Saratoga Cocktail

From Imbibe! by David Wondrich

1 oz Remy Martin Cognac
1 oz Rittenhouse Rye
1 oz Sweet Vermouth
2 Dashes Angostura Bitters

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass
Stir with ice and strain into a coupe of small wine glass
Garnish with a half lemon wheel

* * *

Gambling, drinking, spa treatments, horse racing – Saratoga Springs, New York was the 19th Century’s Las Vegas. The local mineral springs – given away by the town’s name – first attracted the Native Americans of the region, then as the United States expanded, American settlers. The area played host to the Battle of Saratoga – considered to be the turning point of the Revolutionary War – but it was just after 1800 that things really started shaking. A gentleman by the name of Gideon Putnam had the idea of creating a European style spa around the springs. Putnam purchased an acre of land from one Judge Henry Walton and constructed a tavern and boarding house called, oddly enough, Putnam’s Tavern and Boarding House. If Saratoga Springs was Vegas, Putnam was its Bugsy Siegel.

Putnam’s became the Union Hall, then the Grand Union. It was joined by the Congress Hall and, later, the United States hotel. As Wondrich tells us, by the early part of the 1800’s, Saratoga Springs had become northern New York’s “equivalent of the Hamptons, only with gambling”. Shortly after the Civil War, the Leland Brothers, then owners of the Union Hall, even opened a 1,600 seat opera house on the grounds of the hotel. In their own words, they proclaimed: “This establishment is by far the largest and most complete hotel in the world”. And, it didn’t stop with the rooms and amenities. If you think the buffets in Vegas are something, the Union Hall offered the following dinner options (1854): “Vermicilli [sic] for soup, for fish baked bass with port wine sauce, boiled leg of mutton, corned beef, chicken with pork, beef a la mode, Phipps ham, beef and tongues. Roasts were beef, veal, saddle of mutton, turkey, saddle of lamp, venison with currant jelly, ducks. Entrees included chicken pie French style, mutton with vegetables, rice croquettes flavored with wine, Ficandeau of veal, tomato sauce, breaded lamp chops, broiled pigeons, a la Americans, stewed mutton with potatoes, casserole de Ris a la Finacore, macaroni Italian style. Pastries included pineapple pie, apple pie, charlotte russe a la vanilla, and deserts [sic] were raisins, almonds, walnuts, nuts, nutmeg, melons, oranges, apples, and watermelons.”

Then, of course, came the gambling. In 1864, the Saratoga Race Course brought horse racing, and in 1870 Morrissey’s Club House invited non-local men to casino gaming and cards. Apart from the main casino was the “Saratoga Club”, which the New York Times called “the finest hell on earth”. The entrance fee to the club was $25 (in 1871 money). One reporter, sent to the club with the explicit order to denounce it, found it “almost impossible… to repress an exclamation of surprise and pleasure”. The majority of the gamblers, he noted, were “fast young men” losing with “a strange, unvarying regularity.” Then again, it was John Morrissey’s place.

John Morrissey, known as “Old Smoke”, was not a man with whom to be trifled. A champion bare knuckle prize fighter, he had once run a New York street gang called the Downtowns. With his fight winnings (and obvious expertise at crowd control), Morrissey opened two gambling saloons in New York, and from those, built a career and a fortune out of flipping saloons and gambling establishments. In a city of over six thousand gambling saloons, Morrissey had a plentiful crop to sow. Morrissey was also a Tammany man, and in 1850 he was deployed by Boss Tweed to oversee the voting in one of the poorer parts of the city. Morrissey, in turn, hired a local gang called the Dead Rabbits. The Rabbits were there to fend off a rival anti-Tammany gang led by former Bowery Boy William “Bill the Butcher” Poole. If this latter part sounds familiar, it should.  The Dead Rabbits and Bill the Butcher formed the basis for the film “Gangs of New York”.

When Morrissey – who went on to help put Boss Tweed in prison and to serve as both a New York State Senator and U.S. Congressman – brought his gambling to the lovely little spa town of Saratoga Springs, you can imagine the kind of crowd he brought with him. If ever there was a definition for the sporting set, it was “fast young men losing with a strange, unvarying regularity”.  Of course, Morrissey’s clientele also included the likes of Chester A. Arthur, Rutherford B. Hayes, Ulysses S. Grant, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Rockefeller, and Mark Twain – fast old men losing with unvarying regularity. Of course, young and old alike, they all liked a good drink. Lucky for Morrissey, among his friends was one Jerry Thomas, in whose book the Saratoga Cocktail first appears.

Admittedly, I had overlooked the Saratoga, a variation on the Manhattan, several times while perusing Imbibe!. In fact, it wasn’t until our friend Randy over at Summit Sips (a great site to which everyone should subscribe) made the Saratoga his Drink of the Week that it was brought to mind. Neither the Manhattan nor the Saratoga appears in the first edition of Thomas’ Bar-Tender’s Guide (1862). Both are additions to the 1887 version, and it’s interesting to note that the Saratoga Cocktail is but one of four drinks bearing the “Saratoga” moniker. The Manhattan may have been the original, but the Saratoga name seems to have been more attractive.

An important thing to consider when you sip a Saratoga is the complete loss of the era of which I write above – not just the people and time, but pretty much everything has been wiped clean. By the early 1900’s, anti-gambling sentiment grew with force. Morrissey’s become the Canfield Casino, which subsequently closed in 1904. The horses didn’t run in 1911 or 1912. Shortly thereafter, the grand hotels, dying for business, began to close. In 1950, the Grand Union – the legacy to Putnam himself – was sold at auction and subsequently demolished, as were its contemporaries. Later, a new Grand Union would be built in its place – the Grand Union supermarket. Today, the space houses an office building, and a search for the “Saratoga Springs Grand Union” reveals the Grand Union Motel, which sadly, does not have mini-bars in its rooms (I called).

Fortunately, not all is lost. Over the past few decades, Saratoga has seen something of a renaissance, and a few icons of the past do remain. The race track continues to be one of the premier attractions of the area, and the Canfield Casino (which, when it was Morrissey’s, may have been the exact birthplace of the Saratoga) still stands as home to the Saratoga Springs History Museum (a tip of the hat to James Parillo, Executive Director, for his kind assistance with some of this research). When you drink a Saratoga, please take a moment to consider its lineage; it’s important to appreciate it on a deeper level – this isn’t just some booze splashed into a glass, it’s American history that you’re tasting.

Esoterica: The following is from the 1940 New York Writer’s Project book called New York: A Guide to the Empire State:

In 1894 Richard Canfield (1865-1914), debonair patron of art, purchased the Saratoga Club to make it a casino. Canfield Solitaire was originated in the casino’s gambling rooms and the club sandwich in its kitchens.


9 responses to “Saratoga Cocktail

  1. I was shooting in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and came upon Bill the Butcher’s grave! It was very simple but proud looking and quite different from what you would expect from seeing Gangs of NY! Really great back story for the drink… I was enthralled and wished I could have dropped in back in the day… must have been a blast!~!

    • Deana, the area and the time period must be right up your alley. I am jealous of all you upstate NY dwellers.

      I agree, to see Saratoga Springs in its heyday must have been a site. There are only two places in America that I’ve been that have actually transported me to another time — the Grand Hotel on Mackinac and the Greenbrier (both Dorothy Draper/Carlton Varney interiors). Mackinac really takes you back to the 50s, but I found the all-white front of house, all-black back of house division pretty uncomfortable. When we were at the Greenbrier (pre Jim Justice), it was relatively empty, but the place may be my favorite on earth. To be enveloped by one of those places is an amazing experience.

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  6. I don’t know of any “hot” springs in the Saratoga Springs area. “Mineral” springs, “Seltzer” springs, “Geyser” springs, and plain water springs, yes, but no “thermal” springs. Either you received some bad information or made an illogical leap in assuming that these springs were “hot.”

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