In the world of mixology, there aren’t many cocktails based on Cognac relative to the other spirits. I can count less than twenty old recipes off the top of my head, which is really not much, considering a quarter are mere variations of each other, and another quarter or so share the stage with other spirits like Rum (Fish House Punch, Between the Sheets) and Gin (Delmonico No. 1).
The highly effective marketing of Cognac as too-haute-to-mix may have something to do with this. Scotch producers have accomplished the same feat through shrewd marketing, though Scotch naturally lends itself to this because it's generally a more difficult spirit to mix with than Cognac. Perhaps another reason for the comparative lack of truly good Cognac-based cocktail recipes is the dearth of creativity that’s plagued the bartending profession (minus a few bright spots here and there) since the end of Prohibition. Luckily we’ve seen a real Cocktail Renaissance over the last decade that has thus far not shown any signs of slowing, and so we can undoubtedly expect more good things to come down the pipeline.
For the moment, however, we’ll celebrate one of the few really good Cognac-based cocktails that's been largely forgotten over the years, the Metropole.
The Metropole is a quintessential pre-Prohibition cocktail. It’s boozy and simple so it doesn’t really mess around, and of course was invented at least a couple of decades before Prohibition took effect.
Before Times Square was sterilized by Guiliani—way before Times Square was sterilized by Guiliani—there stood the Metropole Hotel near Broadway and 43rd St. Among the hotel’s most notable (and notorious) residents were Nicky Arnstein (international gambler/con artist/entrepreneur, played by Omar Sharif in Funny Girl) and Bat Masterson (buffalo hunter/gunslinger/gambler/sportswriter). The hotel had a street level bar called Café Metropole which, according to cocktail historian David Wondrich, had an equally notorious clientele of “crooked ward-heelers, mid-level gamblers, palookas and their handlers, actors…and every other species of half-hand bigshot who talks sideways and never looks you in the eye except when he’s dealing from the bottom of the deck.”
It was here that the Metropole cocktail was created, and though I have no clue what a palooka is (nor how to handle one for that matter), I can tell you if this place were around today, you’d find me there tossing back a few.
Eventually bankruptcy forced the hotel to close its doors in 1912, but not without one final furbelow befitting its sordid reputation. A week prior to shutting its doors, in the wee small hours of the morning of July 13, bookmaker (read illegal gambling-den operator) Herman “Beansy” Rosenthal was gunned down in front of the hotel by rival Jewish gangsters from the Lower East Side. (Interestingly enough, this little bit of criminal history ties into another classic cocktail, the Jack Rose, but that's for another day.)
1 1/2 oz Cognac (save the fancy stuff; a VS, or even plain Brandy, will do fine)
1 1/2 oz French (Dry) vermouth
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
1 dash orange bitters
Garnish: lemon or orange twist (optional)
Tools: barspoon and mixing glass
Glass: chilled cocktail glass or coupe (pictured)
Stir ingredients well in ice-filled mixing glass (about 30 seconds) and strain into your glass. The old recipes don’t call for a garnish, but I sometimes find a lemon or orange twist is a nice addition.
I’ve also seen old recipes of this drink that call for a couple dashes of gomme syrup (sugar syrup with gum Arabic added to give it a smoother texture). I’m not sure which is the original, however the era in which this drink was created leads me to believe it’s the one without the syrup. Regardless, they’re both good, and at times I’ll add a dash or two of simple syrup if I feel like having a slightly sweeter drink.
The Metropole is essentially a variation of the original Dry Martini (remember that the original classic Dry Martini was equal parts Gin and French vermouth, with a dash or two of orange bitters), with the Gin replaced with Cognac, and a couple dashes of Peychaud’s bitters added. In that same spirit I sometimes change the proportions to a 2:1 ratio of Cognac to vermouth, when I desire a stronger drink with greater Cognac flavor.
As with many classic cocktails that were created during the “Saloon Era” of American history where even the law acted lawless (see Gangs of New York, and just about every other period piece set around the mid to late 19th century), the Metropole has a unique story filled with colorful characters. And even here where the story itself is not so much a tale of the drink’s creation, but simply the backdrop, that in itself is significant (and arguably more important) because it offers a glimpse of the types of folks who might have ordered such a drink, which in turn tells us something about the drink itself. While we must be careful not to draw too many conclusions, it certainly counters the notion held by some that cocktails with such fancy ingredients as orange bitters are primarily the providence of geeks and aficionados.
And those who still think a real man wouldn’t be caught dead with such a drink in his hand should go look up, um, “Beansy” Rosenthal.
Here’s to old New York, the real metropole.
*Got a cocktail question? Hit me on twitter @paystyle, email me at payman(at)lifesacocktail(dot)com, or simply drop me a comment below.