Rabbit Hole

Piecing Together the History of the Rob Roy Cocktail

The lengths that a cocktail sleuth goes to finding the roots of this Scotch-and-vermouth drink.

I first began drinking Rob Roys a good 20 years ago, when I was the second-string jazz critic at the Village Voice and got tired of drinking the rocket-fuel, no-vermouth Martinis prevalent at the time in the music clubs I was haunting. Manhattans were out because nobody could make one properly (too little vermouth and no bitters, plus gunk from the cherry jar). But the Rob Roy was a drink bartenders had heard of but didn’t know so well as to have ingrained bad habits about, and it was easy. Two parts Scotch, one part red vermouth, a couple of dashes bitters, up. Twist, please.

But I don’t want to talk about the Rob Roy as a cocktail, as tasty as it might be. I want to talk about it as an example of how not the history, but the historiography of cocktails has changed in the last two decades; the researching and structuring and writing of that history. If, back then in 1997, I had found myself curious about the origins of this slightly off-kilter Manhattan I had taken to ordering, I would have had to hit the books. While there was an internet, it was mighty short on this sort of information (Google only came in 1998). If I had been really clever, I would have gone straight to William Grimes’ pioneering 1993 cocktail history, Straight Up or On the Rocks, which would have told me that the drink was named after the play of the same name.

I would have then had to go to the New York Public Library and dig out a history of Broadway, which would have told me that that play was actually an operetta, that it was by Reginald DeKoven, and that it ran at New York’s Herald Square Theatre from October 1894 to March 1895, before setting out on the road.

But none of that would have helped figure out precisely when or where the cocktail was invented. For that, I’d need to look at old bartenders’ guides. Back then, hardly anybody collected these. That was good, because if you found one in a secondhand bookstore it was usually quite cheap, but it was also bad, because collections of them were few and far between and mostly haphazard in their contents. In 1999, when I began writing about cocktails and such for Esquire, I had maybe 10 or 15 assorted old cocktail books, things I had picked up by chance here and there; Charles Baker’s 1946 Gentleman’s Companion, Kingsley Amis’s 1972 On Drink, a reprint of the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, an Old Mr. Boston from the 1950s, a Trader Vic, a handful of others.

Libraries were some help: The NYPL had a few volumes, some on microfilm, and the Library of Congress a few more, although most of those would turn out to be missing from the shelf if you actually requested them. Others had more. But to consult all these books you’d have to either travel or go through inter-library loan and it would take you years to consult every book you thought might be useful.

If you were lucky, you knew a serious collector, such as Brian Rea in California or Ray Foley in New Jersey. Assuming I had access to a collection like those, I would have been able to trace the Rob Roy back to a couple of fairly well-distributed bartenders’ guides from the turn of the last century, James C. Maloney’s Twentieth Century Guide and John Applegreen’s Barkeeper’s Guide, from 1899. Now, both of these guides were from Chicago, which rather muddies the waters. Was the Rob Roy a Chicago drink, perhaps created to toast some road-show performance of the operetta? I might well have settled on that conclusion.

If, however, the collection you had access to also stretched to such small fry as pamphlets and flyers and such, and you were both lucky and diligent enough to go through all that ephemera, you might be able to move the Rob Roy’s origins back to 1898 and to the East Coast, since it appears in a couple of booklets from that year, one put out by a Providence printing house and the other by a New York silver company. And that would be that. Your quest was done. You could spend years paging through novels, diaries, and travel memoirs or, spooling through microfilm of the major urban newspapers of the day, but the odds of finding something more were vanishingly small.

For better or worse, the internet has grown in 20 years. To balance out presidential twitter tantrums and Russian political ratfucking (the term of art in that industry for extreme dirty tricks), memes and viral videos and Beliebers, there are a few small benefits. For one thing, almost every old cocktail book there is can be found in the free libraries at the French EUVS (“Exposition Universelle des Vins et Spiritueux”) or Collectif 1806 sites, and if you want real books there are reprints and modern editions covering the most important ones, which you can order online.

But all that will only get you to where you could have gotten in 1997, although a hell of a lot quicker. The modern internet can get you much further. For one thing, between Google books, Internet Archive and Hathi Trust (the archive of university-held books), you can search a great number of books of all kinds. Sometimes they’ll only show you a sliver or simply tell you that here is a book that seems to contain the phrase or word you’re looking for, but at least you know what book to look for. And often they’ll have the whole book right there in front of you. Suddenly digging through all those novels and whatnot is the work of a morning, not a couple of years.

Even more importantly for this kind of history, now we’ve got text-searchable newspaper databases. Newspapers are, as the cliché has it, the first draft of history, and in the case of things like cocktails, saloons, barkeepers and the like, they’re often the only draft. Most old bartenders guide offer no explicit context; no backstory or attribution or anything, for the drinks they contain. If such information exists at all, it would have been caught by a reporter explaining what the swells are drinking this summer or puffing the new saloon that sent a tray of drinks over to the editorial office. Since such pieces aren’t keyed to an important date, the only way to find them without electronic help is to pick a newspaper and a year and start reading every single page. If you’re good, you can get through two or three months a day; less if it’s on microfilm.

The modern databases are far from perfect. Most of the major ones cost money—Newspapers.com, GenealogyBank.com, NewspaperArchive.com—and the ones that don’t—the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America site and the challenging but amazing Fultonhistory.com (New York State newspapers, not sortable in chronological order)—have issues of their own. Each has its own peculiar (sometimes very peculiar) interface. Optical character recognition—the technology that can scan a page of microfilm and render it into searchable words on a screen—is far from perfect, and for every term you enter there will be a number of false positives and a number of missed occurrences. Nonetheless, if you’re patient and persistent and just a little bit clever at coming up with parallel search terms you can access an ocean of American writing about cocktails and their milieu.

But that Rob Roy has been sitting on the bar getting warm, hasn’t it. If you plug “Rob Roy cocktail” and some similar terms into the main newspaper databases, you quickly see how much history the bartenders’ guides missed. First off, our Rob Roy isn’t even the first drink of its name. On Aug. 22, 1873, the legendary New York Sun published a long article titled “American Fancy Drinks.” An in-depth look at bartenders, their craft and their drinks, it was the first of its kind and was widely reprinted, spawning hundreds of similar articles over the next two or three decades. In it, there is a somewhat garbled recipe for a “Rob Roy cocktail,” attributed to veteran New York bartender E. F. Barry. As far as we can tell—the article manages to omit the main spirit in the drink—it is merely American whiskey, brandy or Dutch-style gin with sugar, Angostura Bitters and orgeat (an almond syrup).

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The Rob Roy next pops up again in an 1882 Chicago list of drinks. We may assume that this is the same one, since Scotch would not be a cocktail ingredient in America for another decade. After that, it slinks off the stage of history without so much as a backward look. What is clearly our Rob Roy enters the picture in November 1895, in a small item from the San Francisco Call: “An new cocktail called the ‘Rob Roy’ is a Manhattan, made with Scotch instead of rye whisky; it is excellent.” Lest we jump to the conclusion that it was a San Francisco drink, though, the item goes on to quote an unnamed New York paper about another drink. The next two appearances are also from New York, one in a joke and the other, from November 1897, in an article on new drinks. There, the Rob Roy is assigned to the bar of the city’s famous Fifth-Avenue Hotel.  

At this point, one would be perfectly justified to conclude that the Rob Roy was introduced in 1895 or shortly before, and that it was probably a New York drink, perhaps connected with the Fifth-Avenue Hotel. Done. But the problem with computers is they only show you what you ask them to show you. Ask them for the earliest mentions of the Rob Roy cocktail, and they’ll show you what I’ve laid out. Ask them for the “most relevant,” as the databases put it, and they’ll show you the articles where “Rob Roy” is repeated the most often. What you can’t ask for is the most useful articles; the ones that actually tell you something. To find those, you need persistence and just plain luck.

A couple of years back, I was searching for something else and I stumbled across a 1941 “Along the Wine Trail” column by G. Selmer Fougner where one of his readers from Brooklyn wrote in to ask about Hungarian Tokay wine and where to find it. While he was at it, this old Brooklynite threw in a couple reminiscences about New York’s long-gone Hotel Hungaria, where his brother had worked as a bartender. And as long as he was talking about his brother, he might as well mention that “in around 1895,” while he was tending bar at Duke’s House in Hoboken, New Jersey, he invented the Rob Roy cocktail.

The reader goes on to give the circumstances—a salesman for Usher’s Scotch whisky, one of the new blends taking the American market by storm, invited to join a table of men drinking Manhattans; a little speech on salesman’s ethics: “It’s not ethical for me to drink anything that does not contain Usher’s Scotch whisky”; the solution one of the gents came up with: the brother should “make a round of cocktails and put in Usher’s whisky”; the drink is good, a name is suggested, and done.

Such claims often surface in the years after a drink has become popular. Most of them do not check out. But there was one thing about this one that gave me pause: the letter writer, not a cocktail drinker himself, concluded by asking Fougner “if there is a Rob Roy cocktail listed in any of the books on the subject.” You generally don’t make things up unless you know there’s something in it for you. A little sleuthing, and the basics check out: the Duke House, across from the Manhattan ferry, was a popular Hoboken bar of the 1890s. Usher’s Scotch was sold in New York. But without further information, I filed the anonymous Brooklynite’s claim in the “could be” file.

Then, a few months later, looking for something else in a different database, I came across another chatty, nostalgic old-timer’s letter, this time to a different New York columnist. After reminiscing about the city’s Tompkins Square neighborhood in days of yore, the letter writer closes by mentioning that his brother “was a barkeeper and for a long time worked at the Little Hungary Café; he invented the Rob Roy cocktail.” What’s more, he signs his name: G. Fred Orphal, Brooklyn.

More web resources are quicky deployed, including Ancestry.com’s database of city directories, the ancestors of the phone book. This discloses that one Henry A. Orphal lived in Hoboken in 1895 and 1896, and that he was a bartender.

Is this conclusive? It’s certainly not beyond a reasonable doubt. But I don’t think you can run cocktail history by that standard. Even with all of these almost magical electronic resources, cocktails were not items of study until very recently. Their origins went unrecorded far more often than not, and only occasionally does one find a little thread by which one can haul them out into the light of day. This is one of those lucky threads. If it’s still open to some doubt, it at least fits the standard of the preponderance of the evidence. A guy without a personal interest in its outcome told a story and what could be checked out in it checked out. Good enough for me.

As for our Rob Roy cocktail. So it’s a substitute Manhattan. So it’s always been one, from the moment of its birth. It’s still a damn tasty drink and you should try one. Here’s how.

Rob Roy

INGREDIENTS:

1.5 oz Good blended Scotch whisky, such as Johnnie Walker Black or Compass Box Great King Street.

1.5 oz Italian (sweet) vermouth, such as Cocchi Vermouth di Torino or Martini & Rossi

2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters or orange bitters

Garnish: orange peel

Glass: Coupe

DIRECTIONS:

Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Garnish with a twist of orange peel on top. If you want a stronger drink, use 2 oz Scotch and 1 oz vermouth.