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23 Sep 2020

On Cocktails: A Report on my Quest to Learn About 'Midcentury-Modern' Drinks and Concoctions

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A midcentury-inspired cocktail called the Indigo Child. A midcentury-inspired cocktail called the Indigo Child. Kevin Carlow

Midcentury-modern cocktails. “Palm Springs golden era” cocktails.

Is there such a category? I get asked this all the time.

Tiki first comes to mind. It began as a mix of escapism and cultural appropriation—that’s not a dig, as I grew up eating at “Polynesian lounges” and love Tiki—but it became a subculture in its own right. But what were Americans drinking when they weren’t at Trader Vic’s or Don the Beachcomber?

Margaritas were all the rage, of course, while Ol’ Blue Eyes favored his Jack Daniels; martinis were awfully dry by that point; and the old fashioned was fruit salad. But there must have been some other interesting stuff out there, right?

It seems that nobody has really done the heavy lifting on this era, so as a bar manager and cocktail writer, I am mostly on my own—and the best research I can do begins with my own memories. The bartenders I “trained with,” like there was training back then, were all older guys, so it makes sense that the drinks they made were likely popular in the ’50s and ’60s.

How about a sloe gin fizz? The closest I could get to finding any “history’ on this one was Sipsmith Gin’s promotional page, which states that the drink was popular in the ’60s. Cool. The Savoy Cocktail Book has a “Sloe Gin Cocktail” which sounds like an absolute horror: It was two parts sloe gin, and one part each French and Sweet vermouth; hopefully the sloe gin was drier back then! Beyond that, I found nothing from before the middle of the century with a recipe, but it’s in every Mr. Boston guide I had “growing up” as a barman. It’s a pretty drink, and when well-balanced, it’s pretty tasty, too. I basically make it like a Tom Collins, just with sloe gin:

  • 2 ounces of Plymouth Sloe Gin
  • 1 ounce of lemon juice
  • 3/4 ounce of simple syrup

Build tall, or shake and dump into a Collins glass; top with soda.

Ironically, I was going to say that’s not the recipe from Mr. Boston … but it pretty much is now; they’ve come a long way. Notice there’s no egg white in there; I’m pretty sure that’s because bars had stopped using eggs behind the bar by then, or used sour mix with the latest miracle of science: Powdered egg white already included for the modern bartender! I was always taught to make it with sour mix, because we never had fresh ingredients back in the early ’00s. Crazy. Sometimes we’d add some regular gin, too (which is still a good move), since the only sloe gins available were the cheap, artificial ones. Was that a fizz, though? Not on your life.

What about that famed and currently super-popular Brown Derby? Nothing says Old Hollywood drinking like “Brown Derby,” because the drink was named after the movie-star hangout. Word around the campfire, by way of Robert Moss, is the drink was cribbed from earlier books and renamed. Such is the peril of cocktail trademarking. Wherever and whenever it was invented, it’s quite likely that the Palm Springs set was knocking them back in the mid-20th century. Heck, Dale DeGroff re-popularized it after seeing it in a book called Hollywood Cocktails from the 1930s. Sadly, this one went out of fashion at some point, probably due to the scarcity of fresh juice at bars, as drinks became more cost-effective and, well, lousier. It’s easy to make at home, and it’s a go-to cocktail for my bar guests looking for something different:

  • 2 ounces of bourbon
  • 1 ounce of grapefruit
  • 1/2 ounce of lemon juice
  • 3/4 ounce of honey syrup

Shake; serve up with a grapefruit twist.

Since we’re at it, here’s a David Wondrich discovery of a drink from midcentury bartenders, the “Airmail.” Keep that honey syrup handy! It’s kind of a French 75 variation, which is kind of a Collins variation, which is … well, they’re all delicious.

  • 1 1/2 ounces of gold rum
  • 3/4 ounce of lime juice
  • 3/4 ounce of honey syrup

Shake; strain into a coupe; top with dry sparkling wine. No garnish.

I would be remiss if I forgot the rusty nail, that “grampa drink” that I absolutely had to know how to make when I first started, because the old guys would test me. It might have been called something else previously, but it’s been the rusty nail since the ’60s, and that’s the era we’re talking about. It’s another case of why good drinks need great names to catch on. This one is so easy, it’s criminal: Just stir Scotch and Drambuie (Scotland’s esteemed honey and herb liqueur) in a glass with ice. I used to make it with a 2-to-1 ratio, respectively, but these days, I would probably go with 2 ounces of Scotch and 3/4 of an ounce of Drambuie. I would pick a nice, smoky blended malt for this; save your Islay single malts, or you’ll lose the Drambuie. And don’t use a mellow commercial blend; you want some body and peat!

I am going to continue digging into this under-loved era of drinks. There are plenty more of note, but I have already covered many of them recently—the mai tai, the margarita, the Army Navy, etc. I am inspired by the simplicity of many of these drinks as I continue to do research for the midcentury-inspired drink program I am putting together at the Cole Hotel in Palm Springs. Finally—a chance for everyone else to critique my inventions!

I’m pretty excited about tackling the challenge of updating some of these forgotten midcentury drinks, so feel free to come over, and let me know how I am doing—while following all applicable ordinances, of course.

Kevin Carlow can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

1 comment

  • Comment Link Tracy Wednesday, 23 September 2020 20:26 posted by Tracy

    Manhattans were popular in the "mid century", along with gin martinis. Vodka martinis weren't a thing back then.

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