The Adirondack Cocktail, a Traditional Cup of Cheer

As the third day in a row of single digit temperatures progresses, I wonder if the heat from the simmering pot of beans and ham hock on the stove is enough to take the chill out of the kitchen. I consider lighting a fire in the wood stove, but decide what might be nicer is a cup of golden spring time sunshine to warm me up.

If you are a regular reader of the Lake Champlain Region blog, you know we have many fine spots to enjoy a cocktail, but here is one you'll love making at home for an authentic Adirondack flavor. Gather your ingredients on your next travels along the Adirondack coast, and then settle in for a night — or morning — with a true taste of the mountains.

The Adirondack Cocktail is a drink that goes back, back, far back, into our history. Before prohibition, and even before the war between the states, your grandfather’s grandfather was enjoying a before-breakfast bracer known as the Mountain Ash Cocktail, while he was supposedly “roughing it” in the wilds. 

American Angler Magazine 1883

The name change from the Mountain Ash Cocktail to the Adirondack Cocktail coincides with the creation of the Adirondack Park. The name “Mountain Ash Cocktail” was still in use during Verplanck Colvin’s efforts to conserve the Adirondack watershed in the 1870s and 1880s, as evidenced by an article in the American Angler in 1883. By the time legislation defined the Adirondack Park in 1902, the name “Adirondack Cocktail” was already firmly established.

The recipe circa 1901.

When the great camps came into their own and the Adirondack Park was created, the drink handily moved from the oilcloth rucksacks of outdoorsmen who imbibed them around the open fire and into the comfortable surroundings of club chairs and roaring hearths. A book from 1901, called The Lovers of the Woods, manages to stop waxing poetic just long enough to let the recipe slip. Two ounces Whiskey (rye being the correct spirit of choice here) used to infuse the cambium layer of mountain ash bark, a lump of sugar, and two ounces of cold spring water (no ice). This gives us a perfect example of the earliest form of cocktail: a strong spirit mixed with bitters and sugar then cut with water. The habit of taking the cocktail in the morning also hints at the antiquity of the elixir.

Mountain ash bark with scars from birds.

Traditionally a spring drink, (because that is when the sap runs the most and when trout fishing season begins in earnest), the Adirondack Cocktail is a warming and welcome solution for what ails you at anytime of the year. The mountain ash, a tree that is commonly found throughout the Adirondacks, is the key ingredient. It was not hard for early man to learn the benefits of this tree. He had only to observe how eagerly birds pierce the bark to eat the sap, how butterflies lick the running sap as soon as the birds leave, and how deer seek out the branches to chew the bark in winter. 

Almost loved to death.

The bright orange berries make the tree easily identifiable in summer and fall, but when you walk through the woods at this time of year, it is one of the types of trees that can easily be spotted by the scarification left by birds such as sapsuckers. Geometrically precise rows and columns of scars will often cover the entire trunk. While mountain ash trees can survive a great deal of damage by birds, you can find ones so ravaged that they have died.

Peeling the bark.

Preparation of the drink is simple and straight forward. Gather your mountain ash twigs. Slice the twigs once along their length. The outer bark will easily come away revealing the green cambium layer. 

Removing the cambrium.

Scrape the cambium into a mortar and bruise with a pestle. I was curious if the bitter sweet almond taste of the mountain ash would be strong enough when gathered in the winter, when the tree’s sap is spending its winter holiday underground. As soon as I started scraping I could smell that pleasant almond aroma — excellent!

 

Bruise the bark.

One concession to the winter that was necessary was to add a little water to the dry cambium in order to muddle it in the mortar.

Infuse the pulp with rye.

Cover the pulped bark with rye to make your infusion. This is the entire magic of the drink. The bark is astringent enough to play the role of bitters in the cocktail, but also lends its subtle almond flavor. The longer you let your infusion set, the more you will be rewarded for your efforts.

Muddle a sugar cube.

In your cocktail glass, dissolve a cube of sugar by muddling it with a splash of water.

Measure the infusion. Add more rye if needed.

Pour your infusion into a measuring device and top off with rye until you have four ounces.

Pour the rye infusion.

Pour two ounces into each cocktail glass.

Add cold water.

Top each with two ounces of cold water. Do not use ice as this will prevent the flavors and aromas from blooming.

The Adirondack Cocktail

What you end up with is a cheerful cup of sunshine that will brighten your mood, day or night, summer or winter. To your health!

When you visit the Adirondacks and the Lake Champlain Region, be sure to explore our many wonderful traditions as much as you explore our landscapes!


 

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