼ Italian Vermouth, ¼ Apple Brandy or Calvados, ½ Brandy.

Corpse Reviver No. 2: ¼ Wine Glass Lemon Juice, ¼ Wine Glass Kina Lillet, ¼ Wine Glass Cointreau, ¼ Wine Glass Dry Gin, 1 Dash Absinthe.

A slightly later recipe in the Café Royal Cocktail Book appears to be combination of the two Savoy versions topped off with bubbly: 1/3 Brandy, 1/3 Orange Juice, 1/3 Lemon Juice, 2 dashes Grenadine. Shake, pour into a claret glass and fill with champagne.

I’m struck by the fact that brandy is an ingredient in three separate iterations of the drink. I wonder if this has anything to do with the putative “medicinal” virtues of the spirit?

* * * * *

¹  Discussing the effect of spirits on fish out of water, H. Cholmondeley-Pennell writes (jocularly): “Should brandy and water, however, fail in any case to produce the desired revival, there will still be a chance left, viz. try the well-known alcoholic concoction beloved by the frequenters of American bars, called a ‘corpse-reviver'” (Fishing: Pike and other Coarse Fish [London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1885], p. 179).

² At least one Englishman was unimpressed by these “sensation drinks” from across the sea. George Edwin Roberts, originally writing in 1863, declared that he would “pass the American bar, with its bad brandies and fiery wine” and (rather prematurely) pronounced himself satisfied with the “poor success which ‘Pick-me-ups’, ‘Corpse-revivers’, ‘Chain-lightning’, and the like have had in this country” (Cups and their Customs, 2nd edn [London: J. Van Voorst, 1869], p. 35). Surely that was wishful thinking.


One Response to “42. Corpse Reviver cocktail”


  1. 50 awesome things to do in autumn | Fur Coat, No Knickers - September 27, 2012

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