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A martini with something in it — the Ford Cocktail

You’d think I would have written about the Ford Cocktail long ago, if for no other reason than we share a name. I guess it’s taken me awhile to appreciate its subtleties.

My dawdling aside, the Ford is one of the grand old classics. It’s been around since at least 1895, when George Kappeler described it in his Modern American Drinks.

Kappeler offers no clue to the identity of the drink’s namesake. Ted Haigh, in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, speculates that the name may be a reference to athlete and journalist (and Noah Webster’s great-grandson) Malcolm Webster Ford. I’ll accept that — heck, I even share two names with that guy.

More to the point, sports heroes were often inspirations for bartenders and drink inventors in that era, and Malcolm Ford was a particularly well-regarded athlete — if Wikipedia is to be believed, he was a three-time champion “All Around Athlete,” a nineteenth-century ten-sport predecessor to what we now know as the Olympic Decathlon. The betting and sporting crowd of the day loved their athletes, and they loved their cocktails.

The Ford Cocktail, photo © 2020 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Ford Cocktail

The Ford Cocktail

Based on George Kappeler, Modern American Drinks, 1895

  • 1½ oz (45ml) Old Tom gin (Ransom Old Tom)
  • 1½ oz (45ml) dry vermouth (Dolin Dry Vermouth)
  • 3 dashes Bénédictine
  • 3 dashes orange bitters (Regan’s No. 6 Orange Bitters)

Stir with ice until cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail stem. Express  and garnish with orange peel. Serve very cold.


I think one of the reasons it took me a long time to warm up to this cocktail is that the first formula I encountered (not Kappeler’s) just called for “gin.” At that time I didn’t know enough to suspect that a gin specification from the Golden Age might well be Old Tom; London Dry was the way I understood gin, so I made the Ford with London Dry. It wasn’t very good, and I set the whole thing aside. I promise you, the slightly sweeter and funkier Old Tom makes all the difference; London Dry is too dry and too ascetic to hold this drink together.

Kappeler’s original calls explicitly for “Tom gin” in equal parts with vermouth, very much in the “martini” model of the time. 

The three dashes of Bénédictine very nearly get lost in the mix. In this drink, the liqueur is in the category of “secret ingredient,” raising the flavors of other elements to a different level. It’s sort of like the little pinch of salt that you add to a sour to take the edge off the acidity and raise the brightness of the fruit. Chefs will recognize the idea, too — a little salt, a little anchovy paste, a little bitters added to the mix, and other flavors start to light up.

(Anyone who has followed Cold Glass for a while knows that Bénédictine isn’t my favorite liqueur, and that there are only a handful of Bénédictine cocktails that have made the cut here, but I have to admit that Bénédictine makes this drink — it is definitely the anchovy paste of the Ford cocktail.)

The drink’s formula looks almost the same as a Martini’s, but the Ford is definitely not a Martini. Where the Martini emphasizes crisp, cold brightness, the Ford is lush and introspective, with the Tom gin’s sweetness and the Bénédictine’s herbality bringing out the complexity of the vermouth and the liqueur. The old-school proportions further emphasize the soft herbality of the vermouth.

The garnish plays an important part in the Ford’s overall flavor. The orange oils expressed across the surface provide the first impression as you raise the drink, and in the sip, a bright balance to the sweetness, herbality, and sense of weight in the other ingredients. The orange bitters finesses that balance.

Such a simple drink, the Ford Cocktail, yet it’s taken me ten years to figure out how to make it properly. Three things fell together to make that happen: more cocktail manuals (particularly Kappeler’s) became freely available for the cost of an internet search, good Tom gins appeared on the market, and I got a little bit smarter about how nineteenth century cocktails might work. As Captain Jack Aubrey said in the movie version of Master and Commander, “What a fascinating modern age we live in.”

Searching for the Bamboo Cocktail

The Bamboo Cocktail reminds me of the legend of blind men describing an elephant—every bartender’s guide seems to describe this cocktail differently.

There is one thing we do know about it, and it’s the thing that makes the Bamboo important to cocktail history: the Bamboo cocktail is the classic model for combining vermouth and sherry. Continue reading “Searching for the Bamboo Cocktail”

Chasing the Gibson Cocktail

Steward: “Cocktail before dinner?”

Thornhill: “Yes, I’ll have a Gibson.”

So begins one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most amusing scenes, the famous club car seduction scene between Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill and Eva Marie Saint’s Eve Kendall in North by Northwest. Seduction isn’t really the right word; it’s more of a pickup scene between two people who don’t seem to be in the habit of resisting. Grant’s Thornhill seems the type to always have his motor running; clearly, it’s Eve who’s shifting the gears. Continue reading “Chasing the Gibson Cocktail”

The Tale of the Tuxedo Cocktail

The mystery of the Tuxedo Cocktail is trying figure out just which Tuxedo we’re talking about. The Tuxedo is more a spectrum of recipes, rather than a single formula. Continue reading “The Tale of the Tuxedo Cocktail”

Two Nights at the Opera

One of the old-school cocktails that made a comeback in the last fifteen years is the Opera Cocktail.

The Opera is a blend of gin, Dubonnet, and liqueur—and that’s where the story gets interesting.
Continue reading “Two Nights at the Opera”

A Martini with Something In It — The Merry Widow Cocktail

The best description I can think of for the Merry Widow cocktail is that it’s a fancy, vermouth-heavy martini with a touch of herbs and spice.

Continue reading “A Martini with Something In It — The Merry Widow Cocktail”

Confounding Vodka: The Night of the Hunter

I still remember a science class in second grade where we sampled unflavored gelatin. I had never eaten anything that had no flavor at all. It was very, very strange.

Vodka cocktails remind me of that day in class.

Continue reading “Confounding Vodka: The Night of the Hunter”

The Fairbank Cocktail and the Pink Martini

Continue reading “The Fairbank Cocktail and the Pink Martini”

Feeling bitter in the Bronx — the Income Tax Cocktail

I still remember the first time I filled out a tax form. I felt very official and bureaucratic; I was an important part of the American economy.

Of course, I didn’t make enough money that year to actually owe any taxes—I was filing to get all my withholding back. But still… Continue reading “Feeling bitter in the Bronx — the Income Tax Cocktail”

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