Shots of Cocktail History: Abu Hamed

An obscure 19th century bitters drink born in wartime resurfaces to lend comforting refreshment.
photo by Amanda Schuster

photo by Amanda Schuster

These days, it’s hard to escape the news of the world. Sights we can’t unsee constantly blare across our screens. A simple combination of 140 characters sent like a digital smoke signal now has the power to ruin lives and undo nations. In under five minutes the world as we know it can change, and everyone is made aware. As the centuries pass, we’ve allowed the news to consume us as we find new ways to consume and share what we’ve consumed. Now in a single feed one can simultaneously find community information, political protests, slow traffic warnings, mistranslated signs, celebrity death notices, historical facts, jokes, birthday greetings, cupcakes, burgers, cocktails, rainbows, sunsets, snowstorms, law enforcement beatings, scenic aerial views from a plane, etc. If we’re not sharing information about drinks, it can be enough to drive any of us to them! 

In the 19th century, before our lives became this way, there was such a thing as a war correspondent – people whose job it was to physically be on the scene of a skirmish, interpret the goings on and report it to the world, what we now refer to as “embedding.” These journalists couldn’t rely on technology to flash instant images or messages of what they witnessed in war time into the ether. They traveled to distant lands and stayed for weeks, sometimes months on end, bearing witness to atrocities and violence, gathering their observations for articles and books to be printed later. They often put themselves in extreme danger and endured some rather rough living conditions – if one can even refer to them as “living” – not to mention the emotional toll these experiences must have taken. Why do this? Because, though it took longer to come to fruition than what we’ve now become accustomed to, what they reported on eventually had the ability to affect change and bring awareness to the horrors of war.

There were moments of respite, usually involving a well earned drink when a local bar could be found. A friend who regularly reads war books for work research recently came across a real gem of a drink from the past that seems to have been lost to time. In War Report: The War Correspondents’ View of Battle From the Crimea To the Falklands, author Trevor Royle quotes a passage from writer George Steevens, who was in the Sudan in the late 1890s covering the end of the Mahdist War, when British forces intervened between Sudan and Egypt (it was later referred to in Britain as the “Anglo-Sudan War” and the “Sudan Campaign”).

He says, “Now comes the sweet revenge of the torments of the day…. You forget whether the day was more than warm or no… But you remember the thirst. You are cool, but within you are still dry, very dry, and shrunken. Take a long mug, and think well what you have poured into it; for this is the moment of the day…”

He goes on to say: “Whisky-and-soda is a friend that never fails you, but better still something tonic. Gin and soda? Gin and lime-juice and soda? Or else that triumphant blend of all whetting flavors, an Abu Hamed – gin, vermouth, Angostura, lime-juice, soda?”

The drink is named for the Sudanese town situated on the right bank of the Nile river, where one of the major skirmishes of the Mahdist War took place in 1897. There seems to be no other documentation about it, nothing as yet found in the old cocktail books (though if anyone has spotted it, please speak up!), probably invented, as these drinks lost to time often are, on the fly by a friendly local bartender when asked to come up with something tall and refreshing, using what was at hand.

It’s simple, but the combination works – not quite as bracing as a Rome With a View (Campari, vermouth, lime juice and soda), and with a little more pizzazz than a Pink Gin (Plymouth Gin and a few dashes of Angostura bitters). You can play with the ratios of gin, juice, vermouth and bitters, as well as decide whether to shake, roll it a couple of times between glasses or simply spritz a bit of lime in and give it a quick stir before topping with the tonic (my preferred method). As for the gin, use a favorite dry style, as this is meant to be a comforting drink. (Any of the ones that recently won medals in the 2017 NY International Spirits Competition will do nicely if some ginspiration is necessary.) Here is the recipe I like the most:

Abu Hamed

  • 2 ¼ oz/66 mL dry gin
  • 1 oz/30 mL dry vermouth (not too aromatic)
  • juice of a half of a small, fresh lime
  • 5 – 6 healthy dashes of Angostura bitters
  • carbonated water
  • Garnish: lime wheel

Shake all the ingredients except the soda water with ice for a few seconds. Strain into a tall glass (Collins or highball glass) filled with fresh ice. Top with soda water. Garnish. Sip and fret less about the ways of the world for a few minutes. Save the Instagram till later and be in the moment with your drink.

abu hamedVariations (besides playing with ratios and serving styles):

  • Make it with a dry Oloroso or Amontillado sherry in place of the vermouth.
  • Make it with Lillet Blanc or Rosé or Cocchi Americano in place of the vermouth (particularly if you want it a touch sweeter and rounder).
  • Make it with tequila blanco instead of gin.
  • Use other aromatic style bitters or fruit bitters.
  • Use grapefruit instead of lime.
  • Give it a bar spoon of simple or berry flavored syrup (raspberry or blackberry would be perfect with this, making it more like a bitter Rickey).

Cheers!

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