Bring Back the White Witch

Bartender Ezra Star reimagines the oddball, crème de cacao-spiked Trader Vic classic.

The White Witch, a numinous being who harnesses her magic for good, is a concept as old as folklore itself. Rooted in ancient myth, she has earned pop cultural traction, too, thanks to beloved fictional characters like Glinda of Oz, Hermione Granger and Sabrina Spellman. But buried deep inside Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide lives another kind of White Witch altogether.

“I try not to drink more than two of these at a time,” says Ezra Star, general manager of Boston’s trailblazing cocktail bar Drink. “The last time I did, I ended up dancing on the bar top.”

Given the recipe’s starting point of overproof Jamaican rum, it’s unmistakably heavy-hitting. But the unusual combo of Cointreau and white crème de cacao, along with the juice of half a lime, separates this build from the realm of mere party starter. In the 1972 edition of his eponymous recipe book, Victor J. Bergeron recommends stirring the elements together with ice in a sling glass, topping it with club soda and garnishing the end result with sugar-dusted mint and the spent lime shell. 

Star first came across this recipe about seven years ago, flipping through an old copy of Trader Vic’s with a singular goal: knocking a dent in the jug of 126-proof Wray & Nephew that had landed at her bar. “I just wanted an excuse to use the handle of rum we had,” she recalls. The oddball recipe piqued her interest at first glance, but the finished product made a lasting impression.

“Wray & Nephew is such an intense, specific flavor, and to have this weird orange and chocolate with it—I didn’t understand how it worked so well,” says Star. “The first time we tried it, we were blown away by the way it brought out the flavor of the rum. I didn’t expect that.”

After applying some personal tweaks—crushed ice instead of cubed (a more refreshing format), dry Curaçao in lieu of Cointreau (tempering the sweetness), and no powdered sugar (too messy)—she began pitching the revised White Witch at Drink’s monthly tiki nights, where guests typically gravitate toward bold-faced options like the Mai Tai, Jet Pilot or Jungle Bird. Though it was the subject of some skepticism—isn’t crème de cacao only for Brandy Alexanders?—Star found that it appealed to anyone simply craving something rum-based and spirit-forward.

Determining where or when Trader Vic actually developed the White Witch isn’t so easily demystified. Bergeron introduced the first Trader Vic’s location in Oakland in 1937, releasing his Bartender’s Guide a decade later, featuring distant cousins like the White Lady and the White Lily but no White Witch. In the 1970s reprint, however, there it is, sitting right above the Zombie.

Determining from which witch the drink takes its name is a speculative exercise, but there are a few candidates to consider. The formula’s reliance on Jamaican rum evokes the popular legend of Annie Palmer, the “White Witch of Rose Hall” said to haunt the sugar cane plantation turned tourist site outside Montego Bay, Jamaica.

The most plausible White Witch, however, was herself an East Bay fixture in the same era as Trader Vic. The daughter of famed poet Joaquin Miller, Juanita Miller was born in 1880, and by the 1920s she’d emerged as a different sort of socialite—a bohemian free spirit with a penchant for astrology, poetry, theater, harp-playing and, interestingly, pagan betrothal rites. (According to a 1970 obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Miller’s 1921 wedding “began with the bride in a corpse-like state in a funeral setting. The groom kissed her and she awoke. There followed a naturalistic ritual involving the sacrifice of a goat and a demonstration of Miss Miller’s cooking prowess.”)

In the 1950s and ’60s, Miller earned a reputation as something of a soothsayer for Oakland’s youth, who would call her at all hours seeking advice on life and love. The popular nickname for Miller among her admirers? The White Witch.

Indeed, the provenance of the White Witch is a flexible one—and the drink itself is, too. “In the heat of summer, you got something to crush before you go out with your friends,” says Star. “But it also works if it’s a very cold winter and you want your brain to melt a little bit.”

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