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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.”

The Creole Cocktail Four Ways

Given its name, you’d expect the Creole Cocktail to be from New Orleans. You’d be right—sort of.

Continue reading “The Creole Cocktail Four Ways”

Whiskey and Bar Spoons: the Brainstorm Cocktail

There is a tongue-in-cheek reference to something called a Brainstorm Cocktail in a 1906 issue of a trade magazine called “The Northwest Druggist”:

The “brainstorm” cocktail is the latest. It consists mainly of cracked ice set aside to thaw.

Druggist humor, I guess.

The real Brainstorm Cocktail came along about ten years later; it’s one of Hugo Ensslin’s pre-Prohibition classics, first published in his Recipes for Mixed Drinks (1916).

Continue reading “Whiskey and Bar Spoons: the Brainstorm Cocktail”

Dark Horse: The Preakness Cocktail

I’ve never been a follower of American horse racing, but I do enjoy the hype and pageantry of the three-race set known as the “Triple Crown” — in the US, it’s the Kentucky Derby,  the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes.

The Kentucky Derby falls near my birthday, so for decades my birthday partly has been a Derby-watching event, replete with fancy outfits, good hats and, especially, whiskey juleps. The Mint Julep is the universally accepted symbol of the Derby, and the Run for the Roses starts the ice-crushing season right.

Continue reading “Dark Horse: The Preakness Cocktail”

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”

The Libertine

Last time, contemplating Trader Vic’s Fog Cutter, I pondered the risks of combining multiple spirits—“too many spirits”—in cocktails, and the fine line between great cocktails and trainwrecks.

So it was an interesting moment for my first encounter with the Libertine.

Continue reading “The Libertine”

The Handsome Devil

I love that scene in Amadeus where the Emperor chastises Mozart for using “too many notes.” That cracks me up. Continue reading “The Handsome Devil”

The Widow’s Kiss

In an earlier article, I wrote about the Full House Cocktail—complex, herbal, strong, and sweet. A little too sweet for me, so I looked at easy ways to cut that sweetness back.

After a certain amount of rejiggering, I ended up with a drier formula. The result nagged at me a little, because it seemed familiar. I finally got time to do a little research, and there it was: George J. Kappeler’s “The Widow’s Kiss.” Continue reading “The Widow’s Kiss”

Apple whiskey and the Full House Cocktail

“Apple whiskey” is a term you rarely encounter these days. It was once fairly common slang for applejack, itself a slang term for apple brandy.

Apple orchards—in fact, all sorts of fruit orchards—were ubiquitous on eastern farmsteads as early as the 17th century, and it was standard practice for farmers in cold states to make their own apple spirits by “jacking” their hard cider during the winter Continue reading “Apple whiskey and the Full House Cocktail”

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