Remember that drink we made as kids, the thing we so blithely called the “Suicide”? The one where you mix all the kinds of Kool-Aid you can find, pour in a couple kinds of pop, and then double-dog-dare each other to drink it?

I don’t think I ever actually took that dare. Urgent red, neon green, curaçao blue, all mixed together… that stuff looked vile. It looked dangerous.

No one wanted to actually drink something that had no chance of tasting good.

Of course, the inclination to mix everything in sight doesn’t stop with kids—there are grown-up versions of the Suicide. But I’m not here to write about Long Island Iced Tea.

I’m here to write about Trader Vic’s Fog Cutter.

The Fog Cutter: Rum, brandy, gin, and sherry. What could go wrong?

Trader Vic's Fog Cutter, photo © 2014 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
Trader Vic’s Fog Cutter

The recipe has always looked like a terrible mashup, a reminder of those Kool-Aid soups from my youth.

As a result, my life has been a Fog Cutter-free zone—despite the drink’s fame and status as a Tiki classic.

Until this summer.

Somehow I arrived at the idea that there must be something going on there—the Fog Cutter has survived the decades to become a classic of the Tiki genre. I set my “too many spirits makes a bad drink” philosophy aside, and gave the Fog Cutter a try. As my bride says, “it’s research…”

And so I was surprised. Again. The Fog Cutter is a good, almost great, drink that gives me reason to rethink my flat objection to “many spirits” mixes. On the face of it, it does have “too many spirits,” but they work together in an insidiously potent and clever tropical blend.

As “Trader Vic” Bergeron designed it in 1947, the Fog Cutter is lemonade with an attitude—or to paraphrase Ogden Nash, it’s “a lemonade with something in it.” Tall, easy drinking, bright and refreshing, it is an excellent mood lifter for a hot afternoon.

It is potent, for sure; there’s plenty of rum, gin and brandy, all well masked under a bright layer of citrus. As Bergeron is reported to have said, “Fog Cutter, hell. After two of these you won’t even see the stuff.”

And it is clever because it turns out that rum, gin and brandy actually work together as a flavor combination. Who knew? I’ll let that be a lesson to me.

Here’s the way Vic published it in his 1947 Bartender’s Guide:

The Fog Cutter (Original)
Trader Vic, 1947

  • 2 oz Puerto Rican rum
  • 1 oz brandy
  • ½ oz gin
  • 1 oz orange juice
  • 2 oz lemon juice
  • ½ oz orgeat syrup
  • sherry wine float

Shake all but sherry with cracked ice; pour into a 14-oz. glass and add more cracked ice. Add sherry wine float; serve with straws.

This original Fog Cutter is very lemon-forward. It’s intriguing that the rum, brandy and gin seem nearly to disappear behind the brightness of the juices. The orange and the sweet orgeat reduce the lemon’s aggressiveness a bit, but it’s not until after the swallow that you start to identify the supporting flavors.

The Fog Cutter (detail), photo © 2014 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.I suspect Vic’s choice of Puerto Rican rum was meant to keep the drink light and crisp, with its “rumness” receding into the background—an excellent fit for the “lemonade” concept.

It’s almost as great as its reputation suggests.

Except for the sherry.  I have no idea what Vic was thinking when he added that cream sherry float to the Fog Cutter. I’m not much of a sherry drinker, but I don’t think the mismatch is just with me.

I can only think that he intentionally planned that something weird should happen at the bottom of the drink. It’s different, that’s for sure, but not in a good way. Sherry just has no place in this drink, and is quite shocking and off-putting when you finally hit it as the drink gets shallow.

How do you adjust the Fog Cutter?

Just between you and me, I’m not a big lemonade fan. I find it refreshing, but the lemon starts to wear on me after awhile. Combine that lemonade flavor profile with the Fog Cutter’s bizarre, out-of-place sherry, and my tolerance for this original recipe wanes.

Fortunately, we don’t really have to stick with the original recipe.

The Fog Cutter has a lot of moving parts, and as Jeff Berry notes in Beachbum Berry Remixed, the 1947 recipe “provided a template that invited experimentation.”

Every Tiki bar must have had its own variant of the original, and some of them are imaginative and inspiring. Even Trader Vic himself published a variant, the less potent Samoan Fog Cutter.

So while I don’t much care for the sherry-jolted lemonade of the original, I have no qualms about changing proportions, and even ingredients, to meet my preferences.

The Jamaican Fog Cutter

In the interest of toning down the lemon, letting the spirits come more to the fore, and ditching the sherry entirely, here’s my Jamaican Fog Cutter:

The Jamaican Fog Cutter

  • 1 oz light Puerto Rican rum (Caliche)
  • 1 oz Jamaican rum (Appleton 12, Smith and Cross)
  • 1 oz brandy (Remy-Martin VSOP)
  • ½–1 oz gin (Tanqueray, Vikre Boreal Juniper)
  • 1½ oz orange juice
  • 1½ oz lemon juice
  • ½ oz orgeat syrup
  • Overproof Jamaican rum for float (Lemon Hart 151)

Shake all but the rum float with ice until cold. Pour unstrained into a 14-oz. glass or Collins glass; add more ice as needed. Add rum float; serve with straws and a sprig of mint.

This version solves my main problems with the original. For starters, it switches the proportions of the lemon and orange, reducing the single-minded lemon profile and bringing the orange into balance. (Of course, if you’re in the mood for lemonade, stick with the original…)

And it abandons the sherry. Discarding the float altogether is the easiest way to solve the strange sherry thing that’s going on, but tall drinks welcome a float of some kind to overcome the dilution over time. I prefer a rum float in Caribbean tall drinks, but I’ll admit that it is predictable to the point of cliché.

And it certainly doesn’t answer if we believe Vic was trying to shock us a bit with an unforeseen flavor at the bottom of the glass. An alternative, a bit less jarring than the sherry, is aquavit. The aquavit is lighter, and its hallmark caraway blends pleasantly but very noticeably with the other ingredients as the drink gets shallow.

(The aquavit idea is from another variant in Berry’s Remixed, a version called the “Viking Fog Cutter.”)

The equal parts of lemon and orange soften the sharpness of the juice mix, but lets enough of the original lemon flavor through to avoid turning the Fog Cutter into an orange juice drink. Reducing the lemon also seems to let the spirits come forward a bit more, too; the rum mix has more presence, and the brandy just barely starts to appear.

This version optionally increases the gin to a full ounce; it’s just enough to let it play a more forward role in the drink, with the formerly lost juniper finally showing up in mid-palate.

Mint (detail), photo © 2014 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.And you can blend your rums, Don the Beachcomber style: cut back the light Puerto Rican rum and add Demerara or Jamaican if you want to have a little more of a rum presence in the drink. The Appleton 12 works very well, and plays its supporting role very well. If you want to completely defy Trader Vic and bring the rum to the fore, Smith and Cross Jamaican is your rum.

Trader Vic never published a garnish for the Fog Cutter, but no Tiki drink ever went out stark naked. Illustrations usually show a sprig of fresh mint and the ubiquitous straw.

So what have I learned?  I’m not the first to be suspicious of “too many spirits” in a drink. Patrick Duffy hit on the same subject in the preface to his Official Mixer’s Manual. Publishing close on the heels of Repeal and its excesses, Duffy prefaced his volume:

“… we cannot approve [drinks] which include Gin, Scotch, Brandy, Vermouth and cream in one drink. Nor indeed, can we give our support to any concoction consisting of Gin and Rye, Gin and Scotch, Gin and Brandy or to any beverage where two kinds of strong liquor are included especially when they are shaken together with bitters, cream and Raspberry Syrup.”

He was clearly being theatrical, even facetious, but his message is clear: don’t jumble a lot of spirits together.

But we also know that he didn’t have the benefit of knowing Vic Bergeron…