The Modern Cocktail: A Lost Scotch Classic
The Modern Cocktail has been lost to history and calls for an odd mix of ingredients but deserves mixing up.
A few years back, I was in immediate need of a classic Scotch cocktail, and one that wasn’t a Rob Roy or a Hot Toddy. The circumstances are immaterial. Let’s just say an itinerant booze historian is now and again called upon at events to rear up on his hind legs and orate about bars and bartenders of old whilst bartenders of right now lubricate a room full of mixographers, wristwatch bloggers, Lad-Magazine interns, selfie stars, underemployed cocktail architects and other connoisseurs of free booze and passed hors d’oeuvres with round after round of historic—but also tasty—Scotch cocktails that nobody has ever heard of before.
And so, I set to thumbing through old bartender’s bibles, most of them pre-Prohibition, in the vain hope that I’d find a rich and deep seam of delicious-looking, previously-unrevived Scotch cocktails in one of them, even though I’d thumbed through those same books a hundred times before and never found such a thing. There was the occasional Scotch cocktail, sure, but the ones that sounded good had already been revived by this or that modern mixologist, and the ones that hadn’t were just weird.
One of those old books, however, was from the bar at the old Hoffman House Hotel, located at 25th Street and Broadway in New York. From the 1870s until it closed for good in 1915, it was generally regarded as the best bar in the city, the country, and hence the world. Charley Mahoney, the book’s author, was the head bartender and a New York celebrity. In 1905, when he put out the first edition of the Hoffman House Bartender’s Guide, he was pretty much the dean of New York bartenders. So, I thought, even the weird drinks in his book might be worth a try.
I was looking specifically at an item on page 157, the “Modern Cocktail”: a squirt of lemon juice, a little simple syrup, dashes of absinthe and orange bitters, half a jigger of Scotch and—the weird part—half a jigger of sloe gin. (I think what really pushed me to try it was the fact that the company supplying the Scotch for my talk that day also happened to have a high-quality sloe gin in its portfolio.) So, I gave it a spin. What the hell. I had other, rather more normal candidates, and I figured I’d be using one of them.
The drink was just plain delicious: complex, more than a little mysterious, but also perfectly balanced and easy to drink. It was “moreish,” as the Brits say—like, “I want more.” It wasn’t just me: the room full of cocktailovores lapped ‘em up. The only problem with it was its history, which was lacking in details, although I’ve always strongly suspected that the name had to do with the trendiness of its ingredients: Scotch was the mezcal of the nineteen-oughts, and the sloe gin, orange bitters and absinthe were also new and fashionable then.
As was customary, Mahoney didn’t say where he got his drinks from, and the Modern didn’t turn up in other books for another decade. A conscientious search through the various databases of old newspapers available to me failed to turn it up at all. In the absence of any contrary evidence, I generally give obscure old cocktails a loose attribution to the author of the book they’re first written up in, or the bar where its author worked, and that’s what I did with the Modern, although I didn’t feel great about it: the drink is such a work of oddball genius, mixologically speaking, that I would have really liked to know exactly who came up with it, if only so I could try any other drinks he or she might have invented.
In the four or five years since I mixed up my first Modern, I’ve made periodic attempts to find out more on its origins, with no luck at all. Doug Stailey, however, must have a fluffier rabbit’s foot than I do. Stailey, from Washington, D.C., is one of a new subset of cocktail geeks, ones who do their geeking out not so much about which brand of maraschino to use in an Aviation or how to garnish a Rum Ramsey, but about the odd historico-mixological tidbits one can dig up in those newspaper databases. Stailey’s twitter feed (@LibationLegacy) is full of these tidbits, the results of his thorough and ingenious investigations into things such as the origin of blue curaçao, the social dangers of drinking the aperitif Calisaya and the like. Catnip for the cocktail history geek.
Among Stailey’s tweets is one from Christmas Eve, 2017, which I missed the first time around (I was probably too busy cooking up Boilo or setting Charles Dickens Punch on fire): “The original Modern Cocktail, From the National Police Gazette, December 17, 1904. Nothing is known about Haas except his headstone (1873-1909), making him 31 when this was published….” Along with the text is a picture of a recipe for the Modern, credited to “John E. Haas, Bradford, Pa.”
When Stailey reposted this recently I did see it and was duly gobsmacked. I had searched the same database he pulled it from a thousand times and never caught a whiff of it. The Police Gazette was, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a sort of caught-on-paper combination of ESPN, Maxim and Fox News in its here’s-a-lurid-crime-we’re-going-to-exploit-the-hell-out-of mode. But beginning around 1900, it also had a column where it printed recipes sent in by bartenders all around the country and sometimes little profiles of one or another of these mustachioed gentlemen, complete with photograph.
A little digging of my own yielded a few more facts about John E. Haas, including a handful of other recipes he sent the Gazette and one of the paper’s bartender profiles. Bradford, his home, was an oil town, tucked away in the Deer Hunter country of northwest Pennsylvania up against the New York border. It wasn’t in the middle of anything, but it had plenty of money, or at least some of the people there did. As such types do, they tended to band together, and in 1891 they founded the Bradford Club, with a thoroughly up-to-date facility right in the heart of town complete with four lanes of bowling and a well-stocked bar. When Hass went back to Bradford after doing stints behind the bar in New York City and Buffalo, he found a job as Steward at the Bradford Club. Mostly, his responsibilities seem to have been mixing drinks for the members.
He made all the standards, no doubt, but he also invented a number of his own. The most popular, according to the Police Gazette, was a thing called the “National Daisy.” Then there was the “Slow Fizz,” the “Modern Cup” (which may have been a precursor to the Modern Cocktail), the “After Dinner” and the “American Cooler.” So far, I’ve only been able to extract recipes for the last two from the databases (paging Mr. Stailey and his rabbit’s foot). They do prove one thing, and that is—alas—the truth of the old saw, that sometimes even a blind pig finds an acorn. While John Haas certainly had mixological genius within him, it was not always accessible: the After Dinner is just a Stinger with muddying dashes of maraschino and orange bitters, while the American Cooler was essentially a rye Collins with dashes of maraschino and crème de menthe and a port wine float. Even if you make it without the menthe (trust me), it’s still no world-beater.
Unfortunately, there was only so much high life Bradford could support, and running the bar at the Club (which is still open, albeit in a newer building) was only a part-time position. In the middle of 1904, Haas lit out for St. Louis, to work the World’s Fair there. He came home at some point, because he died in Bradford only a couple of years later, sadly before his genius could work itself into alignment again and provide us with another surprising, left-field delight like the Modern. Still, that’s one fine drink, and I’m happy to be able to say, “John Haas, here’s to you” when I’m sipping one.
- 1.25 oz Scotch
- 1.25 oz Sloe gin
- .5 oz Lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon Rich simple syrup (2 parts sugar to 1 part water)
- dash Absinthe
- 2 dashes Orange bitters
Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.