Back in 1981, when I still thought Evelyn Waugh was a woman*, Brideshead Revisited came to television and everyone started ordering Brandy Alexanders.
Even in Brisbane.
The cocktail, which started life as part of a clean coal marketing campaign (more on that shortly) was most likely created in the early 1900s by Troy Alexander and originally contained gin, white crème de cacao and cream. The gin was swapped out for brandy and lately, the Alexander has dropped the brandy handle entirely and is now more routinely made with cognac, brown or white crème de cacao and cream.
But is actually not ordered very often and is kind of daggy.
There is nothing Shake, Stir, Muddle likes more than discovering something – especially something that was big in the 1980s – that has fallen out of fashion and assess its right for a revival.
Step forward Alexander.
I’m not a huge dessert fan and don’t generally go for cocktails with cream in them, but there is certainly merit in the concept of drinking one’s dessert and there is something old-worldy about the Alexander that does charm.
Also charming is the clean coal history of the cocktail.
Now I think “clean coal” is a genuinely hilarious expression. I have seen Billy Elliott four times so definitely know my coal mining and it is not a clean business. It may indeed be getting cleaner, but it is in no way clean.
The thing is, most of us never have to see coal in our daily lives, so the concept of clean coal is quite seductive.
Back in the early 1900s though, when trains were powered by coal, people were confronted with the unclean-ness of coal every time they wanted to go anywhere more than 2kms from their homes.
Recognising this was a problem for them, the canny marketers at Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad connecting Buffalo, New York with Hoboken, New Jersey, engaged the services of advertising whiz Earnest Elmo Calkin, who promptly came up with the fictitious Miss Phoebe Snow (actually I have no idea if it was prompt or not).
Miss Phoebe Snow, New York Socialite, didn’t go all Sheena Easton and just let her baby ride the Morning Train. Hell, no. She put on her best white dress and happily rode the DL&W Railroad herself, safe in the knowledge that her dress would remain pristine because DL&W locomotives used Anthracite.
Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PHMC
Anthracite is a very hard coal that burns a blue, smokeless flame and does throw off less crud than normal coal, which is why it can used in places like central London.
There you go, truth in advertising.
Now before we get all excited, Australia produces between zero and bugger-all Anthracite.
But back to Miss Phoebe Snow. DL&W held a fancy dinner to promote the clean coal and bartender Troy Alexander whipped up a cocktail that was white and fluffy, evocative of the lovely Miss Snow’s dresses and generally Virginal-demeanor.
That was the gin variation.
The Cognac version is now one of the IBA’s Unforgettables. In fact, due to alphabetical good fortune, the Alexander is the very first Unforgettable cocktail listed.
It’s another shaker and easy to make.
The IBA recipe calls for 30 mL each of Cognac, Crème de Cacao and Fresh Cream shaken over ice (give it a really good shake, it’ll make the cocktail frothier and give you a tiny workout before you pour all that cream and sweet booze into your body).
Strain it into a chilled cocktail glass and sprinkle with nutmeg.
This thing tastes like a milkshake but is as powerful as any other more alcoholy-tasting cocktail.
As part of our One-for-the-Roadtesting, SSM tried the gin and cognac variations. Opinions were divided exactly 50:50 (between the two of us) as to the superior offering.
Regardless, we both agreed that dialing back the Crème de Cacao made for a better cocktail. You can always add more but it does tend to dominate.
Dessert in a glass, genius.
So that’s what to drink today. But why to drink?
Today, friends, 15 September, is not only a Friday – the happiest day of the week – it is also the anniversary of many things worthy of celebration.
Over the past 70 or so years, 15 September has seen the premiere of many TV greats – The Lone Ranger (1949), Lost in Space (1965), CHiPs (1977) and LA Law (1986) – which together have accounted for literally hundreds of hours of my life.
Ok, so not life-saving, but definitely life-affirming (especially CHiPs).
Something that does fall into the life-saving camp though is this: On this day in 1928, Alexander Fleming (later Sir Alexander) discovered penicillin while studying influenza.
A huge shout out to Sir A for that work and apologies that less than a century later we have compromised the value of it through over-use. It’s pretty much what we do now, with everything.
But you sir, have saved the lives of millions and millions of people and I salute you with a cocktail that shares your name.
Sadly, 15 September is also the anniversary of some sad things. Like 1991, when we saw the very last episode of Party Machine with Nia Peeples go to air.
Party Machine was a bit like actually going to a nightclub in the very early 1990s, all the clubs were obsessed with dance floors over several levels and bike pants were indeed worn with high heels and shoulder pads (yes, even in Brisbane).
The only thing they’ve neglected is that everyone had cigarettes on the dance floor and you’d go home smelling worse than a day on a non-Anthracite train and sporting burn holes in your cool clothes.
In its brief but bizarre and beautiful run, Party Machine had one guest host almost unrecognisable to her true fans, those of us who didn’t really like the anti-feminist message behind Morning Train (why don’t you get your own damned job Sheena? Take him to a movie, slow dancing, anything he wants) but still quite fancy hanging off the end of a locomotive and dancing to this classic ear-worm.
Sheena, that new song you sang on Party Machine is shit though.
Party Machine also had the curious combination of a bartender but a non-alcoholic bar (we call this “the tap” at our house – or “faucet” for my American friends) so he couldn’t have shaken up an Alexander for you, but there’s possibly no better way to mark the passing of this intriguing relic than with another relic.
Welcome back Alexander, you’ve got a place at the bar here at Shake, Stir, Muddle.
*I know this implies that I discovered my error soon after 1981. This may or may not be the case.
2 thoughts on “Get on board the Alexander train”
Your research, as always, is impeccable, Ms Muddle. Interestingly (well, to me!) the 15th September is also the anniversary of the death of my beloved mother. I miss her still, after 23 years. Why mention this? Because HER favourite drink (well, one of them) was the Brandy Alexander! I loathed it, even when young, but she adored it. I hope it was not a contributor to her early departure. Thankfully, my instructions from her when she was in her final days were to raise a glass of excellent BUBBLES on the anniversary, so that it would be a celebration and not a glum day. I’m very grateful. In her wisdom, she didn’t choose the Alexander, and so I can have more than one glass. Thanks for the memories. xxxx
Dear Ailsa, thank you for such a lovely recollection – my next Alexander will be for your lovely Mum x