The Rose has been following Jim Meehan around for nearly two decades. Punctuating major moments in his career, each subsequent spec Meehan has created for the drink reflects not only his own bartending sensibilities, but the broader cocktail zeitgeist of the moment. This evolution, Meehan says, is natural. “If you spend 20 years with a recipe, you might not make it the same the whole time.”
The original Rose was created by Johnny Mitta of the Hotel Chatham in Paris in the 1910s. The drink is an outgrowth of the Vermouth Cocktail genre, made with a reverse Martini build of 2:1 French vermouth to kirschwasser (a cherry eau de vie from Central Europe). It originally featured sirop de groseille, or red currant syrup, though raspberry syrup and grenadine both figure heavily in the drink’s history as well. In The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails, Fernando Castellon asserts that the Rose was “effectively the signature drink of Paris from the early 1900s until World War II.” It also appeared as the “Rose Cocktail (French Style No. 3)” in The Savoy Cocktail Book.
The Rose was one of those pre-Prohibition cocktails that got picked up by the scholars of the early cocktail renaissance, likely due to its inclusion in the Savoy book. Meehan first noticed the drink in Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, where it appeared shaken, with a base of dry vermouth fortified with kirschwasser and flavored with raspberry syrup. In the headnote to the recipe, Haigh wrote that drinks historian David Wondrich believed the Rose to be “the most lamentably forgotten cocktail,” which piqued Meehan’s interest. Intrigued by what had been called “the most forgotten cocktail in the forgotten cocktail book,” he says the drink was “a bit of a Rosetta stone.”
When Haigh’s book came out in 2004, Meehan says, everyone was using Noilly Prat extra dry vermouth and industrially produced cherry eau de vie to make the Rose. The raspberry syrup used in those earliest days, he says, was a product designed for ice cream sundaes. By the time he published The PDT Cocktail Book in 2011, though, he had made strides to elevate the called-for ingredients. Though the vermouth base remained the same, Meehan was now able to get a high-quality kirsch from Oregon’s Clear Creek Distillery; also, he’d ditched the syrup in favor of imported raspberry preserves, which added texture and a deeper fruit flavor. In a departure from the recipe in Haigh’s book, Meehan’s version was stirred, rather than shaken.
The next big breakthrough for Meehan’s Rose came when Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz started importing Dolin vermouth from France. The producer had a long history of making vermouth de Chambéry, commonly referred to as blanc vermouth. The sweeter style, previously unavailable in the United States, was championed by Wondrich who, through his work on the history of the El Presidente, had realized that many references to French vermouth actually referred to the blanc style, not the dry vermouth used for the American Martini. According to Meehan, Noilly Pratt’s “sherry-oxidized style” didn’t complement the combination of cherry eau de vie and raspberry syrup in the Rose. “But if you make it with blanc vermouth, it sings,” he says.
In 2017, Meehan published his second book, Meehan’s Bartender Manual, and, naturally, he once again included a recipe for the Rose. This recipe reflects the blanc vermouth revelation, calling for a full two ounces, plus an ounce of cherry eau de vie from revered Austrian producer Reisetbauer. For the sweetener, Meehan opted for Small Hand Foods’ raspberry gum syrup, which, he pointed out in the recipe notes, doesn’t necessitate the fine-straining called for in his preserves-driven PDT spec.
The final piece of the puzzle materialized in the spring of 2021. In all of his attempts at creating the perfect Rose, Meehan had never been able to source the sirop de groseille called for in the original French recipes. Then, one day, he was shopping at a market that sourced local Oregon products and came across red currant preserves from Ayers Creek Farm. He bought 20 jars.
At Meehan’s latest project, Takibi in Portland, Oregon, he serves the Rose City, his updated take named after the bar’s hometown. In it, he uses the red currant preserves, a split base of blanc and dry vermouths and an unusual eau de vie from Portland producer Stone Barn Brandyworks, made with local Rainier cherries and matsutake mushrooms. The mushrooms, Meehan says, lend a “mesmerizing perfume”—more aroma than flavor. To finish, the drink is garnished with a kirsch-brandied cherry on a pick.
Even after so many iterations, Meehan isn’t done refining the drink. This past spring, he learned that Ayers Creek Farm was closing after 24 years. The news gave him pause to reflect on what he sees as the Sisyphean task of trying to get the Rose to catch on all these years, and the future of his spec. “I can go back to raspberry or other fruit, but the sirop de groseille piece was one of the last strands I ever unraveled to taste the drink like it might have tasted way back in the day.” Still, given Meehan’s history with the cocktail, his next version is sure to be his best yet.