There are more than 800 cocktail recipes in The Waldorf Astoria Bar Book, and Frank Caiafa tasted and tweaked every last one. For a drink to stand out in this formidable crowd, it had to be very good or very odd—or both, as is the case with the Chauncey.
Caiafa, who managed the Waldorf Astoria’s famed Peacock Alley bar from 2005 until 2017 when it closed for renovations, dedicated five years to writing his 2016 reboot of the hotel’s iconic cocktail manual. Originally published in 1934 to capitalize on America’s post-repeal thirst, The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book by Albert Stevens Crockett chronicled the colorful pre-Prohibition drinking scene at the hotel’s original Fifth Avenue location, which was demolished in 1929 to make way for the Empire State Building.
In one section, Crockett, a well-known journalist of his day, outlines the namesakes of cocktails inspired by prominent regulars and associates of the hotel. The Armour, for example, was a nod to Chicago meat magnate J. Ogden Armour; the Beadleston honored a partner in Beadleston & Woerz, a local brewery that supplied the bar.
But in the case of the Chauncey—Old Tom gin, whiskey, Italian vermouth and brandy in equal measure, with a hit of orange bitters—all Crockett teases is that “a famous orator and wit” inspired the name. A likely candidate: Chauncey Depew, a Republican senator from New York renowned for his speaking prowess. Depew delivered numerous speeches at the Waldorf Astoria for society functions, military fêtes and dinners honoring presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft. The 1934 book Pioneers of Mixing at Elite Bars also lists a contemporaneous “Chauncey Depew,” a shaken drink of sherry, sweet vermouth, bitters and orgeat.
Ironically, the man whose name graces at least two different cocktails from this era had little interest in consuming them. “[He] rarely touched anything to drink,” reads Depew’s 1928 New York Times obituary. “When he drank, he took a little wine.”
Caiafa, for his part, was much more intrigued with the Chauncey’s unusual makeup than anything else. “The whiskey-gin mix, you don’t see that too often,” says the Brooklyn-born barman, who currently runs his own beverage consultancy. “But then there’s also Cognac—three lead ingredients, in equal parts, softened and modified by vermouth. Anything like that really gets your eye.”
Like so many of the recipes he updated for The Waldorf Astoria Book, Caiafa assumed the oddball Chauncey would require some modernizing. “The funny thing was, out of all the recipes that I fooled around with and rejiggered, I ended up sticking with the recipe that is in the book,” he says. “I threw a lot of whiskey down the sink chasing this, but it turns out the best one is the original one.”
But he did experiment with a variety of different brands and expressions for each of the equal-parts components. Though the original Waldorf Astoria recipe calls for Old Tom gin, the sweeter precursor to London dry that typically hovers around 80 proof, Caiafa likes to swap in American-made, 96-proof Bowling & Burch, which offers a robust, citrus-driven botanical profile. “I felt the drink could be improved, and made more complex, by using a more distinctive gin,” he explains.
Selecting this assertive spirit, however, dictated that he go subtler elsewhere. For the Cognac component he opts for H by Hine, which is specifically blended for use in cocktails, to serve as a soft, round foil for its gin counterpart. Still, “I needed the spine to come from somewhere,” says Caiafa. Completing his equal-parts trio, New York Distilling Company’s Ragtime Rye provides muscle and spice.
“You don’t want to have all your ingredients be bold—you want a nice mix,” notes Caiafa. It’s a system of checks and balances. If you want to emphasize a unique Cognac or Armagnac, for example, use an Old Tom gin; or, go with a standard London dry, and tone down the whiskey portion of the equation by using a less-assertive bourbon in lieu of rye. It is, like so many time-tested formulas, infinitely customizable. “It’s a drink just like any other drink,” says Caiafa. “Only more so.”