US News & World Report—a pillar in the field of freaking out people who remit and collect college tuition payments—published its entertainingly meaningless rankings of the nation’s top undergraduate institutions last week. Waking to this pseudo-event, with its headline news that Princeton University is better than all other schools, we in the Slate Drink department cheered thrice for Old Nassau. Celebrating at noonday, we enjoyed a long liquid lunch, a practice notably familiar to our tribe. And what did we drink? Oh, 19 or 20 cocktails, many of them kinda weird, all named after Ivy League colleges.
Like the other, crappier schools in its athletic conference, Princeton is party to a tradition dating to the Gay ’90s. In that Golden Age of the cocktail, the bar at Holland House on Fifth Avenue—a hotel in “the swellest quarter in New York” (“350 Rooms from $2 upwards”)—began putting out drinks named for Harvard and Yale and Princeton, doubtless currying favor with the alumni among its patrons and announcing itself as a “classy” joint to other suckers for HYP hype.
The cocktails of Ivy League, then, predate the social construct of “the Ivy League” by four decades and the history of the NCAA entity by six. Over the years, charming upstarts, curious arrivistes, and dogged usurpers joined the original collegiate cocktails, which themselves evolved and degenerated to varying degrees. Interestingly, only those recipes attached to the names of Ivies have made their way into recorded history, unless you count the Caltech Cocktail (ingredients: “4 ounces water”). We’d be happy to be proved wrong about this exclusivity. Indeed, we were disappointed to learn that the totally solid Vanderbilt—one part brandy, one part cherry brandy, a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters—is named not for the “Harvard of the South” or even for the robber baron who endowed it but instead for a trust-fund kid who died on the Lusitania. There might be a noteworthy drink named for the eighth-oldest college in the U.S.; as this story went to the proverbial press, we stumbled upon a website inviting Rutgers alumni to a Manhattan bar to watch the Scarlet Knights face Fresno State on the gridiron while enjoying a “special Rutgers cocktail.” Stay tuned for an update, but don’t hold your breath for anything like a Fresno Statini.
There are only eight Ivy League schools, but the forces of culinary history being what they are, we are able to deliver a list of the 12 most notable Ivy League drinks. (And because these cocktails have seen more changes of course than a registrar’s office, we saw fit to make minor tweaks and adjustments to the more promising among them.) Now, we want to be clear: We do not wish to encourage current undergraduates to drink these or any other cocktails. That’s what peer pressure is for, and beer. But we hope that readers claiming all alma maters will appreciate this arcane excursion into American Studies and that recent matriculants will learn something about the characters of their vine-strewn institutions.
US Booze & World Report’s Definitive Ivy League Cocktail Rankings
2 ounces applejack or Calvados
¾ ounce lemon juice or lime juice
½ ounce simple syrup
Optional garnish: lime, lemon, or orange twist or wedge
Shake the liquor, the juice, and the simple syrup well with ice. Strain over ice into a chilled highball glass. Top with club soda and garnish.
In American cinema’s classic moment of antagonizing Hahvahd jerks, the hero of Good Will Hunting taunts a romantic rival, bludgeoning the fellow with his Southie accent: “Do you like apples? ...” The townie and the snob should be able to agree on very much liking apple brandy, especially as featured here, in a Collins that goes down swell in three out of four seasons. In spring, the Harvard Cooler sings with invigorating crispness. In summer, when a student developing his resume in a developing nation finds himself developing a tropical thirst, it proves a reliable refreshment. And in autumn, its harvest-time tang pairs well with watching—or hanging out in the general vicinity of—the Head of the Charles.
I happened to discover a happy coincidence of the Hub when I gave the recipe (but not its name) to my barman, who suggested rounding it out with a dash of Boston Bittahs. This addition enhanced the brightness of the citrus and brought in a hint of chamomile—the delicacy of which will be lost, I concede, on any drinker who trained her palate on the scorpion bowl at the Kong.
Yale Cocktail (Nouveau)
2 ounces London dry gin
¾ ounce Crème Yvette
¼ ounce Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
¼ ounce dry vermouth
Dash of orange bitters
Garnish: lemon twist
Stir well with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish.
A magnificently weird beverage. Your first Yale Cocktail will be floridly floral on the tongue and lavishly lavender to the eye. (That’s the Crème Yvette transforming the drink into a grandly perfumed grandma candy.) Your second Yale Cocktail will not be especially ladylike in its handling of your central nervous system. (That’s the gin.) Your third Yale Cocktail is not quite thinkable.
The drink will hew a bit more closely to true Yale blue if you substitute crème de violette for the Crème Yvette. But only a bit. It’s more like a lush steel blue, and it tastes like it looks, blossoming exoticly on the tongue, flamboyantly aromatic even in this most balanced version, a 1906 recipe recently modified by the Yale Alumni Magazine. Steel yourself, lush.
2 ounces cognac
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 scant barspoon grenadine
2 or 3 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir the first four ingredients well with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Top with club soda to taste.
You can’t get a Harvard Cocktail at the Harvard Club in Manhattan. Writing about Ivy League drinks in the Wall Street Journal a few years back, Eric Felten reported that none of its bartenders “even knew such a drink existed.” Likewise, Brad Thomas Parsons writes about a disappointing encounter on West 44th Street in the book Bitters: “I asked the well-appointed barman … if he had many calls for Harvard’s namesake cocktail. His response of “Say again?” made me think that one hadn’t been ordered there since 1895.”
The Harvard is a brandy Manhattan with a couple of mellow bells and sporty whistles. In this richly flavored recipe—synthesized from sources including Modern American Drinks by the Holland House’s George Kappeler—the drink is firm but kind, dignified but festive, quietly distinctive and assertively delicious. Why does it languish in obscurity? Is the name a problem? Has anti-elitist sentiment limited its popular appeal? If so, then let’s rename it Joe College and move on with things because this is a classic.
Princeton Cocktail #1
2 ounces Old Tom gin
2 dashes orange bitters
¾ ounce ruby or tawny port
Orange or lemon peel to twist
Stir the gin and bitters well with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. To create a “nice two-tone effect”—the layered look of the port settling at the bottom of the cocktail glass—pour the port either very slowly over the back of a spoon or very gently down the side of the glass. Twist the peel over the drink and discard it.
The Princeton #1 is not to be confused with the Princeton #2, which is a martini to which some fool added lime juice. The Princeton #1 is not, moreover, a thing to be attempted after having drunk more than three of any cocktail. You need a steady hand in order to achieve the layering effect, the niftiness of which is the drink’s big selling point.
It is a limitation of the drink that the taste experience mirrors the visual one: The cocktail is not more than the sum of its parts. First sip is gin. Second sip is gin. Third sip, hey, that’s more gin. Things get more interesting once you dip into the port, even and especially if you set the drink aside for a while. The Princeton #1 is on the very short list of cocktails that get better as they warm up.