53. League of Nations cocktail (and Peace cocktail)

8 Mar

Following the squabble over the ratification of the Versailles treaty in the Senate, some Briton remarked that, “the Americans are a strange people. They invented the Treaty of Versailles and refused to sign it. They invented the League of Nations and refused to join it. They invented the cocktail and refused to drink it.” It now appears the Europe is hopeful that, having decided to drink cocktails again (lawfully) this country may recant on its refusal to recognize some of its other children.

— “Cocktails and International Cooperation”, St Petersburg Times, 12 December 1934, p. 4.

Cyril Ray, wine writer for The Observer newspaper in the 1960s, once noted how “all those mixed-up drinks for the mixed-up drinkers of the 1920s . . . ‘Monkey Gland‘ and ‘Mah Jongg‘ among them: ‘Between the Sheets‘ and ‘Bosom Caresser’; ‘Wembley’ and ‘White Cargo’ and even, heaven preserve us, the ‘League of Nations'” have gone the way of those named after the stars of the silent films of the time: Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Will Rogers and the Gish Sisters”. His point, of course, is that cocktail fashions, like the popular culture of which they are part, are ephemeral, changeable and quickly forgotten  (In a Glass Lightly [London: Methuen, 1967],  p. 23). Quite right.  But why precisely should the League of Nations cocktail elicit a request for divine assistance and not, say, the White Cargo (half vanilla ice cream and half gin), a mess described by Anderson Fredericks as “pretty silly but there are those who like it (100 Cocktails [Girard, KS: Haldeman-Julius, n.d.], p. 20)? What was so objectionable about a drink apparently honoring the other Noble Experiment of the 1920s, one that was just as likely to fail as Prohibition, an organisation founded in the aftermath of the Great War “to promote international co-operation and to secure international peace and security” (Preamble to the Constitution of the League of Nations)? (To secure security? Such clumsiness did not augur well.)

Let’s find out. One version of this cocktail is first mentioned in the gossip pages of the New Yorker:

MIXTURES REPORTED: The League of Nations cocktail—four parts gin, one part Italian Vermouth, one part French Vermouth and a dash of Dutch Curaçao.  Add the white of one egg and shake vigorously.
— “The Talk of the Town”, The New Yorker (24 September 1927), pp. 15-19 (p. 19).
Although the guiding principle of the drink is clearly in evidence here—a deliberately cosmopolitan blend of liquors, English, Italian, French, Dutch—this is not a particulary innovative (or offensive) concoction. Plenty of cocktails such as the Bronx, the RAC, or the Perfect combined gin with sweet and dry vermouths. But here’s another recipe, this one by famed Swiss gastronome Harry Schraemli:
1 dash Rigi cherry brandy, 1 dash grenadine, 1 dash Curaçao, 1/6 vodka, 1/6 gin, 1/6 Canadian Club whiskey, 1/6 Italian Vermouth, 1/6 Chartreuse de Tarragone. Serve in a Rhine wine glass.
— Universal Getränkebuch (Lucerne: Fachbuchverlag der Union Helvetia, 1935), p. 185.
I imagine this, or something very like it, was what caused Ray such discomfort: it does look as if Schraemli just threw together whatever he could lay his hands on. It’s gimmicky, sure, and unbalanced,  but to my surprise not completely awful, even if, as always happens when you mix too many colours, you end up with an unappetizing brown. But it has a hell of lot more teeth than the League itself did. (But since Germany had left the League of Nations in 1933, it ought really to be served in a different glass.)
The idea of marrying liquors native to, or associated with, different countries for symbolic effect crops up again and again in the history of cocktails (see also the Roosevelt). The World Disarmament Conference, an early attempt at multilateral arms limitation that took place under the aegis of the League of Nations and whose president, Arthur Henderson, would later win the Nobel Peace Prize, was launched in 1932 with a special toast:

In honor of the president of the Disarmament Conferences, Arthur Henderson, the British ex-Foreign Secretary, a new cocktail has been invented and revealed to the world with mock solemnity in Geneva.

The ingredients are vodka, sherry, gin and French vermouth in equal parts, with a dash of Angostura bitters.

— “New ‘Peace Cocktail’ Devised in Geneva”, Baltimore Sun, 27 March 1932, p. 13.

The failure of those talks, due entirely to the harsh realities of international politics (and specifically the remilitarization of Germany) rather than excessive devotion to an unworkable union of alcoholic ingredients, led, of course, to a second global conflict. And after the armistice that eventually followed, to another libation poured in celebration of Irene. At a state luncheon hosted by French President Félix Gouin in 1946 British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin “tried to link the nations with a ‘peace cocktail’: one-half English gin, one-quarter Russian vodka and one-quarter French vermouth”
(“The Path of Peace”, Time, 6 May 1946). Note the ratio: Britain was milking every last moment in the limelight, before it was demoted to a supporting role on the world stage.
And 15 years later, when the Cold War was really hotting up, so to speak, yet more similarly themed beverages are listed in The Diner’s Club Drink Book. The “Allies cocktail” is a kind of martini, consisting of 1 oz. dry vermouth, 1 oz. dry gin and 1/2 teaspoon kümmel brand (Matty Simmons, The Diners’ Club Drink Book [New York: Regents American Publishing Corp., 1961], p. 30). Less palatable, but much more lethal is the aptly named “Berlin Binge”:
Invented by Jean Gaste at Le Tangage in Paris, and dedicated to the harmonious association of the four great world powers; the Binge consists of Bourbon (American), Gin (English), Cognac (French), and Vodka (Russian), garnished with an olive (preferably a green olive), symbolizing the olive branch of peace. Mix equal parts of the four liquors, symbolizing equality of the four powers (Ibid., p. 42).
It’s not an impossible dream, is it? That a shared cocktail can lead to the concord of nations? Make drinks, not war!
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