Eveyln Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited, was immensely popular because it allowed readers a fictional escape from the hardships of rationing and rebuilding after the post-WWII period. There’s reference to this cocktail in it, a drink which now has its own day – January 31!
Delving into cocktail history and origins is always a murky business. According to Liquor.com the earliest recording of the Alexander is in the 1916 book “Recipes for Mixed Drinks” by Hugo Ensslin. Historian Barry Popik states the cocktail was most likely born at Hotel Rector, New York City’s swankiest pre-Prohibition spot. (Coincidentally, the Rector also had New York’s first revolving door!) The story goes that the bartender – Troy Alexander – created the drink for a special white-themed dinner.
The Brandy Alexander is actually a refinement of the original gin-based cocktail which was simply known as the Alexander. It was one part gin, one part crème de cacao and one part cream, dusted with a sprinkle of nutmeg. Believed to have originated in the 1920’s the name of it is variously attributed to either the Russian Tsar Alexander II or to the prominent drama critic of the day (and member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of New York wits, critics and writers) Alexander Woollcott. (Woollcott, “known to have a savage tongue” Wikipedia states, wrote for The New Yorker and at one stage was banned from covering Broadway plays because his reviews were so hard-hitting and ascerbic!)
And it was important for that initial dinner the crème de cacao used in the making of the cocktail was the clear version of the chocolate liqueur rather than the darker hued one. Interestingly, Wikipedia informs that “The French word ‘crème’ refers to the creamy texture of this very sweet liqueur, achieved by having a sugar content of at least 250 g/ℓ as required by European law, and there is no dairy cream in it.”
It’s a liqueur that has been around since the 1600s and historic records reflect that before the American Revolution in the 1700s, New Englanders were quite partial to “chocolate wine” made from sherry, port, chocolate and sugar!
Crème de cacao can be either clear or dark-hued – depending on the addition of colour, but essentially it is a clear spirit infused with cacao beans or chocolate flavour as well as very sweet syrup.
So the Brandy Alexander simply substitutes brandy for the gin component of the cocktail. It’s truly tasty and is easy to see why musician (and Brandy Alexander fan) John Lennon said it was like milkshakes. There are a host of great quotes attributed to the Beatles singer and songwriter. Like this one: “When you did something beautiful and nobody noticed, don’t be sad. For the sun, every morning is a beautiful spectacle and yet most of the audience still sleeps.”