Cognac-Gin Cocktails and the "Millionaire" Cocktail

Something like seven years ago, I spent New Year's Eve at a lovely hotel in northern New Hampshire. It was one of the grand dames of the grand hotel era, and that evening in its ballroom was the first time I encountered an ice luge. (I find this odd in retrospect.)

Appropriately, it was a very impressive ice luge - more an ice sculpture, really, taller than a person and the length of a table, with an undulating tunnel from top-left to bottom-right that the drinks ran through with impressive speed. One did not do shots from this ice luge. On the contrary, the bartender placed a cocktail glass at the exit, got up on a stool to pour the cocktail into the top, and then watched as the wall of decorated ice placed it perfectly into the glass on his behalf.

I swear the ice luge isn't the point of this story, but once I remembered it I couldn't help but share it.

The drink that received this special treatment was, I was told, the Millionaire Cocktail, consisting of gin, Cognac, sweet vermouth, and grenadine. You may have heard that there are a whole bunch of drinks by that name, and there totally are. I've just never found one with that list of ingredients.

Not for lack of trying, mind you. This all took place before my journey of cocktail discovery really got going, and so the "Millionaire," whatever it was, was one of the drinks I sought out in my early research. Not only could I not find anything connecting that name to the recipe I'd been given, but the distinctive base - gin and Cognac, who'd a thunk it? - seemed not to have been used in any major recipes, period. Eventually I gave up, and moved on to other areas of inquiry.

But this week I stumbled upon a drink that brought this question roaring back into my mind. Here's the Stay Up Late (recipe adapted from Serious Eats):

Stay Up Late
1 ½ oz. London Dry Gin
½ oz. Cognac
3/4 oz. Lemon Juice
3/4 oz. 1:1 Simple Syrup
~4 oz. Club Soda to Fill

Shake gin, Cognac, lemon juice, and simple syrup with ice. Strain into a Collins glass. Top with club soda; garnish with a brandied cherry speared with an orange slice. 

I have a particular fondness for the counterintuitive. I love delicious cocktails, but if they also don't make sense on paper, I'll love them all the more. This is where my special affection for the Jungle Bird and the Twentieth Century comes from, to say nothing of my appreciation for the Kingston, which is essentially a Daiquiri with a mixed base of gin and aged rum. And so my old obsession with the Mystery Millionaire was easily reawakened. 

The cocktail journalism landscape has changed dramatically since the last time I looked into it; it's fascinating to research the same thing before and after an explosion of public interest in the field. There are now dozens of online references to the Stay Up Late, which is attested at least as far back as The Stork Club Bar Book in 1946, where before I couldn't find a single credible witness to the phenomenon of mixed-base gin-brandy drinks.

Looking for more examples led me to this lovely gin-ealogy post, evidently derived from a seminar at the second-ever San Antonio Cocktail Conference. There is yet another Harvard cocktail on that list, to my dismay (the "Harvard Veritas," consisting of gin, Cointreau, lemon juice, and a dash of crème de cassis, presumably for color), but that's OK, because it has also provided me with a drink variously called the Loud Speaker, the Announcer, or the Winchell, which also uses the Cognac/gin mixed base:

Loudspeaker Cocktail (That's the name with the most hits on Google)
3/4 oz. Gin
3/4 oz. Cognac
1 oz. Cointreau
½ oz. Lemon Juice

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist, or not at all.

Like the Between-the-Sheets, this is essentially a Sidecar with a split base of Cognac and a clear spirit. I haven't tried this recipe, but I expect it calls for about twice as much Cointreau as you'd actually want.

That page also reminded me that the Pink Lady exists, although to be fair, I already knew that one. It's often just made with gin these days, but the classic version is a mixed-base drink, with gin and apple brandy - not quite what we're looking for here, but further proof that gin and brown spirits can play nicely together (recipe adapted from Imbibe Magazine):

Pink Lady
1 ½ oz. London Dry Gin
½ oz. Applejack or Apple Brandy
Juice of ½ Lemon
2 dashes Grenadine
1 Egg White

Shake all ingredients without ice to unfold egg proteins. Then add ice and shake again. Strain into a coupe glass and garnish with a brandied cherry.

This one is absolutely a classic, and it's by far the closest, flavor-wise, to what I had in New Hampshire. But it definitely wasn't the drink I had. There was no foam in my Pseudo-Millionaire, which rules out the egg white (I also assume they wouldn't have put eggs through the ice luge). And I specifically remember being told Cognac and vermouth were in there somewhere; applejack may have been available, but it wasn't popular at the time, and I expect I would have remembered the difference.

There's one more gin-brandy drink I've found in my current round of research, and that's the Ampersand (recipe adapted from Serious Eats):

1 oz. Cognac
1 oz. Old Tom Gin
1 oz. Sweet Vermouth
2 dashes Orange Bitters

Stir well with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass. Do not garnish.

It's also in the right family flavor-wise, but I can guarantee there was no Old Tom gin in northern New Hampshire at the time I encountered this mystery cocktail. At the time "gin" and "London dry gin" were still coextensive categories in a lot of places, aside from the odd bottle of Plymouth here or there. Funnily enough, Old Tom gin is actually a more natural ingredient to pair with Cognac than London dry gin is, because it's sweeter and richer, but it definitely wasn't what was in this drink.

So it seems I've struck out again, but not as hard as the last time. Some people before the bartender at this hotel have tried blending brandy and gin, and it was a good enough idea that others picked it up. That makes me want to try to recreate what I had (and, for that matter, to see if I still enjoy it after years of palate evolution).

So let's see what we can come up with, shall we? Based on the above and my memory, I think the base should be something like 2:1 brandy:gin; with no more sweet vermouth than gin and possibly less; and no more grenadine than sweet vermouth, and possibly quite a bit less - it had to flow, after all. So let's start with something simple, like 1 oz. Cognac, 1/2 oz. gin, 1/2 oz. sweet vermouth, and 1 tsp. grenadine.

This came out much better than I would have expected.

It's a simple drink, flavor-wise. You get grenadine, sweet vermouth, Cognac, and gin, in that order. The gin is mostly limited to the finish. It's the sort of drink where it's especially important to use decent ingredients, because none of them is going to hide from you in the slightest. My choices: Courvoisier, my go-to Cognac; Dolin, my go-to sweet vermouth; homemade grenadine; and Citadelle gin, which I've never owned a bottle of before today.

Citadelle is a solid neutral base for a gin cocktail, more juniper-forward and less earthy than my usual Plymouth. That turns out to be a good thing, because the ginny finish is the most interesting thing in the drink, which is otherwise a "Hey, bartender, what's like a Manhattan but sweeter?" I wanted more of that in there, and added a drop of Fee Bros. gin barrel-aged orange bitters. Yes, I know, that was also definitely not in the New Hampshire version, but if the Jack Rose Society can add Peychaud's to its eponymous cocktail, I think I can take some liberties with the Quasi-Millionaire before I send it out into the world.

A good first draft, but not good enough that I was ready to stop. The gin was the trick - the drink was a little flat until the moment it really hit. So, what if we reversed the proportions of gin and Cognac? Would that take it over the top?

Nope, wrong move. The drink came out harsh and weak-bodied by comparison with the brandy-forward version. I wanted to check all my boxes, but I'd had a suspicion from the get-go that a 50/50 split was where this was headed. It turns out I was right on the money: I and all available friends and neighbors preferred that one by a mile.

It's not quite the drink I had back then, which I remember being sweeter and more brilliantly red (probably from using Rose's grenadine instead of the real pomegranate stuff), and just a tad tangier (maybe there was a bit of lemon juice or sours mix in there that they never mentioned?). It's also still not listed as a Millionaire in any book I've seen.

But it seems to be a reasonable craft-cocktail approximation of the mystery drink, and, more importantly, it's good. With a family as wide-open as the Millionaire's is, who's to say this isn't a distant cousin?

And so I present to you the:

White Mountain Millionaire
3/4 oz. Courvoisier Cognac
3/4 oz. Citadelle Gin
1/2 oz. Dolin Sweet Vermouth
1 tsp. Real Pomegranate Grenadine

Shake with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass. Optionally, garnish with a brandied cherry speared with a lemon peel.

The garnish is a guess, but I do think there were probably maraschino cherries (the bright red ones they put on ice cream sundaes, that is) decorating the original drink, and the lemon nods to the hint of tartness I think it must have had for me to keep swigging them all night (which I most definitely did).

This was the only version I tried that really tasted like it was more than the sum of its parts. The sip still started with grenadine and then hit you with the vermouth's herbal notes, and the swallow was still strong on the gin, but the blended base added an element of mystery to the middle that made this worth drinking again. If I ever put together a list of house cocktails - drinks that guests at my home are always welcome to ask for, other than the obvious ones - I think I'd have to include this one.