I rarely look forward to drinking at brunch. The options are usually a watery bloody mary that will do more to dehydrate you than refresh you, or a mimosa (well, technically, a Buck’s Fizz) made with turpentinic sparkling wine and canned orange juice. Yes, there are places that offer more unique brunch cocktails, or whose versions of these classics are draws in and of themselves, but more often than not your options are Essence of Campbell’s or orange-wine-but-not-the-good-way. There need to be more options. So may I make the argument for the perfect brunch drink: The Harvey Wallbanger.
The Harvey Wallbanger’s main job is to showcase Galliano, an Italian herbal liqueur flavored with vanilla and star anise. The lore was that it was invented in 1952 in LA by Donato Antone, and named after a local surfer, though it may have been developed by Antone later, specifically for Galliano as it attempted to get more U.S. business. Either way, by the 1970s, the drink — made by mixing vodka and orange juice, and adding a float of Galliano — was everywhere, its sweet and citrusy flavors evoking days on the beach.
The first time I had a Harvey Wallbanger was not at brunch. It was at a dive bar on my corner, the kind that redecorates itself for every holiday, and where the bartender bangs on a heating pipe with a wrench when she wants the owner, who lives upstairs, to call down. It’s a place nearly unchanged since the 1970s, which is probably why they had a giant, conical bottle of Galliano towering over the back bar. I asked what it was, and when was the last time anyone ordered it, and soon my friends and I found ourselves served a Harvey Wallbanger with four straws in it. And then, I started craving eggs.
The Wallbanger clearly riffs on the classic screwdriver, but the spice and vanilla notes kept it from being, frankly, boring. It’s sweet but not cloying, but also not too herbacious that it’ll overpower whatever you’re eating. The version I first drank could certainly have been improved by fresh-squeezed orange juice and a Luxardo cherry garnish, but it was great as it was. Which is exactly why it belongs at brunch.
A lot of brunch restaurants are just trying to sling pancakes and Benedicts and mimosas at a decent markup to keep themselves going for the rest of the week, and the appeal of a mimosa is not just that the orange juice makes it part of a balanced breakfast, but that it’s easy. Everyone, bartenders included, is too groggy on a Sunday morning to do much mixology. A Harvey Wallbanger, by being a whopping three ingredients instead of two, hits the sweet spot of feeling like a fancier cocktail without actually taking more effort. It can be served by the pitcher without risking bubbles going flat. It doesn’t require all the garnishes of a bloody mary. And the bit of Galliano lets you say you’re drinking a liqueur, like the Queen of France.
The whole point of brunch is to feel like you’re doing something a little special even though nothing you’re doing is all that special. It’s making an occasion out of slightly overpaying for a meal you could get at any diner. There’s nothing wrong with that, and the right cocktail — one just a tad fancy, but easy enough for any establishment to make — can make all the difference in maintaining that aura of ceremony. The next time I’m at brunch, I’m going to see if I can spot a bottle of Galliano at the bar. I can make a bad mimosa at home.