If you're into thinkin' and drinkin'

Episode 19: A Vicious Cocktail – The Algonquin Cocktail

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The story of the Algonquin Cocktail is truly a fascinating, confusing, and possibly widely misattributed one.

610_algonquin_aboutI had heard this story before and loved learning about Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Roundtable.   In 1919 a group of writers, actors and intellectuals began to frequent the Algonquin for lunch every day.  They were known as the Algonquin Round Table or later, The Vicious Circle.  These artists were the intellectual elite of their day.  They became a social group that partied together in the evening and even vacationed together.  They were sharp, clever and full of interesting ideas and banter, but as Dorothy Parker admitted many years later there wasn’t a whole lot of substance.  Groucho Marx refused to have anything to do with them; he considered them too catty to bother with.  They lasted for 10 years as social force in New York before the group faded away as each member chose new paths for their lives.  The Vicious Circle is generally considered disbanded by 1929.

PARKER1-articleLargeThe problems started popping up when I learned that the Algonquin hotel did not serve alcohol, and in fact, the general manager, Frank Case, was a staunch prohibitionist prior to prohibition and didn’t serve alcohol even before it was made illegal. The big question is where were these known lushes drinking?  And why was a cocktail given the name of a dry hotel?  This always struck me wrong.

Jason Kruse likewise became befuddled for the same reasons as he researched this drink.  But as he looked into the history, not only did this story not add up, but he discovered intriguing inconsistencies with the recipe.  As it turns out, there is an older version of this cocktail made with wormwood and Holland gin.  The commonly accepted version of the drink doesn’t appear until later at which point there is a dramatic switch.

Jason proposed an alternate origin story for the Algonquin having nothing to do with the hotel…in fact, the first version of the cocktail precedes the opening of the hotel…the cocktail CAN’T be named after the hotel or the catty gang of literati.

“But wait” you say, “maybe the first Algonquin Cocktail is not related at all to the second. Drinks get the same name all of the time without being related.”  That’s true, but that usually happens with easy popular words.  Also, Jason suggested an alternate story.  If the original recipe called for Holland gin…often that gin is stored in barrels and it acquires a little bit of brownish color…kind of like whiskey.  Also, according to David Wondrich, an 1809 recipe for Holland gin using rye as the base for the spirit was commonly made in the New York region, a product now being bottled by New York Distilling Company called Chief Gowanus Holland gin.  Being possibly a rye spirit, being possibly brown in color, it makes sense the Holland gin might have been swapped with rye whiskey at some point.  As for the wormwood, vermouth, derived from wermuot, meaning wormwood in old German, originally had wormwood until 1915 when wormwood was made illegal.  We suspect that it was easy to keep with the vermouth sans wormwood and so the connection to wormwood falls away as well.  Pineapple was all the rage in the period…I don’t think we need an explanation for it.  So we can see how one cocktail possibly evolved into another.  Now all we need is an explanation for the name to finish off the story.

Algonquin is a regional dialect of Native Americans (I spoke with my friend @KristenDBurton for some insights) and a tribe (in Canada).  Jason found evidence that wormwood was used by Native Americans as a stomach tonic, so he speculated that’s how wormwood became associated with them (and then therefore the cocktail), but Kristen said the Dutch would have been using wormwood the same way as well.  I am curious if the connection can be found in the name of the Chief Gowanus Holland gin.  Why does gin carry the name of a New England Native American chief? (on this point Mr. Wondrich was kind enough to contact me and tell me he just picked it because it’s a popular place name in his neighborhood)  We can’t make the connection.  If any of our readers or listeners can, please share your ideas or theories.  Like I said, if this represents one cocktail evolving over time, then it is not named after the Algonquin Hotel, all we need to do is relate Native Americans somehow to gin or wormwood and we have the whole story.

In any case, here’s the cocktail:

This was a really well loved cocktail.  All of us enjoyed it, even those of us who aren’t big whiskey drinkers.  It blended well with none of the ingredients overpowering the others.  I thought it tasted kind of like coconut but I’m willing to assent to the idea that my brain tasted pineapple and then wanted a pina colada.

All in all, it’s a good, simple drink that seemingly has a fantastic story that only gets more interesting if you consider that it might not be what it seems.

PS I just checked and saw that the Algonquin Hotel has Algonquin cocktails on their menu.  I hope they aren’t pissed.

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Transition music: Cephalopod by Kevin MacLeod
Closing Music: Little Lily Swing by Tri-Tachyon

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