"I've always been focused on how things started, even when I was a kid," says Jack McGarry, head bartender at The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog in New York's Financial District. Consider the drinks menu at The Dead Rabbit the fruition of a well-stocked childhood curiosity, weighing in at 72 drinks under 12 cocktail categories, with additional bottles, beers, and even a seasonal insert—all of it painstakingly resurrected from an under-studied cocktail era.
"My idea for this menu was to fully illustrate the kingdom of mixed drinks before the speakeasy," McGarry explains. "I wanted to show there was this amazing cocktail culture well before that, and there were no rules like many speakeasies today." Despite immersing himself in the convivial, comparatively rule-free cocktail culture of the 19th century, where drinks sounded like something Dr. Seuss might prescribe—Possets and Fixes and Fizzes and Smashes—McGarry found himself with quite a bit of work on his hands. "It was a massive challenge putting the beverage program together," he says.
It was two and a half years from research to final recipe testing before he felt ready to unleash this wealth of drinks upon New York City. "I was utterly obsessed with both the history of the mixed drink and the science behind it," says McGarry. Part of it being his curiosity about the era itself, and the rest, the challenge of interpreting cocktails from the 19th, 18th, and even 17th centuries for modern-day purveyors and palates. "The drinks back in those eras were quite sweet, due to the fact that distillers—legally or not—were only really hitting their stride with their knowledge of distillation and methods, such as wood maturation and charcoal filtration." That meant a harsher product hitting shelves and palates, which had to be tamed with stronger, often sweeter ingredients.
Considering how the modern drink palate has shifted toward bittered-and-strong, McGarry knew he had to remove some of that saccharine element, but he wasn't interested in going too far in the opposite direction. His method was to "find out the key flavor base of that particular drink and run with it, until it worked." That rebalancing could take five, or "as many as 80 attempts to get right." But the results—a balanced interpretation of historical cocktails, where the soul of the drink remains—are well worth it.
Take the Gin Daisy à la Paul, named for its inspiration—in this case Charlie Paul's Recipes of American and Other Iced Drinks. The recipe has McGarry not only tweaking a Daisy, but a Daisy-style particular to the 1870s and 1880s.
The Daisy of that era "was an altogether different proposition" from the gin, soda, grenadine style more common in the early 1900s, says McGarry. "It was basically a shortened version of punch, and each bartender had the choice of which cordial they used. Jerry Thomas used orgeat and orange curacao; Harry Johnson used Chartreuse, etc. Charlie Paul used orgeat also."
For his version, McGarry swaps in pistachio syrup and Genever—popular in Paul's time—for malted roundness fleshed out by soft apricot eau de vie. He balances that with cucumber soda, savory spice notes from Combier Kummel, and a judicious dose of absinthe for what he calls "a Gin Daisy with a reinforced herbaceous note." Considering what went into its production—and all the other magic that makes a 72-drink list "consumer accessible"—we'd call that an understatement.