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Clean coal, a train ride and the birth of a commercial drink

There are scores of classic cocktails created since the early 1800s that are often accompanied with engaging, almost romantic origin stories.

The Alexander is not one of them.

This creamy, chocolate libation was one of the very first cocktails to be created purely for commercial reasons. As the story goes, DL&W Railroad was promoting its use of the clean-burning coal anthracite. Prior to that, railroad excursions were likely a smoky affair, since rail cars didn’t have air conditioning and open windows invited in black smoke from the engine car.

DL&W created the fictional character Phoebe Snow, who was always dressed in white in illustrated advertisements to promote the “clean” aspect of anthracite.

On the maiden voyage, a bartender with the last name of Alexander was asked to create a signature cocktail marking the event. His recipe consisted of equal parts gin, cocoa liqueur and cream, and he named it after himself, of course.

This drink — essentially a chocolate martini — shouldn’t have survived much past that train ride, but the recipe was soon picked up by bartenders in the era. This eventually led to the cocktail swapping out brandy for gin — perhaps when gin fell out of favor in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

Given the relative simplicity of the Alexander, the recipe somehow transformed into a blender drink made with ice cream, likely in the great cocktail dearth of the 1970s. I blame the same people who decided that margaritas should be blended and include strawberries. But I digress.

Most people are likely more familiar with the Brandy Alexander, and it’s still a great cocktail, albeit a bit too sweet. However, I think the complexity of gin really helps the original version of this drink shine, toning down the sweet factor and brightening the flavor profile. Enjoyed either way, it remains a classic that warms the soul on a cool winter night.

The Alexander
  • 1 ounce high proof London Dry gin, such as Plymouth

  • 1 ounce Dark crème de cacao

  • 1 ounce half-and-half or heavy cream

  • Freshly grated nutmeg

Combine gin, crème de cacao (pronounced ka-kow) and cream in a cocktail shaker, add ice and shake for 20 seconds or so. Double-strain (i.e. - use two strainers) into a cocktail glass and top with freshly grated nutmeg. For a Brandy Alexander, just switch out gin with brandy. Easy-peasy.

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