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Building on a Classic: the Evolution of the Improved Cocktail

How bartender Jerry Thomas changed the way we drink with a dash of absinthe and two dashes of maraschino

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In the 21st century, a brand new $600 phone is on its way to obsolescence within seconds of purchase because an improved version is already on the way. There was a time when life moved at a slower pace, and new things not only made a bigger impression, they also stuck around for longer in their original form.

The word cocktail has become a broad term that most imbibers accept as a drink which contains more than one component, often built of many ingredients from around the world. In the 1880s, the word cocktail simply meant a mix of base spirit plus sugar, bitters, and water. Back then, that was the only known recipe for a cocktail. It was such a new idea, that to build on it was considered a bonafide invention. Says Greg Boehm, cocktail historian and founder of bar tools company Cocktail Kingdom, "You’re talking about a time when there’s not a ton of different cocktails, and not a lot of variation going on. So any change means more than it means now."

Pioneering 19th century New York bartender Jerry Thomas is credited with officially building on this formula, and the first recipes for "improved" versions of cocktails appeared in the second edition of his seminal book, The Bartenders Guide: How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant's Companion, published in 1876. In his recipe for the Improved Brandy Cocktail, he adds maraschino cherry liqueur, absinthe, and a lemon twist, and this precise formula functions as a template for other cocktails using different base spirits, such as gin and whiskey.

Courtesy of Cocktail Kingdom

Today, versions of this very recipe are prepared in endless variations, built of many ingredients and a rainbow of bitters and flavors. But, during the 1800s, only a few combinations of ingredients existed from which to choose. And, for obvious reasons, a simple mix of spirit, sugar, bitters, and water would have tasted differently than versus now because of access to product.

Says Boehm, "Consider how you think about the base spirits—how funky was the gin or the brandy? In an improved brandy cocktail—we’re talking pre-phylloxera." The absinthe would have been authentic absinthe with deeper flavors and a heavy dose of wormwood—not the post-20th century absinthe ban absinthe Americans consume now which has a diminished amount of botanicals containing thujone, the ketone element once mythologically perceived as hallucinogenic, now thought to cause excessive blood-thinning. The bitters most certainly would have been Angostura, or a type of bitters known as Boker’s (the two were often used interchangeably in recipes, and bars usually carried one or both), which disappeared during Prohibition and is now reproduced in a close approximation by Dr. Adam Elmegirab's Bitters.

According to Matteo Luxardo, Export Director of the Luxardo family distillery in Torreglia, Italy, though Thomas included gum syrup (rich simple syrup with gum arabic) in his recipes, most bartenders weren’t using it because sugar was so expensive. So, maraschino liqueur itself was often employed as the only sweetening agent. Boehm adds that palates were drier in those days, and very sweet drinks didn’t appear on the scene until decades later when sugar became more accessible.

Vintage Luxardo posters, courtesy of Luxardo.

Though Thomas’ Improved Cocktail has endured through the ages, it fell out of vogue in the mid 20th century.

As for maraschino, the two most prevalent brands available were Drioli and Luxardo. While Drioli has all but disappeared, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur still exists in very much the same formula as it did back during Jerry Thomas’ time. The liquor's medieval recipe was developed during the early 1600s in a convent, and was first prepared in the Luxardo family by Maria Conevari, wife of Girolama Luxardo, who founded the distillery in 1821. Generations later, Matteo Luxardo shares some insights on the recipe and family legacy, explaining the medieval version—which became a popular home cordial—tasted quite different because it was essentially a cherry liqueur infused with roses, called rosiolo maraschino. Girolama Luxardo had been successful in the nautical rope and coral trade businesses, so he decided to open a distillery in what was then Dalmatia, now Croatia, previously a Venetian territory. Matteo explains, "The recipe changed completely from the original so that it was not any more an infusion, but a liqueur that came from a distillation [of Marasca sour cherries] ... It takes more or less three years. There is the infusion in alcohol of the fruit, the heart, the stone, the leaves, the branches ... aged for more or less two years in large wood barrels. Then everything is distilled—the solid part and the liquid part. Then we finish the product in Finnish ash wood. It doesn’t release a color or flavor or smell to the product, but it helps in the amalgamy [sic] of all the flavors."

Though Thomas’ Improved Cocktail has endured through the ages, it fell out of vogue in the mid 20th century when American drinkers became accustomed to sweeter, more processed ingredients, or, conversely, preferred drinks without modifiers like absinthe and maraschino. For instance, the earliest martini recipes were, in a way, an offshoot of the Improved Cocktail, like the Martinez, which incorporates larger measures of sweet vermouth (in author Robert Hess’ chapter "The Rise and Fall of the Martini" in the book Mixologist: The Journal of the American Cocktail, the Martinez calls for "1 wine glass of vermouth"), with a couple of dashes of maraschino, and a few dashes of bitters. But moving from the 1950s into the 1980s and beyond, the martini of choice became the dry martini, built with a bit of dry vermouth and more gin or vodka—devoid of maraschino, absinthe, or bitters.

Drinks historian, author, and Sipsmith gin Master Distiller Jared Brown elaborates, "The notion that a drop of absinthe and/or a dash of maraschino could transform a cocktail into an improved cocktail is pretty accurate. It is also sadly lost and forgotten. Martini purists in America were up in arms in the early 1950s when bartenders began to regularly omit the drop of absinthe and dash of orange bitters that were essential to the formula. They foresaw a grey nightmarish world where people would believe the martini is just gin and vermouth. Perhaps it is time to resurrect a few improved formulas once more."

The stark, dystopian cocktail era is indeed past us, and modern bartenders are revisiting the beloved classic Jerry Thomas recipe to brighten their own recipes. Nowadays, maraschino and absinthe enhance the flavors of other base spirits and liqueurs in more complicated recipes, but the reverence for the source material is there. Matteo Luxardo says he visits bars around the world and chats with bartenders about how they’re using maraschino to improve cocktails because everyone has their own interpretation.

Here in the U.S., Seattle's Zig Zag Café builds its Armistice cocktail with rye whiskey, dry vermouth, green Chartreuse, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, and aromatic bitters, while Beverly Hills' La Dolce Vita serves up the Improved Fogcutter, with rum, gin, brandy, lemon, lime, and simple syrup, finished and two spritzes of Luxardo. But sometimes substitutions won't do. Which is why New York's Slowly Shirley and Cambridge, MA's Craigie on Main list Thomas' original recipe as part of their regular offerings.

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