That Dandy, Randy, Brandy Alexander
A tale of cocktails, lobsters, Ziegfeld girls, and gossip columnists
“Bond had been told to look for a man with a heavy mustache who would be by himself drinking an Alexandra. Bond had been amused by the secret recognition signal. The creamy, feminine drink was so much cleverer than the folded newspaper, the flower in the buttonhole, the yellow gloves that were the hoary, slipshod call-signs between agents.” — Ian Fleming, "Risico"
For a relatively short story, Ian Fleming packs a lot of drinking into "Risico," the tale of James Bond attempting to foil a mysterious smuggler, portions of which were adapted for the movie For Your Eyes Only, starring Roger Moore. Unraveling the plot requires 007 to spend an inordinate amount of time drinking at what seems to be every cafe in Italy, where his reverie is often interrupted by tourists and "French culture snobs." One would think that a concoction as frivolous as the Brandy Alexander, in a scene that occurs at the Hotel Excelsior, would be met with nothing but contempt from the hard-drinking secret agent, but Bond — and by extension, Ian Fleming — was nothing if not unconventional. Bond may not order one for himself, but given the scorn he's been heaping on other drinks in the story, including ones he previously enjoyed, the Alexandra gets off relatively unscathed.
As with many classic cocktails, its origin is unclear. As is the exact recipe — to say nothing of the spelling, which includes Alexander, Alexandre, Alexandra, and I'm sure someone somewhere refers to it with a Castilian flourish as an "Alejandro." The version most often remembered today is the Brandy Alexander, but brandy wasn't always the star attraction. The original version called for creme de cacao, sweet cream, and gin. It was reportedly invented by bartender Troy Alexander at New York restaurant Rector’s. He wanted to create a drink to serve during a dinner celebrating the popular advertising character Phoebe Snow (not to be confused with the singer-songwriter who was born some years later). Phoebe Snow was clad all in white and used to promote “clean-burning” coal by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad.
This story was first published by gossip columnist Walter Winchell. "That Loathsome Winchell" was one of the pioneers of sleazy tabloid journalism and the inspiration for gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker in the film Sweet Smell of Success. Witness Hunsecker, as played with icy viciousness by Burt Lancaster, presiding over his court of followers and sycophants at his regular table at New York's ‘21’ Club, making and breaking careers with a single tossed-off sentence. And then compare it to a New York Times' description of Winchell: "Hated, feared and revered, he presided over Table 50 of the Stork Club on East 53d Street in Manhattan, creating and destroying celebrities at the drop of his trademark gray snap-brim fedora." (Note 1)
Time referred to him as "gun-toting, fox-faced Walter Winchell, No. 1 U. S. transom-peeper." (Note 2) In 1940, investigative journalist St. Clair McKelway wrote a series of articles eviscerating Winchell in the same way Winchell would take the scalpel to others. According to McKelway, Winchell was an intimate friend of infamous New York bootlegger and Cotton Club owner Owney Madden, "that banty little rooster from hell." (Note 3) That was until Winchell began to fear for his own life. He skedaddled to the west coast in 1932 for a reset and came back a staunch proponent of law, order, and J. Edgar Hoover. According to writer Michael Herr, famous for the acclaimed Vietnam War book Dispatches and the author of Walter Winchell: A Novel, Winchell even brokered the surrender of Murder, Inc. hitman Louis "Lepke" Buchalter to the FBI. (Note 4)
When he wasn't busy with the underworld and the FBI, Winchell's reports on the infamous 1932 "Lindbergh Kidnapping" kept America on the edge of its seat. He was staunchly anti-Nazi before it was fashionable, and staunchly anti-Communist when it became fashionable. His enduring legacy is that of the mudslinging gossip column he began writing for the New York Daily Mirror in June, 1929 — a residency that lasted well over thirty years and gained him as many readers as enemies.
All of which is to say that Winchell's assertion regarding the origin of the Alexander is about as believable as it is unbelievable.
According to this article by Barry Popik, one of the first references in print to the Alexander was in the October 3, 1915 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, in which the newspaper asserts that the drink was invented at the Racquet Club in honor of Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, who helped lead the team to a World Series appearance. Writes the paper, "The head bartender has even gone so far as to invent an Alexander cocktail, which he is reserving to be served during the World's Series." Given the outcome of the series, which Boston won four games to one, either quite a few or very few Alexanders must have been consumed at the Racquet Club that year.
One of the earliest recipes for the Alexander appeared in print that same year, in 1915's Recipes for Mixed Drinks by Hugo Ensslin, head bartender at the Hotel Wallick in New York. According to the book:
1/3 El Bart Gin*
1/3 Creme de Cocoa**
1/3 Sweet Cream
Shake well in a mixing glass with cracked ice, strain and serve.
* El Bart was a dry gin, no longer available but any good dry gin should do. I mean, you're pouring cream into it. However, better ingredients make a better cocktail, so try it with Eau Claire Distillery Parlour Gin (silver medal, 2018 NY International Spirits Competition).
** That's how it's spelled in the book.
At the time of its publication, Recipes for Mixed Drinks was a nothing book by an unknown bartender — this, during the great last fling of "celebrity" bartenders before they all moved overseas thanks to Prohibition. And therein lies the reason Ensslin's tome would, during the cocktail revival of the 21st century, become so celebrated. It was, likely, the last professional cocktail guide published in the US before Prohibition (subsequent editions having come out in 1916 and 1917). As such, it operates as sort of a "last known photo" of pre-Prohibition drinks. What's more, the vast majority of recipes were Ensslin originals, and for a bartender of no notable reputation, bartenders and bartending guides sure were fond of reprinting Ensslin's recipes. Harry Craddock's Savoy Cocktail Book would have, according to cocktail historian David Wondrich, been slimmer by at least 146 recipes if not for Ensslin's creations. (Note 5)
Harry Craddock's Savoy Cocktail Book recipe is the same as Ensslin's. Not so, the recipe in Jack's Manual on The Vintage & Production, Care & Handling of Wines, Liquors &c., by Jacob Abraham Grohusko. The author, about which little information is readily available, justified writing the book based on "practical experience through long association with the leading American hotels and clubs." It's usually dated to 1910, but the only version I've found available is the 4th edition from 1916, so I'm not 100% certain that the first edition contains all the same recipes. What I am certain of is that the Alexander of Jacob Abraham Grohusko is a different beast than what was popularly accepted as an Alexander:
75% rye whiskey
1 piece of ice
Twist of orange peel. Stir and serve. I recommend Basil Hayden Dark Rye. Their regular rye won Double Gold at the 2018 NY International Spirits Competition, and while that edition can be hard to find, the Dark Rye is around and ready.
That's much closer to the Monte Carlo, a Manhattan variation first recorded in David Embury’s 1948 guide, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.
2 oz rye whiskey
.5 oz Bénédictine
1-2 dashes Angostura bitters
Fill a mixing glass 2/3 full of ice, and add the ingredients. Stir for about 30 seconds, until well chilled, and strain into a chilled rocks glass.
Incidentally, Ensslin's book also contains a recipe for something called, as fate would have it, the Phoebe Snow, named of course in honor of that pure, white-clad spokesperson for anthracite coal:
1.5 oz Courvoisier VSOP Cognac (Gold medal, 2018 NYISC)
1.5 oz Dubonnet
1 teaspoon absinthe (such as Absinthia Absinthe Blanche, gold medal, 2018 NYISC)
Fill a mixing glass halfway with ice. Add the cognac, Dubonnet and absinthe. Stir vigorously, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and serve.
Which brings us back, in circuitous fashion, to Troy Alexander and Rector's.
“Your recent reference to the Alexander cocktail recalls the incident which caused this drink to be originated.”
So begins Walter WInchell's "Your Broadway and Mine," which appeared in the March 21, 1929 edition of the Evening Independent. However, the full text of that article casts light on the claim that it was Winchell himself who told the story. He is, in fact, reprinting a story, as recounted to him by someone named "Felix."
Continues Felix, “Some years ago, during the period when ‘Phoebe Snow’ was being featured in the Lackawanna railroad advertising, the officials of the company arranged for a dinner at Rector’s. Troy Alexander was then associated with the famous place, and to him fell the assignment of planning the dinner in a big way.”
“He decided to follow the ‘Phoebe Snow’ idea, in which white was the predominating note,” Felix adds. “After getting the dinner pretty well laid out, Alexander found himself stuck when it came to concocting a white drink with a lot more potency than milk. For several days he experimented, and finally hit upon the cocktail that bears his name, and which, in case you do not know, may now be had in every country in the world where a mixed drink is available, including, of course, America.” (Note 6)
Rector’s was the (somewhat bawdy) toast of New York in its day, an opulent restaurant opened in 1899 at Broadway and 44th Street by Charles Rector. This “lobster palace” — at a time when lobster was considered a sort of poor person’s blue collar food — quickly became one of the most popular spots during the Gay Nineties. The waiters were impeccably dressed in formal evening wear, the table settings were exquisite, and the food was beloved by no less voracious a gourmand than Gilded Age captain of industry “Diamond” Jim Brady. (Note 7) Rector's was particularly favored by actors, chorus girls from the nearby Ziegfeld Follies, and boisterous, well-heeled theater goers — especially older men looking to flirt with one of the Ziegfeld girls. The Follies even paid tribute to Rector’s raucous reputation in the song “If the Tables at Rector’s Could Talk” ("A lot of men would pony/up a lot of alimony/if a table at Rector's could talk.")
The Rector's recipe for an Alexander is essentially the same as Ensslin's with one notable twist: specifying, in honor of Phoebe Snow, that the creme de cacao be white, rendering a drink which, visually, makes more sense as a salute to Phoebe than Ensslin's Phoebe Snow:
1 oz gin
1 oz white creme de cacao
1 oz light cream
Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Sprinkle nutmeg on top.
In 1937, another seminal text on cocktails, Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix 'Em, by Stanley Clisby, included a recipe for an Alexandre, which includes the addition of an egg white. Befitting an author who uses" 'em" in the title, Clisby's description of how to make the drink is worth quoting in its entirety:
1 pony dry gin
1 pony creme de cacao
1 pony rich cream
1 white of egg
"Have just enough shaved or finely pounded ice in the shaker before pouring in the gin, creme de cacao, and cream. Remember that one white of egg will do, whether you are mixing for two or a dozen guests. Be strenuous in your shaking whenever there is white of egg or cream in a mixture. Shake, brother, shake, and then shake some more for good measure. Strain into cocktail glasses and hear your guests call you a good mixer."
Clisby also recommends that if you have trouble pronouncing the drink the French way, just hold your nose when you say it. I recommend you use Seven Three Distilling Gentilly gin, made in New Orleans.
Now Add the Brandy
Exactly how it evolved into the Brandy Alexander is, as is usual for this shaky thing called cocktail history, a topic of debate. One story claims that brandy was substituted for gin in 1922 during the wedding of England’s Princess Mary (daughter of King George V and Queen Mary) to Henry George Charles Lascelles, 6th Earl of Harewood and Viscount Lascelles — because that's how royal title ramble on. However, there doesn’t seem anything particularly Brandy Alexander-esque about the affair, which is remembered more these days (if it is remembered at all) as the first royal function attended by Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon, wife of King George VI, last Empress of India, and mother of Queen Elizabeth II, the current reigning Queen of England. Both the Queen Mum and current Queen Elizabeth were/are gin women, incidentally. Specifically gin and Dubonnet (a sweet and herbal French aperitif). So one wonders why anyone would switch out gin for brandy, though the then-and-future queens would have probably enjoyed Hugo Ensslin's Phoebe Snow.
Czar Alexander II of Russia insisted that the brandy drink was a creation wholly different from the Alexander and named in honor of him. Literary critic and Algonquin Roundtable member Alexander Woollcott insisted the drink was named after him. Whatever the case, the brandified version starting showing up in print as early as 1937, when it appeared in W.J. Tarling's Cafe Royal Cocktail Book — Coronation Edition, which if nothing else, lends credence to the story about Earl Viscount Whats'isname. In this particular book, it's still referred to simply as an “Alexander”. The recipe, simply enough and in its entirety:
1/4 Creme de Cacao
You'll notice than, unlike the Rector's version, this one does not specify white creme de cacao. And indeed, that's the way the drink remains. A Brandy Alexander made with light creme de cacao is, at least according to some, a Panama.
In 1946's The Roving Bartender by Bill Kelly, he includes a recipe for an "Alexander Cocktail" that includes the footnote, "The boys during prohib. Used gin." By the 1950s, there were almost as many variations on the Alexander as there were on the Martini in the era of flavored vodkas. Pretty much every spirit has been used to make an Alexander, including brandy, rum, whiskey, gin, vodka, Kalua... I'm sure someone out there makes a mean Mezcal Alexander. You can make it with the egg white or without.
Also common is the addition of coffee, sometimes with whipped cream. Several sources point to a December 1956 edition of the New York Times, in which columnist June Owens advocated, "Serve a frosty coffee Alexander after dinner on a hot summer evening. Make it simply by pouring two tablespoons of creme de cacao in the bottom of a table wine glass. Fill almost to the top with strong, ice cold coffee. Mix and float softly whipped cream on top." Neither gin nor brandy need apply. Another variation came courtesy of Julie Benell's "Recipes of the Day" column for the Dallas Morning News, in which, on August 23, 1960, she urged, "For each serving combine in a cocktail shaker, 1 teaspoon instant coffee, 1 ounce creme de cacao, 1 ounce cognac and 1 ounce light cream. Stir until coffee is dissolved, then shake vigorously with crushed ice. Strain into chilled, stemmed glasses." I don't know about lumping instant coffee grounds in, but at least she remembered the brandy.
All things settled, however, perhaps the simplest version of the Brandy Alexander is the best:
2 oz brandy
1 oz crème de cacao
1 oz cream
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.
If you're going to signal James Bond with it, "Risico" being written in 1960, it's almost certainly a Brandy Alexander (or Alexandra). But be wary. He may be amused by your choice of signal, but one big reason 007 might have for disliking the Alexander and anyone drinking it: it was one of the favorite drinks of the leader of a group James Bond despised even more than SMERSH or SPECTRE: John Lennon of The Beatles.
That Loathsome Winchell. A Natural for a Book. Mervyn Rothstein, NY Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1990/06/12/books/that-loathsome-winchell-a-natural-for-a-book.html
Nown, Graham and Mike Keckhaver. Arkansas Godfather: The Story of Owney Madden and How He Hijacked Middle America
That Loathsome Winchell. A Natural for a Book.
The most influential cocktail book to date. Jason Wilson, Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/the-most-influential-cocktail-book-to-date/2011/10/04/gIQAoWxtcL_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.cf1bbf6b9bd5
Walter WInchell's "Your Broadway and Mine," which appeared in the March 21, 1929 edition of the Evening Independent