Picture of 'Tis Pity She's a Corpse
© 2015 Kindred Cocktails

A Short History of the Corpse Reviver

Nineteenth century drinking culture was, in many ways, quite alien to what is socially acceptable today. The local saloon was more like a coffee shop – where (mainly) men socialized and drank throughout the day. Many people started and ended their day with a drink, and took them to waken the appetite, digest meals, or “whenever steam and energy are needed”. Many drinks in the middle of the 19th century reflect the notion of the energy and verve a quick stiff drink would give the imbiber: “flash of lightning”, “pick me up”, “refresher”, “invigorator” and our primary subject, the “corpse-reviver”.

The first reference I can find of a drink called a Corpse Reviver is in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London) on October 23rd, 1859 in which a theater reviewer describes Tom Taylor’s new play Garibaldi:

Suddenly, the reader will surprised to hear, every man jack of the company of troopers gets excessively drunk and incapable on a couple of enormous stone jugs of some American drink (possibly “corpse reviver” or “gone ‘coon”)…

One of the most interesting things about the search for the early Corpse Reviver is the lack of American sources that reference the drink. The earliest mentions are in London newspapers and magazines, and though they’re always very careful to call them “American drinks”, throughout the latter half of the 19th century, it is almost always European sources who give reference to the Corpse Reviver. Which makes a lot of sense, because no less than the celebrated Jerry Thomas introduced this drink to wild acclaim in London.

In 1859, the Professor boarded a steamship from New York to visit London, ostensibly for a boxing match. He was an aficionado of boxing, and made an effort to see the best of them. But what caliber of fight could pull Jerry Thomas away from the head bartender’s gig at the Metropolitan Hotel? Well, let’s just say that when John Heenan and Tom Sayers went 42 rounds in two and a half hours, without gloves or real rules, had their fight broken up by the police and both fled into the woods to escape jail time. This was the fight that caused the Marquess of Queensbury rules to be written and was the birth of modern boxing.

Along with his luggage, Jerry Thomas carried his $4,000 (now $104,000) sterling silver bar utensil set that had been custom made for his use, so the good Professor was planning on making Londoners sit up and pay attention. Perhaps the dropping of leaflets (of which you can see one here, at the bottom of page 5) from a balloon extolling his virtues set the stage.

Freshly installed at the Bowling Saloon in the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens, he dispensed drinks for perhaps a year, then left London to return to the United States. But his memory was not forgotten. A few years later, James Payn recalled that

“The Transatlantic gentleman who presided over this famous institution was affable and attentive in the highest degree. We placed ourselves, at his own suggestion, entirely in his hands, and agreed to take whatever compound the nature of our condition (or complaint, as he humorously termed it) seemed to him to demand. He prepared a Stone Fence (price one shilling) in the first instance, but obversing afterwards that we were “tighter than he had thought we were” – an Americanism which I did not understand – he substituted for that a Corpse Reviver. As I watched the liquid fly from one crystal vessel to another in his nimble hands, I perceived that milk was an ingredient, and my heart sank within me.”

– Light and Shadows in London Life, Vol 2, 1867, James Payn

Unfortunately, this doesn’t help much, and in fact muddies the waters. This entire class of drinks were on the small side, and meant to be drunk quickly. They were sharp and invigorating and relatively punchy, which we’ll see in a minute. But suddenly, we have the King of American Drinks making a Corpse Reviver with milk. It would be another few years before an actual recipe surfaced.

The Gentlemen’s Table Guide, by E. Ricket and C. Thomas was published in 1871. In the foreword, they mention that the special section of American drinks were actually “acquired in the United States of America, under the instruction of a celebrated professor, whose unsurpassed manipulation was the pride successively of the St. Nicholas, the Metropolitan and Fifth Avenue hotels.” And given the list of American drinks, their teacher was none other than Jerry Thomas.

This proto-Corpse Reviver is pretty sparse – it’s simply half a wineglass (1 ounce) of brandy, half a wineglass of Maraschino and two dashes of Boker’s Bitters. It’s sharp and to the point, but really unpleasant by today’s standards – it basically tastes like two ounces of oxidized Maraschino.

By the mid-1890’s, the Corpse Reviver had gotten fancy. This pair of recipes still come from Europe, where their interest was sparked by the American bar set up for the 1878 Paris Exhibition. Amused Parisians could sample such delicious things as “mustache-ticklers”, “eye-openers” and of course, “corpse-revivers”. No longer short, potent and to the point, mid-decade Corpse Revivers were amazingly enough pousse cafes:

This fancy concoction [the Corpse Reviver] is even more difficult to do in that all products sold in different places are never exactly the desired proof. Here is what this drink is composed of : it is made using the back of a small spoon to keep each layer separate, thirteen liqueurs successively by color to distinguish them from each other: grenadine, framboise, anisette, fraise [strawberry], menthe blanche, green Chartreuse, cherry brandy, prunelle, kummel, guignolet [wild black cherry], kirsch, and Cognac.

– Louis Fouquet, Bariana, 1896, pg. 40 (translated from the original French)

Put one third Maraschino, one third brandy, and one third curaçoa [Curaçao] into a small spiral wine or liqueur glass, care being taken not to mix the colours.

– Frederick and Seymour Davies, Drinks of All Kinds, London, 1895, pg. 40

In the 20th century we come down out of the fogs of time and into a more modern era of drinking. After its bizarre detour into French puffery, the Corpse Reviver is written down for a second time by Harry Craddock of the Savoy Hotel in London. There are two entries here, labelled nicely No. 1 and No 2, and of the two variants, the second is the more famous, and the one most likely to be screwed with by modern bartenders and modern sensibilities about cocktail size.

Measurements are pretty clear here. Some drinks are just fractions. Others specify a “wineglass”. Both David Wondrich and Erik Ellestad call either of them two ounces, so the Savoy’s  Corpse Reviver No. 1 is simple: ½ Brandy, ¼ Italian vermouth, ¼ Apple brandy, shaken and strained into a cocktail glass with the note that it is “to be taken before 11 a.m., or whenever steam and energy are needed”. So – 1 ounce of brandy, ½ ounce of apple brandy and ½ ounce of sweet Vermouth. Even using Carpano Antica, this is a tough drink. It’s boozy and dry and the scant amount of vermouth can’t punch through all the high proof brandy. Steam and energy indeed! Best get it quickly down the hatch.

Their Corpse Reviver No. 2 is immediately better: ¼ wineglass (so ½ ounce) of lemon juice, dry gin, Cointreau and Kina Lillet, with a dash of absinthe, again shaken and strained. Here the admonition is that “four of these taken in swift succession will unrevive the corpse again.”

Now… I realize these are both small drinks. After shaking, they’ll top out at 2 ¼ ounces. But writers in the Cocktail Renaissance era (like Robert Hess and Ted Haigh) increase the size of the drink significantly, to ¾ ounce of each and 1 ounce of each, respectively. And a 4 ounce Corpse Reviver No. 2 is a lot of alcohol.

Let’s talk for a moment about Lillet and its modern substitute Cocchi Americano. Lillet is based in the village of Podensac, in Bordeaux. The base wine, like all white wines from Bordeaux, is a blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. Semillon smells like wax, Brazil nuts and lemon peels, where Sauvignon Blanc is green and fresh and Muscadelle is more of a neutral-floral note. These base wines are infused with citrus liqueurs and a quinine infusion, though that component is less prominent than it once was.

Cocchi Americano, though, is made in the town of Asti, in the Piedmont. The base wine here is Moscato d’Asti, which is incredibly heavy and floral and grapey smelling, and similarly spiced with citrus and not only quinine but gentian. My point here is that the two are not substitutable for each other. I know that’s going to make people freak out, but go get a bottle of dry white Bordeaux and a bottle of Moscato d’Asti and tell me they taste similar to one another.

In “The Artistry of Mixing Drinks” (1936), Frank Meier, who ran the bar at the Ritz Hotel in Paris from 1921 to 1947 gives two versions of the Corpse Reviver. His first version is similar to the Savoy’s – one third each brandy, applejack or Calvados and Italian vermouth. His second version is strikingly different, though to avoid confusion and to bring it into line with Patrick Gavin Duffy, I’m calling it Corpse Reviver No. 3. Remember that both of these drinks are based on fractions of a wineglass, which Meier sets at 6 centiliters, or 2.02 ounces. So His No. 1 is two-thirds of an ounce each, and his second is the juice of ¼ lemon, 2 ounces of Pernod and the remainder (probably 4 ounces) of Champagne in an eight ounce highball glass with a few pieces of ice.

Around the same time, W.J. Tarling’s “Café Royal Cocktail Book” (1937) has a few versions that differ significantly: the first is one-third each brandy, orange juice and lemon juice, then two dashes of Grenadine shaken and strained into a “claret glass” and topped with Champagne. Unfortunately, Tarling’s standard measure is whatever glass the drink will be served in, but a smaller glass is probably more correct here. There’s also a “Godfrey’s Corpse Reviver”, which is two-thirds gin, one-third vodka, with a dash each of grenadine and Angostura bitters and a “New Corpse Reviver”, which is the same as the Savoy No. 1.

Finally, the 1956 edition of the “Official Mixer’s Manual” from Patrick Gavin Duffy lends an American perspective to this American drink. He gives three variations. The first follows Savoy. The second does as well, but substitutes Swedish Punch for Kina Lillet, and the third is the same as Frank Meier’s second version.

The most amazing thing in all of this is that the Corpse Reviver is native to America, and while it took an American to introduce it to Europe, it took nearly 100 years before it appeared in print in an American book. Even when the drink turned up in late 19th century American newspapers, it was in reference to popular drinks in Europe. The term actually fell out of usage as a cocktail after World War II – it was appropriated for medicines – until the cocktail Renaissance of the early 2000’s. The only version that has stood the test of time, though, is the Savoy No. 2, which is easily the most delicious of the many variants of the drink.

by Zachary Pearson, editor