A taste of the Gilded Age: the Stinger

The Stinger doesn’t show up on the annual “fashionable drinks” lists any more, but cocktail historians tell us it was once a very tony after dinner drink.

A simple combination of brandy and white crème de menthe, a properly mixed Stinger is at once sweet, satisfying, and refreshing.

Brandy drinks, as a class, don’t seem to garner much attention these days, but there was a time—a very long time—when brandy was the king of cocktail spirits. It was the mainstay of urbane social drinking, and commonly the primary spirit in the punches of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

It maintained its dominance as the cocktail era began; the Old-Fashioned, the Sazerac, and the Mint Julep all established their original reputations as brandy drinks, not the whiskey drinks we think of now.

Jerry Thomas, writing in his classic Bartender’s Guide (1862), usually listed brandy versions first as he described each of the major drink categories—including the “cocktail” (Old-Fashioned) and the “Real Georgia Mint Julep.”

And this was after phylloxera devastated the vineyards of Europe and most of America’s brandy supply.

Decades passed, the brandy industry recovered, and near the end of the nineteenth century someone, somewhere, mixed brandy with crème de menthe.

The drink had various names in the early days: William Schmidt published it as “The Judge” in 1891, and George Kappeler as the “Brant” in 1895 (with two added dashes of bitters). Thomas Bullock was the first to publish it as the “Stinger—Country Club Style” in 1917 (The Ideal Bartender).

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

It became very popular—it was easy to make and easy to drink, and it didn’t hurt that it had a great name; in the 1930s and ’40s, the Stinger even made it into a few movies.

Its popularity faded in the latter half of the century—along with the entire class of after-dinner drinks. Dale DeGroff (The Essential Cocktail) speculates that its decline was part of the general shift towards lighter cuisine during that period, away from the fats and sauces of classic French dining that made good digestifs like the Stinger so attractive.

Maybe. Maybe not. I can think of all sorts of modern meals that would end well with a Stinger.

The Stinger

  • 2 oz brandy (Remy-Martin VSOP Cognac)
  • ½ oz white crème de menthe

Shake (!) ingredients until well chilled. Strain into a small cocktail stem; alternatively, into a rocks glass filled with cracked ice, then stir or swizzle until a nice frost forms on the glass. No garnish.

Brandy: A nice, dry VSOP Cognac is an excellent choice for the Stinger, but a reasonable VS or a good American brandy will do just fine.

Proportions: The old recipes typically list 2:1, or even 1:1, proportions. Modernized listings are more in the 3:1 or 4:1 range, a bit longer on the brandy and lighter on the sweet mint.

Gary Regan recommends an even drier version. In Joy of Mixology he suggests 6:1, even 12:1—nearly straight Cognac, with just a hint of mint. Balance it with the type of brandy you’re using—it’s possible to go too light on the mint, and instead of a good drink, you just end up with a sense that something’s dreadfully wrong with your brandy.

Crème de menthe: The common wisdom is that you need a really good, European crème de menthe to make a superior Stinger. Alas! that I have never seen such a thing in my market; I use the ubiquitous DeKuyper.

The StingerGlassware: The original listings of the Stinger (and the Judge, and the Brant) specified a cocktail stem as the preferred glass. It seems that over time, the iced version of the drink, served in a rocks glass and stirred until frosty, crept into the repertoire. It’s nice to have a choice.

Shaken, or stirred? Curiously, tradition has it that the Stinger is always a shaken drink—this despite the usual guideline that clear spirits should only be stirred. The only explanation I’ve seen comes from DeGroff:

“Shake the Stinger very, very hard with ice…the Stinger’s combination of strong and sweet alcohol would produce something too cloying if stirred and served up, which might not dilute it sufficiently.”

Of course, DeGroff is also a proponent of the sweet 1:1 proportions in his Stingers, so I can see how he might side with the colder, more diluted “shaken, not stirred” tradition.

Oh, well… it is the tradition; I’ll shake.

6 thoughts on “A taste of the Gilded Age: the Stinger

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    1. That combination is often called the “Green Hornet.” The flavor is the same as the straight Stinger.

      I’m told that some consider the green version to be a festive Christmas drink.

  1. The “Savoy Cocktail Book” has an interesting variant called the “Cold Deck”, which I like even more. 3 parts brandy (I use cognac), one part sweet vermouth, one part Creme De Menthe.

  2. I seem to be struggling with a bipolar relationship with brandy in general…I may need to try your proportions. The first time I tried the Stinger, I used the Death and Co. spec, which called for an addition of simple syrup to your recipe, and made for a sickeningly sweet drink. It was so bad that I actually didn’t finish the drink, and poured the watery mess down the drain (which is extraordinarily rare for me; I once had a dropper top slip off a bitters bottle and ended up drinking a Fitzgerald with probably half an ounce of Angostura bitters in it).

    Anyway, long opinion aside, I will point out that shaking a drink is standard practice when a creme is involved. The high amount of sugar inherent in “cremes” is generally accepted to also entail a thickened texture, which necessitates shaking in order to be fully incorporated into the drink.

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