The Blackthorne

From The Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan

2 oz Redbreast Whiskey
1 oz Sweet Vermouth
1 Dash Angostura Bitters
1 Dash Kübler Absinthe

Add all ingredients to a mixing glass.
Stir with large ice and strain into a coupe.
Garnish with a lemon twist.

* * *

As the saying goes, what a difference a day makes — or, in this case, the better part of a month and a different recipe.  You see, this is the Blackthorne’s second attempt at making it onto our Drinks Menu, with the first having been during our short spate of Irish Whiskey drinks.  Let’s just say, the drink made to the specifications of the Savoy Cocktail Book didn’t impress.  Gary Regan’s tweak on the Blackthorne — that’s another story.

Of course, the vast differences produced by subtle changes shouldn’t  surprise anyone who knows cocktails — or anyone who’s ordered a steak, for that matter.  Two identical pieces of beef, same preparation, same cooking method, one medium rare, the other well — vastly different animals.  And so it is with small tweaks of a cocktail recipe.  What did Regan do that made such a difference?  He did five things, to be exact:  changed the whiskey to vermouth ratio from 1:1 to 2:1; switched the Vermouth from dry to sweet; added a lemon twist; called for a stir instead of a shake; and, lest he think we do not read carefully, added an “e” on the end of Savoy’s Blackthorn.  Which of these made the most significant difference?  I’m going to say each of them and leave it at that.

If you happen to search for the Blackthorn (Savoy’s spelling), you’re more than likely going to find a very different drink than the one presented above.  This is because most Blackthorns are made with Sloe Gin, a wonderful liqueur made of Gin (naturally) and sloe berries.  Lesley has a recipe for how to make it at the back of her forthcoming Gin book.  The Sloe plant (Prunus spinosa) is also known as — wait for it — the blackthorn.  So, Blackthorns made with Sloe Gin seem pretty sensible. But Irish Whiskey?  For the answer to that, we have to do a little digging and make a few assumptions.

Thanks to some deep research done by Erik Ellestad and friends, we know that the Savoy Blackthorn (1930) was borrowed from Robert Vermeire’s 1922 “Cocktails: How to Mix Them”.  Vermeire, in turn, credits Harry Johnson of New Orleans as his source.  For most, the name Harry Johnson won’t ring a bell, but along with Jerry Thomas, Johnson stands tall as one of the godfathers of the bartending craft.  Thomas’ Bar-Tender’s Guide was first published in 1862; Johnson’s Bartender’s Manual in 1882, although Johnson claims to have published a comprehensive bartending book two years before Thomas (which would have made his the first of its kind).  Unfortunately, no record of such a book exists, so Johnson has been relegated to runner-up.

Now, one school of thought is that Johnson created the “Black Thorn” (note spelling) as a variation on the Thorn, an Old Tom Gin drink.   It may also be possible that Johnson, a New York man (not New Orleans, as Vermeire states) happened to catch the play “The Black Thorn” (1886-1887) which ran at H. R. Jacobs’ Third Avenue Theatre (this theory is my own).  Whatever the inspiration, Johnson was an American, and sloe berries are native to Europe and parts East — he may not have known the connection between the name “blackthorn” and Sloe Gin, although others certainly did.

An interesting look at the progress of the Blackthorn can be found by examining two separate editions of “Boothby” — Cocktail Boothby’s American Bar-Tender of 1891 and Boothby’s World Drinks of 1934.  The former list no Blackthorns of any spelling or stripe, while the latter contains five — three (Nos. 1, 2, and 5) with Sloe Gin (No. 5 also calls for Gin) one with Gin and Kirschwasser (No. 4 — a favorite of Ted Haigh’s), and No. 3, which mirrors the Savoy version.  To help clarify things for customers, the No. 3 regularly became known as the “Irish Blackthorn”.

If you’re a 12 Bottle Bar regular, you’ll notice the similarities between Regan’s Blackthorne and the Paddy.  Besides the fact that the Blackthorne is obviously a bit stronger, this is a case of cousins possessing very different qualities beneath the surface.  If you start to think of the Bitters and Absinthe as spices, you’ll understand not only how to employ them but also how small dashes can completely change a drink.  I like this cocktail because of Regan’s little changes – bringing it closer to the Manhattan family than Johnson’s original as well closer to Sloe Gin.  As I made my Blackthorne, I poured a measure of Sloe Gin alongside of it, and the color was an almost perfect match.  Combine this with the sweetness of the Vermouth and the spicy, herbal notes of the Bitters and Absinthe, and suddenly the whole Blackthorne moniker makes sense.  It’s good to have people like Gary Regan around to clear things up.

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2 responses to “The Blackthorne

  1. not being a fan of anise, it’s taken me awhile to get around to buying the kubler and trying out this drink. which i’m really enjoying.

    here’s the rub: in an attempt to get a dash of absinthe from the full bottle into my mix i managed to dribble it all over my hands leaving me smelling a bit like a box of good n’ plentys. (and more sadly, wasting booze)

    do you pour your absinthe into another sort of bottle/dispenser so that it is easier to dole out dashes of it?

    • Try pouring a tiny bit into a jigger and then using that to pour off a drop.

      So glad to hear that you’re liking the drink. I like the Kubler because it’s more herbal than NyQuil.

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