The Intersection of Gin and Rye: the Chauncey

Sometimes the most interesting cocktails aren't the ones that you discover on your own. In fact, many of my favorite drinks have come from the recommendations of others, whether that person is a bartender or just a friendly neighbor sitting on the next bar stool over. I often wonder whether the referral contributes in any way to my actual enjoyment. Sure, 95 percent of my decision depends on what is actually happening in the glass. But what about the other 5 percent? Perhaps that feeling of anticipation while watching the bartender pour out unknown measures and reach for unexpected ingredients somehow enhances the entire experience. It certainly adds context. And what about the spontaneity, could that be a factor as well? Could opting out of the decision-making process actual heighten an experience? Granted all of this supposition is inconsequential if that 95 percent is horrid. I do know that while letting a bartender just whip something up on the fly can be risky, especially if you don't know him or her very well, sometimes those risks are just worth it. You never know what you might end up with--it might be your new favorite.

Recently Tracy and I ventured out to the Rob Roy to sit across the bar from a couple of visiting bartenders from Portland, Dave Shenaut and Sean Hoard, before heading to the opera. After having a very tasty cocktail from their special event menu, I decided to place myself at the mercy of the bartender. After discussing such fundamentals as preferred base spirit (rye) and style (spirit driven, of course), the stage was set. What I received was wonderful and surprising, and therefore exactly what I wanted, though I would have never known it: the Chauncey. After I found out it was a classic, I just had to discover the whole story.

Originally published in the Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book in 1935, this curious little tipple certainly never jumped out at me. Even had I noticed it, I would have instantly discounted it. Combining old tom gin, rye, sweet vermouth, and brandy in equal parts, I would have doubted its flavor and its balance. Many old drinks just aren't that good, and maybe this explains its lack of popularity. The recipe for the Chauncey is not going to talk you into drinking it. But it is exceptionally tasty and smooth despite the fact that it is really just a big glass of booze. When I made it at home, I found the cocktail to be enjoyable enough, though a bit sweeter and richer than I usually care for.   

Chauncey (Waldorf-Astoria)
1/4 old tom gin (3/4 ounce)
1/4 rye (3/4 ounce)
1/4 brandy (3/4 ounce)
1/4 sweet vermouth (3/4 ounce)
1 dash orange bitters

Stir in an ice-filled mixing glass. Strain into a cocktail glass.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Ransom Old Tom gin, Paul Masson VSOP brandy, Pikesville rye, Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth, and Angostura orange bitters.

This version, from the Waldorf-Astoria, is not what I had at Rob Roy. It was obvious upon tasting. In addition to the Waldorf-Astoria, the next source I found the it in was Esquire's Handbook for Hosts, where its recipe was the same. Another recipe for the Chauncey is available on the Internet at cocktaildb.com, which means it was collected in Stan Jones Complete Bar Guide. It is mostly the same but with different proportions. I could not trace it anywhere in the intervening years. So at some time between the late 1940s and the late 1970s, as American tastes dried out, so did the Chauncey.

Left: Waldorf version; right: cocktaildb.com

Chauncey (cocktaildb.com)

3/4 ounce gin
3/4 ounce rye
1/2 ounce brandy
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
1 dash orange bitters

Stir in an ice-filled mixing glass. Strain into a cocktail glass.

Notes on Ingredients: I used the same as above except that the gin called for was London Dry, and so I used Plymouth.

This Chauncey was much dryer, and the taste of the herbs of the gin and the orange bitters were much more dominant. As it is a much crisper drink, its flavors pop.  But this recipe still did not match my memory of Dave Shenaut's Chauncey. The cocktail I remembered was in fact dry, but also extremely smooth and rich. So after I found a video where Mr. Shenaut actually constructs his version of the Chauncey, I could finally remake the drink at home.

Chauncey (Dave Shenaut version)

3/4 ounce rye
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
3/4 ounce gin
1/2 ounce brandy
2 dashes orange bitters

Stir in an ice-filled mixing glass. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

Over time the Chauncey went from  rich and slightly sweet to dry and crisp, to finally end up smooth, full- flavored and balanced. This path mirrors the ways that American tastes have changed. Bold cocktails that were rich or more on the sweet side during the Golden Age either became obsolete or were adapted to fit newer dryer tastes. Look at the martini--it was originally made with a ton of vermouth and a couple of dashes of orange bitters, and over time all of its flavor was stripped away until it was just a cold glass of slightly diluted gin. And then, as if rock bottom weren't low enough, it became a cold glass of slightly diluted vodka. But the pendulum has shifted, and bold flavors are back, though without the sweetness. Bartenders are re-fitting the classics, sometimes by just reintroducing the original proportions and sometimes by re-tooling them so they appeal to modern tastes. Thus, a historically sweet cocktail can be refashioned as dryer without sacrificing its big flavors. Dried out cocktails can reappropriate their stolen flavors. Dave Shenaut's version of the Chauncey highlights both of these trends and the result is a bolder cocktail, not too sweet or too dry. This Chauncey exists somewhere in between and yet somewhere completely new.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your thorough and thoughtful article of the evolution of this (and most) drinks. This one fit the bill nicely this evening. I happened to have rye, gin, s. Vermouth, and brandy in my bar at the moment and given a trying day and a lovely autumn evening, was looking for something less bracing than a martini, but I was open to something different from the Manhattan's I had been enjoying. I choose the Waldorf Astoria proportions, but used Tanqueray as that is what I had. I also only had regular Angostura bitters so to get a little closet to the orange bitters I took a note from the Sarezerac; coating my glass with Cointreau and discarding the excess. The result, while unorthodox, was like a more balanced Manhattan. Quite delightful. Thank you for introducing me to this classic!