If you're into thinkin' and drinkin'

Episode 37: Knickerbockers Everywhere – Knickerbocker

Episode #37 is about Knickerbockers. Besides being a really fun word to say, Knickerbockers are a real thing that has significance in American history.  In 1809 Washington Irving wrote a satirical history of New York under the pen name Diedrich Knickerbocker.  That’s where the term is born.  That name became synonymous with the Dutch elite of New York, remembering that originally New York was once called New Amsterdam by the Dutch population.  As New England became more of a colony managed by the English unwanted, namely the Puritans, we see the groups drawing cultural boundaries and let’s face it, part of that dynamic is name-calling. 

Originally all of the American colonists were called Yankees (derived from the Dutch version of Johnny), but once the revolution was over they needed to stir up more conflict so the English drew the distinction by calling the Dutch Knickerbockers while the English kept Yankees.  After a while the term Knickerbocker referred just to New Yorkers.  When the Civil War broke out that distinction melted away as the new competing factions were now the Yankees and Rebels.  Today, outside the United States, Yankee just means American.

But for our story, we just want to spotlight the Yankee-Knickerbocker relationship.  To the Puritan Yankees the Knickerbockers were considered sinful, profligate and frivolous people who drank alcohol and took in entertainment like theater and dancing.  Keep in mind, this was a negative characterization.  Puritans were making fun of the Dutch for feeling good and being entertained.  By the 1860s when we have a hard first date for this cocktail’s existence, the Puritans had essentially lost the culture war and a life of joy became something to celebrate…with its own cocktail.

The Knickerbocker is:

  • 2 oz Virgin Islands Rum
  • ½ oz Orange Curacao
  • ½ oz Raspberry Syrup
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • Piece of orange
  • Piece of pineapple

I liked this drink.  If you look at the picture you can see that it looks kind of like something you could find in the Caribbean, brightly colored and festooned with fruit.  This was surprising given its urban origins, but then I have to think, back then fruit may have had more swanky connotations than exotic or tropical.

Let me just say: I had no idea.  Seriously.  I’ve heard the word before, but I just figured it was foolishness from a Roald Dahl story or something.  But the term has deep American history roots that come up today almost invisibly.  The Knicks sportball club is named after them.  A style of pants (knickerbockers) is named after them as well as undergarments (knickers).  There are also other foods and drinks adapting the name as well as various organizations and businesses that draw the association.  So many references but I bet not much knowledge of the origins of that kooky word.

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