Last week, Lee Stang brought us a bittersweet ode to the tried-and-true classic: the Bourbon and Coke. Though the Bourbon and Coke is surely a staple of every bar across America and the experience of bourbon drinks across the world, there is another drink that is giving it a run for its money. Enter my favorite mixed drink, the Bourbon and Ginger.
According to John Vickers-Smith, the Maker’s Mark “Distillery Diplomat” for the DC area, the Bourbon and Ginger was, in recent years, the most popular bourbon cocktail in DC. With an established and ever-expanding cocktail scene, this is unsurprising. I have found that throughout my bar-going life that the Bourbon and Ginger tends to attract more cocktail-centric folks, as well as bourbon-diehards looking for something a bit lighter to sip. Sometimes, an occasion (or a bar) doesn’t warrant a neat or on-the-rocks pour. And sometimes, you just need a mixed drink.
Ginger has for years been a darling of the cocktail scene flavor profile. It sits alongside other posh flavors like elderflower and lavender. Ginger sodas have also seen a renaissance recently, with new artisan/handcrafted/[insert buzzword here] varietals popping up in specialty and liquor stores everywhere. Some old favorites – like Blenheim out of South Carolina, lauded for its spicy flavor and with roots as an herbal remedy for indigestion – are seeing a spike in popularity. In my native Kentucky, Ale-8-One (a ginger ale with a gentle flavor and popular mixer with bourbon locally – Maker’s and Ale-8 is known as a “Kentucky Gentleman”) now has distribution in Cracker Barrel stores nationwide. For some, there is a penchant for the stronger, spicier flavor of ginger beer, with Fever Tree and Gosling’s (among other brands) common names on cocktail menus.
Ginger is also a classic taste, and one that’s popularity is rooted in herbal medicine. The herb has long been lauded as a powerful remedy and has ancient origins in China and India, featuring heavily in both cuisines. Confucius was known to include ginger with every meal. These cultures revered ginger as a powerful root that heightened virility, boosted immunity, and eased digestive distress. As did many things from the East, ginger made its way to the Arab, Greek, and Roman civilizations and was similarly considered rather potent and beneficial, as well as a popular flavoring. Ginger is still seen as a robust antioxidant and is recommended by the Mayo Clinic to chemotherapy patients to treat nausea.
Considering our beloved bourbon survived to the present day only due to its medicinal properties (if only we could still obtain prescriptions for whiskey), it only follows that these two simple yet distinguished ingredients would join in such a harmonious marriage.
As a cocktail, the Bourbon and Ginger stemmed from a medicinal concoction from the 1800s: the Horse’s Neck. The Horse’s Neck was a simple tonic, comprised of ginger ale, a bit of ice, and a twist of lemon (today, Bourbon and Gingers are served with lime, though I am not too keen on this garnish). The tonic was later upgraded to include brandy, generally considered excellent for calming coughs and sore throats. Folks then began substituting brandy for bourbon and the Bourbon and Ginger was born.
Other accounts cite the Bourbon and Ginger’s origins during Prohibition, as the highball cocktail came into prominence to disguise the poor flavor of many “bathtub gins.” Ginger ale was used – much as it was in antiquity – to mask the unpalatable flavors of the day, this time, at the speakeasy. Babe Ruth was even known to opt for a quart of bourbon (or rye) mixed with ginger ale as an alternative to coffee to chase down his famously mammoth breakfasts. Though Ruth’s run with the Yankees spanned the entire duration of Prohibition, I am sure he was able to secure some good juice. Following the repeal of Prohibition, the drink quickly became a barroom standard. I think Bourbon and Ginger makes for an excellent hangover cure: settles the stomach and delivers a dose of the hair of the dog.
Needless to say, it is not difficult to make a Bourbon and Ginger, so here is a twist on the classic which was conceived on National Bourbon Day in June 2016 (H/T John-Paul Hayworth of DC for the inspiration).
The Bearded Ginger
Fill a highball glass halfway with ice.
Add a jigger of bourbon (can be adjusted up or down, to taste).
Add lemonade until two fingers from the rim.
Top with ginger ale (or ginger beer for a spicier drink) to the brim.
Garnish with a lemon twist (or forget the fruit if you aren’t trying to be fancy).
Stir and enjoy!