Friday, June 26, 2015

Two Guys and Drink: Corpse Reviver #2

In "Two Guys and a Drink", Dave and John focus on a single drink and experiment with multiple recipes and ingredients as they search for their own "perfect" recipe. Of course, the "perfect" recipe is purely subjective; as with life, the cocktail is a journey, not a destination, and you should find your own. For this post, they are taking on a pre-Prohibition classic: The Corpse Reviver #2.

"Four of these taken in swift succession will unrevive the corpse again." So wrote Harry Craddock in his seminal The Savoy Cocktail Book. Craddock's written contribution to the cocktail arts is filled with a multitude of similarly witty quips, but this particular one is at least partly responsible for #2's revived popularity. How can you read that and not want a taste? To be fair, four of most cocktails will likely send you to bed (or worse), but it was thoughtful of Craddock to issue the warning because this tasty concoction is one that will leave you asking for more.

John's increasingly well worn
copy of The Savoy Cocktail Book.

As the name suggests, this is intended as a pick-me-up, something to restore the mind and body after a night of excess. In fact, in his recipe for the Corpse Reviver #1 Craddock noted it was "to be taken before 11 a.m., or whenever steam and energy are needed", and this presumably applied to #2 as well. A&T does not necessarily advocate the hair of the dog as an effective hang over remedy, but we're here to give you the tools so you can make your own informed decisions.

The Savoy recipe called for equal parts of dry gin, Cointreau, lemon juice, and Kina Lillet, with a dash of absinthe. No reference is made to a garnish, though many current iterations call for a stemless cherry. As simple as that sounds, there are two important things to note.

First, Kina Lillet was a white wine based aperitif (similar to a vermouth) made with quinine as well as bitter and sweet oranges, and it is, technically, no longer available. In the 1960s the name was changed to Lillet Blanc (they started making a rouge, as well), and some twenty years later the recipe was revised to reduce the amount of quinine used, thereby cutting the bitterness of the beverage. It is likely that Craddock would not recognize this version as the same Kina Lillet he called for, or so we've read. Some argue that Cocchi Americano, another white aperitif wine, is a more suitable replacement for the original Kina Lillet, as it is more bitter than the Lillet Blanc you will find on shelves today.

Le Café de nuit, one of Vincent Van Gogh's many
depictions of
Café de la Gare ,where he is said
have to have
imbibed his fair share of absinthe.
(courtesy of Wikipedia)

The second point of interest, of course, is the absinthe. As infamous and maligned an alcoholic beverage as there is (aside from Four Loko, whose reputation is well deserved), the anise-flavored harbinger of the green fairy was banned throughout much of the western world in the early 20th century, including the U.S. in 1912. Craddock worked in the U.S. up until Prohibition was enacted in 1920, when he crossed the pond and set up shop at the Savoy; his book was subsequently published in 1930. Absinthe was technically never banned in the U.K., but legal production in France ceased in 1915, and supply in London likely would have been limited. Pastis, an absinthe substitute which omits the much feared wormwood, did not make its first commercial appearances until the early 1930s. All this to say, while it is not entirely clear when Craddock developed the recipe, it is likely that at least initially he would have used genuine absinthe in this concoction. Whether he continued to do so after absinthe would have become harder to find and pastis became available, however, cannot really be known.  
The good news is that A&T thrives on mystery and uncertainty, and we are here to find a version of the Corpse Reviver #2 that we will gladly climb out of the grave for.

ROUND 1 - First Impressions

Hell of a drink, eh? After playing around with different variations, one thing that became abundantly clear is that the ratio really is next to perfect. Whatever it is about these ingredients in general, the prescribed proportions just work. Harry Craddock was onto something.

One thing that bears mentioning is that this is, at heart, a sour, much like the more well known Whiskey Sour, Margarita, or Cosmopolitan; in fact, Gary Regan classifies all of these under a subset of New Orleans Sours because of the shared use of an orange-flavored liqueur and lemon or lime juice. If you like the interplay of the sweetness of Cointreau and the tart/sourness of lemon or lime juice, this is definitely a drink for you. The use of gin and introduction of the aperitif and absinthe to the standard formula provides the possibility for a more complex drink.

Indeed, this is a deceptively smooth drink--and the origin story is a bit ironic given its more likely effects. I really enjoyed it, it has good balance between sweet and sour IF you make it well (more on that in a minute), and the Lillet or Cocchi Americano both--although a bit different in flavor--work well to smooth out the burn of the other ingredients. The gin, the Lillet and the absinthe all have strongly herbal qualities to them, but in combination the juniper punch of the gin gets mellowed. Not erased--oh no, that wouldn't do, but it plays better with others, which makes this a good choice for people who like the idea of gin more than they like gin, or want to get into something with more complexity to it. 

As you said, John, this is similar in character to other sours as a category of drink--if you like those, you'll probably like this. It's also a great "gateway cocktail" to explore with; it isn't the kind of candied confection that you get with the Cosmopolitan (vodka + sweet) type drink, and bourbon-based heavy hitters like a Manhattan or a Sazerac can be dauntingly strong. The Corpse Reviver #2 is complex, it's subtle, it's interesting, and the bartender will raise an appreciative eyebrow and nod with respect at your taste and acumen when you order one instead of writing you off as a dilettante.

Welp, that puts us in something of an interesting position. Rather than focusing on experimentation in proportions as we did with the Manhattan, maybe it makes sense to delve more deeply into the ingredients themselves and see what makes this thing tick?

Science rocks--and I hope you all appreciate the sacrifice we're making on all y'all's behalf. On to Round 2!

ROUND 2 - The Fixings

I have only one immutable rule to offer you on this drink: do not make this with Triple Sec for the orange component. Sweet? Bleah. More than enough to take that nice balanced herbaciousness and throw it right out the window, with nothing to offer in trade.

It's like I hardly know you anymore. Is that a comment on generic triple sec, or even reputedly higher quality versions like Cointreau?

Highfalutin' Triple Sec. 


What can I say? Over time my palette's gotten less and less fond of sweet flavors in my cocktails, and Cointreau doesn't do enough to balance itself out. I tried this two ways--one with triple sec (and thus my one immutable rule), and the other with a very interesting rum-based liqueur called Clément Creole Shrubb, from Martinique. Orange, definitely, sweet, surely, but with some bitter undertones and an earthiness that the Cointreau doesn't have. If I were going to keep experimenting with it, I'd try Grand Marnier and Dry Curaçao to get the same basic qualities as the Clément.

Interesting. I don't have the same ill will towards Cointreau (if you are going to use triple sec, pony up and get this, at least), and personally found that it provided a nice counterbalance to the tang of the lemon juice and the sharpness of the gin, especially as I moved towards a more classic London Dry (more on that below). In the name of science, though, I did give it a shot with Grand Marnier and was not impressed. Grand Marnier is a sweet orange liquor made with cognac, and the cognac flavor was overwhelming and completely disrupted the balance of the drink. It is also darker in color than Cointreau, which is clear, and turned the beverage into an unrecognizable, orangish mess. I'll stick with the Cointreau, thanks.

Speaking of gin, what did you discover in your escapades?

I tried two types, one new world-style and one more along the lines of a London dry. Although I usually prefer the new-world gins in general, for this drink I liked the London dry. I used Catoctin Creek, made locally here in Virginia, which isn't enTIREly without its new world profiles--more towards the middle of the spectrum, perhaps. The other was the DC-based Green Hat ("drink local," and all that jazz), which was actually a bit too flowery and overpowering for this. The clearer, sharper flavors in the Catoctin Creek were excellent, and if I were to experiment more with this part of it I'd keep leaning towards Merry Olde as I did. 

In my first few tries, I relied on my old standby, Bombay Sapphire. Ultimately I decided that a more robust, classic London Dry was necessary and settled on Broker's. This is not a gin I had previous experience with, but many of the high quality, locally available gins I was able to track down are more delicate versions of the style, similar to the Bombay Sapphire (think Mayfair, Hendricks, etc.). 

While Broker's and Sapphire both ring in at 94 proof, my initial impression was that the Broker's brought a bigger punch in the heat department. Tasted on its own, Broker's is your quintessential London Dry Gin, full of the juniper, citrus, and pine flavors the style is so well known for. The Bombay Sapphire is a softer, lighter gin, and I found it really struggled to punch through all the other ingredients called for in the Corpse Reviver.

Old Tom or lighter London Dry Gins can be used for
sweeter, less herbal variations of the Corpse Reviver #2.
On a lark I also played around with Hayman's Old Tom Gin. Old Tom gin is a stepping stone in the evolution of the liquor - not as sweet as a Sloe Gin, not as herbal or up front as a London Dry - that was popular in the 19th century. As with the Bombay Sapphire, using the standard formula it got lost in the mix, and it had the added detraction of making the drink overly sweet. But, reducing the Cointreau and lemon juice to three quarters of an ounce each and adding a couple dashes of orange bitters made for a compelling variation, but not one I am willing to hang my hat on.

Basically, I think the takeaway here is don't skimp on the ingredients for this, use halfway decent stuff if you really want to get something out of it.

And then on to one of the real mysteries of this particular drink, the Kina Lillet. What did you try out? 

While I don't have access to Lillet Blanc here in Cambodia, I did have the foresight to bring back a bottle of Cocchi Americano with me after my last trip to the U.S. But to be honest, for all the attention given to it as a suitable replacement for the original Kina Lillet, in my initial efforts I didn't really get the bitterness that it is supposed to deliver, or much of anything else, really. That's not say it isn't a lovey aperitif - it is, and tasted on its own it has a light, fruity flavor with just the slightest bite of tartness towards the final notes. But I had a hard time teasing any of that out during the early stages of experimentation.

Agreed, the Cocchi/Lillet doesn't add much to the drink flavor-wise--it's offset by the much stronger gin, and even a touch of absinthe is enough to overpower it a bit. It's still a vital part of the balance of the drink, though, so don't be tempted to replace it with something at a higher proof. It serves mainly to mellow the total, provides a nice background that the other components can play off of, and keeps what otherwise could be a real kick in the teeth down to a dull roar.

Exactly. Glad to see we're back on the same page after the Cointreau incident. I tried experimenting with locally available alternatives, chiefly Martini Extra Dry and an orange-based eau de vie, La Cigogne Mirabelle. The Martini was too dry for the lemon juice and I quickly gave that up. The La Cigogne is a much higher proof than the Cocchi, and at a reduced proportion (0.5 ounces at the most) it proved a suitable replacement, but it seemed to battle the gin for prominence more than complement it. After several tries I went back to the Cocchi and was pleasantly surprised to find that it mellowed the drink, as you said, Dave, without necessarily muting the other ingredients. Even if its own predominant flavors do not necessarily shine through here, it definitely has an impact on the balance of the drink.

Before we move onto the green fairy, any thoughts on the lemon juice?

While the lemon juice seems straightforward enough,  I also tried another version of this with key lime instead of lemon, and it was pretty amazing.

Well played, sir. I chose to stick it out with Sunkist lemons, and if I have any issue with the standard formula, its that using equal parts  lemon juice can make it overshadow the other ingredients. For point of reference, many standard recipes for a Margarita or Cosmo use a 3:1 ratio of base spirit to juice. If you're using fresh lemon juice (as you should), consistency can obviously be a problem here, but generally I found that tweaking the lemon juice down to about 0.75 ounces kept it from dominating the drink.

But now, on to probably your favorite part of the drink: the absinthe.

You know me better than you think. The really subjective part of this drink is the "splash of absinthe." I love absinthe, so my splash is maybe a bit heavy-wristed, but still--you don't want to upset the balance of everything else. So much as I may hate to admit it, use some subtlety with that part of it. Although I suppose it's also fair to note that where absinthe is concerned, subtlety is pretty much an ironclad requirement unless you want someone carrying you home slung over their shoulder.

I can't say I share the same affection for the stuff that you do. Admittedly, the whole ritual involved in drinking it can be fun, whether you prescribe to the more elegant louche process or the sensational flaming sugar. That said, I stuck to using somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 a teaspoon with this particular drink.

Sadly, actual absinthe (as opposed to "absinthe") is difficult to find in Phnom Penh, but I was able to experiment with different brands of pastis, an anis-flavored apéritif that emerged after absinthe was banned in much of Europe, and Alouf Ha'Arak from Israel (which I believe was actually a present from you, Dave). Ultimately I settled on the Arak, though any high quality pastis would do the trick. 

When starting out with this I had assumed that the absinthe (or substitute) might play an important role in the appearance of the drink, with its pale green/yellow coloring and a faintly cloudy opaqueness. I figured this was the result of a variation of the louche process, with the absinthe mixing with the diluted ice and other ingredients when shaken together. But I also experimented with adding the absinthe both prior to and after mixing the other ingredients, and found that absinthe didn't really seem to play a role in the appearance at all. It was a little disappointing to be honest.

I ultimately settled on another small American distillery called St. George, in California. This is a really nice drink, extremely grassy and earthy and while still an anise-based liqueur, the anise is a bit more in the background and less overpowering than it is in some. I tried it with Pernod for comparison, but found it came out a bit too licorice-y. Like I said above, like all good absinthe it'll do a NASA rocket engine proud, so watch your step. I did try replacing the absinthe entirely in one version, with Herbsaint--a little-known cousin used almost entirely in Sazeracs (if you get them near New Orleans) and as a background ingredient in oyster stew and Oysters Rockefeller. Usually I love it--but it's a heavy drink, with a dense, humid intensity that didn't work well with the rest of this. Stick with the absinthe.    

ROUND 3 - Conclusions

I mentioned before that the Cocchi helps tone down what would otherwise could be a real kick in the teeth down to a dull roar. Don't get me wrong, it's not a weak drink by any stretch of the imagination--actually I've discovered it has a tendency to sneak up behind you about halfway through the second one--but that part of it tempers the other ingredients. Gin can easily overpower other flavors, but in this case it doesn't. The amount of lemon juice could be overly tart, but it isn't. Etc. 

What really makes the drink for me is the herbal quality of it. Usually that's a word that if applied to cocktails at all, goes somewhere alongside "medicinal." In this case it doesn't. Because this is strong but not overpowering, because of the particular ingredients, it has a very unusual flavor profile that to my palette really manages to hit the sweet spot.

I think you hit the nail on the head with the "herbal quality". That is something that most other drinks in the Sours class cannot readily claim. For whatever reason, this particular combination of these specific ingredients brings out the signature notes of each without beating you over the head with it; you can taste the gin shining through, for example, without feeling like you've just crashed into a pine tree.

So many combinations...
and we tried a lot of them!

You mentioned this would be a good "gateway" drink, and you're absolutely right. I recently made this for a few friends who were reluctant to try anything with gin, but they loved it and came back for more.


Gotta love gateway drinks.  

Ultimately, what I looked for in my experimentation was to keep the balance, downplay the sweetness and highlight the herbal qualities. One version with slightly less than the full amount of lemon juice came out cloyingly sweet--it takes very little to knock the balance out of whack.

All of the ingredients I ended up with are on the more herbal and complex ends of their respective genres, including the happy accident of having key limes on hand when I'd run out of lemons. That's actually not always a good thing--too many complex things together can easily turn into a murky cloud with insufficient contrast to make anything stand out well. In this case though, it worked. 

Interestingly, I found that reducing the lemon juice to three quarters of an ounce helped round out the flavors a little better. It also reduces the silky viscosity of the drink ever so slightly, giving it a lighter, airier mouth feel. Whatever may have been lost in terms of citrus flavors can be compensated for with a thick lemon twist squeezed over the drink and traced around the rim - you still get the initial lemon scent from the oils as you go in for the drink, but the reduction in juice helps cut the tartness down a little bit.

For the garnish, I decided to go totally over the top since I was having so many interesting discoveries on the herbal front, and I went a step further and replaced the orange peel with... more herbs. From my garden, I cut thyme flowers, lavender flowers and mint, and used those. I started out on that more as a joke than anything else--rough day, over the top, boys--but it actually worked, so I kept it. 


1 oz Catoctin Creek gin
1 oz Clément Creole Shrubb
1 oz key lime juice
1 oz Cocchi Americano
splash of St. George Absinthe
garnished with whatever herbs are flowering in the garden--in this case thyme, lavender and mint. 



1 oz Broker's London Dry gin
1 oz Cointreau
1 oz Cocchi Americano
0.75 oz lemon juice
1/4 tsp Alouf Ha'Arak

Combine all the ingredients and shake with ice, then strain through a fine mesh strainer into a chilled coupe glass. Twist a thick lemon peel over the glass, trace around the edges of the coupe, then add the twist to the drink.


  1. thank you gentlemen for this as I am a big fan of this cocktail and I’m always interested in ways that professionals tweak it. I too, use liimes if I am out of lemons, and indeed by googling that this is how I found your blog. I realize from reading this that I am a fan of sours as you call them : Margaritas and daiquiris in particular and I’m just exploring gimlets recently. The price difference between triple sec and Cointreau is fairly substantial in Canada and that holds back some of us from purchasing it, but still I appreciated your comments on that particular version of an orange liquer....... but finally what I took from this discussion most was the idea of reducing the citrus i.e. the lemon quantity and I certainly understood when you mentioned how margaritas use less citrus than this cocktail ( in proportion). However I have to be vain and say that my margaritas terrific, and are. 3:2 :1. Tequila is the 3. 2 is the fresh lime and 1 is the orange liquer.

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Unknown. We're always glad to hear from readers, and it's especially gratifying to hear that you enjoyed the post. Nothing wrong with a 3:2:1 Margarita! At the end of the day, the key is that you enjoy what you're making and drinking. Thanks for stopping by. Cheers!