Friday, October 25, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Maiden’s Prayer

A few months ago, I took a mighty leap forward in my quest to see every film directed by Alfred Hitchcock when all nine of his surviving silent films, fully restored by the British Film Institute, screened in Seattle. What struck me about these early efforts, aside from his precocious talent, was the characters’ regular indulgence in cocktails. The movies were made in the late 1920s when Prohibition held sway over the Colonies, so perhaps rubbing it in is another example of Hitch’s mordant wit.

Rosemarie's favorite title card from CHAMPAGNE
Imbibing factors most prominently in 1928’s fittingly titled Champagne. The heroine of this screwball comedy, which survives only in a back-up print consisting of alternate takes, is literally a runaway heiress; the movie opens with her blowing a chunk of her father’s fortune to charter a seaplane so she can catch up to an ocean liner. As evidenced by a title card that quickly became Rosemarie’s motto, Betty is a dedicated student of mixed drinks and a devotee of the good life. She’s so profligate with her pop’s resources that he pretends he’s destitute in order to teach her a lesson. But Betty discovers heretofore unknown reserves of pluck and lands a position in a restaurant. On her first night, when nothing goes as planned, she takes a moment to watch in wonder as a bartender builds a complex cocktail. She asks what it’s called and is told a Maiden’s Prayer.

It was only a matter of time before I whipped one up myself and toasted Hitch with it.

The name came first, bestowed upon a genteel piece of piano music by Polish composer Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska in 1856. The ditty turns up in Kurt Weill’s satirical opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, but its most lasting impact would come courtesy of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Wills heard the melody on a fiddle and knew it lent itself to western swing. His new arrangement and lyrics made the song a country staple. Here’s a rendition recorded by the Baron of Bakersfield, Buck Owens.

Another title card from CHAMPAGNE
No one’s sure which wiseacre decided to christen a drink after it. The earliest Maiden’s Prayer on record, according to cocktail historian David Wondrich, is one made with rum and champagne that appears in Frank Newman’s unsung 1907 book American Bar. Gin is the base spirit in the version enshrined in the Savoy Cocktail Book, with another variation adding Calvados and Kina Lillet. Adding to the giggly confusion is the similar Maiden’s Blush, made without orange juice and with grenadine. However you poured it the intent of the Maiden’s Prayer was the same, and here’s where the wiseacre part comes in. Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts (1949) suggested that the drink be “served on the edge of the couch,” intimating that the concoction was engineered for the overcoming of inhibitions. While it’s not a particularly potent libation, it’s easy to see how the combination of fruit juices and “just a little gin” could be made appealing to an unsuspecting member of the fairer sex.

Guess which one has egg white
When I prepared the drink, I followed gaz regan’s advice to add Angostura bitters. The note of spice they brought kept the drink from floating away on a cloud of citrus. A fellow Hitchcock fan and cocktail aficionado known only as El Benjamino, similarly inspired after the Champagne screening, ordered a Maiden’s Prayer at the Zig Zag Café and was asked by bartender Ricardo if he wanted it with egg white. This ingredient, which nudges the drink toward Ramos Gin Fizz territory, didn’t turn up in any recipe I’d seen. Intrigued, I made versions with and without, because my thoroughness is unparalleled.

Which did I prefer? I can say that in addition to the silken texture always brought by egg white, its presence smoothes out what is quite a tart cocktail. Which will you prefer? You’ll have to fix a novena of Maiden’s Prayers and decide for yourself. Suspense perhaps not worthy of Hitchcock, but the best I can do.

The Maiden’s Prayer

1 ½ oz. gin
½ oz. Cointreau
½ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. orange juice
dash of Angostura bitters
egg white (optional)

Shake. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist. If using an egg white, combine all the ingredients and shake first without ice, then with.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at