Folklore dates the modern cocktail to May 6, 1806, when Federalist newspaper The Balance and Columbian Repository used it to serve a satirical backhand to a Jeffersonian candidate who lost a local election despite campaign efforts that included buying “cock-tails” for voters at a local bar. When a reader wrote in to ask, What is a cock-tail?, Croswell gave the formula – spirit, bitters, sugar, water – and further defined the drink as “an excellent electioneering potion, in as much as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head.” And then he went harder: “It is said also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because a person, having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else.”
Two hundred years later, the cocktail is still fertile ground for political satire. Yes, there’s the undeniable seduction to which Croswell alludes, but there’s also something of an identity in cocktails. Your drink, like your politics, can reveal something about you. It’s only natural, then that a few New York bars have returned the cocktail to its satirical roots and combined it with the living satire that is the 2016 presidential election.
The dining room of Ducks Eatery is an intimate space with amber lighting and air that’s thick with the scent of savory meats. It was quiet on a recent debate night when I sat at the bar and told the bartender, Dre Kaelin, that I’d heard they made a cocktail in honor of one Donald Trump.
“It’s called The Little Dickleback,” he said. “No pun intended.” Julie Horowitz, who co-owns the East Village restaurant with her brother Will Horowitz and three friends, leaned on the bar next to us. “So many puns intended,” she corrected.
Kaelin placed the drink, a shot, on the bar in front of me and I moved a candle to read what was printed on the glass. DONALD ERES UN PENDEJO – Spanish for Donald, you’re an asshole. The glass was part of a guerilla marketing campaign/protest by Ilegal, a Guatemala-based distiller of artisanal Oaxacan mescal. Below the phrase, Trump’s head was in profile, lips pursed. In the glass, a pour of Mellow Corn whiskey with a splash of homemade spicy pickle brine. Chili salt lined the rim. “We wanted to use something cheap and disgusting,” Kaelin said. Horowitz stepped in again: “Something cheap, orange, and disgusting.”
The Mellow Corn, as a mouthful, was fat, oily cornmeal, and it bullied the more complex flavors in the pickle brine. At the end, the heat from the chili salt lingered and offended. Pushy, offensive, and unpleasant; I could see something of The Donald in the experience. I ordered a second.
“You don’t hear politics come up at the bar as often as you’d think,” Kaelin told me. Even with The Little Dickleback? “People recognize the divisiveness of it,” he said. “They do recognize that others [can] get worked up about it soberly. Imagine after a few drinks.” Surely, though, Trump supporters would have something to say about it. “I haven’t found someone at my bar openly supporting Trump,” he said.
On the Upper West Side, e’s BAR, a local watering hole with a juke box and Pearl Jam stickers on the walls, offered something more bi-partisan. The Donald came Republican red, The Hillary a Democratic blue. Their identical base made a Tom Collins – highball glass, ice, a generous pour of gin, lemon, agave, and a splash of sparkling water – before cranberry juice or violet liqueur painted them patriotic.
The cranberry-lemon of The Donald made for a better drink than the violet liqueur’s popsicle-herbal musk. That was the census, regretfully, said Tim Jones and Ralph Green, two of the bartenders at e’s. But during the October 9th debate, when the bar was filled to capacity with a silent crowd, The Hillary outsold The Donald nearly two to one. “I think it was just out of principle,” Jones said.
Neither flavor stirred anything new for me, but, rather, proved just another variation on an establishment cocktail. The experience felt familiar. To sit and dwell with either The Hillary or The Donald for too long was to arrive at something like watered apathy. Maybe they were perfect.
I put to Jones and Green the same question about the cocktails’ ability to catalyze political conversation. “People come in here to get away from that,” Green said. “And not once have I heard someone admit that they were voting for Trump.” Jones agreed that political conversation was scant, though he’d been behind the bar when two out-of-towners came in voicing their support for Trump. The locals yelled them out of the bar.
Most bars promote their presidential cocktails with the rise and fall of the election cycle. The exception, Trump Bar, in Trump’s monolithic Midtown headquarters on Fifth Avenue, offers a regular menu of Trump-themed cocktails. I skipped The Billionaire Martini (I was looking for something that evoked Trump, after all) and moved down the menu to The Boardroom ($17), made with Beacon Bourbon Small Batch, PMD pitorro coquito, simple syrup, and fresh lime juice, stirred and poured over just-crushed ice.
The pitorro’s mash of honey, brown sugar, and apple resonated up front, followed by the cinnamon and coconut infused with the pitorro to make coquito. Lime juice lifted the darker spirits at the end and gave the drink an even quality you wanted to return to. Well-balanced? Refreshing? Distinct and virtuous characteristics working together in harmony toward a greater whole? It felt wrong, but it was true, this was one of the best damn cocktails I’d had in a while.
A television in the corner, tuned to Fox News, aired footage of a Hillary Clinton rally. She’d been driving the importance of climate change for several minutes when a man in a ball cap stood up from his seat in the corner. “How about we turn off this bullshit?” he said. He paced back and forth in a narrow walkway and then approached the bar.
“You talk to Donald?” he asked the bartender. The bartender said that, yes, Trump stopped in occasionally. “I want him to know that border patrol supports him,” the man said. “And I’m border patrol.”
The man continued to pace until Clinton finished her speech, and then he gathered his things and charged out into the Trump Tower lobby.
Most in the bar were Trump supporters, said the bartender, who wished to remain anonymous. Yes, a few Clinton supporters had stopped by, and yes, there had been spirited conversations. But with drinks limited to four per customer and the bartender working to keep the atmosphere mellow, the debates never escalated irretrievably.
The bar settled; Border Patrol was long gone and the bartender refused any further comment. Journalists couldn’t be trusted. I closed my tab and stood to leave. Before I stepped out, the bartender slapped a Trump/Pence campaign sticker on the bar and smirked. Maybe it was the cocktail, but I swear I recognized a hint of satire.