It practically glows. The combination of equal parts crème de menthe, crème de cacao, and cream known as the Grasshopper generates an unnaturally verdant green that hints at the cocktail's unapologetic sweetness. The Grasshopper's sugary punch means it's often the cocktail of choice among teenagers surreptitiously learning how to drink — the flavors already familiar thanks to all-ages slices of Oreo-crusted Grasshopper pie. Or conversely, many regard the Grasshopper as Grandma's go-to drink, slowly sipped as she fondly reminisces about cocktail parties in the 1950s. Both images place the cocktail squarely in the "guilty pleasure" category among a certain subset of drinkers. (The ultimate guilty pleasure: a famous version of the blended Grasshopper served at Benedetti's Supper Club in Beloit, Wisconsin uses 3/4 a gallon of ice cream to create one drink.)
But remove the cocktail from the maligned category, and the combination of crème de menthe, crème de cacao, and cream emerges as simply a mix of historical liqueurs. The Corsican-mint flavored crème de menthe (French for "mint cream") originated in the late-19th century; crème de cacao, as a style of chocolate liqueur, dates hundreds of years earlier. Neither contain actual cream and both hover around 50 proof, a relatively low-proof way to add color and depth to a clean slate of dairy.
"It's not like giving them a sip of bourbon."
"It's not a really strong drink, so if you give your nine-year-old a sip of this mint chocolate chip drink, it's not like giving them a sip of bourbon," says Mark Latter, the present-day owner of Tujague's, the bar credited with inventing the Grasshopper nearly 100 years ago. He laughs. "This is New Orleans, right?"
A SECOND-PLACE COCKTAIL
New Orleans is the birthplace of cocktails boozy and bourbon-y, from Hurricanes to Sazeracs to Vieux Carrés. But French Quarter icon Tujague's, which opened in 1856, is the unlikely origin of the sweet and minty Grasshopper. According to lore, Philibert Guichet, whose family purchased the restaurant from founders Guillaume and Marie Tujague in the 1910s, invented the cocktail while in New York City for a cocktail competition "similar to what they have now for Tales of the Cocktail," Latter says. Guichet's combination of equal parts crème de menthe, crème de cacao, and cream took second prize in the contest, and Guichet proudly brought the drink — supposedly named a "Grasshopper" for its bright green color — back to New Orleans.
"From 1919 on, in one way or another, you could get a Grasshopper at Tujague's."
Although some accounts place the Grasshopper's origins in the late 1920s, New Orleans food historian Poppy Tooker has found newspaper articles referencing the drink dating to 1919. "There wouldn't be a written record — especially during Prohibition," says Tooker, who is currently writing a book about the history of Tujague's. "But I'm certain that from 1919 on, in one way or another, you could get a Grasshopper at Tujague's." The drink's fuzzy birthdate comes thanks to Tujague's equally fuzzy in-house historical record: Although Latter says he has photos of Guichet and his prize ribbons, printed menus didn't become a feature of the restaurant until a few years after Latter's father Steven took over Tujague's in 1982.
"The cocktail took off, and we have one of the oldest bars in the country, so I guess we sold a lot of them here because [guests] could just come here and grab one instead of buying all the different liquors for it," Latter says. "Those liquors you generally don't see in people's home bars." Tujague's currently sells "hundreds" of Grasshoppers every week, with its current recipe featuring a non-traditional float of brandy along with the three main ingredients. "The younger customers who are 25 or 30, they come into the bar and grab one because they know that it was invented here," Latter says. But for other diners, the drink evokes fond memories. "In the dining room, you get the 40- and 50-year-olds whose grandparents came, and their grandparents came. We get a lot of great stories of third, fourth-generations coming to Tujague's, and the Grasshopper always comes up in that conversation."
BOOZE, MEET ICE CREAM.
But ask many cocktail aficionados about the Grasshopper, and they're likely to get nostalgic for a version popularized decades later. For many Midwest drinkers, the quintessential Grasshopper is a blended dessert drink: a glorified milkshake that substitutes ice cream for regular cream. "I've always been fascinated by the Wisconsin style of drinking," says Portland mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who serves an updated version of the Grasshopper at his subterranean cocktail bar Pépé Le Moko. "When I first started tending bar, I had a bunch of regulars who were all from Wisconsin. They were about my age, and a lot of them were former bartenders. They indoctrinated me into the Wisconsin style of drinking, which is all about fun."
Like other popular Wisconsin cocktails — the brandy Old Fashioned, the brandy Alexander — the frozen Grasshopper's origins are uncertain. But Grasshoppers are closely associated with Wisconsin supper clubs, the old-school establishments best known for their meat-and-potato prix fixe menus, communal atmosphere, and dessert cocktails. "I've had other supper clubs claim that they were the first to sell deep-fried cheese curds, but nobody's ever taken the claim they've been the first to serve the Grasshopper," says Ron Faiola, author of 2013's Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience. (The book features Benedetti's 3/4-gallon version, pictured at right.) "I have a feeling it's a combination of things that lead to all Grasshoppers being made with ice cream in the state."
The first, naturally, is Wisconsin's dairy industry, which took off in the late 19th century. According to Faiola, the town of Two Rivers, Wisconsin claims to be the birthplace of the ice cream sundae, with soda fountain proprietor Edward C. Berner topping a dish of ice cream with chocolate sauce back in 1881. "At some point, the local dairies were making ice cream, and someone said, ‘Hey, we have this new thing called the blender, so let's make it a little more fancy [for the supper club audience],'" Faiola says. (The blender, it should be noted, also originated in Wisconsin. Stephen Poplawski, whose family emigrated from Poland to Racine, Wisconsin, invented the appliance in 1922.)
The combination of the state's appreciation for ice cream, aggressive marketing efforts by local dairy councils, and the convivial supper club atmosphere likely combined to develop Wisconsinites' taste for the sweet cocktail. "Supper clubs were places you would go for the night," Faiola says. "There was entertainment; it was more special. It wasn't like going to a tavern... you'd go and have some nice food and linens instead of paper napkins." While brandy Old Fashioneds are still considered a pre-meal drink, Grasshoppers — and their cousin, the crème de noyaux and crème de cacao-laden Pink Squirrel — are served more as an after-dinner treat. Faiola reminisces about sipping Grasshoppers with his grandfather at Oak Creek, Wisconsin's now-closed Rafters supper club. "As kids, we would get a little spoonful here and there, along with our kiddie cocktails," he says. "You felt really grown up. Back then, to go out to dinner at a supper club, you didn't [wear] t-shirts and flip-flops and shorts."
"As kids, we would get a little spoonful here and there, along with our kiddie cocktails."
More than 300 old-school supper clubs are still open throughout the state, according to Faiola, who is writing a second edition of his supper club book. As part of his research, Faiola enjoys the drink every so often — just last week, he says, he tried a Grasshopper featuring local dairy in a Chippewa Falls supper club. "What helps these places endure is most of the time... the next generation comes up and takes it over, and they're part of the community," Faiola says of the supper club legacy. "It's the community gathering place." And not surprisingly, many other Wisconsin establishments proudly acknowledge the drink's role in state culinary history. Milwaukee's historic cocktail bar Bryant's Cocktail Lounge, where the Pink Squirrel was invented, serves both ice cream drinks. Joey Gerard's, the Bartolotta Restaurant Group's modern throwback to the supper club, features a cocktail menu that encourages guests to "drink like it's 1958." The Grasshopper features prominently, in a menu section devoted entirely to boozy ice cream drinks.
As the Grasshopper approaches its 100th birthday, its reputation — and that of other "too sweet," "guilty pleasure" cocktails — may be improving. Morgenthaler, the bartender who learned about Wisconsin drinking from some of his regulars, wants to get rid of the "guilty pleasure" label entirely. "I've always been this champion of mixology over the past however many years," Morgenthaler says, "but secretly, I really love Bailey's, White Russians, stuff like that." Like Faiola, Morgenthaler also reminisces about how trying the drinks of the previous generation represented a rite of passage. "I still remember the moment that I became kind of fascinated with my parents' drinks," Morgenthaler says. "My parents didn't drink Scotch, because that’s what their parents drank. People these days don't drink Grasshoppers and Mudslides because that's what their parents drank. It's always that generational thing."
"I've never seen anybody not smile when they've gotten one."
Morgenthaler's updated Grasshopper at Pépé Le Moko flips that idea on its head. "What if we take away that idea that a Sazerac is good but a Long Island Iced Tea is bad, or a Vieux Carré is good but an espresso martini is bad?" he asks. "What if we take that all away and just make drinks?" Pépé's Grasshopper snags the traditional recipe, blending it with ice cream, Fernet Branca, and a pinch of finishing salt to cut the sweetness and bitterness. The bar sells an average of 50 Grasshoppers per night, suggesting the cocktail strikes a particular chord among guests, even with a menu highlighting other "guilty pleasure" drinks like the aforementioned Long Island and espresso martini.
And Pépé's Grasshopper isn't the only modern take to sprout up. NYC's Bar Sardine recently added a version to its menu featuring almond milk and black pepper. LA's six-month-old Good Times at Davey Wayne's shakes up a Grasshopper with mezcal. And when acclaimed NYC bar manager Eben Freeman crafted the bar menu for the Butterfly in 2013 — named for chef Michael White's favorite Wisconsin supper club — he added unexpected ingredients like un-homogenized milk, orange juice, and pandan extract.
Perhaps drinkers are catching onto the "drinking should be fun" ethos that's inherent in the Grasshopper's New Orleans and Wisconsin roots. "I've never seen anybody not smile when they've gotten one," Morgenthaler says. Pro tip: Just ask for multiple spoons.