Three Forgotten Cocktails from Panama, Painstakingly Unearthed, & Faithfully Reproduced & Imbibed on a Magnificently Uninhabited Playa Palenque, as We Patiently Slow-Grilled a Fresh Suckling Piglet – Who Only The Day Before had been Happily Gobbling Crabs on Our Island’s Beaches – while the Tide Gently Receded, & with Only Two Jorges & One Teofilio as Our Christmas Companions
In 1939, Charles H Baker, Jr published two volumes of The Gentlemen’s Companion; combined they formed a travelogue of sorts, but one told through the stories of recipes. The first volume focused on food, while the second focused on cocktails (and was subtitled “Jigger, Beaker, & Glass: Drinking Around the World”). In my continuous search for ideal cocktails to serve at Isla Palenque’s two restaurants, I have pored through this now-forgotten book, searching for authentic vintage tropical cocktails. Among a handful of great finds (all served at Edén), I came across three unique cocktails from 1920s and 1930s Panama which I’d like to share.
Baker had a great old-fashioned sense of writing, one that even in the 1930s probably seemed anachronistic; his writing is also imbued with a whiff of pretentious decadence, a style that could probably only be held by someone who made his fortune in the twenties, who got out before the crash of 1929, and who then decided to spend the Great Depression traveling the world in a life of refined dissolution. (I don’t know his biography, so this is just a guess; but what I do know, from having read his Gentlemen’s Companion, is that he’d have been a charming and entertaining drinking companion were you lucky enough to come across him during your own far-flung travels.)
As a paradigmatic example of his writing style, here is the title he wrote for one cocktail, which at 85 words is longer than the drink’s description and recipe put together:
THE ASTOR HOTEL SPECIAL, From Shanghai, During a Trip Around the World in the Year 1926, & on the Occasion of Our Becoming Marooned in that City, with Our Own Ship & Personal Belongings Gone on to Hongkong, & with a Delightful Young Maiden by Whom We Were Later Rejected in Marriage, & Who Later Distinguished Herself by Espousing a Very Nice Gentleman Whose Main Claim to Fame Is that He Was once Kidnapped by Karpis prior to the Latter’s Entering His Suite in Alcatraz
Hilarious, on so many levels…
So, rather than write my own commentary and historical notes for each of the drinks I discovered through him, I’m simply going to let Baker’s writing do the work, and just provide a little bracketed context where necessary. Thus, without further ado, here are the Bird of Paradise, the Hallelujah Cocktail, and the Panama Mock Daisy, all courtesy of Charles Henry Baker, Jr:
THE BIRD OF PARADISE, a Colourful, Eye-Filling Experience We Found in Signing Our Names to the Book at the STRANGERS CLUB, Colon, Panama
This strange little club has many famous names in its logbook, Robinson of the SVAAP, Alain Gerbault, poor Dick Halliburton whom we first met in Singapore before he flew to Sarawak in 1932, sitting at a table with Ruth Elder and Walter Camp. We have always found a welcome there during the 10 or 1 doz times we have been in the “Zone” going east to west or vice versa… Actually this Bird of Paradise Fizz is Aziz’ Special to which 2 to 3 tsp of raspberry syrup have been added instead of the sugar, and juice of 1 1/2 limes instead of the lemon. Float on a red rose petal, or any scarlet small tropical blossom, like bougainvillea, as a final garnish. Shake hard and long.
[Note: the Aziz Special, described elsewhere in Baker’s book, is 3 ounces of gin, 1 ounce of cream, 1 to 1 1/2 tsp of sugar, 1 1/2 ounces of lemon juice, and a tablespoon of egg white, all shaken together and topped with a few ounces of club soda. Among the then-famous but now-forgotten denizens mentioned above is Richard (“poor Dick”) Halliburton, also known as the guy who swam the Panama Canal in 1928 and paid the lowest toll in the Canal’s history: 36 cents.]
THE HALLELUJAH COCKTAIL, a Palate-Twister from the Isthmus of Panama
This was originated by our good friend Max Bilgray, of Colon, Panama, somewhere around 1929, and dedicated to Aimee Semple McPherson as a result of an alleged visit to his Bilgray’s Tropic Bar and Cabaret, long a gay spot on the Isthmus. Now whether Aimee ever went to Bilgray’s under the alias of Betty Adams; and if she went there, whether or not she found anything she wanted, are matters beyond our deductive powers. All we know is that we arrived one night just after this alleged inspection, and that Bilgray was mailing out postcards, postage gratis – as many as we wanted – listing the Hallelujah ingredients… Of course many thousands went out, and a million dollar lawsuit was instituted and Aimee’s mother forgot her squabble with daughter, and rallied to her defense. Even remote, pure and austere sheets like the New York Times had special cables, and we thought the whole business hugely amusing – and strangely enough, the drink is good. Quote:
Babylonian Grape Brandy (Cognac): 1 pony
Ice from the Crest of Mount Sinai: Lots, finely cracked
Lemon from the Desert of Sin: Lime juice, 4 drops
Gomorrah and Sodom vermouth: Italian, 1 jigger
Rum aged in Noah’s Ark: 1/2 jigger; rye also used
Add Cain’s syrup from the Garden of Eden: 1/2 tsp Grenadine
You then give it the Hebrew shake and – pop a cherry on top
Say Hallelujah after drinking!
Not that it makes any great difference, but the initial letters of each line spell Bilgray’s. Any drink known to probably a hundred thousand people in the last eight or nine years in Panama alone must have had something besides postcard appeal… It should be served in a large saucer type champagne class.
[Note: Aimee Semple McPherson was a California evangelist celebrity in the 1920s and 30s, who had her share of scandals in the late 1920s (today, she’d have been a staple on TMZ). This is indeed a very good and clearly vintage drink – so much vermouth, and all this talk of ponies and jiggers – but I’ll let you do the research to figure out the conversions… Or you can just come to Edén on a Friday evening and have us make one for you.]
THE PANAMA “MOCK DAISY” CRUSTA, from Cristobal at the Atlantic End of the Panama Canal Zone, which Oddly Enough Is Actually WEST of the Pacific End at Balboa
Take the juice of 2 limes and put into a tumbler or goblet with fine ice, the crystal having been rubbed first with the lime shells and the lip dipped in powdered sugar, allowing all possible to cling for about 1/2” down the side. Now add 1 pony of raspberry syrup, fill glass with enough club soda to suit taste, and float on 1/2 to 1 tsp of grenadine. Garnish with a stick of ripe pineapple, 2 or 3 ripe raspberries frozen in ice cubes; a sprig of green mint.
[Note: as it is sans alcohol, this is a mock cocktail, or “mocktail”, suitable for teetotalers and children alike. And quite delightful.]
Charles Baker’s two-volume Gentlemen’s Companion remained out of print for decades, but can now be purchased as Knife, Fork, & Spoon and Jigger, Beaker, & Glass. I highly recommend them.