There Are Lots of Cocktails Named After Movie Stars, but Only One Is a Classic

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Feb. 17 2014 6:15 AM

Celebrities on Ice

Slate’s guide to cocktails named after movie stars.

Mary Pickford cocktail.
Mary Pickford cocktail

Photo courtesy John Fladd/Flickr

The good names of beef Wellington and Chateaubriand and veal Prince Orloff and so on demonstrate the royalist sympathies of the gastronomic eponym. Kaiser rolls and Alexandertortes, mirepoix and praline, pizza Margherita and Earl Grey tea and General Tso’s chicken: These dishes honor dynasts and their minions. America, however, has no sovereigns after which to name culinary inventions and so turns her attention to the Sultan of Swat and his ilk. Our proxies for emperors at the dinner table include robber barons (oysters Rockefeller), golf champions (the Arnold Palmer), and—our subject today—A-list entertainers.

Movie stars: heavens!  Let us now praise that mocktail named for the recently departed Shirley Temple. Let us also wonder whether this year’s case of Oscar fever might best be treated with a cold beverage or two. Here are some notes on Hollywood celebrity as it relates to the intriguing field of mixonymics.

Step right this way—our tour of the prehistory of the phenomenon begins in the mid-1800s, with P.T. Barnum’s superstar soprano, Jenny Lind. The smorgasbord of tributes to the Swedish Nightingale included pastries, soups, a potato casserole, an oyster omelet, and an heirloom cantaloupe. (A few of the dishes named for Lind were indeed personal favorites, but most of these foodstuffs were parasitic—simple attempts at classiness-by-association, primal appeals to name recognition; mostly they were named by people hopeful of exploiting the customer’s aspirations.) High cuisine entered the mass-culture arena in the 1890s, when Auguste Escoffier ran the kitchen at the Savoy, famously feeding the fledgling beast of fame itself, which was famished for the glamour of Sarah Bernhardt (for whom he devised a strawberry surprise) and Nellie Melba (who really loved her peaches and her toast).

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

Then came the moving image, grinding out idols like so much Muybridge horse meat. In 1917, a trade magazine called Northwestern Druggist reported on a soda counter offering a Lillian Gish sundae, a Baggot phosphate, and a Theda Bara cocktail. Not long thereafter, we picked up the noble delicatessen tradition of naming sandwiches for stars, a practice approved by pretty much everyone but Larry David—and yet it seems that America has, historically, preferred not to eat its pop-culture icons but to enjoy them in liquid form.

Ginger Rogers cocktail.
Ginger Rogers cocktail.

Photo courtesy Ann Larie Valentine/Flickr

Is there a cocktail named for your favorite film star? Perhaps. Is this cocktail likely to be your favorite cocktail? No—unless you’ve swallowed the myth that the Margarita is named for the daughter of Eduardo Casino. The Guardian's 2008 list of old-school movie-star drinks is not a lineup of taste sensations. Many of these recipes are interesting only insofar as they present palimpsests of ephemeral crazes, testaments to dated taste, and log entries detailing desperate quests for novelty. The Ginger Rogers is most notable as a testament to the onetime popularity of apricot brandy. The Will Rogers (gin, dry vermouth, orange juice, curaçao) reads to me simply as a variation on the lamentable Bronx. That said, I am hereby calling for a revival of the Jean Harlow, which is, like the floozies the actress portrayed, fun and easy to make: Stir equal parts light rum and sweet vermouth with ice, strain, add a lemon twist. Use Banks 5 Island rum and Carpano Antica vermouth to mix a treat as lush as the Laughing Vamp herself.

Did the stars of your favorite Hollywood film drink their eponymous cocktails? Highly unlikely, unless your favorite film is the greatest Hollywood comedy of all time. (No arguing.) Rosalind Russell supplied the recipe for the Rosalind Russell to Lucius Beebe for his Stork Club Bar Book (a volume that also advertises the supersized Bellamy Scotch Sour as a favorite of that fellow in the movies). A dame like Russell is very rare to find, however. Far more typical is the case of Cary Grant, against whom there is no evidence of ever having drunk a Cary Grant. That’s usually the way things go. Moreover, the fact that the Internet cannot decide whether this vodka-based Cary Grant is made with Tia Maria coffee liqueur or Tio Pepe sherry suggests that the recipe spread by way of a game of telephone played by fools (because smart people immediately recognized that the drink sounds dumb either way).

Do any of the cocktails named for movie stars rank as classics? Only the Mary Pickford—and only because it was a hit in 1920s Havana, where its very preparation was a spectacle that always packed ‘em in. It’s “a curious sort of proto-exotic drink, made with rum, pineapple juice and grenadine,” plus a bit of Maraschino liqueur, to help make it almost kind of good.

Is there any end in sight? Well, yes and no. Bartenders will never tire of attaching a famous name to a fancy concoction. Very occasionally, these drinks turn out well; a highball created in ‘90s-era Portland called the Ginger Rogers (gin, lime juice, ginger syrup, mint, ginger ale) constitutes one of those rare remakes that outshines the original. More frequently, these turn out poorly: The Brad Pitt is a mere glorification of the vodka-soda, and the Angelina Jolie is an unconscionable waste of single-malt scotch.

Moreover, celebrity isn't as easy on the stomach as it used to be, and it is tempting to theorize that the very idea of naming a cocktail in earnest tribute to a star has lost its kick over the decades. The pictures got small, definitely; the superstars became too super to handle, maybe; the tastes of tastemakers changed, for sure. Anyone can come up with a halfway decent tribute to Marilyn Monroe, sure, but her aura is simply to too big be confined to a glass, and so the kids slinging drinks on the craft-cocktail scene, indie-minded anyhow, aim their wits at easier targets. One wants to take out restraining orders against those responsible for 2011’s spate of snarking Charlie Sheens: Stay 500 feet away from a mixing glass or I’m calling the health department.

Which classic movie-star cocktail most rewards tinkering? That would be the Charlie Chaplin, which calls for 1 ounce each of sloe gin, apricot brandy, and lime juice. Though fundamentally appealing, it is pucker-making in its dry tartness, and the original recipe must be adjusted if it is to please a palate conditioned by modern times. To rework it as a garden-party aperitif, just add dry vermouth.

But do you want to have some real fun? I think you do, and therefore insist you spend Oscar night testing Slate’s entertaining variation on the Charlie Chaplin cocktail. Here’s how to honor an icon of playing with food.

The Tramp
¾ ounce Broker's London dry gin
¾ ounce Plymouth sloe gin
¾ ounce Marie Brizard Apry apricot liqueur
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
Garnish: 1 thick lime half wheel, 2 Marasca cherries, 1 tiny little bowler hat*

Shake well with ice and strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish and serve.

The Tramp cocktail.
The Tramp cocktail

Photo courtesy Neal Bayless

*Note on garniture: Detach a Lilliputian plastic bowler hat from the cap of a 50-milliliter bottle—an “airplane bottle”—of Broker’s. Cut a notch into the flesh of the lime slice so that it will fit over the rim of your glass. Spear two cherries with one wooden toothpick. Stick one end of the toothpick into the skin of the lime, near the top of the arc of the half wheel. Place the half wheel on the rim of the glass. Put the bowler hat on the topmost cherry. See Figure 1, at left, to compare your handiwork against our prototype.