Friday, May 30, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Douglas Fairbanks

“You can talk about your stars and their talents … but Douglas Fairbanks had something none of the rest ever possessed. It was a combination of good manners, looks, athletic skill, and extroverted charm. Doug loved everybody, and his infectious grin and easy way made everybody love him.”

So wrote Hedda Hopper in her 1952 autobiography From Under My Hat. (Examples of other stars and their talents cited by La Hopper: “Jack Gilbert’s poetic love-making, Wally Reid’s boyishness.” It’s a one-of-a-kind book.) The man crowned King of Hollywood and the movies’ first great action hero – he played Zorro, Robin Hood, D’Artagnan – deserved to have a cocktail named in his honor, like two of his fellow co-founders of United Artists Mary Pickford, aka Mrs. Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin. Douglas Fairbanks (born Douglas Ullman) may have been a teetotaler, but Hollywood never lets facts get in the way of a story.

The question is: which drink is Douglas’s? Page through The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock or Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual and you’ll find the Fairbanks numbers 1 and 2, neither bearing a Christian name. The Fairbanks #2 is a martini variation with Crème de Noyaux, the pinkish liqueur made from apricot kernels yet tasting of almonds. This drink started in the 1920s as the Fairbank, but somewhere along the way an ‘s’ was appended. Clouding matters was an entry in Robert Vermiere’s Cocktails: How to Mix Them (1922), which claimed the drink was so called “after Senator Fairbank, a personal friend of the late President Roosevelt, of America.” Said Senator was actually Charles W. Fairbanks, not just Teddy Roosevelt’s personal friend but his Vice President. Considering Vermiere got both name and title wrong, it’s unclear how reliable a source he is, and anyway that’s not the drink I’m making. (By complete coincidence I had a riff on this Fairbanks courtesy of Ben Perri at the Zig Zag Café this week. With the addition of Cocchi Americano, it was terrific.)

More Hedda on Fairbanks: The actor famously had a steam room built at the studio he and Pickford owned. “That steam room was the great leveler. When he’s mother-naked, you can’t tell whether a man’s a duke, a masseur or a producer.” This fulfills my longtime dream of using the term “mother-naked” in one of these posts.

It’s more likely the Fairbanks #1 was named for the actor. The recipe originally appeared in the Sloppy Joe’s Cocktail Manuals published throughout the 1930s in Cuba, the land that sired Mary Pickford’s namesake drink. Craddock and Duffy prescribe an equal parts ratio of gin, apricot brandy and citrus juice (originally lemon, now lime), while Sloppy Joe and contemporary experts prefer a spirit-forward version. While grenadine is no longer included, the sometimes-vexing egg white called for by Sloppy Joe still is. I now follow the lead of the experts and use one egg white for two drinks. The Douglas Fairbanks proves such a sterling showcase for the derring-do of apricot brandy that although the egg white adds its usual silky mouthfeel, the cocktail would taste just fine without it.

One last tidbit from Hedda Hopper. When Douglas Fairbanks died, a coterie of pals led by actor/wrestler Bull Montana conspired at Hollywood’s Brown Derby to swipe the actor’s body, prop it under a favorite tree, and give him a more private sendoff. A busboy must have overheard the plan, because when Bull and the boys arrived at the mortuary the guard had been doubled. The ceremony proceeded at the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather without incident.

The Douglas Fairbanks

1 ½ oz. gin
1 oz. apricot brandy
½ oz. fresh lime juice
½ egg white (just use one egg white and make two drinks, it’s easier)

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

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