A Gin Milkshake: Charles Baker's Cafe de Paris Cocktail

Some cocktail recipes just scream off the page, "I am wonderful. Make me now!" And then there are the ones that don't look like they would work on paper but are amazing in actuality. The Blood and Sand instantly comes to mind. Many of the drink descriptions in the Gentleman's Companion, mingled as they are with narrative, evoke a history that most people couldn't even imagine--exotic ports of call, palaces, underground caves--except perhaps in the world of celluloid. The Cafe de Paris is not, however, one of those showstopping cocktails. Never did I look at the recipe and think that it was going to knock my socks off. But sometimes there is a hidden story hidden that makes the entire experience that much more interesting. The Cafe de Paris actually became more vibrant the more I explored its possible history and it took me on a journey all its own.

Charles Baker offers little in the way of beginnings. He states that the cocktail is "from 'MONTE,' a place well-mentioned in our previous volume on foods; sampled first in 1931." Considering that I do not own Knife, Fork and Spoon, his note is a bit of a dead end, especially since "MONTE" is curiously vague, and the date means little even in context. The Cafe de Paris is also curiously absent from many of the cocktail guides that I own. The volumes where it has been collected are the Savoy Cocktail Guide (1930), Boothby's 1934 reprint the World's Drink and How to Mix Them, and Harry McElhone's Barflies and Cocktails (1927). But it is in this last source where we find our first real clue, as McElhone includes, "Recipe from the Cafe de Paris, Broadway, New York."

Located at the corner of Forty-Second Street and Seventh Avenue in the heart of Times Square, the Cafe de Paris, originally named the Cafe de L'Opera, opened its doors in December 1909. One of the most opulent hotels of the time, it was designed in an "Assyrian" style, stood eight stories tall and contained a twenty-foot wide staircase outfitted with crouching bronze Assyrian lions. Decadent, indeed. But unfortunately, a mandatory formal dress code and poor service (dishes often arrived cold) proved to be its undoing. By 1910, Louis Martin, one of the successful owners of the Martin Cafe, had entered the picture to attempt a  rescue mission. After his intervention, the restaurant/lounge became one of the most popular cabarets before World War I started. Vernon and Irene Castle, who popularized modern ballroom dancing for American audiences, made their debut at the Cafe de Paris's height in 1912. Their story was later immortalized on the silver screen in the Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. However, even the Castles' success could not permanently save the Cafe de Paris. Louis Martin resigned in 1914 and the Cafe de Paris soon closed its doors forever.

But that still doesn't connect all of the dots. How did a recipe from the Cafe de Paris make its way into a cocktail manual written in 1927, almost ten years after it closed? What's even more curious is that this cocktail didn't find its way into Robert Vermiere's Cocktails: Here's How written in 1923? Could it be that Harry McElhone himself provides the key? Harry McElhone is most famous for Harry's New York Bar, which he bought in 1923. Located in Paris, it is still open today. Before he relocated, Harry could be found behind the stick at Ciro's Club where he landed after World War I ended in 1918. But in 1912, when the Castles were dancing their way into America's hearts in the Tenderloin district of New York City, where was our man Harry? Just seventeen blocks north, bartending at the famous Oak Bar at the Plaza Hotel.

Unfortunately, this is where the trail runs cold. There is no formal link between Harry McElhone in 1912, when he had newly arrived at the Plaza Hotel in 1911 and the Cafe de Paris cocktail. It is very likely though that during his stint in New York he would have come across the Cafe de Paris cocktail at some point. Even today drink recipes tend to travel around cities and among bartenders. But there is no reason to believe that the Cafe de Paris cocktail was overly popular, considering how many cocktail manuals passed it over. The last potential lead I uncovered turned out to be, sadly, beyond my reach: Harry McElhone published the first impression of his ABC's of Cocktails in 1918. Subsequent impressions followed. If the Cafe de Paris is included it would definitely show that McElhone is responsible for the survival of the Cafe de Paris cocktail even while its namesake did not and it would potentially fill one of the remaining blanks in its history. In the meantime, as with most cocktail history, it just seems natural that a certain shroud of vagueness is blanketing yet another cocktail origin story.

Cafe de Paris Cocktail

1 1/2 ounces gin
1 tsp anisette
1/2 egg white
1 tsp heavy cream

Dry shake ingredients to emulsify egg white. Add ice and shake again. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Sambuca instead of anisette and Bellringer gin.

This was one surprising cocktail. As with most Baker drinks that include any anise at all, I expected to be bowled over. But the drink was deliciously restrained, with a delicate licorice flavor that mingled well with the botanic flavors of the gin. The texture was creamy and smooth, as would be expected from a cream and egg white drink, but the actual flavors were dry and refreshing. Unfortunately, the taste of the cream was just a bit too much for me. I am sure another might be okay with this, however. I do think that perhaps the addition of orange bitters would smarten it up and make it more than just a really good frothy gin milkshake with a hint of anise. All in all, my initial doubts were confirmed--this drink doesn't really suit my taste, as pleasant as I found it initially. But it also wasn't as bad as it could have been considering the ingredients and Baker's poor reputation. Sometimes just that tiniest of differences is all that separates a good cocktail from a bad one.

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