A martini with something in it — the Ford Cocktail

You’d think I would have written about the Ford Cocktail long ago, if for no other reason than we share a name. I guess it’s taken me awhile to appreciate the subtleties of this Martini variant.

My dawdling aside, the Ford is one of the grand old classics. It’s been around since at least 1895, when George Kappeler described it in his Modern American Drinks.

Kappeler offers no clue to the identity of the drink’s namesake. Ted Haigh, in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, speculates that the name may be a reference to athlete and journalist (and Noah Webster’s great-grandson) Malcolm Webster Ford. I’ll accept that — heck, I even share two names with that guy.

More to the point, sports heroes were often inspirations for bartenders and drink inventors in that era, and Malcolm Ford was a particularly well-regarded athlete — if Wikipedia is to be believed, he was a three-time champion “All Around Athlete,” a nineteenth-century ten-sport predecessor to what we now know as the Olympic Decathlon. The betting and sporting crowd of the day loved their athletes, and they loved their cocktails.

The Ford Cocktail, photo © 2020 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Ford Cocktail

The Ford Cocktail

Based on George Kappeler, Modern American Drinks, 1895

  • 1½ oz (45ml) Old Tom gin (Ransom Old Tom)
  • 1½ oz (45ml) dry vermouth (Dolin Dry Vermouth)
  • 3 dashes Bénédictine
  • 3 dashes orange bitters (Regan’s No. 6 Orange Bitters)

Stir with ice until cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail stem. Express  and garnish with orange peel. Serve very cold.

One of the reasons it took me a long time to warm up to this cocktail is that the first formula I encountered (not Kappeler’s) just called for “gin.” I didn’t know enough then to suspect that a gin specification from the Golden Age might well be Old Tom; London Dry was the way I understood gin, so I made the Ford with London Dry. It wasn’t very good, and I set the whole thing aside. I promise you, the  sweeter, funkier Old Tom makes all the difference; London Dry is too dry and too ascetic to hold this drink together.

Kappeler’s original formula calls for “Tom gin” in equal parts with vermouth, very much in the “martini” model of the time.

The three dashes of Bénédictine are nearly lost in the mix. In this drink, the liqueur is in the category of “secret ingredient,” raising the flavors of other elements to a different level. It’s like the little pinch of salt you add to a sour to take the edge off the acidity and raise the brightness of the fruit. Chefs will recognize the idea — a little salt, a little anchovy paste, a little bitters added to the mix, and other flavors start to light up.

(Anyone who has followed Cold Glass for a while knows that Bénédictine isn’t my favorite liqueur, and that there are only a handful of Bénédictine cocktails that have made the cut here, but I have to admit that Bénédictine is what makes this drink work — it is definitely the anchovy paste of the Ford cocktail.)

The drink’s formula looks almost the same as a Martini’s, but the Ford is definitely not a Martini. Where the Martini emphasizes crisp, cold brightness, the Ford is lush and introspective, with the Tom gin’s sweetness and the Bénédictine’s herbality bringing out the complexity of the vermouth and the liqueur. The old-school proportions further emphasize the soft herbality of the vermouth.

The garnish plays an important part in the Ford’s overall flavor. The orange oils expressed across the surface provide the first impression as you raise the drink, and in the sip, a bright balance to the sweetness, herbality, and sense of weight in the other ingredients. The orange bitters finesses that balance.

Such a simple drink, the Ford Cocktail, yet it’s taken me ten years to make it properly. Three things fell together to make that happen: more cocktail manuals (particularly Kappeler’s) became freely available for the cost of an internet search, good Tom gins appeared on the market, and I got a little bit smarter about how nineteenth century cocktails might work. As Captain Jack Aubrey said in the movie version of Master and Commander, “What a fascinating modern age we live in.”

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