No, this isn’t the beginning of my autobiography. It is a story about a cocktail that has no clear provenance and a recipe for a drink which has no definitive recipe. Come to think of it, perhaps that would be a good start for an autobiographical tome. If only I had that kind of ambition, the stories I could tell! But alas, my lawyer has sternly warned against such things. So we’ll stick to the cocktail.
With the current cocktail and spirits revival going on, a lot of what was old is new again. There is also a lot of silliness going on. Some classics should only be messed with by a master who respects the traditional drink and has the skills to put their own little twist on the recipe. While so many mixologists think they do that, so many fall short. Way short.
When I order an Old Fashioned or a Whiskey Sour, rare occurrences as I mainly like my hootch unadulterated and unadorned, but it happens, I want the nearly perfect classic version. If not, I want a warning that it’s some bastardized version. Which brings us back to the drink referenced in the title.
This cocktail goes completely against everything I just said in the preceding paragraph. It’s a classic that has many recipes, and many stories, none verifiable, and likely all containing healthy doses of bullshit. What’s not to love about that?
There are stories about it being invented by famous California bartenders, or by a sympathetic Cairo bartender who created it out of pity for a hungover customer, giving the cocktail its name, along with a few other creation myths. There are recipes calling for rum, brandy, Scotch and I’m sure with enough searching, probably tequila and mother’s milk. But none of that matters one bit because the Suffering Bastard is the ultimate cocktail when it comes to experimentation. But I have come up with a recipe that I like better than any other I have tried. That said, feel free to experiment with it and make it suit your tastes, but do yourself a favor and try it exactly as written first.
Before getting to the recipe, a word about one of the ingredients. This recipe calls for a specific brand of ginger ale. No other brand will produce the same results. You will have a very tasty beverage if you substitute a different ginger ale, but you will not have tasted this recipe without it. It is the key.
The reason being is that Vernors is unique among ginger ales these days, although it was supposedly a very common style at one time. It is America’s oldest brand of ginger ale, and like so many of the very best things this country has produced, it comes from Detroit. That’s fitting, this shit is the Iggy Pop of soda pop. Aretha Franklin uses it to glaze her Christmas ham. Aretha knows.
Loaded up with caramel, vanilla and especially ginger flavors, Vernors is then aged in oak barrels. This is the stuff, accept no substitutes. It also cures whatever ails you. If you’re from Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo or any of the tough, historic, industrial cities that make up what is tragically and shamefully referred to as the Rust Belt, your mother probably gave you Vernors when you were sick, and you probably still need it to this day when your stomach acts up. This ‘pop’ is magic, folks, even if it’s parent company is now in Texas instead of Michigan.
Without further ado, on to the recipe. We can discuss the other ingredients afterward. Maybe while sipping on one of these.
The Suffering Bastard Recipe:
2 ozs of good bourbon
1 1/2 ozs good gin
1 oz freshly squeezed lime juice
2 dashes of bitters
Those 4 ingredients go into a shaker with ice. Shake for 20 or 30 seconds before straining into an ice filled tumbler that has been rubbed around the rim with a lime wedge.
Top this off with a 2 to 1 ratio of Vernors Ginger Ale and Tonic water. You can use all Vernors if you prefer a sweeter drink, or substitute soda water if you really hate the taste of tonic. Garnish with an orange wheel if you want to be all fancy and shit.
About the ingredients not already discussed. Use whatever bourbon you like, I use whatever is on hand, without the recipe ever, um, suffering. Something like Angel’s Envy is going to produce a slightly sweeter drink than a spicier whiskey like Woodford Reserve. But since it’s a mixed drink, my go-to bourbon is likely to be something like Larceny or Bulleit. With all of the flavors that go into this cocktail, it’s not going to matter all that much what you use anyway, as long as it isn’t introducing some off flavors. I wouldn’t hesitate to make this with Jameson’s even, if some disaster befell me and I was out of bourbon entirely. I shudder even typing that last bit.
On to the gin. This is another “drink what you like” answer, but I would suggest avoiding the traditional London Dry style that most folks think of when they hear “gin.” These include popular brands like Tangueray and Beefeaters. While there is nothing wrong with this type of gin, what we’re looking for are the botanical flavors other than the juniper that dominates this style. Play around with some and see what works for you. Again, this is going into a cocktail, so you don’t need to spend a fortune on the liquor. The really high-end stuff, no matter what kind of booze, should be enjoyed straight up, in my opinion. The brand I like for this is New Amsterdam gin. Very tasty, with nice citrus and botanicals, and quite affordable. But use what you like.
Now, on to bitters. I am not a bitters aficionado by any means, but I recognize how much they can bring to the table. Plain old stock Angostura bitters taste delicious in this drink. But I have experimented with other citrus flavored versions and they all produced delicious results. I use two dashes as a starting point in this recipe. When making cocktails, I think of bitters like I think of salt in the kitchen. Adjust the amount to get it to taste right to you, the aromas and flavors in your bitters should be the thing that binds all of the other ingredients together.
And there you have it. Oakey spicy bourbon matching up with an oaky spicy (magically medicinal) mixer, nicely married with citrusy and botanical gin that matches up with (also reputedly magically medicinal) citrusy and botanical bitters, to make a delicious and refreshing cocktail, all with a touch of lime and bit of Detroit. How can that be bad?
Speaking of not bad and Detroit…