The start of this year’s Major League Baseball season is finally underway. That means sunny weather, high tech stadiums, and if you’re lucky, some really exciting games. It’s also a great time to read up on baseball history—ideally with a cocktail in hand.
Last baseball season, I got a little bit lost in various bits of ephemera at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It’s a regal building on the end of Main Street in what can only be described as an all-American village. The museum itself is a must for any baseball fan or history buff, but it’s hard not to be charmed by Cooperstown itself. After peering at old baseball cards and buying a few vintage caps, I wandered down to the other end of town, where I found an unexpected treat: a distillery.
In a town of centuries-0ld history, the Cooperstown Distillery is a baby. Eugene Marra opened the distillery in October 2013, and he set out to do something different in Cooperstown: With a focus on local ingredients, his handcrafted recipes yield unique flavor profiles for a whole menu of spirits, many of which pay homage to the town’s baseball heritage.
As such, the distillery’s flagship collection is its Baseball Line-up. The best-seller among them is Abner Doubleday’s Double Day vodka, a wonderfully smooth spirit made from 100-percent New York State wheat that comes in a baseball-shaped bottle. The collection also includes Beanball Bourbon, a six-year-old, barrel-aged Kentucky Bourbon, and Sam Smith’s Boatyard Rum, a perfectly sweet nod to the thriving baseball tradition in the Caribbean. They’re all excellent.
When I met Marra and told him I was interested in making a cocktail from baseball’s heyday, however, he gave me a taste of the distillery’s Fenimore Gin, named for one of Cooperstown’s most famous residents: the novelist James Fenimore Cooper. I typically don’t like gin, but this award-winning spirit was different, made with an exotic melange of 14 botanicals—eight of which, like star anise and eucalyptus, aren’t typical gin botanicals.
“We use a botanical basket in the top of the pot still to extract our flavor profiles,” Gene explained to me. “This is a hot vapor process and provides a much smoother, more delicate and much softer finish on the palette. The only thing that touches the botanicals is the ethyl alcohol vapors providing a significant softness to the finished product.”
We settled on gin for our baseball-themed cocktail because that’s most likely what was popular back in the glory days of the game. I’m not talking about the 1950s, when Jackie Robinson took the sport by storm or the 1970s, when Hank Aaron broke just about every record imaginable. I’m talking about the turn of the century, just after baseball became widely known as America’s national pastime. This is when the major league as we know it took shape.
The history of baseball is wonderfully rich and intimidatingly complex, but I don’t want to get into the details here. (If you do, Ken Burns’ 11-part documentary is a must-see. ) I do however want to get into the details of the booze of the pre-Prohibition era.
It just so happens that as baseball was rising to popularity in the late part of the 19th century, so too was the cocktail. The first book of cocktail recipes, Jerry Thomas’ Bartender’s Guide, was published in 1862, and the genre blossomed from there. By the time of the first modern World Series—which Boston won in 1903—many of the classics we still order in bars today had already won widespread popularity. Those include the Martini, the Old Fashioned, and the Manhattan.
There was one cocktail, newly invented at the turn of the century—a close cousin of the Manhattan—that has been forgotten by many. It’s a cocktail that many could have imbibed after seeing the Boston Americans (now known as the Red Sox) and the Pittsburgh Pirates face off in that first, nine-game World Series. They might’ve even toasted Cy Young who pitched for Boston or Honus Wagner whose face would later grace the world’s most expensive baseball card. That drink is called the Bronx. I decided to recreate it.
The Boston Americans and Pittsburgh Pirates at the 1903 World Series
Broadly speaking, the Bronx is essentially a Martini with a dash of citrus, usually orange. As with many cocktails, its origin story is contested, but it definitely arose in the first decade of the 20th century. It rose to popularity in the years leading up to Prohibition and enjoyed even more acclaim after.
Marra explained the Bronx is an appropriate cocktail from baseball’s heydey for a few reasons. One, it would’ve been around not only during the famous and Cy Young and Honus Wagner. It might’ve also been a cocktail that Babe Ruth would’ve sipped near Yankee Stadium which happens to be in the Bronx. And finally, its simple recipe would be a great way to highlight the uniqueness of Fenimore Gin.
Marra poked around in a few vintage cocktail books he sells at his distillery and found a pretty interesting twist on the classic in a book from 1935. The book was tailored towards bartenders on ocean liners that cruised from the East Coast to Cuba, where baseball was also thriving. In a fun way, this version of the Bronx would be a great way to tip the hat not only to baseball’s history in the United States but also the sport’s international heritage.
This is a cocktail that can be dressed up or down. After all, if you think about it, the Bronx is actually the original recipe for Gin and Juice. But for the purposes of this classy baseball tribute, let’s dress it up and get out the martini glasses. (Note: Martini glasses were much smaller in the 1930s, so you’ll have to double or triple the original recipe to fill a modern martini glass.)
What You’ll Need:
- 3/4 oz Fenimore Gin
- 3/4 oz Dry Vermouth
- 1/2 oz Orange Curoçoa
- Squeeze of lime
- Orange twist (optional)
- Combine gin, vermouth, and orange curoçoa in a tumblr.
- Add squeeze of lime.
- Shake! Shake! Shake!
- Pour into chilled martini glass
- Add orange twist (still optional)
Now that’s a classy ballpark refreshment! It was probably not actually sipped in the stands back then, though, since most games were dry. That doesn’t meant that you can’t pinch a martini glass, while sitting on your sofa and watching the Orioles tear their way through the playoffs. The cocktail’s orange kick makes you a better fan.
The Bronx—and pretty much anything that comes in a martini glass—can be a pretty hard-hitting drink. So if you’ve had one of those and want to keep enjoying Fenimore Gin, while remaining conscious, you might want to switch to highballs. The very name of this genre of cocktails makes for a perfect accompaniment to a playoff game.
Gene told me that the staff at Cooperstown Distillery’s grown (perhaps a little too) fond of a drink they’ve been calling the Fenimore Mule. It’s a variation on the famous Moscow Mule, except it uses Fenimore Gin instead of vodka and Fentiman’s Ginger Beer instead of any old stuff. The highball also calls for a couple of dashes of cherry bitters to make things interesting. You’re going to love it.
What You’ll Need:
- 1 1/2 oz Fenimore Gin
- 3 oz Fentiman’s ginger beer (Reed’s will do in a pinch)
- 2-3 dashes of cherry bitters
- Squeeze of lime
- Combine gin, ginger beer, and cherry bitters.
- Add squeeze of lime.
- Stir quickly.
- Serve on the rocks in a rocks glass.
If you really want to make your Fenimore Mule a New York State special, you should seek out Fee Brothers bitters. This Rochester-based company’s been making various bartender supplies since the end of the Civil War and offer an exciting lineup of bitters, everything from black walnut bitters to rhubarb bitters. They make cherry bitters, too, of course.
All of the Cooperstown Distillery’s spirits can be purchased online—for very reasonable prices, I might add. As with any type of alcohol, though, it’s best enjoyed at its point of origin in Cooperstown, New York. The village is enjoying a bit of a boozy renaissance, after the explosive success of the local Ommegang Brewery, and new breweries and distilleries are opening every year. Just don’t get too carried away and forget to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s a magical place, even when sober.
Photos by Michael Hession / Archival image via Wikipedia