The X-15, Saturn, and the Finer Points of Bad Behavior

My father introduced me to model airplane kits, and I was hooked. I always enjoyed the fun of learning about the airplanes, selecting the “next one,” working through the pieces of the kit, adding paint and decals, getting my fingers glued together, and finally adding each finished airplane to the growing collection on the shelves above my desk.

One of the last kits I assembled, and the strangest of the lot, was the X-15 rocket plane, a sleek, black experimental needle with stubby wings and a chunky tail. It was a real death trap, basically a seat bolted to the front of a liquid-fueled rocket engine, and the USA’s first successful attempt to fly an airplane to the edge of space and back.

It was an inspiring airplane, the coolest ever to an inquisitive boy growing up during the Cold War and the excitement of the Space Race.

As it happens, that airplane was also the inspiration for an unusual tiki drink, a gin-based concoction known originally as the X-15 Cocktail.

The X-15 cocktail was the creation of J. “Popo” Galsini, reputed to be one of the best tiki bartenders of the 1950s and ’60s. According to Jeff Berry’s Beachbum Berry Remixed, Galsini was working at the Kona Kai in Huntington Beach, California, apparently a favorite watering hole for the Douglas Aircraft engineers who designed the rocket plane. The cocktail was his tribute to their ingenuity.

But in October, 1967, shortly after he introduced the drink, one of the X-15s crashed. Pilot Michael Adams died in the mishap, and Galsini decided to abandon the X-15 name. He renamed his drink the Saturn Cocktail, and it is under that name that the drink won the 1967 International Bartender’s Association World Cocktail Championship.

(I like to think that Galsini chose the name “Saturn” to continue the “man-in-space” motif, this time saluting the Saturn V rocket that propelled the first manned Apollo flight in November, 1967 — three weeks after Adams’ fatal X-15 crash.)

So what is the Saturn Cocktail?

The Saturn is that rare breed, a gin-based tiki drink. Though the rum is displaced, many of the typical tiki ingredients are present—orgeat, falernum, passionfruit syrup, and fresh citrus juice.

Another difference from typical tiki is that the Saturn has a very low alcohol content. Mostly juice, syrups and ice, it contains less than one shot of gin. It’s actually lighter than a gin-and-tonic or Tom Collins—unless you’re counting calories.

The Saturn Cocktail, photo © 2015 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Saturn Cocktail

Berry quotes an Orange County Register interview with Galsini where the bartender, asked what makes a perfect drink, said “I mix them the way I like them, and I guess other people like them, too.”

Here’s the way Galsini liked his Saturn, according to Berry:

Saturn Cocktail
J. “Popo” Galsini, 1967

  • ½ oz fresh lemon juice
  • ½ oz passion fruit syrup
  • ¼ oz falernum
  • ¼ oz orgeat syrup
  • 1¼ oz gin
  • 8 oz (1 cup) crushed ice

Put everything in blender. Blend until smooth. Pour unstrained into a pilsner glass.

The Saturn is not as sweet as the proportion of syrups to citrus would suggest. Instead, it’s light and fresh, and the lemony brightness comes through without an aggessive sour note. I can’t explain that, but I speculate it has to do with the blenderized, “slushy” texture of the drink.

The nose is very light, as you might expect with a thick icy slush filling the glass, but it has just a hint of gin and lemon.

The first taste conveys the brightness of the lemon, then the passionfruit, and finally, just barely, the more earthy, nutty flavors of the falernum and orgeat. The result is fruity, complex, and refreshing. Curiously, the gin seems barely present at all.

Considering the Finer Points of Bad Behavior

Search results for the Saturn invariably turn up Berry’s recipe as repeated here. It’s a credit to his research and Galsini’s skill that it has remained stable.

But that’s not to say that there aren’t variations. As with any tiki drink, it is a fine jumping off place for experiments. Imbibe magazine just published (September–October 2015) an excellent riff on the Saturn by Gregg Jackson and Thor Messer of the Merchant, in Madison, Wisconsin. They call it The Finer Points of Bad Behavior.

Jackson and Messer’s version takes a more “spirited” approach to the Saturn.

Bad Behavior adds in a couple rums — so noticeably missing from Galsini’s model — plus two juices, two kinds of bitters, and a combined honey-passionfruit syrup. Don the Beachcomber would have been proud.

The Finer Points of Bad Behavior cocktail, photo ©2015 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Finer Points of Bad Behavior

The Merchant’s version also plays with the orgeat syrup. Instead of the traditional almond-based syrup, Jackson and Messer opted for a homemade pistachio orgeat.

The Finer Points of Bad Behavior
Gregg Jackson and Thor Messer, Merchant, Madison WI

  • 1 oz navy-strength gin
  • ¾ oz rhum agricole blanc
  • ½ oz Velvet falernum
  • ¼ oz dark Jamaican rum
  • ½ oz pistachio orgeat
  • ½ oz lime juice
  • ¼ oz lemon juice
  • ½ oz honey-passionfruit syrup (2:1)
  • 2 dashes Bittercube Jamaica #1 bitters (or sub Angostura)
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients and shake with crushed ice. Strain into hurricane glass, and top with more crushed ice. Optionally, garnish with cherry and orchid.

The Finer Points of Bad Behavior is a far more complex drink than Saturn, as you would expect from the numerous additions to the recipe. The flavors are much more earthy, with the grassiness of the rhum agricole, the grassy and floral herbality of the honey, the spices of the bitters, and the classic funk of Jamaican rum.

I made up a batch of pistachio orgeat to test this recipe, but as far as Bad Behavior is concerned, I don’t think it was worth it—the nut flavor seems to be lost entirely under the rum. Arguably, you could jack up the amount of orgeat in the mix, but that would also sweeten the mix. (For what it’s worth, pistachio orgeat on its own is quite delicious; I’m looking for other drinks that might show it to better advantage.)

While the recipe is clearly Saturn-inspired, the earthy, rum-driven flavors would never bring the gin-only original to mind.

Bad Behavior is not a light, summery refresher. I can’t explain it, but something about it reminds me of a good glass of sherry on a winter evening—peculiar for a tiki drink. Maybe that’s where the “bad behavior” starts to creep in. If so, Jackson and Messer certainly have addressed the “finer points.”


9 thoughts on “The X-15, Saturn, and the Finer Points of Bad Behavior

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  1. Douglas, I well remember those models. Also the New Yorker cartoon of the two crones carrying fishing poles approaching the stream and saying….

  2. Oh, the Saturn.. a fine recipe-lesson in the necessity of blending/diluting some cocktails to ensure the sweetness doesn’t win out. Incidentally, I’ve been living in Saturn-variant-land somewhat recently, and I might have just the ticket if you’re looking to expand the use of your pistachio orgeat, sir – provided you don’t mind making a batch (very small, about 1/2 a cup) of specialty Meyer lemon falernum. The cocktail is the Telesto – in retrospect it might be a little booze-heavy at 2 oz – but the earthy richness of the pistachio orgeat fits like a glove with the lightness of the Meyer lemon. http://feu-de-vie.blogspot.com/2015/07/meyer-lemon-falernum-telesto.html

    1. Telesto looks like a tasty item, and I look forward to trying it out Real Soon Now—after I make a batch of your falernum.

      And your link reminds me: I forgot to include the pistachio orgeat recipe, I’ll have to correct that today. (It’s very similar to the one you provide at your link.)

      Thanks for the note, and recipes!

  3. Last night I realized… Douglas engineers weren’t working on the X-15; it was a North American Aviation project. I looked into it a little more and Douglas was involved in an earlier, competing project that resulted in helpful insights, but it wasn’t the same. North American had an office half an hour away – I don’t know what bar culture was like back then, but it sounds a little far for them to have been regulars.

    So now I wonder if the rename was not only due to the tragic accident, but also due to Galsini finding out that the X-15 wasn’t Douglas’s and changing to a more appropriate name. Douglas did design part of the Saturn V.

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