“There are so many people doing their take on cocktails,” David Devaney, bar manager at Andersonville’s Big Jones, says. “I wanted to do the cocktails as they were a hundred years ago.” Paul Fehribach, chef-owner of the Cajun and Southern-themed restaurant, has turned to exploring the past by recreating 19th century, pre-industrial food recipes from the region, and now Devaney is doing the same with bar recipes, recently introducing four new drinks to the cocktail list based on recipes from books such as The Flowing Bowl from 1891 and Harry Johnson’s Bartenders’ Manual from 1888. We asked him about what makes 19th century cocktails different from ones from the heyday of cocktails in the 1920s through the 1950s; a video of him mixing a Southern Cross follows our interview below.
So what are the cocktails that you’re making?
We have a Manhattan, which is from Harry Johnson’s Bartender’s Manual from the 1880s, a Martini from around the same time, a White Lady, which goes back to The Flowing Bowl although the recipe we’re using is basically from the Savoy Cocktail Book from about 1930, which codified a lot of these classic drinks, and a Southern Cross, which is also from The Flowing Bowl.
You think of Manhattans and Martinis as being kind of classic midcentury cocktails, not necessarily going back that far.
Well, but they’re built along the same lines as all early cocktails, just like Old-Fashioneds or Sazeracs— you’ve got your bitter, your sugar, and your spirit. That’s basically how cocktails came about, adding a little sweetness and a bitter taste to kind of take the edge off the spirits of the day. I mean, the whiskey you were drinking was probably made in somebody’s backyard back then, it needed some help. Actually, even before whiskey, most cocktails were with cognac; that was by far the most common spirit up until phylloxera hit and the supply of cognac dried up.
Just looking at the recipes, they seem sweeter than later versions of the same drink.
Yeah, but it’s very typical of the era. As spirits became more refined in the 20th century the need for that sugar was reduced and people began to prefer a drier style. By modern standards there’s a lot of sugar, but we balance it with the bitter or lime juice or Curaçao— it makes a nice balanced cocktail in that 19th century style.
Take the Manhattan— there’s an even ratio of vermouth to whiskey, which is much sweeter than you’d make it today. So I use Heaven Hill which is a 100-proof whiskey to carry the flavor over the vermouth. For the same reason with the Martini, it has a lot more vermouth than people would use today, which means it has less gin, so I use the Dolin Blanc vermouth which has a certain fruity character, to add back in some of the floral and fruity side that would normally come from the gin. Basically, I want the taste of the spirit to come through.
So you really never had a Manhattan on the cocktail list before?
I’m sure if you wanted a Manhattan we could have made you one, but no, we never had one on the menu, believe it or not. We’ve had the Kentucky Black Hands, which is basically built on the base of a Manhattan, but with Black Walnut syrup and lemon juice instead of vermouth. But we ran out of the Black Walnut syrup, I need to make some more. So for now, it’s off the menu and the Manhattan is on.