The D List: Bringing Back the Bentley

Supposedly inspired by a group of high-rolling British race car drivers, this Prohibition-era "50/50 brandy Manhattan" may be poised to break through.

Like a sales lot filled with pre-owned vehicles, there is little stylistic consistency when it comes to car-inspired cocktails. The Galliano-based Golden Cadillac is thick and sweet, especially when you give it the Wisconsin treatment and add ice cream; the Ferrari, a mix of Fernet Branca and Campari, offers a sleeker ride; gin, sweet and dry vermouths and Bénédictine make up the regal Rolls Royce.

And then there’s the Bentley Cocktail, a 50/50 mix of calvados and the French aperitif wine, Dubonnet. It’s the most obscure of the bunch, but with the recent reformulation of Dubonnet for the American market and the popularity of the “50/50” as a bartender handshake, it may be poised to break through.

Phoebe Esmon, an Asheville, North Carolina, bartender and consultant, was turned onto the recipe, listed in Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book (1930), by her fiancé and business partner, Christian Gaal. It was a natural fit, as she was already a fan of both calvados and low-ABV constructions. “I love an equal-parts drink,” says Esmon, who appreciates the “measure of self-control” required to make one right. “They take a lot of forethought and are among the most difficult to balance perfectly.”

Nailing down exactly when the Bentley was born behind the bar is also tricky. Despite its Gallic components, it’s English through and through, named after the hallowed auto maker founded in North London in 1919.

Bentley, which originally manufactured plane engines for the Royal Air Force, made an early name for itself thanks to the colorful drivers it employed in pursuit of race titles. The so-called Bentley Boys consisted of “a bunch of wild, fabulously wealthy devil-may-carers, united by a love of insouciance, elegant tailoring and a need for speed,” according to The RakeSeemingly spit out by an F. Scott Fitzgerald character generator, these hard-partying high society adrenaline junkies boosted Bentley’s international profile to unseen heights.

According to some, the Boys’ success (and unquenchable thirst) led to the creation of the potable Bentley. In 1927, following a particularly perilous victory at Le Mans, the prestigious French endurance race, the drivers were feted at an opulent 11-course black-tie banquet hosted at the Savoy Hotel in London, then home to Craddock. The guest of honor was the actual winning car, which they somehow squeezed into the dining room. According to racing historian Charles Dressing, the Savoy’s beverage service included an outsize supply of Veuve Clicquot and Perrier-Jouët Champagnes, Courvoisier Cognac and cold Bentleys aplenty.

It’s this legendary rager, which the company recreated at the Savoy when it again won Le Mans in 2003, that is frequently cited as the origin of the cocktail, though there’s no consensus on who truly invented it. The car brand itself and many others formally credit Craddock, while some sources nod to Woolf “Babe” Barnato, the dashing racer who’d later purchase Bentley.

In either case, evidence suggests that the Bentley predates that 1927 party by at least several years. A recipe identical to the one in Craddock’s Savoy appears in the circa-1925 Buckstone Book of Cocktails by London bartenders Robert Buckby and George Stone. In 1926, The Atlanta Constitution published a dispatch from Craddock, taunting readers in the then-dry United States with highlights from his Savoy menu. The Bentley is tucked in among them.

Nebulous as the backstory may be, the Bentley remained virtually unchanged in printed mentions through the late 1940s. Esmon, in her version, has made only minor tweaks aimed at accentuating both ingredients.

Though Craddock calls for a shaker, “I do prefer it stirred, which gives it a silkier texture,” she says. Esmon also adds orange bitters, which she believes are a natural addition to the build. “Since the drink is essentially a 50/50 brandy Manhattan, the dashes of bitters are part of the canon,” she says. “But in this case, I like them for uniting the bitter orange in the Dubonnet and the floral and earthy notes in the calvados.” (The reasonably priced Roger Groult 3 Year Old Calvados is her go-to.)

On their own, each component of the Bentley provides its own experience, but together they transform into something else entirely, observes Esmon. “The reason this drink works so well is similar to the way a good relationship works: The Dubonnet and calvados provide something that the other lacks.”

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