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Secrets of the Past: Old Cocktail Books

NybeckAnyone with a sustained interest in cocktails inevitably collects a few books. Some of us find pleasure in the obscure, letting a beat-up vintage tome transport us to another place and time. Such was the case last holiday season when we were presented a gift of several old cocktail volumes. One of them entitled Prelude to Pleasure by Ogden Nash was published in 1934 as a 1000 copy limited edition for the Continental Distilling Corporation of Philadelphia. What made this book so intriguing wasn't the poetry or the dated photos and kitschy line art—it was the handwritten recipe on the last page.

The rest of the book confirms some delightful classics that appear in other publications, but we wanted to know more about this personal notation. The book was purchased in a used bookstore in St. Paul, Minnestota, and a little research reveals that a Charles Nybeck did indeed live in the area. Sadly, he passed away in 2007 at the age of 71 which may account for this item showing up in a used bookstore. Comments from his obituary are clear that he went by the nickname, Chuck. Without much more to guide us, we are settling on the assumption that this was his book, and this recipe was his favorite. We are naming it in his honor.

Handwritten noteNybeck Cocktail
.75 oz cask proof bourbon
.75 oz sloe gin
.75 oz vodka
.75 oz lemon juice
.25 oz grenadine

Shake well with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

We adjusted the overall volume to match classic proportions. Our first pass at this drink revealed that it comes out a little tart. A strict translation of the recipe would leave the grenadine at only an eighth of an ounce. We took the advice of "R." as written in the note to increase the proportion of grenadine slightly to give the cocktail a little more balance. At a quarter ounce we have a better balance of flavors.

As we mentioned earlier, we enjoy whiskey sour variations. This one also reminds us how delicious a true sloe gin cocktail can be. Without dominating the flavor, its subtle hints of berry and lingering nuttiness are enhanced by real pomegranate grenadine. We used Plymouth Sloe Gin which we recommend and suggest avoiding bottom shelf versions that substitute chemicals and artificial flavors for actual sloe berries.

The base spirit combination is somewhat unusual in that it combines strong bourbon with an equal measure of vodka. This has a smoothing effect similar to using a Canadian whisky which might work equally well in this drink. We'd also like to try it again with 1.5 oz of bourbon or rye, skipping the vodka entirely and going for a bolder flavor profile. If you try this, please, let us know how it turns out. Skipping the grenadine and decreasing the lemon gets you a Black Hawk cocktail which would be very similar.

In any case, the Nybeck is worthy of your effort, especially if you are looking for ways to use good sloe gin. It's also a testament to the fact that there are still surprises out there in old books, and every once in a while, a note from a previous owner that may be just as interesting as the book itself.

9 comments to Secrets of the Past: Old Cocktail Books

  • These old books can be surprising and delightful finds. I look forward to trying the Nybeck. Thanks!

    • I'd be curious what you think. It's certainly not immune to tweaks. As mentioned, I'm more likely to use all whiskey than part vodka the next time, but this was a fun tribute!

  • Paul

    Very red ! Tart and sour at the first sip. The sour stays in your mouth, but the bourbon spreads its oaky, sweet flavor as do the sloe berries . It's a very refreshing drink and even if there are three different spirits in it it doesn't come across as very strong. I think the vodka just mellows it out a bit and next time I will pick up on your suggestion and use absout 1.5 oz of 100 proof bourbon instead and skip the vodka completely. A very interesting and even fascinating drink. Thank you for digging it up and sharing it Randy.

  • Paul

    Hi Randy ! Did you mention the Balkan plum brandy destillate slivovitz in one of your posts ? Do you have a cocktail recipe for it ?


  • Paul

    I'm sipping a Nybeck cocktail without the vodka and with 1.5oz of Wilde Turkey 101 right now and it's definitely a better experience than the one with vodka. It's better balanced and not so overly sour. It feels really fresh, heavier but in a good way and I think it's pretty darn fabulous. Strangely enough the sloe gin and even the grenadine are more prominent. It seems like the better balanced version works in favor for all ingredients.

  • I was looking at the original handwriting and it struck me that the grenadine in my scaled version is too high. I should probably reduce it to 1/8th ounce, or a barspoon. What do you think, Paul?

  • Paul

    I'm not sure Randy, but next time I do it I will try with less grenadine. You should probably do two, one with 0.25 oz and one with 0.125 oz and compare them one after another. It will be a little less sweet,a little less red and maybe the sloe gin will stand out a tad more. Skipping the vodka and upping the bourbon was a great move and maybe this will move it even further into the circle of perfection. Would it still be a Nybeck or was that passed as soon as we skipped the vodka?

    • I think we can still call it a Nybeck. The bourbon-vodka combo is strange, and maybe that's what makes the Nybeck unique, but given the neutral flavor of vodka I think we are actually improving it by upping the whiskey. Who knows Chuck's motivation with the vodka. Maybe he was saving money by stretching his good bourbon.

      As for the grenadine, I guess I increased it on the note's advice, so it works either way.

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