A taste of American history
Presidential primary season has begun here in the US. So let’s kick it off with a Washington Cocktail, in honor of our first president.
This spritely drink combines dry vermouth with brandy (or cognac). It’s perfect before dinner. And it has a fairly low alcohol quotient, so it won’t slow you down if you need to make a quick escape from invading redcoats.
Admittedly, no one knows for sure whether this cocktail was named after George Washington. It could have been named for the city of Washington, DC. Or some other Washington altogether.
But we mustn’t let facts get in the way. It’s political season, after all.
Recipe: The Washington Cocktail
This drink has been around for decades (a recipe for it appears in The Savoy Cocktail Book, published in 1930). In fact, we suspect that the Washington Cocktail may even date back to the 19th century, because it contains more vermouth than we’re used to seeing in more modern drinks.
Although vermouth is front and center in this drink, the brandy (or cognac) is no wallflower; it adds considerable flavor of its own. Actually, this cocktail reminds us somewhat of a brandy Manhattan. But a Manhattan (which usually contains rye or bourbon) features twice as much strong spirit as vermouth. The Washington Cocktail reverses that ratio, making it a lower alcohol drink.
This recipe serves one, and takes about 5 minutes to prepare.
- 1½ ounces dry vermouth (that is, clear or “white” vermouth)
- ¾ ounce brandy or cognac (you can increase this to 1 ounce if you prefer; see Notes)
- ¼ teaspoon simple syrup (preferably Homemade)
- 2 dashes bitters (Angostura or orange bitters are our choice)
- garnish of maraschino cherry (optional; but this is George Washington we’re talking about, so do it)
- Add all ingredients (except garnish) to a mixing glass or beaker half-filled with ice. Stir briskly until well chilled (20 or 30 seconds).
- Strain into a cocktail glass, preferably one that has been chilled. Garnish (if desired) and serve.
- Why stir rather than shake this drink? Because the ingredients are clear. Shaking introduces small bubbles, which can make a drink cloudy (though the cloudiness disappears quickly). Cloudiness isn’t a problem when some ingredients are opaque (think citrus juice). But it can be unattractive with clear ingredients.
- With that said, go ahead and shake if you want. We won’t tell.
- Although this drink typically is served “up” in a cocktail glass, we also like it on the rocks, served in a short (Old-Fashioned) glass.
- Some drinkers prefer to use a full ounce of brandy rather than ¾ ounce. Try it both ways and see which you like. We favor the original (¾ ounce) version, but your taste may differ.
- No simple syrup? Just add sugar (¼ teaspoon). It'll take awhile to dissolve, though—simple syrup dissolves instantly, which is why it's so often used in cocktails.
- Any good dry (French) vermouth should work in this drink. We like Noilly Prat, but Martini & Rossi is also good. Our usual disclaimer: We’re noncommercial and aren’t compensated for mentioning brands. We mention only brands we like and buy with our own money.
- Vermouth is fortified wine, and typically contains around 18% alcohol. Be aware that after you open the bottle, it will start to oxidize (and its flavor will eventually deteriorate). So store the opened bottle in the refrigerator to retard oxidation.
- BTW, dry vermouth makes a great substitute for white wine when cooking. But use a bit less than the recipe calls for (about one half to three quarters as much), because vermouth has a stronger flavor than white wine.
- Either brandy or cognac will work in this drink. Cognac is just brandy that is produced in the Cognac region of France. (Brandy is a distillation of wine.) Look for a brandy or cognac that costs around $15 to $20 per bottle. If in doubt, ask the folks at your liquor store what brand they suggest for mixing cocktails.
- This drink often is served without garnish. But we think a maraschino cherry adds a festive look. And its flavor works well with the taste profile of this drink.
- You may see other drinks called “Washington” that contain rum or apple juice. Those cocktails all seem to have been developed years after this one, however. As far as we can tell, this recipe reflects the original Washington Cocktail.
“I cannot tell a lie,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “This is a good drink!”
“So, do you think this cocktail was named after the father of our country?” I said.
“I don’t know, but it’s certainly a fitting drink as presidential primary season begins,” said Mrs K R.
“Yes,” I sighed. “It’s going to be a long haul until the election in November. We may need another round of these before I can face it.”
“George Washington probably would have loathed all this campaign hubbub,” said Mrs K R. “After all, he was the only president who wasn’t a member of a political party.”
“Well, that makes him a great man indeed,” I said.
“Plus, he was elected unanimously by the electoral college,” said Mrs K R. “Twice.”
“Getting better all the time,” I said.
“And his second inaugural address was the shortest ever delivered,” said Mrs K R.
“That settles it,” I said, raising my glass. “Let’s drink to my new hero.”
Hail to the chief.
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