When creating the cocktail menu for Gage & Tollner, the storied chophouse whose grand reopening was postponed from March 2020 to April 15, 2021, the plan was to feature drinks that the Brooklyn institution had served over its centurylong run, parsing menus in the archive from 1879 to 2004. Right smack in the middle of the midcentury recipes was the Harvey Wallbanger.
“It was a ‘challenge accepted’ moment,” says head bartender Jelani Johnson. “We said, ‘Let’s make it the way we want it to be made,’” he recalls. “We took some liberties, but it was all for the sake of making it good.”
The origins of the original Wallbanger—vodka, orange juice and a float of Galliano—are hazy, often credited to Hollywood bartender Donato Antone of Duke’s Blackwatch Bar in the 1950s, or a late-1960s marketing scheme dreamed up by Galliano’s brand team. At any rate, the drink certainly picked up momentum during the 1970s, becoming one of the more famous of the “disco drink” set.
In workshopping his version of the drink, Johnson first tried tweaking the proportions, experimenting with different vodkas, even subbing in pasteurized orange juice.
“We tried it a dozen different ways,” he recalls. “But it wasn’t working, it just came out flat. It was never any better than a glorified Screwdriver.”
The aha moment came when he took a slight departure from the classic construct. He dropped vodka for gin, specifically Plymouth, which is lighter and more neutral compared to typical “too assertive” London dry gins. “We didn’t want it to scream ‘gin cocktail,’” he explains. “It’s the same drink. We’re just trying to make it good again.”
With the gin locked in, other elements soon fell into place. Galliano, of course, was required—“It’s not a Harvey Wallbanger without the Galliano”—but it was incorporated within the drink rather than floated on top, rendering it a subtler sweetener. Orange juice, “as freshly squeezed as possible,” was supplemented with lemon juice for more bracing acidity.
To balance that tartness, Johnson added a teaspoon of rich cane sugar syrup, adding body to the mixture.
The final touch: a long curl of orange peel. “We were about to give it an orange slice, but we thought it needed a little extra oil,” he recalls. First, the oils are expressed inside a Collins glass, then the peel is draped into an elegant “horse’s neck,” a classic garnish that fits with Gage & Tollner’s timeless aesthetic. “Expressed orange makes it extra orangey,” Johnson explains. “It tastes like a modern cocktail should.”
For now, Johnson is happy with the result and doesn’t expect to tweak the cocktail further. “It’s rock solid,” he says. “It’s staying the way it is.”