I’m pretty sure that there are no true stories about cocktail origins.

You know the stories I mean—the wonderful, detail-laden, cock-and-bull accounts that ornament so many of our classics. Every once in awhile, there’s a great one.

Take, for example, this account of the origins of the Oriental Cocktail:

“In August, 1924, an American Engineer nearly died of fever in the Philippines, and only the extraordinary devotion of Dr. B— saved his life. As an act of gratitude the Engineer gave Dr. B— the recipe of this Cocktail.”

For some reason, I always think of Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when I read such silliness—“There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity…”

This particular bit of mendacity is from Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book (1930). No kid over ten years old would attempt a story like this with a straight face, but, well, it’s amusing, anyway.

In fact, the Oriental Cocktail may well be a Harry Craddock original. He could invent very good drinks when he set his mind to it—typically much better than his goofy stories—and the Oriental is one of them. It is a puzzle to me that this one didn’t catch on.

The Oriental Cocktail, photo © 2013 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Oriental Cocktail

The formula for the Oriental starts out looking like a Manhattan, then takes on the citrus-and-sugar trappings of a classic New Orleans sour. As Randy Hanson at Summit Sips puts it, “that sorta makes it a Manhattan Sour.”

It also looks like an inspiration for the Countrypolitan, which swaps out the Oriental’s sweet vermouth for Pama liqueur.

The Oriental Cocktail

  • 1½ oz rye whiskey (Rittenhouse 100)
  • ¾ oz sweet vermouth (M&R Rosso)
  • ¾ oz curaçao (Pierre Ferrand Curaçao)
  • ½ oz fresh lime juice (to taste)

Shake all ingredients with ice; strain into a well-chilled cocktail stem. The original Savoy formula omitted garnish, but some sources suggest a brandied cherry or orange twist.

Nearly all the listings I’ve seen for the Oriental adhere to these proportions. Craddock was vague about the lime in the original listing—those were the days when bartenders specified “half a lime.” As it turns out, half an ounce of lime juice is a pretty good starting point for this drink. Limes vary from season to season, so you’ll need to adjust according to your tastes.

Ferrand Curacao (detail), photo © 2013 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.

I recommend a high-proof rye for the Oriental; the whiskey needs some extra backbone to stand up to the other ingredients.

I’m a fan of the Ferrand Curaçao, but you could substitute any other clear orange liqueur—Cointreau and Grand Marnier come to mind.

As a side note, there is a similar cocktail, the James Joyce, built on the same formula, but using Irish Whiskey instead of rye.