Named after the “world’s greatest train”
Back in the day, rail was the only way to go if you were traveling any distance at all. Trains were fast, reliable, and comfortable. From 1902 to 1967, one of the fanciest was the 20th Century Limited, which offered service between New York City’s Grand Central Terminal and Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station.
The 20th Century Limited aimed to attract high-income travelers. Women received flowers and perfume when boarding the train, while men got carnations. Passengers boarded and detrained on a crimson carpet that was rolled out for their exclusive use (that’s how the phrase “red carpet treatment” entered our vernacular).
At its height, the train offered an onboard library, a barbershop, secretarial services, and a superbly equipped dining car (roast prime rib, anyone?). It oozed sophistication and luxury. So it’s not surprising that in 1937, when British bartender C. A. Tuck invented a particularly complex and richly flavored cocktail, he named it after this celebrated symbol of excellence.
The 20th Century Limited made its last run long ago. But the Twentieth Century Cocktail is still picking up steam. So hop aboard for a sip of the high life.
Recipe: The Twentieth Century Cocktail
The Twentieth Century Cocktail is a bracing mix of gin, Lillet, crème de cacao, and lemon juice. You may not be familiar with Lillet, a French apéritif that combines wine with citrus liqueur (we used it in the Corpse Reviver Cocktail). But you probably know crème de cacao, a chocolate liqueur (we used it in the Brandy Alexander and the Grasshopper).
Crème de cacao has a very pronounced chocolate taste, so the toughest part of mixing this drink is getting the cacao flavor to balance properly with the other ingredients. IMO, you should taste just the barest undertone of chocolate in this drink. But your preference may differ, so feel free to (slightly) increase or decrease the amount of crème de cacao.
This recipe takes about 5 minutes to prepare, and serves one.
- 1½ ounces gin (use “London” dry gin; see Notes)
- ¾ ounce Lillet Blanc (i.e., white Lillet; see Notes)
- ½ to ¾ ounce clear (white) crème de cacao (to taste; I generally use about 5/8 ounce, but the amount varies by brand)
- ¾ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
- twist of lemon for garnish (optional)
- Place all ingredients (except garnish) in a cocktail shaker half-filled with ice. Shake vigorously to combine the ingredients (about 20 seconds)
- Strain into a cocktail glass (preferably one that’s chilled). Garnish with a twist of lemon, if desired, and serve.
- When a cocktail recipe specifies gin, it’s usually understood these days to mean London dry gin—which also happens to be the type most commonly found in liquor stores. Any good name-brand dry gin will work well in this drink.
- In addition to London dry, you might see Dutch or Belgian gin (sometimes called jenever or genever), which is made from malt rather than grain. There’s also Old Tom Gin, which has a sweeter taste. Both these varieties are harder to find than London dry.
- Lillet comes in both white (blanc) and red (rouge) versions. The white is by far the more popular. Whenever you see a reference to Lillet, you can assume that the white version is what’s intended. I’ve never seen the red version used in a cocktail (and in fact, I’ve never tasted it).
- Lillet has a fairly low alcohol content. So after you open it, be sure to store it in the refrigerator (it will oxidize less quickly that way).
- As noted above, Lillet is an apéritif. Chilled Lillet served in a sherry glass or over ice makes a nice pre-dinner drink.
- Crème de cacao is bottled as either a white (clear) or brown liquid. The flavor difference between them is very slight, and when mixed in most cocktails I can’t distinguish between the two. I buy the white version because most drinks that require crème de cacao are best made with that variety. You definitely want the white version for the Twentieth Century Cocktail—the brown would make the drink look rather muddy.
- Every liquor store carries crème de cacao, usually in the section where they stock liqueurs and cordials. In the US, the most commonly seen brands (DeKuyper and Hiram Walker) cost around $10 or so per bottle. The flavor of these is acceptable, and their quality is decent enough.
- If you don’t mind spending about twice that much for crème de cacao, Marie Brizard offers a good step up in quality and flavor (it also has a somewhat higher alcoholic proof). The Marie Brizard brand is what I use these days—the difference in flavor is worth the cost, IMO.
- BTW, the word “crème” in crème de cacao means the liqueur has a creamy texture; there is no dairy in the mix.
- When the 20th Century Limited began running in 1902, it took about 20 hours to complete the trip from New York to Chicago. But once the engine and cars become streamlined in the late 1930s, the journey required only about 16 hours. The train would leave New York at 6 PM and arrive in Chicago at 9 AM the next day. The return trip left Chicago at 3 PM and arrived in New York at 8 AM. (Time-zone differences account for the apparent discrepancies, in case you’re counting).
- The 20th Century Limited acquired an Art Deco look in the 1930s when Henry Dreyfuss, an industrial designer, created an iconic, streamlined style for the locomotive engine and passenger cars. Dreyfuss was quite prolific, BTW. He also created designs for a Hoover vacuum cleaner, the Polaroid SX-70 Land camera, the Westclox “Big Ben” alarm clock, and several tabletop telephones (including the Princess).
- Right from its beginning, the 20th Century Limited captured the imagination of the traveling world. Many called it the world’s greatest train. It certainly was among the most famous. For an example of how it was viewed, see this December 1967 article from the New York Times.
- In addition to inspiring a namesake cocktail, the 20th Century Limited played a recurring role in popular films. In 1932, the train served as the setting for a stage play that later became a movie called Twentieth Century, starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. In the Paul Newman/Robert Redford film The Sting, some characters play a high-stakes poker game while aboard. But probably the train’s most famous appearance was in Alfred Hitchcock’s great 1959 film, North by Northwest. In that movie, Cary Grant’s character sneaks onto the train, where he meets a femme fatale played by Eva Marie Saint. The two share a table in the dining car, where Grant drinks a pre-dinner Gibson Cocktail (a martini with a garnish of pickled onion).
Two for the Road
“Wow, the 20th Century Limited was such a great train,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs.
“It was,” I said, taking a sip of my drink. “Right up there with rail icons like the Orient Express, which originally ran between Paris and Istanbul.”
“Or the Trans Siberian Railway,” said Mrs K R. “Which runs for almost 6,000 miles—most of them snow covered, I suspect.”
“There’s also the Indian Pacific, between Sydney and Perth,” I said. “It has the world’s longest stretch of straight track.”
“And don’t forget the Rocky Mountaineer,” said Mrs K R. “It travels through the Canadian Rockies. The scenery must be spectacular.”
“I’d really like to travel on that one,” I said. “It may be the closest thing we can get today to the excitement of the 20th Century Limited.”
“Sounds like fun,” said Mrs K R. “Think we’ll run into Cary Grant?”
“Well, if we do, we can buy him a Gibson,” I said.
“Maybe he’d prefer this Twentieth Century Cocktail,” said Mrs K R. “That Gibson brought out some dive-bombing crop dusters, as I recall.”
Who can argue with such logic?
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