When Is a Crusta Not a Crusta: Enter Charles Baker

The crusta will always, for me at least, symbolize nineteenth century bartending techniques and tastes. Or at least the best ones. The crusta also played an important role in the evolution of the cocktail, allowing it to become what it is today. Originally formulated with brandy, the crusta sprung onto the scene in the early 1850s in the great cocktail city of New Orleans at the hands of Joseph Santini who held court behind the bar at the New Orleans City Exchange. This esteemed drink spurred on the creation of other notable potations such as the Sidecar, the White Lady and the Margarita, but it would be impossible to completely trace its widespread influences. It could easily be argued that the crusta acts as a bridge connecting the original cocktail and the various sours.

The differences between the crusta and the original cocktail--our old fashioned--are slight, but notable. Looking at those changes sets the tone for how cocktails changed and were transformed at the hands of bartenders as they adapted their craft to current tastes, innovative tools, and newly imported, or discovered ingredients. The first innovation to change the old fashioned revolved around the sweetening agent. For example, why not substitute a bit of orange-flavored liqueur or maraschino liqueur for the gomme syrup. This simple alteration changed the plain cocktail to a fancy cocktail, though it didn't really alter the landscape of the cocktail--too much. The resulting drink is still composed of a spirit, bitters, a sweetening agent and some form of water. And sure by this time some of the techniques had changed (shaking or "throwing" had been introduced) as well as some of the tools (shaking tins, hawthorn strainers), but this was essentially a very minor step.

One of the next important innovations came when Santini decided to add a dash of lemon juice to the basic cocktail framework. Until then, cocktails had never contained citrus juice. Sours, fixes and daisies--all prevalent during the mid-nineteenth century--certainly contained citrus, but not the cocktail. And it was this move from a lemon twist to a quarter ounce of lemon juice that changed the face of cocktails.

The addition of juice to the fancy cocktail notwithstanding, the defining characteristic of a crusta is its presentation. It is just one of those drinks that is immediately recognizable. With its sugared rim and coiled lemon peel just peeking out of the glass, the crusta is a study in the lost art of over-the-top garnishing. The amount of time and skill it takes to properly assemble a crusta speaks of its old-fashioned roots. (And let me tell you, it is not as easy as it sounds to pare the entire peel from a lemon in one continuous piece.) The lemon juice was an innovation that influenced the future of cocktails. But it is the garnish that firmly situates its presence in the past. 

By the 1930s lavish, ornamental cocktail garnishes had mostly disappeared and the introduction of juice to the cocktail was no longer a novelty. The crusta was almost a hundred years old after all and must have been looking a bit long in the tooth. Cocktail culture, then as now, has always revolved around what's new and different, even when a recipe is simply a rediscovered gem. Though the crusta was still bumbling around the continent, as evidenced by its inclusion in Robert Vermiere's Cocktails and How to Mix Them (1922) and Harry McElhone's Barflies and Cocktails (1927), given the voluminous number of cocktails available, its popularity may have been on the wane.

But the crusta was still around in 1939, when the Gentleman's Companion was first published, and it is curiously included in bar books through the 1950s not to mention afterward. Despite its lavish garnish, the crusta was not forgotten like so many of its contemporaries, or those cocktails that had been created later. Therefore, it is not terribly surprising to find the crusta hidden in a section dedicated to champagne drinks in a tome dedicated to unearthing worthy libations from all over the world. And it is really not surprising that Charles Baker uncovers it while journeying through China in the years of the French Concession of Shanghai in the early 1930s. What is curious is that what Baker calls a crusta hardly resembles the original crusta at all. For starters, the lemon juice, which always stood out to me as one of the defining elements of a crusta, is not present in the recipe for the Imperial Cossack Crusta. And while the sugared rim is included, and then subsequently exaggerated as the recipe calls for the entire interior of the glass to be sugar-coated, the famous lemon peel is missing. The only part of this champagne crusta that recalls the classic crusta is he sugar. If I had looked at the recipe without knowing its name, I would have never have pegged it as a crusta-style drink. 

Imperial Cossack Crusta (for two)

1 1/2 ounces cognac
3/4 ounce kummel (5/8 ounce aquavit, 1/8 ounce Benedictine)
2 dash orange bitters

Using a thick slice of lemon, coat the entire inside of a champagne flute with juice, as well as the outer lip 1/2  to 1 inch. Pour in sugar, creating a thin coating. Place glass in the freezer for a half hour. In a mixing glass, combine cognac, kummel and bitters with ice and stir. Strain liquid into the sugar-coated flute and top with champagne.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Paul Masson VSOP brandy, Krogstad Aquavit, Chateau Ste. Michelle Sparkling Wine and Regan's orange bitters. Here I also went against my better judgment and used four ounces of sparkling wine.

Ah, the problem of kummel rises again. What to do when a recipe calls for a liqueur I don't have and can't get easily. In the past, I have followed Erik Ellestad's example and just substituted aquavit and a bit of simple syrup. But on this occasion after talking to my friend Dayne, he told me that I should use Benedictine in place of the syrup to get closer to the actual flavor of kummel. Because I have never tasted kummel I have no idea how well this worked, but this little tipple was delicious. The flavors were herbal and complex. A certain sweetness was present, but the dryness of the champagne and the bitters provided balance. Because of the sugar-lining a certain amount of sugar puddled in the bottom of the glass, which caused bubbles to continuously rise through the glass as a result of each sip. The effect is much like what happens when you add the sugar cube when making a champagne cocktail. The Imperial Cossack Crusta was a very surprising cocktail that we will definitely revisit in the future.


  1. I haven't researched the crusta, so this is a welcome short history; thank you, Courtney.

  2. Kummel is reappearing on the shelves in certain parts of the country. Cocktail Buzz found some in NYC and we spotted it in central Massachusetts. Our bottle was acquired through a coworker's trip to Germany.

    Benedictine is not caraway-forward. I would recommend finding recipes online for DIY kummel. Some of the bars here in Boston have gone that route with decent success.

  3. Frederic, sadly, we are still awaiting any quality kummel here in Washington. And you are so right, Benedictine is not caraway forward. While researching a way to approximate the flavor of kummel, I read of using simple syrup and aquavit. A friend of mine, who has tasted kummel, suggested using aquavit with Benedictine. The liqueur would add sweetness, like simple syrup, as well as some of the spice of the kummel to the already caraway-forward aquavit. I am not sure how well this approximates kummel, but it made for a tasty beverage.

    Also, I totally agree that DIY is the best way to handle obscure, unavailable ingredients, but sometimes what a recipe calls for is so small that the amount of time and effort aren't worth it. And then there's the problem of storage. For instance, it would be hard to *only* make 3/4 ounce of kummel for the above recipe.

    Thanks for the great comments!