Named After the Hotel Made Famous by the Roundtable Literary Set
In the years after World War I, a group of New York City writers, critics, and assorted artsy types met for lunch almost daily at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street (the theatre district). This articulate group — masters of both witty repartee and practical jokes — initially dubbed themselves the “Vicious Circle.” But they quickly became known as the Algonquin Round Table, after the seating space they staked claim to in the hotel dining room.
During the group’s heyday (from 1919 to about 1929), it included Robert Benchley, Heywood Broun, George S. Kaufman, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross, Robert E. Sherwood, and Alexander Woollcott, among others. Many Roundtable members were already famous; others soon became so. And they helped launch The New Yorker magazine (founded in 1925 by Round Tabler Harold Ross).
This was a hard-drinking bunch — even by the standards of those hard-drinking days. But Prohibition started in 1920. So, although the Algonquin has at least one cocktail named after it, Wikipedia informs us that the hotel was officially “dry” during the time the Round Table set met there for lunch.
More about that later. First, let’s mix up an Algonquin Cocktail!
Recipe: The Algonquin Cocktail
There are a couple of versions of the Algonquin Cocktail floating around. We’re featuring the recipe that is the most generally accepted — and the one that the Algonquin Hotel serves today. (I discuss a different version in the Notes.)
This version uses rye whiskey — which always seems most appropriate to me in a winter drink. But the cocktail also includes a healthy slug of pineapple juice, which lightens up the drink and makes it perfect for spring or summer as well. This is a smooth cocktail with a tang and not too much sweetness — excellent to whet your appetite before dinner.
There is some disagreement about whether one should stir or shake this drink. Because the drink contains juice (pineapple), conventional wisdom says shake. But pineapple juice foams when shaken, and some people don’t like how it makes the drink look. So they stir. Me? I like the foam, so I shake.
This recipe takes about 5 minutes to prepare, and serves 1.
- 1½ ounces rye whiskey (the better quality the rye, the better the drink; see Notes)
- ¾ ounce dry (white) vermouth
- ¾ ounce unsweetened pineapple juice (the stuff in those little cans is perfect)
- Combine all ingredients in a shaker half-filled with ice. Shake (or stir) briskly until well chilled — about 20 to 30 seconds.
- Strain into a cocktail glass and serve. I very much prefer this drink without a garnish. But if you insist on one, I suggest an orange peel or maybe a lemon twist.
- This drink really demands a good quality rye to present itself properly. I recommend either Bulleit Rye or Rittenhouse Rye (the 100 proof, that’s bottled in bond). Jim Beam Rye, one of the most commonly available brands, doesn’t make the cut for this drink, alas. I haven’t tried the other popular brand of rye, Old Overholt in this drink. BTW, I buy all my booze myself, and my opinions are my own — I’m not compensated or sponsored by anyone.
- I usually add a couple dashes of Fee Bros. West Indian Orange Bitters to this drink (regular orange bitters work nicely too). This is an idea I got from David Wondrich, who says that a “generous squeeze of orange peel will work almost as well.” I haven't tested the orange peel, but it sounds good.
- At least a couple of different drinks carry the Algonquin name. The one we feature in this post is the most famous. The other, which some people favor, requires 1½ ounces light rum, 1 ounce blackberry brandy, ¾ ounce Bénédictine, and ¾ ounce lime juice.
- I haven’t tried that version — I’m fresh out of blackberry brandy. But I doubt the Roundtable set would have drunk it anyhow — sounds way too frou-frou for them. In fact, they might not have ordered the version we’re discussing either. They were more partial to Martinis. Or maybe highballs. Blackberry brandy? They might have served it to their grandmothers.
The Algonquin Roundtable members did like their booze. They just couldn’t have it at lunch, because the hotel was dry. But after eating, they’d sometimes migrate to Jack and Charlie’s speakeasy — which later became the restaurant called "21" and still exists today. Or to Tony Soma’s, across the street from Jack and Charlie’s (on the spot that later became NBC’s studios). Or to one of the other speakeasies around New York City — there was no lack of them.
At the time the Roundtable group was meeting, the Algonquin was owned by Frank Case. He enjoyed writers and creative types, and reportedly served the initial Roundtable set free celery and popovers to lure their business. The group didn’t initially sit at the dining room’s big round table — there weren’t enough of them – but as the group grew in size, Case moved them to the round table to accommodate them all. (The Algonquin’s dining room still sports a round table today, but it’s not the original. The current table dates from 1988, when part of the hotel was renovated.)
Several members of the Roundtable were quite well known. George S. Kaufman and Robert E. Sherwood became famous playwrights (both won the Pulitzer Prize). Harpo Marx became a movie star (though many people may be more familiar with his brother Groucho). Harold Ross’s New Yorker magazine became an instant critical (and later, business) success.
But the Roundtable set’s real specialties were jokes, insults, and witty quips. Like these Dorothy Parker quotes:
- “I don’t care what is written about me so long as it isn’t true.”
- “That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”
- “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.”
- “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”
- “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
Some things never change, do they?
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