This one's not just for politicians.
As a clear reference to William McKinley, this drink was supposedly created in 1896, when the Ohioan was nominated by the Republican Party to take on William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic and Populist candidate for the presidency. Bryan, too, had a drink associated with his platform--the Free Silver Fizz (gin, lime juice, and carbonated water, over ice).
The connection between cocktails and politics was well established. In fact, the first reference we have to the term "cocktail" comes from 1806, in a newspaper article describing how a Federalist defeated a Democratic-Republican candidate in New York's Hudson River Valley despite the latter's attempt to secure votes by handing out almost 300 mixed drinks.
Some early references to this cocktail suggest a rather different composition than what you see below. The Nebraska Pioneer Cookbook, for instance, a 1974 compilation of late nineteenth-century recipes, suggests that a McKinley's Delight consisted of three dashes of gum syrup, two dashes of Maraschino, lemon juice, two dashes of Angostura bitters, and a jigger of gin--all stirred over iced and strained into a sugar-encrusted glass. This drink simply boggles the mind. No rye drinker would be caught dead with such a weak, syrupy concoction in hand. No wonder Jim Crow and imperial ambition dominated daily life.
While most rye drinkers (especially rural westerners) likely voted for Bryan, McKinley, of course, won the election. He catapulted the nation into a thinly-veiled war for empire, abandoned any pretense of the Republican Party's historic role as a party for progressive politics (especially on race), and cemented the power of large corporations in American life. Sound familiar?
Though it retains a moniker that many might shy from, after World War II the drink was transformed into something palatable and patriotic. The Esquire Handbook for Hosts, first published in 1949, lists the drink in its cocktails section, suggesting it could be made with either bourbon or rye. Predictably, the latter makes for better quaffing. Much of the sweetness was gone in this incarnation, with only sweet vermouth and cherry liquor in place to balance the whiskey.
Interestingly, at least one source suggests that as early as 1939, this same drink was known as a "Remember the Maine."
What can we say? Some things will always remain a mystery. What's important is that rye transformed this cocktail from slops into a classic. And that's good enough for me.
Here's the recipe:
2 oz rye whiskey
1 oz sweet vermouth
2 dashes cherry brandy
1 dash absinthe (or absinthe substitute)
Mix in a shaker, over ice. Strain into either a lowball glass or a martini glass. There's no garnish.
At the end of the day, this is essentially a variation on a Manhattan (though one with less rye than the recommended dosage for that drink). Nonetheless, it's a good variation, one worth keeping in your repertoire for those evenings when something snazzier than a Manhattan is required.