Have you ever seen the movie Days of Wine and Roses? It’s a classic, though it reads rather similarly to the cult classic Reefer Madness to many of today’s audience regarding its warnings against alcohol. The leading lady, Kristen Arnesen, goes from a teetotaler to a full-blown alcoholic who nearly kills herself and her child in a fire caused by her drunken stupor. How did she go from one extreme to the other? With the helping-hand of one of the most delicious cocktails in existence: The Brandy Alexander.
Please understand, I’m in no way saying that enjoying a Brandy Alexander will cause you to burn down your apartment. If that were the case, my apartment would me smoldering ash three times over last night. What I am saying is that this drink is so delicious that it is "practically a confection" and could lead even the staunchest teetotaler to reconsider his or her position.1
The origins of this drink are pretty clear just from its name. It is a brandy version of an even older cocktail, the Alexander, which mixes equal parts gin, crème de cacao, and heavy cream. One of the earliest known printings of the Alexander was in 1916 and was likely invented at Rector’s, a New York establishment, by a bartender named Troy Alexander.2 According to some, the Brandy Alexander was born a few years later in 1922 to celebrate the marriage of Princess Mary to Viscount Lascelles in London.3 Many other theories abound, as tends to happen with such cocktails.
Putting aside the exact origin of replacing the gin with brandy, this version has since become far more popular than its predecessor. In addition to Kristen Arnesen, one of the drink’s most famous fans was none other than John Lennon. He is rumored to have affectionately described the drink as his milkshake, and with good reason.
The basic recipe for the drink is very simple, though, as with any cocktail, you are encouraged to experiment with the proportions:
- 1 ounce crème de cacao
- 1 ounce brandy
- 1 ounce cream
Preparation: Shake all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice, strain into a cocktail glass or rocks glass, and garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.
Upon approaching this review, I was initially a little nervous about the requirement that it be made with cream. I’m a little bit of a health nut and I know many other might have the same concern. Let me first put your mind at ease by saying that this drink is equally as delicious with regular milk, though you may need to up the amount of milk. I know this because my Brandy Alexander at my local resource for classic cocktails, Taste, was made this way.
Served in a rocks glass and a healthy helping of fresh nutmeg, this drink was the perfect companion for a cold, Winter evening. According to the bartender, he used a 3-2-1 ratio with milk, crème de cacao, and brandy respectively. When I asked why, he said that the brandy can sometimes be overpowering in the classic 1-1-1 ratio. I can tell you that his version, though differing from some recipes, was fantastic. It was sweet, warming, and the milk had foamed just enough during the shaking process to allow the nutmeg to stay atop the drink. This gave me a nose full of the delicious spice that sent me instantly to sitting by the fire with a glass of eggnog.
When I stopped by my family’s restaurant, Nathalie’s, the preparation was similar, using regular milk, but this time in the 1-1-1 ratio. The brandy obviously came through stronger in this version, but it was far from overpowering. The bite of the alcohol was more forward than in the previous version, but I don’t consider that bad thing. The other difference I noted was that the lower volume of milk allowed less foam to form on top of the cocktail and resulted in the nutmeg mixing into the cocktail. This meant I got more of the flavor of the nutmeg than I did at Taste and it was delicious.
Back home, I experimented with one of the sweetest possible renditions of the Brandy Alexander: replaced the cream or milk with ice-cream and blend it up into a small milkshake. Oh, boy, this could be dangerous. The consistency of a milkshake combined with the chocolaty sweetness of the spirits and the aroma of nutmeg was a true delight that pleased both my inner child and my inner lush.
My biggest struggle with the Brandy Alexander was finding a tobacco to go with it. I feared that an English would either overpower it or just foul it up, while a typical Virginia might do little to compliment it. I ended up going with Pipeworks & Wilke’s Bleeker Street, a Virginia and Black Cavendish combination infused with flavors of honey and nuts that leaves any room you’re in smelling amazing. I pulled out my little clay pipe to enjoy this tobacco in. It just felt right. The tobacco complimented the sweetness of the cocktail, while the nutmeg from the Brandy Alexander enhanced the nuances of the blend.
This cocktail is not complex, it’s not terribly nuanced, and it’s not the archetypal "man’s" cocktail. It is, however, delightfully sweet without being fruity. If you’re looking for a way to enjoy dessert in a cocktail glass while still looking dignified, the Brandy Alexander is a worthy consideration.
Do you prefer the classic Alexander or the Brandy Alexander? What’s your favorite preparation method? What type of tobacco would you pair it with? Sound off and enjoy!
1. Judy Gelman and Peter Zheutlin, The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook.
2. Gary Regan, Behind the Drink: The Brandy Alexander (Jan. 10, 2011), http://liquor.com/articles/behind-the-drink-the-brandy-alexander/.
3. The History of the Alexander (May 22, 2014), http://www.makemeacocktail.com/blog/132/the-history-of-the-alexander/.
Ethan Brandt is a second-year Law student at Washington University in St. Louis, focusing primarily on Constitutional Law. He has a blog all about pipes called Pipe School and has had pipe-related pieces published at Smokingpipes, Quality Briar, and works closely with The Briar Portrait Gallery. He picked up his first pipe his freshman year of college and never looked back.