Recently, a set of six 1950s ceramic coasters came up for sale on eBay. Five of the coasters featured drawings and recipes for cocktails anyone from that time would know: Martini, Manhattan, Sidecar, White Lady and Gin Fizz. The sixth, however, was a wild card: the Ohio, a drink, the coaster told, that was made with Cognac, Curaçao, bitters and Champagne.
Why had this mysterious drink been included among its more famous fellows? The key to the mystery lies in the country where the coasters were manufactured: Germany. While the Ohio cocktail has zero recognition value in the United States, it has a long history in Deutschland, turning up in German drink manuals as early as 1913. It also makes appearances through the first half of the 20th century, in books published in other European countries, such as Switzerland, Italy and Sweden. But Germany is the Ohio’s epicenter.
Klaus St. Rainer, a career bartender who worked for years at the famous Schumann’s Bar in Munich, cited Wohl Bekomm’s (that’s German for “Cheers”), a cocktail book by Thaddäus Troll and Gertrud Oheim from 1958, as proof that the Ohio was once popular and prevalent among Germans. In it, the Ohio is described as “a well-known and beloved sparkling wine cocktail which will be mixed in nearly every bar after their own special recipe.”
That every bar would have their own recipe makes sense, since it seems that from the very beginning, there were two rival recipes for the Ohio. One common formula calls for Cognac, Curaçao and bitters, topped with Champagne. But equally as common are recipes that resemble a Manhattan, using whiskey (sometimes American, sometimes Canadian) and sweet vermouth, again finished with Champagne, and sometimes including Curaçao, too. One of the earliest books to include the drink, Lexikon der Getränke, by John Leybold and Hans Schönfeld, published in 1913, includes both versions, as “Ohio Cocktail I” and “Ohio Cocktail II.” (I like both expressions, though the one served at Buck and Breck in Berlin, made with rye, is particularly excellent.)
There are other wildcard recipes that make the trail of the Ohio even harder to track. One, from a 1917 Swedish cocktail book by John Ljunggren, calls for a little crème de cacao. Another, from a 1949 German book by Gustav Fink, requires equal parts brandy and Madeira. And a couple books from the 1930s eliminate the Champagne altogether, making the drink little more than a Manhattan. This confusion is perhaps part of the reason the Ohio is not popular in today’s Germany, despite its national heritage.
“I have kind of never heard a guest ordering it,” says Joerg Meyer, owner of the famous Le Lion Bar in Hamburg. St. Rainer echoes Meyer, saying, “The only guy who ordered an Ohio was Stephan Berg from The Bitter Truth bitters, and this was around 2008.”
According to Berg, the Ohio received a little renewed attention when Charles Schumann, the owner of Schumann’s Bar, put a Canadian whisky version of the drink in his seminal cocktail book, Schumann’s Bar, in 1984, but not much. “Even in those days when Schumann’s Bar book was the Bible, I don’t recall any moments when I served it and got it served anywhere.”
If the Ohio’s steep decline in popularity is one conundrum, its origins are another. Franz Brandl is a seasoned bartender who’s run several bar programs in Munich over the course of decades and published a couple dozen books about cocktails. If anyone might know where the Ohio came from, it’s him. But his research has drawn a blank.
“I’ve known the drink since the 1960s, but nothing about its origin,” he says.
Brandl can, however, speak to the drink’s trajectory during his time as a bartender. He said that while it was still served by bartenders in the 1970s, it began a slow fade into obscurity after that. He even stopped including the recipe in his own books after 1988. “It has almost completely disappeared and is only remembered by the older bartenders,” says Brandl.
However, if you are a determined drinker, you can still catch the Ohio on menus at classically oriented cocktail bars like Victoria Bar, Amano Bar (which describes it as a “creation from the Kaiser Wilhelms’ days”) and Buck and Breck, all in Berlin. “The Ohio is part of our repertoire in the category of classic Champagne drinks,” says Gonçalo de Sousa Monteiro, the owner of Buck and Breck. “Though we alternate our drink selection as printed on the actual menu, the Ohio belongs to a circle which is always present.”
There’s one final mystery surrounding the Ohio, and that’s why the cocktail was named after a state in America’s Midwest. This, however, is not too difficult to fathom. Germans immigrated to Ohio in huge numbers during the 19th century and established communities in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and elsewhere. Many Germans, at that time, probably had a friend or relative who lived in Ohio. Perhaps the cocktail was named in recognition of this inter-country connection.
While the drink will likely never again make its way into the company of the Martini and the Manhattan, there is still a chance that the Ohio will make a comeback. Gonçalo de Sousa Monteiro pointed out that the recipe is still included in Schumann’s book, which is commonly used as a reference by German bartenders. It also has its straightforward flavor profile going for it.
“I remember at the end of the 1990s when me and my fellows started to fall in love with Manhattans,” says St. Ranier, “and then someone made the Ohio. He said, ‘This is a kind of little Manhattan plus Curaçao and a lots of bitters, filled up with Champagne.’ Awesome!”