The Diamondback has already had a revival. The mixture of rye, apple brandy and yellow Chartreuse had a moment of stardom during the mid-aughts at bars like New York’s Pegu Club, Milk & Honey and Little Branch. But from where did the Diamondback come, and what was it about the 20th-century drink that made it so popular among this first wave of renaissance hot spots?
One driving force behind the Diamondback’s revival was the book in which it’s printed. The drink’s inclusion in Bottoms Up, a compilation of recipes collected by onetime Waldorf-Astoria publicist Ted Saucier, put it on the bartending community’s radar at a time when few old bar manuals were available. The book’s availability was bolstered by its racy reputation. Richard Boccato, who worked at Milk & Honey and Little Branch and who now runs New York’s Dutch Kills and The Gem, on Lake George in the Adirondacks, says that Bottoms Up was “the ‘sexy cocktail book’ at the time, with its risqué, Playboy-type illustrations.”
In the book, Saucier credits the creation of the cocktail to the Diamondback Lounge at the Lord Baltimore Hotel, which was constructed in the late 1920s, just a few years before Repeal. That places the date of invention sometime between 1933 and the book’s publication in 1951.
But the composition of the Diamondback reflects an earlier, turn-of-the-century aesthetic seen in drinks like the Widow’s Kiss and the Stinger—very boozy, and flavored with imported liqueurs. The original recipe calls for two parts rye to one part each applejack and yellow Chartreuse, shaken then served over cracked ice, with a sprig of mint for garnish. This was not unusual for spirit-forward drinks during this period, though modern iterations tend to stir the cocktail and serve it up.
The second major factor contributing to the Diamondback’s success was the new availability of Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy in New York. Lisa Laird Dunn, COO and global ambassador for the heritage producer, recalls that Pegu Club founder Audrey Saunders played an instrumental role in getting the product listed in the city, helping to popularize it there and beyond. “With the bartending community being global and transitory, we began to receive interest from other parts of the country and even abroad,” she says.
St. John Frizell, Fort Defiance founder and partner in Gage & Tollner, both in Brooklyn, recalls making Diamondbacks circa 2006 and 2007 at Pegu Club. Though he maintains that the Diamondback is a little too strong for his tastes, Frizell notes that the cocktail’s triumvirate of ingredients was “emblematic” of the bar’s program at the time. Boccato, too, was one of the bartenders enthralled with the Laird’s product. “[It] was just the bottle that everybody wanted to touch,” he says, citing the apple brandy’s higher ABV and versatility in stirred drinks. In a nod to the spirits used in the Diamondback, he and Michael McIlroy developed the American Trilogy, a split-base Old-Fashioned made with rye and applejack.
The combination of spirits worked well together, and it began showing up in other drinks, too. Flipping the Diamondback’s ratio of rye to apple brandy, bartenders at Pegu Club created the Copperhead. (The name of this variation reveals longstanding confusion about the original drink’s name: The Diamondback Lounge was named for the diamondback terrapin, a turtle species that figured heavily in Gilded Age cuisine, not the diamondback rattlesnake.)
Though today’s bartenders still look back in time for inspiration, the proliferation of cocktail-focused bars has resulted in a departure from the narrow aesthetic in which the revival was rooted. Gone are the days of arm garters and Aviations, and the Diamondback might very well stay hidden away in the darkened speakeasy. But as time goes on, a new generation of bartenders may begin to view the cocktail renaissance itself as a historical period to mine for inspiration, especially in response to the hyperclean, modern minimalism trend and the recent crop of low- or no-ABV drinks. The Diamondback’s appeal lies in how unabashedly old-fashioned it is, and how, if you’re not careful, it can knock you on your ass.