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While there are many cocktails for which the exact composition is disputed, it is taken to an almost self-parodying degree with the East India Cocktail. Depending on how you count, there are at least three (and as many as six or seven) cocktails trading under that name, and if, just for fun, we limited our discussion to only the ingredients on which everyone agrees, we’d simply be talking about a glass of Cognac.
What’s more, the pedigree is perfectly established, and everyone knows it. We don’t need to wade through folklore or sift among competing origin claims: The East India Cocktail was invented by Harry Johnson in 1882 and printed in his New and Improved Bartender’s Manual. It is named, fortunately, not for the farcically rapacious East India Trading Company which had been dissolved eight years prior, but for being “a favorite of the English living in different parts of East India.” All of that is as straightforward as you could possibly hope. It’s the recipe itself where we get into trouble.
Johnson’s 1882 recipe calls for a healthy pour of brandy, very small amounts (1 tsp. each) of raspberry syrup and “red” Curaçao, and even smaller amounts of bitters and maraschino liqueur. Which all seems clear enough, except for that eight years later, in the 1890 edition of this same book, Johnson took out the raspberry and replaced with pineapple syrup. While some drinks might sub raspberry for, say, pomegranate, to my and everyone else’s ear, pineapple makes a fundamentally different cocktail. Fair enough—many people think of the raspberry and pineapple versions as East India Cocktails No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.
But then what to make of Tom Bullock’s 1917 The Ideal Bartender, which removes them both and just keeps the maraschino, Curaçao, bitters, and brandy? Or Robert Vermiere in 1922 who offers that you must choose between pineapple “or” maraschino? Or Harry Craddock in 1930 who ditches the maraschino entirely and calls for brandy, bitters, Curaçao, and pineapple juice? We could tack all this up to pre-internet misunderstandings from long ago, but then what of 2011’s PDT Cocktail Book that ditches the maraschino in favor of a quarter ounce of aged rum? And all that without even touching the version of the East India Cocktail you’re most likely to be served in the wild, from the influential Bartender’s Choice app by Sam Ross, which not only ditches the Curaçao and multiplies the maraschino 15x, but leaps to an entirely different cocktail tree, with a bunch of fresh lemon juice, shaken and served as a sour?
It’s enough to make you need a drink; fortunately, we have one of those for you. About half of the above recipes are pretty good, but you can’t just cut ingredients from this and expect it to still sing. It absolutely requires the floral personality of the maraschino and the roundness of the Curaçao, and while it’s good as a sour, it’s better as a seductive, faintly tropical Cognac sipper. And after trying them all, we defer to the originator Mr. Johnson, who we believe got it right on his second attempt. It’s the type of subtle revisionism we can get behind.
East India Cocktail
- 2 oz. Cognac
- 1-2 tsp. pineapple syrup
- 1 tsp orange Curaçao
- 0.5 tsp. maraschino liqueur
- 1-2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Add all ingredients to a chilled mixing glass with ice, stir for 10 to 15 seconds (on small ice) or up to 20 to 25 seconds (for big ice), and strain into a stemmed cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon peel.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Cognac: The younger the Cognac, generally, the fruitier it will be. This cocktail already has quite a bit of fruit, and more of it from the spirit makes the whole thing shallow and insipid, so go VSOP or older, even an XO. The Remy Martin 1738 is a nice option, to name just one, and hits the note you’re looking for well. The leatherier oak, the better.
Pineapple Syrup: The eager acidity of fresh juice didn’t really work for me here, so I think the best incarnation of the East India Cocktail is when it gets some richness from a Pineapple Gum Syrup, the “gum” (sometimes “gomme”) referring to a little textural assist from gum arabic. The benchmark producer is Small Hands Foods, from the Bay Area. If you can’t find any of that, I’d make one quick one myself, just equal parts pineapple juice and sugar, and stir until the sugar dissolves.
Curaçao: It’s strange. Tasting the cocktail, the Curaçao folds neatly into the contours of the Cognac, and it can be difficult to tell precisely what it’s doing but omit it and you’ll notice. You want it to be brandy based and high proof, and the go-to bottles here are the Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao or the classic Grand Marnier.
Maraschino Liqueur: While ostensibly a cherry liqueur (“maraschino” refers to a distillation of the sour marasca cherry), it doesn’t taste like cherries so much as a funky, floral earthiness that’s difficult to describe and, in this cocktail, resolutely necessary. Even at a half teaspoon, it brings some much-needed personality to the party.
Bitters: Johnson called for Boker’s Bitters, but your standard Angostura would work great.