You could think of the Diamondback cocktail as an Old-Fashioned on steroids.
Or at least, that’s what it’s evolving into. It didn’t really start that way.
If you’re like me, living outside the east coast tide waters, the word “diamondback” elicits an image of rattlesnakes.
That’s completely misguided, as it turns out, but the modern Diamondback cocktail seems to be developing along the lines of that connotation; the name has become an incitement to combine all sorts of high-proof whiskey, brandy, and Chartreuse into a single, strongly herbal cocktail—one in line with the rattlesnake’s reputation. As the cliché goes, a drink with a “bite.”
I have nothing against high-proof cocktails, but the original Diamondback had nothing to do with rattlesnakes, and wasn’t at all about high-test ingredients. And in this case, I consider the original to be better balanced—and much easier drinking—than the heavy-handed modern interpretation.
And it’s not so much about the alcohol; rather, it’s the Chartreuse. That strongly herbal liqueur is notoriously dominating and difficult to blend with, and certainly is not to everyone’s liking. And the intensity of the 110-proof green version just compounds the problem.
Known originally as the “Diamondback Lounge Cocktail,” the Diamondback was the house cocktail of the Lord Baltimore Hotel’s bar. In Baltimore, as on much of the east coast, the word “Diamondback” is not about snakes. Instead, it denotes the diamondback terrapin, as any University of Maryland ‘Terps fan can attest.
The Diamondback Lounge and its Diamondback cocktail pay homage to their local turtle, the Maryland mascot.
Ted Saucier first published the hotel’s formula in his 1951 Bottoms Up; it looked something like this:
The Diamondback Lounge Cocktail
(from Ted Saucier, Bottoms Up, 1951
- 1½ oz rye whiskey
- ¾ oz applejack
- ¾ oz yellow Chartreuse
Shake all ingredients with ice until cold; strain over ice in a rocks glass, garnish with mint.
Typical modern interpretations of this recipe specify Rittenhouse 100 rye, Laird’s bonded (100-proof) apple brandy, and 110-proof Green Chartreuse; Saucier (and the Diamondback Lounge) apparently had no such high-test idea in mind; they specified no brand names for the rye and brandy, and were very specific about using the sweeter, lighter 80-proof yellow Chartreuse.
My guess is that the original, as a hotel bar flagship cocktail, was probably made with mostly 80-proof spirits.
I like the idea, but “rye” to me means Rittenhouse 100, so my version of the Diamondback looks like this:
The Diamondback Cocktail
- 1½ oz rye whiskey (Rittenhouse 100)
- ¾ oz apple brandy (Cedar Ridge)
- ½–¾ oz yellow Chartreuse
- 1–2 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters (optional)
Stir all ingredients with ice until well-chilled; strain into a chilled cocktail stem, or into a rocks glass over ice. Optionally, garnish with a cherry.
The whiskey: Another reason to go with the 100-proof Rittenhouse bonded is because this drink does need a whiskey with a strong backbone to stand up to the other flavors. An 80-proof rye is sort of a wallflower in the company of a flavorful apple brandy and the Chartreuse.
The apple brandy: I used an Iowa brandy, Cedar Ridge. The original recipe calls for applejack, and therein lies a tale. Applejack has a long history, the important part of which is that by the early twentieth century, the term “applejack” seems to have been reduced to a slang term for apple brandy. (In fact, US Federal regulations don’t differentiate between the two.) The most commonly available “applejack” product is Laird’s Applejack, which is essentially neutral spirits (street name: vodka) blended with about 35% distilled apple brandy.
That is not the applejack that Saucier refers to in his recipe, since Laird’s blended product didn’t even exist until the 1970s. Saucier would have been referring to proper apple brandy.
One of the nice things that has happened in the last decade or so is the resurgence of American brandies, particularly fruit brandies. There are good apple brandies being made in many parts of the country (some even calling themselves “applejack”); I recommend that you try to find local or regional spirit for the Diamondback. Johnny Appleseed would be proud.
The Chartreuse: Chartreuse is the critical element of the Diamondback. Saucier specified yellow Chartreuse, which is a strongly herbal, but not as assertive as its green brother. The yellow version is an 80-prooof liqueur sweetened with honey.
The Chartreuse provides two elements to the drink: sweetness and herbality. I’ve found that I enjoy the Diamondback more if I cut the Chartreuse back a bit, to a half-ounce; this reduces the sweetness, and holds the herbs in check, balanced with the whiskey and the brandy’s fruit.
The… bitters? Yes, I know, there’s no bitters in the original. And you should leave them out if you want to make a proper Diamondback. But on the other hand, this is definitely an Old-Fashioned, and bitters love Old-Fashioneds.
The elegant trick of the Diamondback, of course, is that the Chartreuse supplies both the sweetness you expect in an Old-Fashioned, and the herbs that (arguably) stand in for the standard bitters component. And it sort of works. But I believe the Diamondback is improved by the “barkiness” of standard bitters. One or two dashes of Peychaud’s seems to do what bitters always do, pulling the flavors together and giving the drink a bottom that is completely missing otherwise.
The garnish: The original specifies a mint sprig garnish. I can’t imagine what they were thinking; mint just doesn’t work with the Diamondback. Some of the modern listings suggest a cherry; I’m okay with that, though it doesn’t really seem to add much beyond a point of visual interest. I suggest a cherry if you’re serving the Diamondback in a cocktail stem, and omit garnish if you’re serving in a rocks glass.
In the end, adding the Diamondback cocktail to your rotation will depend on your acceptance of the idiosyncratic Chartreuse. Those who are used to aggressive flavors, especially bitters and herbs, may welcome the more modern interpretation.
I, for one, regret the progression toward the hundred-proof mouthful of herbs, and away from the complex and elegant cocktail originally served across the Diamondback Lounge’s bar.
So here’s to the memory of the unknown Baltimore bartender who first formulated the Diamondback cocktail.
“The Diamondback Cocktail” at cold-glass.com : All text and photos © 2015 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.