55. Remsen Cooler

14 Sep

ImageAt the club there were men enough. It was crowded, except Saturday and Sunday. There was a good deal of quiet gambling, contrary to club rules, and a good many men came up to town for it. There was a great deal of quiet drinking, too. Fat men and thin men, old and young men, sat, smoked, fanned themselves, and drank enormous numbers of Remsen ‘coolers’, getting up the courage, presumably, to roll home in a cab, and let themselves into dark, gloomy, deserted houses, which they called their ‘homes’.

— John Seymour Wood, Gramercy Park: A Story of New York (New York: Appleton, 1892), pp. 168-9.

 It might be a little late in the season – what can I say? I’ve been busy – but Atlanta is still plenty warm enough that, as afternoon gives way to evening, a sensible person thing retreats to the shade of the porch to enjoy a thirst-quenching, pulse-quickening “cooler” (and not the kind of cooler to which William H. Anderson was committed, in his own way).

 In an earlier post we discussed the faddishness of American summer drinks in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when, at the beginning of the estival months, some new refreshing alcoholic draught seemed to catch on, only to be forgotten the following June when the latest craze took hold, then rediscovered the year after that, and so on.

In 1894, for instance, the Chicago Tribune reported that the city’s bartenders were seeing “an increased demand in gin” in July. This was plainly unusual, signifying not only a shift in taste but also a greater medical appreciation of the juniper berry: “The philosophy of this innovation lies in the theory that gin counteracts the injurious effects of beer upon the liver and other organs,” the newspaper explained, adding that it was unable to vouch for the veracity of the hypothesis. Although gin was “the foundation stone” of the martini and gin cocktail, neither of these was “strictly a summer drink”: the former was drunk by its admirers all year round and the latter repelled “a judicious tippler when the sun is high”. The new “toney” gin drinks (the gin fizz, though back in fashion, was an “old-timer”) were the Collins, the Rickey and the Remsen Cooler (“About Hot Weather Beverages”, Chicago Daily Tribune, 22 July 1894, p. 25).

The Remsen Cooler seems to have been born in the late 1880s; the earliest reference of which I’m aware occurs in a story by Edgar Saltus published towards the end of that decade. The last line of The Grand Duke’s Rubies is Alphabet Jones’ command: “I say, waiter, get me a Remsen cooler, please” (Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, vol. XLI, January-June 1888, pp. 123-31). Saltus was evidently fond of the newfangled beverage, because it turns up again a year later in one of his novels:

She had stretched out her hand, but Roland, affecting not to notice it, raised his hat and turned away. Presently, and although, in spite of many a vice, he was little given to drink, he found himself at the bar superintending the blending of gin, of lemon-peel, and of soda; and as he swallowed it and put the goblet down he seemed so satisfied that the barkeeper, with the affectionate familiarity of his class, nodded and smiled. “It takes a Remsen Cooler to do the trick, doesn’t it?” he said.

— Edgar Saltus, The Pace That Kills: A Chronicle (Chicago: Belford, Clarke and Co., 1889), pp. 67-8.

During the next few years scattered references to the Remsen cooler testify both to its novelty and fashionable status. Yet by 1894 this “deplorable form of dissipation”, had, according to the New York Times, already seemingly gone extinct (in Manhattan at least) before being “lately . . . revived at several otherwise reputable clubs.” These remarks, by the way, turn up in an article bemoaning the inconveniences of late-Victorian gentlemanly attire, and especially of the waistcoat, in the summer months: “To one already suffering from the natural plumpness of the ‘middle years’, this costume, in a spell of hot humidity, is simply unbearable,” whined the wilting writer. “It induces profanity, and if persisted in will surely drive the soberest man to repeated Remsen coolers”. After describing in mouth-watering detail exactly how a Remsen Cooler is made, our scribe concludes that to “abolish this kind of dissipation, any dress reform, within reason, ought to be countenanced by a sensible community (“The Shirt Waist”, New York Times, 24 June 1894). I assume that the salutary effects of the Remsen Cooler may be enjoyed even when clothed in the modern American uniform of ill-fitting shorts and polo shirt, although a heavy woolen three-piece suit is the ideal accessory.

Our drink’s rapid rise to prominence was such that by 1896 it was even recognized by the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia: “Remsen cooler, a compound of Old Tom gin, lemon-peel, club soda, and cracked ice.” And that’s really all there is to the Remsen Cooler: gin, club soda, ice and lemon peel. But the preparation of the lemon peel is key, as the following anecdote makes clear, while at the same time offering an origin story for the mixture:

 After the Reporter’s kind invitation had been declined, with the usual ceremonies, the Purveyor astonished all hands by inviting them to partake of a freshly imported beverage known as a “Remsen cooler”. It was a draught, he said, which had been recently brought back from Cohasset, Mass., by the Proprietor, and its inventor was William H. Crane, the popular comedian, who had already filed his application for a copyright. All hands, excepting the Manager, accepted the Purveyor’s kind and unexpected invitation; and he, too, fell into line after he had ascertained that there was no clause in the average insurance policy which excluded death by poisoning. Then the members propped themselves up against the mahogany, and closely watched the construction of the new beverage, two of which were made at a time. First, two deep and slender glasses were stood upon the bar; then the Purveyor took a keen-edged knife and chased the rind off of a lemon, in both an inspiring and spiral manner. This spiral was separated in the middle with the knife, and a snaky piece of lemon-peel found its uncertain way into each glass. Three small lumps of ice followed suit; and also into each glass went what is technically known as a “jigger” of negro gin. A small bottle of Delatour soda then lent its aid, and filled the glasses. The decoction was agitated with a slender spoon, and was then ready for the palate. When every member had been duly provided for, the signal to fire was given, and there was the old familiar gurgle, followed by the highly appreciative and long-drawn-out “Ah-h-h-h!” The “Remsen cooler” had scored an immense hit on the occasion of its first production in Chicago; and it will doubtless be played to “standing-room only” during the hot months.

— William T. Hall, The Turnover Club: Tales Told at the Meetings of the Turnover Club, about Actors and Actresses (Chicago and New York: Rand, McNally and Co., 1890), p. 211.

But where did the potation’s name come from? The New York Times offered a different and rather more convincing explanation: “One of the sons of the late William Remsen originated the Remsen cooler, which is one of the standard drinks at the Union Club. I think it was the late William Remsen, who died very shortly after his father.” (“With the Clubmen” New York Times, 29 June 1902, p. SM10).

And who were the Williams Remsen? The elder William Remsen (1815-1895) was, his obituarist recorded, a “typical representative of those upright, frugal, unostentatious, and intelligent Knickerbockers who by their business sagacity, their probity, and consistent lives formed so valuable a part of the population of this metropolis.” He was a founder and one of the largest stockholders of the Third Avenue surface railroad and for 34 years a Trustee of the Greenwich Savings Bank (“The Obituary Record”, New York Times, 6 March 1895). His son, “Billy”, a stalwart of the Union Club, the oldest private members’ club in New York, was a rather less substantial figure. Yet he won acclaim not only for his alcoholic innovation, but also, as a young man, for his feats on foot: he was, at least in the Woosterish circles in which he moved, a noted “pedestrian”:

He asserted himself as champion of the club in a long-distance walking-match, and his title was disputed by Walter B. Smith, an athlete, whose performances on the flying trapeze, said a member last night, have made him famous in the club. Both Mr Smith and Mr Remsen are noted sportsmen. Mr Smith, a few days ago, wagered a sum which is variously estimated between $50 and $1,000 that Mr Remsen could not walk 27 times around the block bounded by Twentieth and Twenty-first streets and Fifth and Sixth avenues within three hours. The distance was computed by the surveyors of the club to be 10 miles. Yesterday was chosen as the day for the performance of the great feat, and Mr Remsen was promptly on hand at noon with his trainers. Mr Smith, it was understood, would rise in a coupe over the route, following Mr Remsen, but Mr Smith preferred the seclusion of the club-house, saying that it was sufficient for him to gaze from a window and behold Mr Remsen every time he made a ‘lap’. A large party of the sporting element of the club clustered around Mr Smith in the exhilarating atmosphere of the club-house, and tossed off a bumper every time Mr Remsen’s smiling countenance turned the corner of Fifth-avenue and Twenty-first-street. There was no excitement in the street, no crowd of ragamuffins, or any disturbance whatever. Mr Remsen stuck quietly to his task, and complete the 27 laps with 15 minutes to spare. When he entered the club-house he was received with cheers, and Mr Smith called for a ‘basket’. During the afternoon and evening Mr Remsen was the lion among the athletes and pedestrians of the club.

— “Union Club Athletes”, New York Times, 9 February 1881.

Here’s the recipe for a Remsen Cooler from Daly:


—    Daly’s Bartenders’ Encyclopedia (Worcester, MA, 1903), p. 42.

Measurements don’t need to be exact; you might prefer the formula used by a “Michigan Avenue mixer” and printed by the Chicago Tribune: “Cut off the rind of a whole lemon in one piece and wrap the spiral around as large a piece of ice as it will hold. Drop into a tall glass and set before the customer, who also takes the gin bottle and adds as much of that liquor as he likes. Drown the whole in plain soda poured in by the man behind the bar”  (“About Hot Weather Beverages”, Chicago Daily Tribune, 22 July 1894, p. 25).

But be warned: the same newspaper proclaims that the “taste for Remsens is considered an affectation”.


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