Drinks Abroad: Harry's New York Bar, Pink Gin and Some History

In October, while Tracy and I were spending a wonderful two weeks in Paris, I was hell bent on visiting  Harry's New York Bar. With such guests as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Coco Chanel, and George Gershwin, who wouldn't yearn to pass through its saloon style swinging doors. But for me, the draw was always Harry. Author of at least two cocktail recipe books, and self-proclaimed creator of the Monkey Gland, French 75 and the Sidecar, Harry MacElhone is one of the most famous bartenders to ever work behind the stick. According to bar legend, Harry's is also the birthplace of the Bloody Mary. And that is exactly what Tracy wanted when we visited on our very first full day in Paris. Who could blame her?  I wanted something easy, classic. My thoughts first ran toward an Old Fashioned, my in-a-pinch go-to drink. But then I remembered how quickly an Old Fashioned can be transformed from a boozy sipper to a bourbon-laced fruit punch, complete with mangled fruit and club soda. It was then that I noticed a framed cartoon just off to the side. Its subject was the Pink Gin.

Like many drinks of the distant past, there is no creation story for the Pink Gin. Like the Old Fashioned, these drinks were not "created," per se, they just sort of evolved. It really is the most straightforward conclusion. The first cocktails were probably not thought of as innovative at the time, simply an efficient way of dealing with a life of hard drinking. A little hair of the dog for the head, and a bit of bitters for the stomach. I like to think that these primarily spirit-and-bitters combinations came into the world like Athena, who sprang fully formed from Zeus's head. The Pink Gin, like Ancient Greece's grey-eyed goddess, had an almost immediate and widespread following--though in the case of Pinkers, as Pink gin was often called, this was because of its status as the drink of choice among British naval officers during the days of empire building. From the mid-nineteenth century until the Pink Gin lost its place to the Horse's Neck in the 1960s, if you were in an officers' wardroom, the Pink Gin was the ultimate booze delivery mechanism for all that ailed you--or at least perhaps seasickness or an upset stomach.

Over the years, Gin and Bitters followed closely behind the Royal Navy, and thus we see the rise of the Gin Pahit, yet another alias, on the Subcontinent. As the English population grew in this area of the world so too did the dominance of Pink Gin. Unfortunately, its fate was inextricably wound with that of the British Empire. As its colonies threw off the shackles of Imperialism, the Pink Gin's popularity waned. By the 1970s, the Pink Gin came to symbolize the tiresome nostalgia for the lost days of the Empire. But even considering the ups and downs of public opinion, the Pink Gin never truly succumbed to obscurity. It can be found lingering in Charles Baker's Gentleman's Companion (1946), David Embury's Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948), Ted Saucier's Bottom's Up (1951),  as well as even more recently in Stan Jones's Complete Bar Guide (1977).

So as I sat on a bar stool at Harry's and watched the bartender clad in his white coat meticulously rinsing a cocktail glass with the dark red of Angostura bitters, I knew that I was in for an old school Pink Gin. After all Harry's is an old fashioned kind of place. But I must admit that I was a bit surprised when he reached into the well and filled the glass with gin and brought it over. At least, he also gave me a glass of water and a warning: "This is a very strong drink." The water was handy, but the warning was hilarious. Now, had I done a bit of research this action wouldn't have struck me as odd--it is after all the traditional method of making Pink Gin. I wasn't completely prepared for a warm, undiluted Gin and Bitters in the early afternoon. Thankfully I was up for the task, even considering the unexpected temperature. Result: it was delicious.

To chill or not to chill is the dilemma that the Pink Gin poses. And temperature isn't the only thing at stake--dilution plays an important though indirect role as well. But which way is correct? The earliest recipe I can find in my limited library is in William Boothby's American Bar-Tender (1891). Considering that Gin and Bitters had already been around for many year by this time, it may seem curious that it wasn't included in earlier tomes. Because Pink Gin's earliest adherents were British, and the first cocktail books were written by Americans, perhaps it was simply a question of audience. Perhaps Gin and Bitters were not as popular among Americans, simply because their choices weren't limited to what an ocean-going vessel could carry. Regardless, Boothby's instructions on the preparation of Gin and Bitters are as follows:

Rinse the interior of a small bar glass with a dash of the desired brand of bitters (Boonekamp is generally used with gin), hand the customer a bottle of Holland gin, allow him to help himself and serve ice water on the side.

Moving past the fact that in 1891 San Francisco Holland gin and Boonekamp bitters defined a Gin and Bitters, the drink itself was served at room temperature. By 1930, as described in the Savoy Cocktail Book, a Pink Gin was shaken with ice. Both William Tarling (Cafe Royal Cocktail (1937)), Crosby Gaige (Cocktail Guide and Ladies' Companion (1941)), and Ted Saucier (Bottom's Up (1951)) call for adding ice as well. Charles Baker, though, in the Gentleman's Companion (1946) takes his Pink Gin warm. Stan Jones (1977) gives the bartender the option to serve it with ice water or on the rocks. As far as current authors go,  Robert Hess (2008) and Dale DeGroff (2002) proscribe ice. But David Wondrich over at Esquire describes the original Pink Gin as being a warm drink, though he adds that "Americans and other utterly wet types may add an ice cube or two." Even with all of this information, it seems that nothing has been resolved. Who is right? Only the taste buds of the individual can determine the outcome.

Pink Gin

1 dash of bitters
1 1/2 ounces gin

Procedure 1: Combine ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Serve with ice water on the side.

Procedure 2: Rinse a rocks glass with bitters. Add gin and a cube of ice.

Procedure 3: Rinse a rocks glass or cocktail glass with bitters. Add gin.

Notes on Ingredients: In this case, I used procedure 1 with Beefeater gin and Jerry Thomas's Decanter Bitters though Plymouth gin and Angostura are the historical standards. But it seems that every type of gin has found its way into a Pink Gin over time, so if you're in the mood for Genever or Old Tom, who am I to stop you. Also, the choice of bitters is also up in the air, which just means more versions are available. So get cracking!

Before my experience at Harry's, I would have stated that not only did Pink Gin taste better chilled, but also that serving it cold was the proper way to make it. The issue of "proper" here, as in many other scenarios, is highly suspect. Over the years, times change and tastes follow suit. What was "correct" in 1900 may well have seemed exceedingly outlandish by 1930 and then come back into vogue by 1950.  Yes, relativism rears its ugly head.

For what it's worth, here are my two cents. During a summer heat wave, a chilled Pink Gin would hit the spot--at least I certainly wouldn't turn one away. Even adding some tonic or soda to lengthen the drink wouldn't be a bad idea. But, and I am surprised to say this, a warm Pink Gin (made with Plymouth and Angostura) is pretty unbeatable--regardless of the weather.

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