Embarrassing name and all, today’s classic cocktail is the Monkey Gland.

It’s a good cocktail—in fact, it’s a delicious cocktail—but I’m trying to picture myself ordering one across a bar.

“Good evening, Miss, I’ll have a Monkey Gland, please. And keep them coming.”

Tacky.

The Monkey Gland comes from no less a promoter than Harry McElhone, of Harry’s New York Bar, in Prohibition-era Paris.

Harry was nothing if not an opportunist, and this time he was cashing in on the fame of a quack surgeon named Voronoff.

In the early 1920s, Serge Voronoff was making a fortune transplanting monkey parts into rich old men who believed the procedure would help them regain lost virility. “Experiments in rejuvenation,” as McElhone euphemistically put it. What with the desire for virility being a perennial favorite, Voronoff found lots of takers for his process. He became very rich and very famous.

So the question at hand is: would anyone other than a frat boy on a double-dog-dare order a Monkey Gland cocktail?

The answer, of course, is yes.

It seems the Parisians found Voronoff’s lurid experiments intriguing, or at least amusing, and they were perfectly willing to call for them across Harry’s bar. By 1923, McElhone’s Monkey Gland Cocktail was the rage of Paris.

Oh, well. It’s just a cocktail, might as well have some fun…

The Monkey Gland Cocktail, photo © 2014 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Monkey Gland Cocktail

After all, McElhone’s Monkey Gland is a delicious classic, built on the “daisy” model—spirits, citrus, and fruit syrup or liqueur—complex in both flavor and aroma. Despite its lurid name, the Monkey Gland is really a relatively light gin-and-orange cocktail. Absinthe is its one notable feature; it dominates the nose, and can easily dominate the palate, too.

The Monkey Gland Cocktail

  • 1½ oz dry gin (Plymouth)
  • 1½ oz fresh orange juice
  • 1 barspoon grenadine
  • sugar to taste
  • wash of absinthe or Herbsaint (Kübler) — or 2–3 dashes if you prefer to mix directly

Shake all ingredients with ice until cold; strain into a chilled cocktail stem. No garnish.

McElhone’s original called for equal parts gin and orange juice, and just a dash of absinthe and grenadine. Modernized versions stretch the gin to 2:1. I like the 1:1, but maybe that’s just because I like orange juice. The flavor seems rounder and richer at 1:1; this doesn’t seem the right drink for a gin-heavy palate.

McElhone used only a dash of absinthe, but a single dash has no presence to speak of. (This may depend on your absinthe.) I prefer a Sazerac-style wash around the inside of the glass—it boosts the absinthe’s aroma without overpowering the drink. If you mix the absinthe directly, just use 2 or 3 dashes—the other flavors are fairly laid back, and it’s easy to overrun them.

I’ve seen a couple recipes that suggest a spoon of simple syrup; it’s a good thing to keep in mind, but oranges are usually not very tart, and you can probably adjust the sweetness sufficiently with just the grenadine.

Jim Meehan (The PDT Cocktail Book) suggests that you use pomegranate molasses in the Monkey Gland, instead of grenadine. It’s an interesting suggestion, if you like pomegranate molasses. I prefer the grenadine.

Some recipes substitute Benedictine for the absinthe. This is almost certainly a response to the long-standing prohibition against absinthe, and is now beside the point. The original recipe calls for absinthe, and I recommend that you stick with it.

I can imagine McElhone putting this drink together: a simple gin-and-juice, practically a breakfast drink—sort of a potent cousin of the Screwdriver, but with the sly and scurrilous addition of absinthe to give it a dodgy, disreputable cachet. And, of course, the name.

I think he must have enjoyed his job.

But I’ll settle for making the Monkey Gland at home.