Mendacity and the Oriental Cocktail

I’m pretty sure that there are no true stories about cocktail origins.

You know the stories I mean—the wonderful, detail-laden, cock-and-bull accounts that ornament so many of our classics. Every once in awhile, there’s a great one.

Take, for example, this account of the origins of the Oriental Cocktail:

“In August, 1924, an American Engineer nearly died of fever in the Philippines, and only the extraordinary devotion of Dr. B— saved his life. As an act of gratitude the Engineer gave Dr. B— the recipe of this Cocktail.”

For some reason, I always think of Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when I read such silliness—“There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity…”

This particular bit of mendacity is from Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book (1930). No kid over ten years old would attempt a story like this with a straight face, but, well, it’s amusing, anyway.

In fact, the Oriental Cocktail may well be a Harry Craddock original. He could invent very good drinks when he set his mind to it—typically much better than his goofy stories—and the Oriental is one of them. It is a puzzle to me that this one didn’t catch on.

The Oriental Cocktail, photo © 2013 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Oriental Cocktail

The formula for the Oriental starts out looking like a Manhattan, then takes on the citrus-and-sugar trappings of a classic New Orleans sour. As Randy Hanson at Summit Sips puts it, “that sorta makes it a Manhattan Sour.”

It also looks like an inspiration for the Countrypolitan, which swaps out the Oriental’s sweet vermouth for Pama liqueur.

The Oriental Cocktail

  • 1½ oz rye whiskey (Rittenhouse 100)
  • ¾ oz sweet vermouth (M&R Rosso)
  • ¾ oz curaçao (Pierre Ferrand Curaçao)
  • ½ oz fresh lime juice (to taste)

Shake all ingredients with ice; strain into a well-chilled cocktail stem. The original Savoy formula omitted garnish, but some sources suggest a brandied cherry or orange twist.

Nearly all the listings I’ve seen for the Oriental adhere to these proportions. Craddock was vague about the lime in the original listing—those were the days when bartenders specified “half a lime.” As it turns out, half an ounce of lime juice is a pretty good starting point for this drink. Limes vary from season to season, so you’ll need to adjust according to your tastes.

Ferrand Curacao (detail), photo © 2013 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.

I recommend a high-proof rye for the Oriental; the whiskey needs some extra backbone to stand up to the other ingredients.

I’m a fan of the Ferrand Curaçao, but you could substitute any other clear orange liqueur—Cointreau and Grand Marnier come to mind.

As a side note, there is a similar cocktail, the James Joyce, built on the same formula, but using Irish Whiskey instead of rye.

10 thoughts on “Mendacity and the Oriental Cocktail

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  1. I can’t wait to try this! You always come through when I am looking for something new (or old) to add to my repertoire. Thank you so much for sticking with this blog!

  2. As I am living in China, which is in the Orient, I’m going to have a test run of this one – could become my ‘house’ cocktail. BTW limes here in Beijing are jolly small, so I may need to squeeze a few for this. I, too am a fan of Curacao because I use it every summer to make Cheat’s Pimms! Love your blog.

    1. I hope you enjoy it; it would be amusing if the Orient were to become your house cocktail.

      Which raises the obvious question of the drink’s naming. There is nothing in this cocktail that anyone would particularly associate with “the Orient,” so while Craddock was busy with his ludicrous “Dr. B—” story, he omitted the more interesting tale of how he really came up with this drink, and its name. Alas!

      I wasn’t aware of Cheat’s Pimms. Just looked it up, I’ll have to give it a try. Thank you for the idea, and for the good words.

  3. I think the stories make the cocktails all the more interesting – the story is part of the charm and it adds to the deliciousness.

  4. Living in Hong Kong and with one of my favourite bars here being MBar at the old (original) Mandarin Oriental Hotel, I’ve been meaning to try this for some time. After much procrastination, I got there tonight. I’m with herschelian above on the size of limes here. They are shipped in from Thailand and I needed a whole one to get a 1/2oz of fresh juice; and laying hands on real rye whisky is not so easy here – only one outlet supplying in the whole of HK, so the choice is (r1) only. And I’m with you on the Ferrand Dry Curacao. Anyway, a great cocktail (good Manhattan is one of my favourites) and I might just have to make a second soon to confirm the opinion!! Great blog! I do look forward to it in my Inbox. Thanks

    1. Thank you for the compliment, Philip. Only one place to buy rye, and only one kind at that. It’s a good reminder to be thankful for the things I can get here in Minnesota, and not dwell on the things I haven’t seen. And there’s a lot worse ryes in the world than (ri)1.

      Thanks for taking time to comment, I’ve learned a little bit about Hong Kong.

  5. It’s hot here! I don’t suffer the heat well, likely because it limits my choices of cocktails, but the Oriental hits it out of the park. It is a perfect mix of sweet and sour with zero alcohol notes. And it made me think of the lyrics of one of my favourite singers:

    “If only life could be so perfect
    […]the only trouble we’d have would be to decide
    Which drink to make on a lovely summer night”

    Ahh, music and cocktails, what artistry

    1. I hadn’t really thought of the Oriental as particularly a hot weather cocktail. Since I seem to have a hot day at hand, I think I’ll just try that out—with some music. Thanks!

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