Harlem Cocktail

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The incomparable Billie Holiday

Based on the number of cocktail books published in 1933, they must have seen the writing on the wall. Prohibition was coming to an end, and about damn time, too. One little tome published in ’33 was titled Lest We Forget. Another included the caveat that the enclosed recipes are served at all the smartest rendezvous “whenever it becomes legal to serve.” Well, Prohibition was repealed in December 1933, the same month a little booklet titled Cocktails: Their Kicks and Side-Kicks was printed. Flipping through the scant twenty-odd pages offers nothing surprising; all the usual suspects are there from an Absinthe Special to a Jack Rose to a Ward Eight. However, one cocktail, the “Harlem,” caught my eye. Combining gin and rye whiskey, it looked promising. It also listed lime juice and egg whites: more promising still.

Now, if you Google “Harlem Cocktail,” you will not find the above libation. You will get a gin and pineapple concoction that is little more than a Mary Pickford without the grenadine. As is my wont, I hit the books (both digital and real). The Harlem is one elusive cocktail. I could find it in only one other book: William Boothby’s Swallows from 1930. The recipe is the same as the kicks and Side-kicks one save for a slight variation in proportions. By the time Boothby printed his 1934 World Drinks, however, the Harlem was gone, though there was now a Harlem No. 2 composed of Gin, orange juice, mint, and absinthe. A different drink altogether.

harlemThe gin and pineapple version is all over the internet, but the only printed source I can find is Old Mr. Boston Official Bartenders Guide of 1935. I can find it in no earlier tomes, nor any printed after, at least not up to the 1960s. It is improbable that it was invented for the Mr Boston book, compiled and edited by four area bartenders, so where did it come from? I have no earthly idea. I can find it nowhere else. Someone suggested it was a prohibition drink originating at the Cotton Club. It’s possible, I suppose, but there seems to be no evidence to support the claim.

So, as we wallow in our ignorance, we can console ourselves with a variety of potations.

Harlem Cocktail (Swallows 1930 with updated proportions)

1 1/2 oz Whiskey (Rye)

1 1/2 oz Dry Gin

1/2 oz Fresh Lime Juice

1/2 oz Simple Syrup

1/2 Egg White (one egg white per two drinks)

Shake well with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. This is a big cocktail. You can either scale everything back a bit, spit it between two drinkers, or use a larger glass.

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Langston Hughs

Harlem No. 2 (World Drinks 1934)

2 oz Gin

1 tsp. Fresh Orange juice

1 dash of Fresh Lemon Juice

1/2 lump Sugar (or 1/2 tsp. of simple syrup)

4 Mint Leaves

1 dash Absinthe

Gently muddle the mint leaves, sugar, and a few drops of water (leave out the water if you are using simple syrup) in the bottom of the shaker. Add the gin, orange juice, and lemon juice and shake well with ice. Double-strain into a chilled cocktail glass and add a dash of absinthe.

harlem augusta savage

Augusta Savage

Harlem Cocktail (Old Mr. Boston 1935 and 2012)

1 1/2 oz Dry Gin

3/4 oz Pineapple Juice

3 dashes Maraschino Liqueur (1/2 teaspoon)

Shake well with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a few small pineapple chunks.

Variations of this pineapple version of the Harlem abound including muddled pineapple (bit of a mess), upping the Maraschino to 1/4 ounce (too sweet), and serving it on the rocks (not recommended).

To be brutally honest, I find the pineapple Harlem a bit boring and overly sweet. An updated version adds a teaspoon of lemon to balance out the pineapple and maraschino and an optional dash or two of Angostura bitters. A brilliant touch because this cocktail needs it.

These cocktails are as diverse as was the Harlem Renaissance when these drinks were invented. So look at some art, read some poetry, listen to some jazz, and enjoy one of these Harlem cocktails. 

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Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Leonard Feather

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