Give yourself a Bronx cheer

Every great cocktail has a great origin story. And that story is probably bullshit.

So declares no less an authority than Robert Simonson, New York Times cocktail writer (ah, what a job!) and author of the definitive books on the Old Fashioned and the Martini, among others. In a 2019 manifesto published by Taste, Simonson established seven skepticism-infused “Rules of Cocktail History Verification” with which to weigh every far-fetched folk tale of how a particular drink came into existence. The most important being: “If a story about the creation of a cocktail sounds too good to be true, it is.”

No surprise there. If there’s one thing booze hounds like more than drinking a drink, it’s talking about it. And while a bar dispenses many things, reliable information isn’t often among them.

I’ve tried throughout the Sunday Specials series to provide only verified, multi-source histories of the cocktails I present—or, at the very least, to lay out the various, competing versions of the drink’s lineage, accompanied by as many qualifiers as necessary.

I’ll need a lot of them for this week’s concoction: the Bronx Cocktail.

The most oft-repeated narrative involves a bartender, Johnnie Solon, who worked at the old Waldorf hotel in New York around 1906. By one account, he invented the drink after hearing a customer’s description of the recently opened Bronx Zoo; by another, Johnnie visited the zoo himself. Some say the drink was inspired by the wild descriptions of zoo animals from his liquored-up clients; others suggest the barkeep was actually drawing a scathing parallel between the creatures who inhabited the menagerie beyond the East River and those perched on the stools of his own Manhattan establishment.

As Gary Regan maintains in The Joy of Mixology, odds are that none of those stories is true. For one thing, the Bronx Zoo opened in 1899, and the Bronx Cocktail existed as early 1900, listed on a menu—from someplace other than the Waldorf. For another thing, as David Wondrich writes in Imbibe!, there were at least two other claimants to the invention around the same time, both of which were bars actually located in the Bronx borough.

Based on its components alone, this cocktail was most likely the product of multiple, independent parentages. The older, slightly higher-alcohol version is just a Medium Martini (made, per Simonson, with equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and dry vermouth) with a tiny bit of orange juice added. The more modern Bronx Cocktail is really a Perfect Martini (double the gin, a fraction of the vermouths) with orange juice making up the difference.

Neither recipe represents anything like a giant leap forward in cocktail artistry. All it took was for someone to ask for a splash of OJ in their Martini, and the Bronx cocktail was born—even if it wasn’t called that.

I wanted to like what I call the Boozy Bronx, which Wondrich attributes to one Billy Malloy of Pittsburgh, Pa.; the recipe appears in “Cocktail Bill” Boothby’s World Drinks and How to Mix Them, first published in 1908 (thereby casting further doubt on the Waldorf origin story). But because I love gin, I prefer the modern Bronx Cocktail, even though it goes heavy on the orange juice.

Take your pick. The story of the creation of the Bronx Cocktail might indeed be too good to be true, but the drink definitely isn’t.

Bronx Cocktail

Adapted from The Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan

2 ounces gin
1/4 ounce sweet vermouth
1/4 ounce dry vermouth
1 ounce fresh orange juice
1 dash orange bitters
Orange twist for garnish

Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist the orange peel over the glass and add as garnish.

Boozy Bronx

Adapted from Imbibe! by David Wondrich

1 ounce Plymouth gin
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce dry vermouth
1 bar spoon orange juice
2 dashes orange bitters
Orange twist for garnish

Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist the orange peel over the glass and add as garnish.


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