Turf Cocktail

2 oz Bols Genever
1 oz Sweet Vermouth
1 dash Angostura Bitters

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

* * *

While Ernest Hemingway was plying Charles H. Baker with a series of well-paced Death in the Gulf Streams, elsewhere — in New York — Albert Stevens Crockett was busy collecting the history of the drinks served at the famed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar (I’m off by a few years, but the story is better this way).  Crockett’s mission as historian was an important one; not coincidentally, the 1931 publication date of his “Old Waldorf Bar Days” marked the opening of the all-new, better-than-ever Waldorf-Astoria at its present location of 301 Park Avenue – and no one wanted to lose forty years’ worth of recipes.

Oddly enough, despite being in the grip of the Great Depression, New York City saw something of a building boom in the early 1930’s.  Briefly, 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building battled each other to be the world’s tallest building, only to be surpassed a year later by the Empire State Building.  It was the construction of the latter which caused the Waldorf-Astoria to uproot after some forty years and move uptown, but if you know modern day New York, the move was a wise one.  Prohibition was repealed just a few years later (leading Crockett to publish the updated “Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book: with Amendments Due to the Repeal of the XVIIIth”), and the bar was back in business.

The Turf Cocktail, one of a handful bearing that name, comes to us from said Waldorf-Astoria bar, its name being a reference to the horse racing set.  When gentlemen of means gathered, they liked to drink, gamble, and bet on the ponies.  Gentlemen, of course, were the set filling the Waldorf-Astoria bar, and as Crockett wrote: “At times a good half — possibly two-thirds — of the crowd in the Bar were interested in racing, and would appreciate a cocktail of such a name.”  After all, it was the Astors (Caroline Webster Astor, to be precise) who created the New York social register (Mrs. Astor’s 400, which listed the four hundred individuals worthy of social standing).  It was the Astors who were called the “Landlords of New York”.  And, it was the Waldorf-Astoria, at one point the world’s largest hotel, which introduced us to amenities such as room service, a private bath in every guest room, and electricity throughout.  If you were going lose your life savings on Silk Stockings in the 4th at Belmont, you might as well do it in style.

Many reading the recipe above will no doubt identify this Turf Cocktail as a Genever variation on the Manhattan, which is exactly what it is.  But, here, I’m going to be so bold as to suggest that this drink is the one which truly deserves the moniker Manhattan.  And, here’s why…

It’s time to leap back another 150 years or so to 1784, when a twenty-one year old German named Johann Jacob Astor first steps foot on American soil.  Astor (soon, and for the rest of history, to be called John) was the son of a German butcher, hailing from the backwater burg of Walldorf (yes, that’s where the hotel got the first part of its name).  The youngest of four sons – all, apparently, industrious and enterprising – John was the last to leave home, but certainly not the least excited to do so.  Eldest brother George had left for London to work for (and later become partner in) an uncle’s musical instrument firm; second eldest brother Henry ventured off to New York to ply the family butchering trade in the British camps during the Revolutionary War, after which he remained and made a substantial fortune in the business; and, third brother John Melchoir stayed in Germany as the steward to a nobleman’s estate.

Come 1777, John Jacob finds himself in a precarious position.  He is fourteen, and it is time for his confirmation, after which he’ll become either an apprentice in a trade or a servant – depending on the family’s financial position, which in this case, is non-existent.  John’s father insists that, being the only son left at home, the young Astor follow in the family trade, but John despises butchery.  To complicate matters, the state of Baden, in which Walldorf is located, is ruled by Catholics.  The local sentiment is that you can’t get a job as a swine-herd if you’re not a Catholic.  Unfortunately for John, he has been schooled by a very influential French Protestant (Valentine Jeune) and has declared himself a Protestant for life (a belief from which he never wavered).  Compounding things even further are the reports of great success from his brothers and the news of the revolution in the “New Land” of America.  When the opportunity to leave Walldorf finally arises, John naturally seizes it.

The plan was simple.  John would make his way some three hundred miles to the nearest Dutch port and find passage to London, where he would seek out and work for eldest brother George, earn money for his voyage to America, and learn the English language.  Which is exactly what he did and how we find him, in 1784, freshly arrived on the shores of Baltimore as American representative for Astor & Co. Musical Instruments (well, flutes, at least).  Actually, we need to back up a step, because John’s voyage to America wasn’t without incident.

The winter of 1783-84 was a particularly harsh one, and the ship upon which Astor had traveled to the New World found itself stuck in a Chesapeake Bay ice flow, just one day out of port.  Stuck for two months.  Naturally, Astor passed the time in the most enjoyable way possible – he made friends with the only other German aboard.  As luck would have it, this stranger had immigrated to America a few years before and had found some measure of success in the fur business.  Over the course of their confinement, the stranger confided in Astor all that he knew about the fur trade – what, where, and from whom to buy, what, where and to whom to sell.  Everything, including the advice that Astor should make his way to New York.

Fortunately, second brother Henry was already established in New York, although the end of the war and the evacuation of New York had hurt his business substantially.  Within days, Henry had helped John obtain an entry-level position with Robert Bowne, an established trader in pelts.  Astor worked diligently for Browne for two years and, when he felt that he had learned all he could about the business, struck out on his own.

From that small shop on Water Street, John Jacob Astor built a fur empire, the likes of which the country had never seen.  When war and politics blocked his way, he petitioned and maneuvered around them.  For the early part of the 1800s, his American Fur Company controlled all fur trade along the Great Lakes and the Columbia River.  As soon as the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804 -1806) opened the door to the west, the American Fur Company was working the route.  By 1811, Astor’s trading post at Fort Astoria (modern Astoria, Oregon) had become the first US community on the Pacific coast.  He opened up trade routes to China and lucked into the lucrative sandalwood trade.  But trading was just a means for Astor.  As early as possible, he began buying up land on Manhattan Island – not just within the New York City confines, but beyond them as well, sensing the oncoming expansion of his adopted home.  Although he did build on the land, such as the famous Astor House Hotel (1836), the most significant portion of Astor money came from being a landlord and letting others pay for the privilege of building upon his soil. When Astor passed away in 1848, he left behind an empire worth $20 million – the modern equivalent of over $100 billion.  In his time, he was not known for being the kindest nor the most generous of men – no, his greatest philanthropic legacies came after his death.

Now, as for my claim that the Turf Cocktail, the Genever variation on the classic Manhattan, should be the Manhattan, I offer this:  Did John Jacob Astor, the poor immigrant youth from Germany, build Manhattan?  Maybe not by himself, but he and his descendants certainly built a large part of it.  In fact, for much of the city’s greatest period, they defined it – from the butcher shops of the Bowery to the heights of sophisticated society.  If you accept this, also accept that Astor’s ancestral home, Walldorf, Germany, lies adjacent to the Low Countries, the ancient birthplace of Genever.  Had Astor not been a temperate man (although he did enjoy a beer), he may have grown up on something very close to our own fine Bols Genever.  And, there’s also the fact that Manhattan’s first European settlers were the Dutch, who brought with them an unabashed love of Genever.

If the Turf Cocktail isn’t the Manhattan, at least it is John Jacob Astor’s Manhattan.  In the fantasia of my rationale, I like to believe that the Turf Cocktail was created in his honor and perhaps rekindled enough of his boyhood home to remind him of how far he had journeyed. Indeed, when I sip the Turf Cocktail, it’s not to the Waldorf-Astoria that my thoughts travel to, but to the young German immigrant of  twenty-three, trekking through the wilds, building his fortune with his own two hands and uncovering all the promise which the New World held for him.


Esoterica: John Jacob Astor IV is, in many ways, best remembered for having died aboard the RMS Titanic.  Eighteen years prior to that tragic event, he interestingly published the sci-fi novel “A Journey in Other Worlds: A Romance of the Future”, (1894) in which the United States is a multi-continental superpower and is terra-forming the other planets in the solar system.  Apparently, New York was no longer enough for Astor ambitions.


4 responses to “Turf Cocktail

  1. Wow, another great post.

    Though, I have to admit I’m very fond of the Dry Gin, Dry Vermouth, Maraschino, and Angostura version of this cocktail….

  2. I want to read the book… terraforming???? Frankly, I knew all about the real estate but had forgotten about the fur part of the Astor fortune… great story… amazing how drinks can be little flashlights to history!

  3. Pingback: Horse’s Neck | 12 Bottle Bar

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