Friday, February 15, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Pink Lady

What’s in a name? That which we call a Pink Lady by any other name wouldn’t be that sweet at all, and would probably be ordered a lot more often.

The best example of how the Pink Lady’s handle has doomed its fortunes comes in Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails. Haigh calls the drink “The Secret Cocktail,” even filing it under S, so that potential imbibers won’t be prejudiced by its not exactly masculine title. Ironically, as Haigh and many others point out, the Pink Lady is virtually the same drink as the Clover Club. Both are made with gin, lemon juice and egg white (another potential problem area), both have a similar hue thanks to grenadine. The difference is the Pink Lady adds applejack, which not only lends dimension but kicks up the potency. Yet it’s the Clover Club that has made the comeback, turning up on Difford’s List of the top 100 cocktails while the Pink Lady is left out in the rain. Clearly rebranding is in order. The Pink Lady wouldn’t be facing this public shunning if it were called the Brute Force or the Unwashed Jock1.

It was not always thus for our ruddy maiden. The Pink Lady has some history behind her. The name comes from the 1911 Broadway show that gave us the timeless classics “The Girl by the Saskatchewan” and “Donny Did, Donny Didn’t.” (To be fair, the play was quite popular – it had to be if it spawned a cocktail – and, though never revived, still has its admirers.) In Crosby Gaige’s 1941 Cocktail Guide and Ladies’ Companion, the Pink Lady is one of sixteen Hall of Fame drinks.

But dark clouds are gathering. Ten years later, Jack Townsend in his Bartender’s Book would write of Clover Club drinkers who feared being confused with “that nice little girl who works in files, who’s always so courteous but always seems so timid” and who orders a Pink Lady on the rare occasions that she dares venture into a bar thinking “Hmmm, that couldn’t do me any harm.” This in spite of the fact that, as Townsend readily admits, “the Lady packs quite a wallop.” The die was cast. The drink became a punchline.

The Pink Lady had more to contend with than an unfortunate name, the presence of egg, and an ill-advised dalliance with Jeff Altman. There were the many competing recipes. The Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide offers two versions, one with gin, grenadine and cream (a regular substitute for egg white), the other close to the contemporary rendition but featuring a dusting of nutmeg. Charles Baker, Jr. in his Gentleman’s Companion presents a variation from the Miramar Club in Old Panama City that “is enough different from the usual to make it well listable here.” It includes Old Tom gin, sloe gin, and absinthe, then tosses in egg white for good measure to ensure amateurs are scared off. Wrote Baker, “This is a drink of considerable shocking power, and after consumption keep out of the sun, and in touch with friends.”

No need to go to such lengths. The sparer the preparation, the better; I don’t even bother with simple syrup, although some bartenders do. There’s nothing cloying or demure about the Pink Lady. The drink is dry, surprisingly tart, and strong. If anyone asks what you’re having, announce the name with pride. Then hum “A Boy Named Sue” while they plan their next move.

The Pink Lady

1 ½ oz. gin
¾ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. applejack
1 egg white
dash of grenadine

Shake the ingredients without ice, then with. Strain. No garnish.

1 Potential drink names trademarked by Vince Keenan, 2013.