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Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: The Lion’s Tail

Bill Norris delivers the history and recipe for an autumnal libation that looks like a hot mess on paper.

Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: The Lion’s Tail

The New York Times, October 27, 1895

In Austin, there comes that moment, usually in early September, when you get the first hint of autumn in the air of an evening. When you can turn off the air conditioner, throw open the windows and remember that summer doesn’t last forever, that better days are coming.

When that day comes, thoughts turn away from the refreshing, crisp potables of summer and towards drinks with a little more heft, with a bit more punch and flavor. Thoughts turn to drinks like The Lion’s Tail, a cocktail that makes no sense on paper, and that is absolutely perfect as daylight starts to grow short and evening picks up a hint of chill.

From Whence it Came

The Lion’s Tail first appears in print in the Cafe Royal Cocktail Book, a 1937 edition published by the United Kingdom Bartender’s Guild, and compiled by William J. Tarling, president of that august group. The book had one very limited printing, and faded into obscurity and extreme rarity. As an artifact, it is an impressive thing, documenting some of the earliest vodka and tequila cocktails and marking a time when the American bartending world was still recovering from prohibition and modernism had broadly entered popular British culture. The modernist ideal of “making it new” appears to have even crept into the notoriously hidebound UK Bartender’s Guild, with established “Approved Cocktails” appearing alongside Tarling’s own recipes and those of his contemporaries in the Guild.

As for the Lion’s Tail, the book does not document its creator (it may well be Tarling, about whom little is known), but it is somewhat likely that it arose sometime before prohibition took hold in the United States. It would be unusual for a cocktail created around the time of the publication of Café Royal to call for Bourbon because it was not legally produced, except for “medicinal reasons,” from 1920-1933, and supplies were still scarce in 1937. That said, given the implications of its name, it is possible that Tarling created the drink around the time of publication in a fit of patriotism.

A Note on Ingredients: Damn the Dram

On paper, The Lion’s Tail looks like a hot mess. In its original formulation, it calls for Bourbon, Pimento Dram, lime juice, bitters and a bit of sugar. Setting aside, for a moment, the fact that lime juice and whiskey don’t generally mesh well, let’s start with the Pimento Dram. Pimento berries, better known as allspice, are widely cultivated in Jamaica, and form the basic flavor of a traditional, rum based, Jamaican liqueur. On its own, Pimento Dram is almost undrinkable, incredibly flavorful, and deeply redolent of the clove, cinnamon and nutmeg that led British colonists in Jamaica to change its name to allspice.

It is a favored ingredient in a number of Tiki style and tropical drinks, and is most usually used in tiny measures, as an accent almost like bitters, to add intrigue to a drink and make you think, “What is that flavor?” It also vanished almost completely from the United States in the 1970s. It is still produced in Jamaica by venerable rum producer Wray & Nephew, but those bottles almost never cross into the United States. Thankfully, a few years back, Haus Alpenz began importing a wonderful Austrian version called St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram that works quite nicely here indeed. More recently, Bitter Truth has begun importing their own Pimento Dram, a version that is touch less refined than St. Elizabeth’s, but which will work just fine.

You can also make your own should you have trouble tracking down either bottled version, by macerating whole allspice into overproof rum and mixing the resulting infusion with a brown sugar syrup. If you go this route, the rum should be Lemonheart 151 or Wray & Nephew. Accept no substitutes.

What’s In A Name?

Popular slang during Britain’s colonial period warned those who were subjugated about “twisting the Lion’s tail.” Essentially, it meant, “Don’t stir up trouble, mind your manners and the Empire won’t have to come down on you.” So, here we have a cocktail, seemingly invented in Britain, possibly created between the two world wars, at a time when the empire was in decline, mixing  American whiskey with Jamaican liqueurs and tropical citrus. In short, a cocktail made from ingredients that all come from places where Britannia rules or had once ruled.

Is the Lion’s Tail a bit of nationalist jingoism in a cocktail glass? Perhaps. But if it is, it is a delicious example of nationalist jingoism, and we can forgive the impulse.

Lime & Bourbon?

Anyone who has tossed back a whiskey sour knows that lemon juice and whiskey get along rather well.  Lime, on the other hand, is not so copacetic with whiskey and examples of drinks that mix the two are rare.  On the other hand, lime pairs quite nicely with rum, and rum is the base of the pimento dram, and the spicy dram, along with the bass notes of the bitters, allow the lime juice and the Bourbon in the Lion’s Tail to join hands and sing.  It is an inspired move—if you substitute the logical lemon for the lime juice here, the drink is flat and quite boring.  With lime, the bracing punch of the sour mediates the aggression of the Pimento Dram, and the whole thing comes together in an unexpected way.

Resurrection

We would not have the Lion’s Tail today if it were not for the work of cocktail historian Ted Haigh, who resurrected the recipe for inclusion in his book, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, first published in 2004, and revised and expanded in 2009. Haigh, who also goes by Dr. Cocktail, is a cocktail archaeologist, who along with revered bartenders like Dale DeGroff and writers like David Wondrich and Gary Reagan, is among those most responsible for the resurrection of the proper cocktail in America. Feel free to toast him with a Lion’s Tail or three. He has earned it.

A Recipe

The Lion’s Tail

2 oz. Bourbon (Try Buffalo Trace or Eagle Rare here)
½ oz. St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram
½ oz. Fresh Lime Juice
1 dash Angostura Bitters
½-1 tsp. of simple syrup (optional)*

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and shake until very cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and serve without a garnish.

*The need for sweetening the drink is largely a matter of taste and the choice of Pimento Dram. Generally, especially with the St. Elizabeth’s, I would omit it.

Enjoy.

Previous Installments:

The Mint Julep

The Negroni

The Aviation

The Sazerac

The Mojito

The Last Word

The Ramos Fizz

Bucks, Mules and Their Ilk

The Pegu Club

Follow Bill's Cocktails With Mad Men series here.

Bill Norris's photo About the Author: Bill Norris is the beverage director for the Alamo Drafthouse, The Highball, 400 Rabbits and Midnight Cowboy. Before joining the Drafthouse family, he tended bar in New York, London and Austin and created award winning cocktail programs at FINO and Haddingtons. His novel Snapshots, was published in 2001, is currently out of print, and can be purchased for a mere one cent on amazon.com.