There are great bars and there are great cocktails, and there are of course great barmen who provide their guests with great service, beverages and conversation. But once and awhile, a certain bartender will create a certain drink which transcends the typical and becomes more than a drink. It becomes a classic, a destination and an indelible drinking experience which only one bar can call its own. These posts are an attempt to capture these signature drinks and bars in which they can be called, The Usual.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Seelbach Cocktail

The Seelbach Hotel
The resurgence of bar-menus filled with classic cocktails served by well-educated bartenders who have hundreds of books dedicated to the subject from which to learn is only a thing of recent memory. There was a time not too long ago when digging-up a classic recipe meant more physical dedication than simply visiting a website database. In fact, that wasn’t even an option. The unearthing of a lost cocktail took some collegiate-style research, long hours of reading, personal interviews and a great deal of luck. Such is the case with the Seelbach Cocktail, discovered and rebirthed by Adam Seger while employed at the Seelbach hotel in Louisville. However even after its discovery placement back on the menu at the Seelbach’s Rathskeller Bar, Adam kept the recipe a closely guarded secret. After all, this was and would again be the hotel’s namesake and signature drink.

Built in 1905 by two Bavarian brothers, Otto and Louis Seelbach, at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville, KY, the Seelbach Hotel was a culmination of thirty years of dreaming and planning. Billed as the city’s only “fireproof hotel,” the brothers spared no expense for this Baroque style hotel; importing bronze from France and hardwood from the West Indies, along with Turkish Rugs and fine Irish linen.

The hotel very quickly gained widespread acclaim and was regarded as one of the grandest hotels in the United States. Among the many notable guests – some of which include FDR, Woodrow Willson, JFK, Al Capone, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley - was F. Scott Fitzgerald who took inspiration from his stay at The Seelbach for his novel the Great Gatsby.

When Seger arrived at the hotel in 1993, he set himself on a path to research the grand hotel’s long history. Along with the aid of an intern, he sifted through large files of menus, notes and documents and eventually uncovered a curious mention of the eponymous Seelbach Cocktail. With little information aside from the name, Seger had to dig pretty deep to truly uncover the history of this drink. His search eventually led him to Max Allen Jr, a third generation bartender.
The Rathskeller Bar at the Seelbach

According to Mr. Allen, his father spoke of the cocktail as the result of an accident and a curious bartender. As the story goes, a couple was visiting the Rathskeller from New Orleans, lets say, in the year 1910. He ordered a Manhattan and she a glass of bubbly. The bartender stirred together a Manhattan in his mixing glass but accidentally used triple sec instead of Italian Vermouth. When he opened the bottle of sparkling, it started to bubble over. The closest thing to catch the bubbles was the nearby shaker with the improperly made Manhattan.

After correcting the mistakes at hand and serving the couple their requested drinks, the bartender reached for the mixing glass containing the Manhattan with triple sec and bubbles. He liked the mixture and with a few adjustments was born the Seelbach Cocktail. The cocktail was the number one seller for the hotel until it was edged out of first place a few years later by the more popular Mint Julep. Eventually, prohibition edged both drinks along with many others further into obscurity.

The recipe calls for the drink to be built in a flute: 1 oz Old Forrester Bourbon, 1 oz Triple Sec, 7 dashes each Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters, then topped with sparkling. However, if mixed with spirits at room temperature this provides for a tepid drink with flattening bubbles.

Seger says when he re-launched the drink, he kept the recipe a secret. He would mix the bourbon and triple sec along with the bitters in his office distributing it to the bars in bottles marked “Seelbach.” The bars would keep the bottles chilled, then pour the secret mixture into a flute and top with chilled champagne. If building from scratch, it is recommended to give the bourbon and triple sec a quick stir with ice before hand.

The Seelbach’s recipe eventually came into public view with the printing of Gary Regan’s “New and Classic Cocktails.” As Seger tells the story, “Gary Regan's exact words to me in the lobby of The Seelbach when I told him the Seelbach Cocktail story whilst he was working on 'New Classic Cocktails' (I agreed to give him the recipe to publish as long as he kept it secret until the book went to print) was, ‘I thought you were giving me a load of bull#{%?! Adam, but now that I see the recipe with all the bitters, I know it is typical of the period and makes sense’.” 

The Seelbach
In a pint glass add
1 oz Old Forrester 100 Proof Bourbon
1 oz Combier Triple Sec
7 dashes Angostura Bitters
7 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

Add ice and give a quick stir to chill.

Strain into a champagne flute and top with Champagne and add a lemon spiral.