It goes by many different names: Jungle Juice. Spodie. Trash Can Juice. Grain-alcohol punch. But if you’re in the American South, says Alex Pincus, you’re more likely to know it as Purple Jesus.
“When you threw up, it would be purple,” he explains of the hard-hitting party drink. “And you’d look up from the toilet, saying, ‘Jesus.’”
Yet, from this inelegant memory rises one of the top-selling drinks at Holywater, a playful New Orleans–inspired restaurant in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. Co-owned by Pincus and his brother Miles, the restaurant draws on maritime themes and offers a $300 “omakase” seafood tower. (The brothers also co-own Grand Banks, an oyster bar located on a wooden schooner docked in the Hudson River, as well as waterfront restaurants Island Oyster and Pilot.)
Arguably, it wouldn’t take much to elevate a drink that’s often hastily mixed in an Igloo cooler. But from the memory of the plastic trough ascends a tall, two-tone highball crowned with a paper umbrella, a high-low whimsy ideal for washing down an order of tater tots topped with caviar.
“It’s nostalgic. We thought of it as celebrating our youth, in a slightly more responsible but still joyful way,” says Pincus of the drink, reinvented with vodka and “purple Kool-Aid syrup,” then topped up with Miller High Life.
The first adjustment was to switch out the base spirit, subbing vodka (they use Tenmile Distillery's Sinpatch vodka) for the original Everclear. “It’s very hard-core,” Pincus notes of the original formula, “and Everclear’s not legal in New York state.” From there, it was a natural choice to lengthen the drink with the unfussy “Champagne of beers,” which gives the drink a little effervescence and a slight hoppy bitterness.
Although he experimented with a few different colors, he settled on purple Kool-Aid to pay homage to the drink name, which is incorporated by combining the unsweetened drink mix with simple syrup. “The color is nice, and you get the flavor without it being intense.” An ounce of lime juice adds the right amount of tartness.
While the components came together swiftly, it took several iterations to nail the right format, Pincus recalls; overall, it took about 10 iterations.
“We started in a coupe, served up,” he remembers. “It was kind of funny, but it was hard to get the proportions to work in a drink that size. And it really needs ice to drink properly.” The next stop was a rocks glass, but the drink, at the time still a solid mass of purple, “didn’t feel like a slow-sipping cocktail” in that presentation.
A Collins glass proved to be the right vessel, but the fine-tuning continued. Crushed ice was swapped out for Kold-Draft cubes, for instance, but the real “aha!” moment came when bartender Eric Trickett floated the beer as a topper instead of mixing it in, giving the drink its distinctive two-tone visual appeal.
“Eric, our bartender, did the float and put the High Life down next to it, half empty,” recalls Pincus. “We all collectively understood that’s how it should be done.” At Holywater, the drink is still served with the half-empty pony on the side, intended as a chaser.
The end result is an upscale version of a decidedly down-market party drink, and one that’s proved immensely popular with guests. Pincus hazards a few guesses why:
“It’s purple, it’s not too complicated,” he says. Plus, he notes, “people just like the name.”