Gettin’ Jerry With It, Part II: the Knickerbocker

Prompted into action by Slakethirst, I’m venturing back to the Old Testament of mixology, Jerry Thomas’ 1862 How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon-Vivant’s Companion. Not that this one has been forgotten, at least not recently: In the past year alone, this 19th-century punch with the Old New York monicker has been listed in two manuals that could serve as textbooks for students of higher drinking: David Wondrich’s oft-cited Killer Cocktails, and Ted Haigh’s invaluable Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails.

Knickerbocker (Thomas’ recipe)
(Use small bar glass)

  • 1/2 a lime, or lemon, squeeze out the juice, and put rind and juice in the glass
  • 2 teaspoonfuls of raspberry syrup
  • 1 wine-glass [2 ounces] Santa Cruz rum
  • 1/2 teaspoonful of Curacoa.

Cool with shaved ice; shake up well, and ornament with berries in season. If this is not sweet enough, put in a little more raspberry syrup.

David Wondrich (who says the drink first started turning up in the 1850s, several years before Thomas’ book was published) refers to the Knickerbocker as the great-granddaddy of all tiki drinks, and it’s easy to see why: with the rum, lime and curacao, you’re well on your way to a mai tai. But here’s the tipoff to its heritage: the raspberry syrup (and fresh berry garnish). Thomas’ (and other bartenders of his era) recipes are full of references to raspberry syrup, and other sweetened fruit syrups, whereas in later bartending manuals grenadine becomes the catch-all fruit syrup.

Also telling to its heritage is its specification for Santa Cruz rum. This is simply Virgin Islands rum; the largest (and perhaps only) contemporary Virgin Islands distillery is Cruzan, founded in 1760 and based in Saint Croix (the French version of the Spanish Santa Cruz, or “holy cross”).

Thomas, as well as Haigh and Wondrich, all specify Virgin Islands rum in their recipes for the Knickerbocker (differences: Haigh calls for lemon while Wondrich calls for lime; and Haigh’s recipe is sweeter, with 1/2 ounce each of curacao and syrup, while Wondrich deals in teaspoons–1 1/2 for the syrup, and only 1/2 for the curacao).

In my first run on a Knickerbocker, I was not at all impressed. Looking back, I find possible fault in three areas of that initial mix:

  • I used Cruzan amber, however it’s labeled. Neat tastings of this spirit left me unexcited, and this may have contributed to my lack of enthusiasm for the punch (though I should mention that Cruzan blackstrap rum has become a favorite, and I understand their single-barrel bottling is quite nice, so that might be a good avenue to pursue in this drink).
  • I used Wondrich’s recipe, which may have resulted in a drink more tart than I typically prefer.
  • For raspberry syrup I used DaVinci, a lackluster product.

Why then revive the Knickerbocker? Based on Slakethirst’s endorsement of the drink I decided to revisit it, using Appleton V/X rum instead of Cruzan; a Croatian raspberry syrup that I picked up in Canada in place of the characterless DaVinci; and slightly more syrup in the drink, for a somewhat sweeter taste.

Bingo. While it’s not something I’ll mix up frequently, it’s a nice variation on the various rum punches I’ve been enjoying this summer. The raspberry adds a special note, a touch of summery fruitiness to an already festive drink. Slakethirst recommends adding a bit of seltzer, to bring the drink alive with bubbles. I’ll put this in my “examine further” file.

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5 Responses to Gettin’ Jerry With It, Part II: the Knickerbocker

  1. George Sinclair says:

    May I ask why you are serving the Knickerbocker over crushed ice?

    The Jerry Thomas recipe states: “strain into a cocktail glass”.

    Where did you get your Jerry Thomas recipe from? (i.e. which edition)

  2. Paul says:

    Hi George,

    I have two copies of Thomas’ book — one is the 2004 reprint of, I believe, the 1862 version (there’s no date printed in the volume, but the publisher is listed as “Dick & Fitzgerald,” the same publishers who did the 1862 edition); and the other is the 1928 edition (mine’s from the 7th printing, in 1934), edited and with a foreword by Herbert Asbury. In each of these books, Thomas says of the Knickerbocker to “cool with shaved ice; shake up well, and ornament with berries in season.” No mention of straining, or of a cocktail glass. (And I used crushed ice in my drink simply because of a lack of shaved ice in my household — crushed seemed the next best thing).

    Do you have a version that says otherwise? I know recipes did change in different editions, and I’d be curious to know when & how it may have changed.

  3. Jonathan Smith says:

    Up or on-the-rocks? I’ve tried the Knickerbocker both ways, and I think it holds up well either way, depending on the context. It works great shaken and strained if your plan is to consume it fairly quickly. But it also works like a punch, on the rocks, if you’re nursing it more slowly, say, at a party that involves food and conversation.

    As for raspberry syrup: There’s no reason not to make your own. Grind two pints of fresh berries through a fine sieve, then squeeze everything you can out of the mash using a piece of cheesecloth. Stir in sugar to taste. This is the real deal.

  4. Thanks for your info on the Knickerbocker – this was actually one of my more favorite drinks of Thomas’ as I find that a lot of them aren’t very balanced. I liked his use of citrus in this. I can see how the raspberry syrup would greatly influence this drink – next time you should try it again and make the syrup from scratch – delish!

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