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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