The ABCs of Harry MacElhone

Much of late last week around here was focused on getting materials together for an open house-style donor event last Friday. For your usual archivist & blogger Kira, that meant preparing a two-drink historic cocktail tasting and talk (borrowing from an early 20th century euphemism, it was titled “Measuring Sidewalks Upside Down: Cocktail History in America (and Special Collections!)”). Cocktails aren’t quite on my brain anymore, but both of the drinks on the tasting menu came from rare volumes in our collection. One was a bottled (gin) cocktail from Jerry Thomas’ How to Mix Drinks, or, The Bon-Vivant’s Companion (1862), which has been a feature on the blog before. The other was the Scofflaw Cocktail, one of my favorite Prohibition-era drinks for a number of reasons (more on that shortly). There are a number of recipes for it, but one of the earliest appearances was in Harry McElhone‘s ABC of Mixing Cocktails, first published in 1921. Our copy is a 10th edition, from a bit later, probably about 1929.

When it comes to cocktail history, a lot of things have been lost–ingredients, recipes, and explanations of names among them. We’ve been lucky enough to discover recipes for “lost” ingredients and found long-forgotten recipes. Names, well, that’s a bit harder. A lot of times, there is no good explanation. Luckily, the same can’t be said for the Scofflaw (or, Scoff-law, if you prefer), which are two of the reasons I love this cocktail. It has a great name AND an origin story. We know that in early 1924, the Boston Herald newspaper held a contest to find a word to describe those lawless types who continued to  engaged in the illicit manufacture and transportation of spirits, brazenly consuming alcohol during Prohibition. Two different people sent in the word “scofflaw,” and the two split the $200 prize. We also know that it didn’t take long for these newly-minted scofflaws to fight back. Although located overseas and thousands of miles the States, it didn’t take long for someone at Harry’s New York Bar to have an idea: Co-opt the word and make it a drink.

Like many-a cocktail, the Scofflaw has seen some variation its 93 years, but not as much as some other cocktails. You probably won’t see arguments break out over the ingredient list or discover minor changes in almost every version you see (like with the Jack Rose). The original Scofflaw Cocktail was made with blended whiskey, but other variants suggest the use of rye or bourbon specifically (I prefer the former). And one could argue about balance, since you’ll see a 1:1 ratio of whiskey: vermouth, as well as a 2:1 ratio. But, as with any cocktail, it’s okay to adjust to a drinker’s taste. The other fun part about a drink like this is that it lends itself to homemade ingredients in the modern craft cocktail age, particularly in the case of the bitters and the grenadine.

If you obsess over cocktails like someone writing this blog post, you might notice some inconsistencies in MacElhone’s book, even with the few sample pages above. References appear to both “‘Canadian Club’ whiskey” and “‘Canadian Club’ whisky” which would be the same thing (and correctly spelled the latter way). Angostura sometimes has “Bitters” after it, but not always. Measurements come in standard (teaspoons) and non-standard (dashes) amounts, as well as in ratios, or sometimes, a combination of all of the above. We know that not all the recipes are from MacElhone and we can probably attribute the variation to his collecting some of the recipes from other sources.  Since, from a historical perspective, measurements are always tricky (they have shifted over time), it may mean a little research or experimentation is needed–but that’s hardly a bad thing. Just remember, we may no longer be scofflaws, but we certainly enjoy one!

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