Whiskey and Bar Spoons: the Brainstorm Cocktail

There is a tongue-in-cheek reference to something called a Brainstorm Cocktail in a 1906 issue of a trade magazine called “The Northwest Druggist”:

The “brainstorm” cocktail is the latest. It consists mainly of cracked ice set aside to thaw.

Druggist humor, I guess.

The real Brainstorm Cocktail came along about ten years later; it’s one of Hugo Ensslin’s pre-Prohibition classics, first published in his Recipes for Mixed Drinks (1916).

The history of the Brainstorm Cocktail

Ensslin’s original recipe, the “Brain Storm Cocktail,” is reminiscent of a very dry Manhattan or Rob Roy made with Irish whiskey. His recipe looked like this:

Brain Storm Cocktail
Hugo Ensslin, 1916

  • cube of ice
  • 2 dashes Bénédictine
  • 1 piece orange peel
  • 2 dashes French Vermouth
  • 1 drink Irish whiskey

Use an Old Fashioned Cocktail glass and serve with a small bar spoon in glass.

As time passed, bartenders have substituted nearly every type of whiskey into the Brainstorm. They’ve also substituted all vermouth types, adjusted proportions, and swapped glasses.

By the time Harry Craddock wrote up the drink in the Savoy Cocktail Book in 1933, the Brainstorm (or “Brain-Storm,” as Craddock fashioned it), had already migrated from a rocks glass into a cocktail stem, a change Patrick Duffy endorsed a year later in The Official Mixer’s Manual.

In 1947, Trader Vic was still making the Brainstorm with Irish whiskey, but somewhere around mid-century, American whiskies started to get into the mix. My 1958 edition of David Embury’s Fine Art of Mixing Drinks recommends rye whiskey.

About the only constant over the past hundred years has been the overall constitution of the drink—some kind of whiskey, some kind of vermouth, Bénédictine, and an orange twist.

The early versions of the Brainstorm were dominated by the whiskey; vermouth and Bénédictine were added only in dashes. Early recipes specify only “French vermouth,” which I normally interpret to mean “dry vermouth” (as opposed to the sweeter French or Chambury Bianco style).

The Brainstorm Cocktail—the modern stem glass version, and the original rocks glass version, with small bar spoon for stirring. Photo © 2017 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Brainstorm Cocktail—the modern stem glass version, and the original rocks glass version, with small bar spoon for stirring.

Mixing the Modern Brainstorm Cocktail

The original Brainstorm is very whiskey-heavy—the dashes of vermouth and Bénédictine do very little to modify what could just be considered a slug of whiskey.

Modern recipes tend to mix the drink a bit sweeter, with proportions suggested by the Old-Fashioned structure, more like 4:1:1. Modern versions of the Brainstorm are also more likely to use Bianco, or even sweet vermouths, and may substitute Scotch, rye, or bourbon as the whiskey component.

As I’ve said before, I like my whiskey drinks to taste like whiskey drinks, but the Brainstorm’s progression toward something that looks more like a Manhattan or Old-Fashioned is a good evolution, in my opinion, and provides a more interesting, balanced cocktail.

The Brainstorm Cocktail

  • 2 oz (60 ml) whiskey (Buffalo Trace bourbon, Redbreast 12 Irish whiskey)
  • ½ oz (15 ml) Bianco vermouth (Carpano Bianco)
  • ½ oz (15 ml) Bénédictine
  • orange peel for garnish

Build in Old-Fashioned glass containing one large piece of ice. Express orange peel over the drink, then add peel to the glass. Traditionally, serve with a small bar spoon in the glass.


Stir with ice until cold, and strain into a chilled cocktail stem. Express orange peel over the drink, then add peel to the glass.

Your choice of whiskey seems to be a matter of personal preference. The drink is excellent with either Irish or bourbon, the difference being whether you like barley whiskies or corn. The bourbon version seems a bit sweeter, and seems to have a bit more body, than the Irish version—typical impressions from bourbon-based cocktails.

The 4:1:1 proportion seems to be a very good starting mix for either type of whiskey. Changing to 5:1:1 gives a distinctly more whiskey-forward cocktail, and reduces the sweetness a bit.

The Brainstorm Cocktail, photo © 2017 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.The bianco vermouth works better in the Brainstorm than the usual French dry vermouth. It seems to blend better with the whiskey (either Irish or American),  and it helps give the drink some body, a richer mouthfeel than the dry vermouth version.

The overall impression of the Brainstorm is one of balanced sweetness, with just enough of the whiskey coming through to retain its character. Some would say that the sweetness makes the Brainstorm better suited as an after-dinner or late night cocktail, than as an aperitif.

What about that spoon?

One of the intriguing items buried in Ensslin’s original recipe is the instruction to “serve with a small bar spoon in glass.” I haven’t seen a history of this presentation, but the spoon does show up occasionally, particularly in pre-Prohibition bar manuals.

It seems to have been the practice in some bars to serve “built” drinks—cocktails made directly in the serving glasses—with the small spoon (sometimes called a “toddy spoon”) in the glass; I imagine the idea was that the customer could then mix the drink himself; it would be particularly useful for sugar-sweetened drinks like the Old-Fashioned, allowing the customer to continue stirring any undissolved sugar.

19 thoughts on “Whiskey and Bar Spoons: the Brainstorm Cocktail

Add yours

  1. Entertaining write up and lovely photos. As usual. Thanks.

    The rocks glass is very nice. Would you share what they are or even where to purchase?

  2. Another great post. Benedictine takes me back to an ex-boyfriend who loved it. The Brainstorm looks quite tasty, and a perfect early Friday evening cocktail to take off the edge from the workweek.

  3. I love the stem glass in the above picture of the Brainstorm Cocktail! Can you share what the design is called? It is just lovely.

    1. I wish I could help you, Julia, but it’s a glass I found in an antique store, and I have no idea what it’s called, alas! I agree, it’s a charmer.

  4. You’re a great writer for these kinds of recipes. I love the historical notes and differences. Thanks for the recipe! xo

  5. Thanks for your background on this drink, which I made the other night and enjoyed, having found it in DAVID (not Charles) Embury’s cocktail book. I like your proportions, but took the Bénédictine down another notch to just 1/4-ounce. Very nice way to enjoy Irish whiskey! By the way, this reminds me considerably of a Brooklyn cocktail, with the Bénédictine filling in for the maraschino liqueur and amaro.

    1. Oh, man, 3+ years this has been on the web, and you’re the first person to bust me for getting Embury’s name wrong. (corrected) Thank you for finding that;

      You know, my tolerance for Bénédictine has declined inexplicably over the years, and I like the idea of cutting it back in this drink. I look forward to trying it again with your proportions.

      I didn’t get the connection with the Brooklyn, but it’s an interesting observation. I’ll be thinking about it…


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