Bring Back the Douglas Fairbanks

Bartender Brian Kane reimagines the Prohibition-era cocktail as a modern “Daiquiri on steroids.”

Douglas Fairbanks is best remembered for playing self-assured, sword-swinging heroes in silent films throughout the 1920s. A versatile actor turned action icon, he delighted moviegoers with his cocksure, debonair portrayals of Zorro, D’Artagnan and Robin Hood, performing all his own stunts to showcase his acrobatic prowess.

“A superb physical specimen, possessing an inherent radiance and magnetism,” according to Hollywood historian Jeffrey Vance, Fairbanks stayed in peak fighting form via vigorous exercise, and a fierce abstinence from alcohol. “Perhaps the greatest foe to athletic success among young college men is strong drink,” writes Fairbanks in Making Life Worthwhile, a self-help book he authored in 1918. “Personally, I have never tasted liquor of any sort.”

This means the teetotaler likely never tried his own cocktail, a mixture of gin, apricot brandy, lemon and egg white whose tracks lead back to Prohibition-era Cuba.

Brian Kane, bartender at The International in Philadelphia, first encountered the potable Fairbanks in an old Sloppy Joe’s Cocktails Manual he picked up at a used bookstore. Printed seasonally throughout the 1930s, it’s a pocket guide to everything José Abeal Otero offered customers at his famous Havana dive in the years preceding the 1959 revolution. Shaken and served in a flute, the Douglas Fairbanks shared the Sloppy Joe’s bill with other luminaries of the period, including his second wife Mary Pickford, whose rum-based, Cuban-made namesake enjoys much more modern attention.

While it appears in the pages of a Cuban cocktail book, there is little evidence confirming where, when or even if the Douglas Fairbanks was born on Cuban soil. The Savoy Cocktail Book from 1930 features a Fairbanks recipe close to the Sloppy Joe’s version, offering evidence that it had existed prior to publication. But complicating matters is the mention of a second Fairbanks in the same book—this one a 2-to-1 Martini with orange bitters and crème de noyaux.

Turns out the latter variation, also listed in Harry McElhone’s 1921 ABC of Mixing Cocktails and in a 1930 edition of Bill Boothby’s World Drinks and How to Mix Them, was invented in St. Louis in 1907, inspired not by The Thief of Bagdad but by a lawmaker—Charles W. Fairbanks, Teddy Roosevelt’s vice president from 1905 to 1909. Predictably, these dueling Fairbankses have blurred together over the years, but it’s the Sloppy Joe’s spec that got Kane’s gears turning.

“You can’t just take a cocktail out of a book and not tinker with it,” says Kane, who began messing with the recipe in his previous position as beverage director of Abe Fisher. His updated version, the Fairbanks Loan No. 2, starts with a split base of gin and Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple Rum, which incorporates the actual rind and flesh of Victoria pineapples—a nod to the fruit brandy base of the original.

A desire to keep the Fairbanks fruit-forward informed what might be Kane’s wonkiest tweak. In a separate glass, he’ll stir together Lillet, Cynar and Campari in a ratio of 4 to 2 to 1 in an impromptu cordial, then add a half-ounce of this “Lilletperitif,” as he calls it, to the Douglas Fairbanks tin. The acidity of Lillet mellows the gin, he says, while the citrus notes present in all three backbar staples reinforce the fresh lemon and lime, kept to a cumulative half-ounce (there’s only so much room in the glass). “If you really want to go to town on this drink, I will always say this is the best way to go,” says Kane, adding that a straight half-ounce of either Lillet or Aperol would work “in a pinch.” Nixing the egg white and adding a touch of honey syrup completes Kane’s version of the drink, which, he acknowledges, takes a few creative liberties.

“This variation is a bit of a stretch. But it’s delicious, so consider it a director’s cut,” or, he says, “a Daiquiri on steroids.”

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