If you ever find yourself at a fancy party devoid of entertainment, locate the closest Ivy League-looking person, ask them where they went to university and watch how hard they try not to answer.
Princeton Tigers will demurely announce they matriculated “in New Jersey.” Yalies “studied in New Haven,” a tactic they might have learned taking David Brooks’ course in humility. The standard-bearers of this opaque rhetorical exercise, however, are graduates of that “small school in Cambridge,” an institution so prestigious that the mere act of name-checking it is known in Crimson-draped circles as “dropping the H-Bomb.”
Inescapable as Harvard’s renown may be, its namesake drink doesn’t enjoy nearly the same notoriety. The original Harvard Cocktail—equal parts Italian vermouth and brandy (plus gum syrup and Angostura bitters), stirred, strained and topped with seltzer—first appears in George J. Kappeler’s 1895 Modern American Drinks.
For Sother Teague, beverage director of Amor y Amargo, Cognac “gives the drinker a long perspective of its history… I think of it as tasting through time.” A lifelong fan of the spirit’s complexity in cocktail applications, he first learned of the Harvard during an R&D session at the Amor y Amargo, which exclusively serves stirred offerings culled from a staggering selection of aperitivi, aromatized wines, amari and bitters.
Teague was messing around with brandy-based Manhattans when his friend, Seoul-based bartender Chris Lowder, mentioned Kappeler’s fondness for seltzer, an ingredient that appears frequently throughout Modern American Drinks. Though it struck him as an “odd addition”—strong-and-stirred purists are often sensitive about dilution—he soon found the bubbles an effective, if unorthodox, enhancement. “It serves to brighten the cocktail, as both Cognac and sweet vermouth are pretty rich on one’s palate,” he says.
While Teague thinks the original equal-parts Harvard was likely poured long, with plenty of seltzer (“similar to how we think of a spritz”), his opts for a 2-to-1 ratio of Cognac to vermouth, with a smaller portion of fizz to finish—“more like a Manhattan, and I arrived there by thinking of it as one,” he says. This distinguishes his Harvard from a number of variants that began appearing in print in the mid-20th century, featuring ingredients like gin, grenadine, Curaçao and lemon juice — some with seltzer, some without.
There aren’t many details on the Harvard prior to its mention in Modern American Drinks, though there are a few circumstantial clues that hint at its provenance. For example, the book also features drinks named after Princeton (gin, port, orange bitters) and Yale (gin, orange and Angostura bitters, seltzer), suggestive of the blue-blood clientele Kappeler catered to at the Holland House, a Gilded Age hotel that stood at 30th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
Roughly one mile north, on 44th Street, sits the the Harvard Club, a tony private gathering place for alumni and associates. Prior to its members securing this permanent space in the 1890s, they gathered at Delmonico’s, the legendary New York restaurant whose namesake cocktail features elements found in all three of Kappeler’s Ivy League odes.
Maybe these Harvardians harvested inspiration from that house drink and made it their own. Or perhaps Kappeler, whose bar sat on this glitzy Midtown cocktail circuit, was the one to see it through. Turns out, I’m not the only one wondering—even close associates of the “just outside Boston” Brahmin are out of the loop. In his book Bitters, Brad Thomas Parsons recalls a conversation he had during a lunchtime visit to the Harvard Club: “I asked the well-appointed barman if he had many calls for Harvard’s namesake cocktail,” Parsons writes. “His response of ‘Say again?’ made me think that one hadn’t been ordered there since 1895.”