The Mother-in-Law Cocktail

I originally published this story in 2003. It’s got some delightfully obscure New Orleans cocktail history, and if you make this drink you’ll be helping keep some of New Orleans culture alive (and getting very yummily liquored up to boot).

In August of ’03 I got an email regarding a “mysterious New Orleans cocktail”.

It led to our discovery of the most intriguing — as well as one of the best — New Orleans cocktails I have ever tasted. I’ll retell the whole story to date, offer you the original recipe as well as the one we’ve slightly tweaked for the Twenty-First Century. Thanks to the family history of Brooks Baldwin, the incredible scholarship of Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh and my own humble job as the guy who got the email and forwarded it to the right people (then mixed it, tasted it, got excited and served it to more of the right people), we have resurrected a lost, pre-Prohibition classic cocktail from New Orleans and bestowed upon it a new name. First, some history …

I received an email from a gentleman by the name of Brooks Baldwin, who said:

As a man who knows his way around Crescent City cocktails, I wonder if you’d mind looking over the ingredients in this very old, unnamed recipe from pre-Prohibition New Orleans. Does it resemble any cocktail you’ve come across in your stumblings? I’d love to give it a name.

My grandmother, Mrs. Monte M. Lemann (born in New Orleans in 1895), inherited the recipe from her mother-in-law, Mrs. Lucien E. Lyons, shortly before the beginning of the First World War. As specified in the original recipe, my grandmother concocted this libation by the quart and stored it in an antique lead crystal decanter. Informed that science had linked lead crystal with lead poisoning, my grandmother said: “It’s a pretty bottle, so hush.”

“The Mysterious New Orleans Cocktail”
Original version

2-1/2 teaspoons Peychaud’s Bitters
2-1/2 teaspoons Angostura Bitters
2-1/2 teaspoons Amer Picon
1 jigger Orange Curaçao
1 jigger Simple Syrup
1 jigger Maraschino Syrup

Mix the first six ingredients, then add Bourbon to make one quart.
Shake with cracked ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

I’m all for using Luxardo Maraschino in place of maraschino syrup (thank you for turning me on to a great product!) and adding extra simple syrup if necessary. Torani brand Amer could pinch hit for the Amer Picon. I’m pretty sure I read that Torani Amer more closely resembles the original Amer Picon than the Amer Picon available today. Do you know anything about this? Apparently, the original formula got messed with a while back — the flavor changed slightly, and the proof dropped from 78 to 39. In any case, Torani Amer is easier to find.

I responded enthusiastically — this drink sounded fantastic — and assured Brooks that I’d be mixing up a batch as soon as possible. I’d test it out on Wes and myself, plus a few other friends. He replied, “I’m stunned that you’ve taken up the gauntlet on behalf of the venerable mystery cocktail. My beloved grandmother, if only she were still among us, would be pink and giggling with delight.” We were more than happy to do our part to make a nice departed lady giggle, particularly if it involved drinking liquor.

I’ve seen sweet, red maraschino syrup still for sale, usually from the dreaded Reese brand (just about everything I I’ve tried of theirs tastes terrible, including the worst maraschino cherries I’ve ever had) and I thought this drink cried out to be drier. We used maraschino liqueur, still with a nice touch of sweetness but not too much. Luxardo is the standard, or use the Croatian brand Maraska if you’d like it a touch drier (the bottle’s not as pretty, but it’s much less expensive).

Similarly, we decided to use the drier Cointreau (a true triple sec, with the French word “sec” meaning “dry”) rather than the typically über-sweet curaçaos that are out there. Use curaçao if you like ’em sweet (try to find Marie Brizard orange curaçao and avoid all of those bottom-shelf brands), but I highly recommend a drier cocktail. You get enough sweetness from the simple syrup and Maraschino. Go for Cointreau.

Brooks was indeed correct about Amer Picon; not only is it nearly impossible to find anymore, but the makers have changed the formula so much that it bears little resemblance to the original. Torani brand Amer is a wonderful product, and one that’s been thoroughly embraced by the Basque-Americans who use it in their signature national drink, Picon Punch.

Still curious and in need of a cocktail historian’s view on this, I forwarded the email and recipe to Dr. Cocktail, who replied:

My feeling is, this was a home-made cocktail, not a bar cocktail. No bartender would use such measurements — I mean, the proportions are fine and it sounds delicious, but no barkeep would speak in terms of quarts, teaspoons, etc. I’d say this was a glorious product of the “My home is my castle” aficionado class prevalent at the turn of the century. And of course NOLA had more free-thinkers than most places…

I mixed up a batch that weekend. Wes and I tried it, plus had the opportunity to serve it to a couple of guests who had impeccable cocktail chops. Their verdict? “Superb” … “exquisite” … “wonderful.” I agree. Now our job entailed spreading this cocktail far and wide.

Doc said it’d be very cool to name it after Brooks’ grandmother, but when I pointed out that she herself had gotten the recipe from her mother-in-law, he immediately (temporarily) dubbed it … “The Mother-In-Law Cocktail.” That’s got a great additional New Orleans connection, given that that’s also the title of one of our classic R&B songs, as performed by Ernie K-Doe, Emperor of the Universe.

Doc did some more digging. He believed that he had not only identified the source (or rather, the inspiration) for Brooks’ grandmother’s cocktail, but came up with recipes as well:

Now, I haven’t found the exact recipe, but there were two versions given and here are the ingredients in the first one: Amer Picon, Peychaud’s and orange bitters, whiskey, sugar. Get this: Glass coated with absinthe. OK, now here are the ingredients in the 2nd one: sweet vermouth, Angostura, Amer Picon, Curaçao, rye whiskey, glass coated with absinthe.

Boom. It looks like Granny’s recipe is an amalgam of the two. It’s name?

Y’know, I’ve seen other recipes for this drink now that I’ve pinpointed it. It seems like one of those drinks for which no two recipes match. If I’m right… it’s a Zazarac.

Interesting! I had always assumed that that cocktail name, when I’ve seen it listed in old books, was simply a misspelling or a phonetic spelling of “Sazerac”. Doc surmised that it might have been some people’s way to get around what was apparently the Sazerac Coffee House’s “infamous tendency in the past” to litigate over the Sazerac name. It might also have been “someone’s guess as to the contents of the then possibly still secret recipe of the Sazerac… iffy, but possible.” More:

Now, the versions of the Zazarac I’ve encountered are persuasively close but not right on the money. It should also be noted that the long-lost sister cocktail to the Manhattan and the Bronx (The Brooklyn) bears an unmistakable resemblance as well, and it is the only of the recipes to match the use of maraschino. Here is the Brooklyn cocktail recipe:

Brooklyn Cocktail

1-1/2 oz rye or Bourbon
1/2 oz dry vermouth
1/4 oz Amer Picon
1/4 oz maraschino liqueur

Stir in mixing glass with ice & strain into a cocktail glass.

Again, there are other variations of the Zaz which are so dissimilar as to not have previously raised a red flag, which is why it hadn’t occurred to me sooner, and the Brooklyn was just so thoroughly uncommon. Point is, ALL cocktail recipes are essentially variations of one another anyway AND unrelated cocktails CAN end up being remarkably similar due to a finite set of cocktail ingredients. Therefore especially since (a) the recipes don’t match exactly and manipulations to MAKE them match requires both combining and omitting and even them we must add in that which neither contained, and (b) Granny’s recipe was untitled, we have ample argument for giving her drink its own name.

Our speculation — Brooks’ grandmother’s mother-in-law had seen and tried recipes for the Zazarac, didn’t quite care for them, and started tinkering. We think the recipe is quite probably her own, and was a truly forgotten New Orleans cocktail. Except Gran wrote it down, and Brooks found it … and it is thus remembered.

Brooks ran the naming choices by various members of his family, and the consensus was, since it was Gran’s drink that she got from her mother-in-law … the Mother-in-Law Cocktail it is! Here’s that recipe.

The Mother-In-Law Cocktail
A pre-prohibition lost New Orleans classic, now found

2-1/2 teaspoons Peychaud’s Bitters
2-1/2 teaspoons Angostura Bitters
2-1/2 teaspoons Torani Amer (or vintage 78-proof Amer Picon)
1-1/2 ounces Maraschino liqueur (Luxardo or Maraska)
1-1/2 ounces Cointreau or high-quality orange Curaçao
1-1/2 ounces simple syrup
One 750ml bottle Maker’s Mark Bourbon (or your favorite Bourbon)

Combine ingredients thoroughly and pour into a clean one-quart bottle. To serve, pour three ounces into a cocktail shaker with cracked ice. Stir for no less than thirty seconds, then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a stemless cherry.

We prefer the Maraska maraschino from Croatia in this, as it’s drier. We also prefer Cointreau to cheap triple sec or curaçao, but Marie Brizard makes an excellent orange curaçao which is worth seeking out.

It really is worth keeping a bottle of this concoction around — you don’t have to mix, just pour! Easy peasy! However, if you don’t want a whole quart of it and would like to mix just one, I’ve worked out a single-cocktail version. The proportions aren’t exact, but they’re fairly close; it won’t be exactly like the full-batch Mother-in-Law, though.

The Mother-in-Law Cocktail
Single-cocktail version

2-1/2 ounces Bourbon whiskey
1 teaspoon Cointreau or high-quality orange Curaçao
1 teaspoon Maraschino liqueur (Luxardo or Maraska)
1 teaspoon simple syrup
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Torani Amer (or vintage Amer Picon)

Combine with cracked ice and stir for no less than thirty seconds. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a stemless cherry.

We ended up serving this cocktail to Dale DeGroff when he was visiting Los Angeles a few months after we came up with all this, and he fell in love with it. He ended up consulting on the menu at Jonathan Downey’s Match Bars in London, and folks in Merrie Olde Englande ended up quaffing this cocktail over a century after and four thousand miles away from its inception. Doc ended up getting the publication scoop in his book, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, for which (as a truly lost and forgotten cocktail) it was perfect; the book has been very popular, is now in its second and completely revised edition, and we can only imagine that people all over everywhere are now making the Mother-in-Law Cocktail.

Doc and Martin came up with yet another version to be included in the Cocktails+ application for the iPhone and iPod Touch:

The Mother-in-Law Cocktail
(Serves three)

1-1/8 cups (9 ounces) Bourbon whiskey.
1/2 ounce orange Curaçao or Cointreau.
1/2 ounce maraschino liqueur.
1/2 ounce simple syrup.
2 barspoons Torani Amer, Amer Picon or Amer Boudreau.
2 barspoons Angostura bitters.
2 barspoons Peychaud’s bitters.

Stir with cracked ice, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Cherry garnish.
Makes 3 cocktails.

I guess we all did a fairly good job in helping spread it far and wide, and for that I am happy and proud.

Mix up a batch, and have one (or three) tonight.