Before cocktail bitters were a bartender’s staple, they were medicine, and the distinctive formula from Antoine Peychaud, an apothecary in New Orleans in the 1830s, was said to have a strong curative effect. Same went for the Cognac-based cocktail he served at his shop, which eventually became known as the Sazerac because Sazerac-de-Forge et fils was the name of his preferred French brandy. Over time, bartenders swapped the French spirit out for American rye, largely because phylloxera, the pest that decimated French vineyards, made cognac hard to get, but the use of Peychaud’s distinctively piquant bitters remained. The Sazerac’s popularity endured throughout the decades, and in 2008, the Louisiana state legislature proclaimed it New Orleans’s official cocktail. As the classic cocktail movement evolved around the United States, it became a staple at craft cocktail bars. When mixing it at home, a surefire way to make it authentic is to have some vintage New Orleans jazz drifting in from the next room.
Think New York City, and chances are the first drink to come to mind is the Manhattan. Not so fast. There’s no geographical identity in its name, but the martini has long been the prevailing drink in NYC’s circles of power brokers, politicians and publishers. It’s an American drink first — Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev called it “America’s lethal weapon” — but New Yorkers gave it a proper home. Old-school Madison Avenue ad execs famously consumed three at lunch, and it can be considered a course of its own in Manhattan’s many handsome steakhouses. Plus there are the tributes. Few top the one written by Dorothy Parker, the poet who gathered regularly with fellow literary wits in the 1920s at the stately Algonquin Hotel for lunches that involved drinks, repartee, gossip, social criticism and more drinks. (Moonshine, of course.) Prohibition would not dampen these New Yorkers’ festive, often raucous outlooks, as Parker allegedly testified: “I like to have a Martini, Two at the very most. After three I’m under the table, After four I’m under my host.”
According to a Nielsen survey, the margarita is the most-called drink in the United States — and given their proximity to Mexico, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Texans enjoy more than their fair share of the tequila drink. But in a somewhat surprising twist, the state that appears to be inextricably linked to the classic cocktail has a less obvious favorite. South of the border, the drink of choice is the Paloma — one part tequila and three parts grapefruit soda, like Fresca, stirred over ice — and the long-standing Mexican tradition has become a Lone Star State staple.
Maine: Allen’s Coffee Brandy
Like Iowa’s Snickers salad or Louisville’s Hot Brown, Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy is one of those things so inextricably linked to a place, you probably don’t know it unless you’ve been to Maine. And if you have been there, you know you can’t avoid it. The top-selling spirit brand in the state, it was introduced in the 1960s, and as local lore has it, fishermen and lobstermen added the drink to their morning Joe to fortify themselves in the wee small frigid hours of the morning. Nobody is exactly sure why it’s so closely tied to Maine, since it’s made in Massachusetts, but if one thing’s for sure, it’s that New England traditions die hard. Today it’s commonly drunk with whole milk, a concoction known as the Sombrero, though locals call it Gorilla Milk, Jackman Martini and other sobriquets involving more colorful language. And the obsession doesn’t stop at drinks. When travel resumes and you get to the Pine Tree State, check out the various Allen’s-spiked ice cream, doughnuts and other desserts at shops throughout the area.
New Jersey: The Jack Rose
The Jack Rose was, as legend has it, created by a New Jersey bartender at the beginning of the 20th century. But the simple mix of applejack, grenadine and lemon juice encapsulates the Garden State for reasons beyond its origination point. Applejack, an American style of apple brandy, is the unofficial spirit of New Jersey, thanks to the state’s tradition of distilling local apples, an industry that dates to the Colonial era. The Laird family has been doing just that since around the time of the Revolutionary War, making the Laird & Co. distillery in Scobeyville, near Asbury Park, the oldest in the United States. Lisa Laird Dunn, who oversees the operation today, is a ninth-generation descendant of the founder.
Washington, D.C.: The Gin Rickey
Politics can be difficult. That might be why the Gin Rickey, considered the official cocktail of Washington, D.C., is not. Legend has it dating back to 1883, during the Chester A. Arthur administration, when Democratic lobbyist Colonel Joe Rickey suggested the gin/lime/soda water mix to a busy bartender at a German tavern on Pennsylvania Avenue. It caught on, becoming so entrenched in D.C. bar culture that the colonel’s 1903 obituary in the New York Times read, “Col. Joseph Karr Rickey, famous throughout the country as the originator of the concoction bearing his name, died suddenly yesterday.” In 2009, July was christened Rickey Month in the District, and since then local bartenders have been showcasing their own creative versions of the drink, adding everything from muddled ginger to blackberry puree and swapping out club soda in favor of sparkling wine.
Massachusetts: The Ward Eight
When Locke-Ober closed in 2012, the stately restaurant across from the Boston Common had clocked 137 years, making it only the fourth-oldest restaurant in the city. All dark-wood paneling, studded leather chairs and brass accents, it was a playground for hobnobbing Brahmins throughout the decades. Its reservation books read like a who’s-who of Massachusetts’s politicians, and during his presidency JFK was known to meet Harvard pals in a private third-floor dining room to chat policy. But of all the politerati, it’s Martin Lomasney — wait, who? — whose Locke-Ober legacy endures. As the story goes, on the eve of the 1898 election, the Democratic state senator from the West End, or Ward 8, gathered at the restaurant with friends to commemorate his victory. Lomasney, a teetotaler and notorious fixer, asked the bartender to invent a drink for the occasion, so he gussied up a basic whiskey sour with some orange juice and grenadine. But drink origin stories often err on the side of urban myth, and there are a few holes in the story, like the fact that the pol didn’t actually run for anything that year.
“Our thirst for narrative is as strong as our thirst for drink. This cocktail fulfills them both,” says Jackson Cannon, bar director at Boston’s Eastern Standard and the Hawthorne. “It’s a whiskey sour with a touch of innovation. Oranges were seasonal, grenadine made it pink — and if the past has shown us anything, it’s that we all love pink drinks. Changing the story just a little makes it twice as enjoyable.”