The Brooklyn Cocktail That Wasn’t

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Sometime around 1880, Manhattan got itself a cocktail: whiskey, Italian vermouth and bitters, stirred up together. It was the first popular drink with vermouth, and America gazed upon it and saw that it was good.

Even Brooklyn more or less agreed that it was a fine and useful piece of mixologizing, despite bearing the name of a certain rival city to the west (yes, Brooklyn was its own city then). But Manhattan had a lot of things that Brooklyn didn’t, and after a single, halfhearted attempt at a “Brooklyn Cocktail” by the bartender of the Brooklyn Club (more on that later), Brooklyn seemed to feel no further need to rise up mixing.

Then, in 1901, Curly O’Connor of the Waldorf Astoria bar — on the present site of the Empire State Building — came up with a “Bronx” cocktail. At first, that fact did nothing to change matters across the East River, or anywhere else. Beginning around 1907, however, for whatever reason, O’Connor’s simple, even insipid, mixture of gin, vermouth and orange juice began to catch on and catch on hard. It became the Cosmopolitan of its day, a pleasant, not-too-strong drink that everybody everywhere — men, women and no doubt forward children, too — could drink.

Suddenly, Manhattan and the Bronx had an exclusive little club. Brooklyn could not sit idly by. Brooklyn had to act.

And, it turns out, act again — and again and again.

The first few Brooklyn Cocktails, you see, did not take. At least the initial attempt, which saw print in Jack’s Manual, a 1908 cocktail guide, was a thoroughly professional effort, combining rye whiskey, dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur and the delightful French aperitif Amer Picon to excellent effect. A solid B+ in the world of classic cocktails, if not an A-, which easily puts it on a par with the Bronx Cocktail. (The Manhattan, on the other hand, is a straight A+.)

Unfortunately, Brooklyn can’t take much credit for it: Jacob Grohusko, the Jack in question, lived in Hoboken and worked in lower Manhattan. At least Victor Baracca, at whose restaurant he worked, was a Brooklynite.

The first inkling the American general public had that there was such a thing as a Brooklyn Cocktail came in 1910, when another Brooklyn Cocktail got a great deal of comment in the nation’s newspapers. Unfortunately, most of that comment was negative.

Whether that’s because its inventor was Wack (literally: his name was Henry Wellington Wack), or because he was a lawyer rather than a bartender, or because he actually lived in Long Beach, not Brooklyn, or finally because his drink was merely a Perfect Martini — gin with splashes of sweet and dry vermouth — with a dollop of raspberry syrup in it, we can’t say. In any case, it did not catch on.

The same goes for the next Brooklyn Cocktail, also from 1910. Invented by a Cincinnati German who at least had the good grace to live in the borough, it, too, failed. The fact that it combined absinthe, hard cider and ginger ale could not have helped its fate.

Grohusko’s Brooklyn caught a break in 1913 when Jacques Straub pinched it from Jack’s Manual to include it in Straub’s Manual of Mixed Drinks, which in slightly altered form would go on to become one of the standard works on the subject. And yet it still barely registered in the public consciousness.

Case in point, Eric Palmer, president of the Brooklyn Press Club, was caught by the Brooklyn Eagle in 1916 addressing a waiter: “Bring me a Bronx cocktail. No, make it a Manhattan. I wish they had one named after Kings. Boost Brooklyn.”

In those distant days, journalists prided themselves on a detailed knowledge of all of the latest drinks, and if the president of the Brooklyn Press Club didn’t know the Brooklyn Cocktail, nobody did.

Then came Prohibition, and such finer points of mixology became moot. Upon repeal, though, you would think Grohusko’s drink would have had a fighting chance: It was included in both the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book and (Brooklynite) Patrick Gavin Duffy’s 1933 Official Mixer’s Manual, the two books that did more than any others to reset the cocktail clock to the way things were.

And yet you never hear of anybody actually drinking the thing, at least not until the current revival of interest in antiquarian formulae. Certainly we can say that its prior claim to the title went unmentioned in December 1934, when after a long search in response to a reader’s raising the eternal question (“there’s a Manhattan cocktail and a Bronx cocktail … why not a Brooklyn Cocktail?”) the Brooklyn Eagle’s Art Arthur crowned a concoction by Brad Dewey of Gage & Tollner’s as “THE Brooklyn Cocktail.” (Grohusko’s Brooklyn was brought up, considered and summarily dismissed.)

The formula? Gin, grapefruit juice and grenadine. (Or was it Jamaican rum, lime juice and grenadine? The newspaper claimed it was the former, Dewey the latter.) In any case, while the dark, woody and convivial Gage & Tollner’s might have been Brooklyn’s oldest and most beloved restaurant, not even that could prevent Dewey’s creation — whatever it was — from falling victim to the same instant public amnesia that greeted its predecessors, to the point that the Eagle itself could wonder, a mere three years later, why there was no Brooklyn Cocktail, and trot off in search of one. They found one, naturally. In fact, they found several, for whatever good it did.

In 1945, the Bronx got into the act — when James Lyons, its president, pointedly wondered in the press why Brooklyn had no drink of its own and suggested what such a drink might contain. Among the ingredients: DDT, raspberries, vodka and “1⁄4 branch of a tree” (trees growing in Brooklyn, of course). This unprovoked attack naturally caused the County of Kings to reflect on its liquid representation.

Earlier Brooklyn Cocktails were considered and found wanting. Old-timers were even unearthed in the dusty precincts of the Brooklyn Club, which unspooled the tale that the club’s bartender had mixed the first Brooklyn way back in 1883, to commemorate the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Unfortunately, said drink was simply a Manhattan with the rye replaced by Jamaican rum, a combination so infelicitous that it was small wonder nobody outside the club’s barroom had heard of it. It simply would not do.

So the Borough of Kings pushed its solid men to the fore and set them to mixing. Cocktails were created by the score. Result? Seven years later, the iconic industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes could wonder in the pages of the Eagle why “there [couldn’t] be a Brooklyn cocktail in Dodgertown?” (It would have to be garnished, he thought, “with a razzberry.”)

And so on, world without end. The 1960s and 1970s, of course, had little interest in iced intoxicants. But the modern cocktail revival has brought serious mixologists back to Brooklyn, and with them a certain amount of love for the best of the old versions, Grohusko’s. There are bars in Brooklyn where you can order it and they will make it, and well.

The new mixologists have also generated, as is their wont, many a serious attempt at a new Brooklyn Cocktail. And yet, try ordering one of those Brooklyns anywhere but the bar that first made it. Indeed, it seems like the moment anyone with a propensity to mix drinks comes across the Manhattan and the Bronx and no canonical Brooklyn to stand beside them, he or she immediately sets out to fill that gap. But if there’s one thing the story of the Brooklyn Cocktail teaches us, it’s that that gap doesn’t want to be filled.

Let Manhattan be a cocktail; let the Bronx be another, lesser one, doomed to live perpetually in the shadow of the first. Brooklyn don’t play like that.

Photo credit: Sharon Radisch

Emma Cosgrove

Emma Cosgrove is a writer and food industry nerd living in Harlem. She is an adventurous home cook with a reductionist view of modern food. She cooks tongue more than steak, liver more than tongue. She never met a root vegetable she didn’t like.

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