[To mix a] Mountain Ash Cocktail… also called the Adirondack Cocktail… [you’ll need] rye, water, sugar and macerated mountain ash bark. (Food & Think)
Smithsonian blogger (and Adirondack Life Associate Editor) Lisa Bramen posted an under-the-bark glimpse at a Bisby Lodge tradition back in August on Food & Think blog, and I find myself wondering how this woodsy recipe would translate to the Adirondack Coast. Of course, considering the similarity between an Adirondack Cocktail and a more familiar summer staple, the gin and tonic, I probably should have shared this novel North Country refresher several months ago during the drought. But I didn’t catch it at the time. Sorry.
Better late than never. Besides, this will give you a jump-start for next summer and plenty of time to harvest a season’s supply of mountain ash bark!
Adirondack Cocktails for Breakfast
Bramen’s post lead me to The Adirondack League Club, 1890-1990 in which Dr. Dwight A. Webster (Professor, Fishery Science, Cornell University) describes this peculiar sun-upper.
First notice of a Mountain Ash Cocktail came to my attention in an article by General R. U. Sherman, entitled “The Bisby Trout” in The American Angler (October 13 and 20, 1883)… The Bisby trout piece ended like this: “A visitor, for the first time last summer to the Bisby waters, declared in his enthusiasm of his first breakfast, that Delmonico, with all his skill and wealth of resource, could not produce a dish like this—broiled Bisby trout,—nor concoct a drink equal to the Mountain Ash Cocktail, the usual precursor of the morning meal at Bisby Lodge. (The Adirondack League Club, 1890-1990. Edited by Edward Comstock, Jr.)
A breakfast aperitif? I suppose city sports must fortify before whipping the waters for Bisby Trout, a hypothesis reiterated here.
The trout season opens with a mountain ash cocktail, a relic of the old Walton Club manufactured by Gen. Sherman, and is continued daily from May 15 to June 15, when the lodge and Gen. Husted’s cottage are left in their loneliness until the middle of July, when the family season begins. (New York Times, “Bisby Club’s Resort,” June 8, 1890, p. 12.)
And you thought my “sun-upper” euphemism was snarky poetic license… Imagine starting the day with a gargle of whiskey and muddled mountain ash bark! Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, I suppose. Incidentally, I haven’t yet, but I’ll definitely update you when I do.
Here’s Bramen’s take:
Macerated bark? I know the name Adirondack is supposed to be an Algonquin insult meaning “bark eater,” but I’ve never heard of anyone here actually eating (or, in this case, drinking) it. (Food & Think)
Nor have I, though it’s high time we change that. However we’ll need a better recipe first.
Adirondack Cocktail Recipe
Following Bramen’s and Comstock’s leads, I’ll defer to W. H. Boardman who recorded this revealing quip:
I have an idea that you can condense the medical treatment into one sweet moment of medicinal bliss if you will scrape a little of the tender bark of the mountain ash and make an extract with two ounces of whiskey. Two ounces of spring water and a lump of sugar mixed with this in a tin cup… (The Lovers of the Woods. W. H. Boardman, 1901)
Though Comstock cites this precedent, he’s taken some liberties and recommends this slightly altered recipe instead.
Our senior fishing buddy, whose daughter provided the accompanying sketch [above], always prepared the concentrated elixir several hours ahead of anticipated need. In early spring, as the ash buds are swelling, the aroma of the green cambium layer of the bark is most pungent. The cambium is easily separated, then bruised, and immersed in several ounces of rye. A mortar and pestle is ideal for this chore, but the butt of a knife handle and small bowl suffices. Add sugar, about one-half teaspoon per drink, and let the mixture steep for at least a half hour. The fragrance of the bark is distinctly almond and a hint of that can be detected in straight rye. Perhaps the mountain-ash extract merely enhances and fortifies this. We use a bit more water than the equal parts suggested in the Boardman account, and substitute a couple of ice cubes to cook the libation to “spring” water temperature. Flavor is deadened if the drink is made heavily iced but added dilution does provide a bit more margin of safety. These are stout drinks, and with sugar speeding up stomach absorption, consumption of two produces.a fair buzz. (The Adirondack League Club, 1890-1990. Edited by Edward Comstock, Jr.)
And just to dilate your mixology options a little further, Bramen strained another Adirondack Cocktail recipe from an 1890 story from The New York Times’ “Told Round the Log Fire” column.
One of the features of the Bisby Lodge is the mountain ash cocktail. It is indigenous to the Adirondacks. It was invented by an ingenious member of the old Walton Club, which was the pioneer social organization of the North Woods…. Before breakfast the cocktail was placed before each man. Camping out was not the luxury in those days that modern civilization has made it. A bed of boughs in a log hut close by the lake side was regarded as the height of comfort. The cocktail was supposed to overcome and banish the chill that sometimes accompanied the sleep under these circumstances.
The ash is pure tonic, and this is how Gen. Sherman, now President of the Bisby Club, makes the cocktail: A little sugar dropped in a glass, not more than a teaspoonful, just enough water to dissolve it and convert it into a syrup; then bark scraped from the mountain ash; over this pour a bolus of gin; let the decoction [concoction?] stand with a lump of ice, then to be disposed of in the usual way.
“No member of the Walton Club,” says Gen. Sherman, “was ever known to have rheumatism after partaking of this delightful beverage, and as an appetizer its superior is not known.” (Food & Thin)
If the sleuthing-power of the interwebs extended to excavating recipes scribbled in fishing/hunting camp log books, I suspect we’d come up with as many variations of the Adirondack Cocktail as there are “the one that got away” stories. But between these three, we’re close enough to a recipe that I’m ready to dust off my bartending skills for you. Only, it looks like I’ll need to wait until spring for the tender mountain ash cambium. Stay tuned!