A whiskey-based cocktail that seems to have all the trappings of a tiki drink, the Lion’s Tail is a curious beast—and one that has captured the imagination of modern bartenders.
This Prohibition-era drink, comprising bourbon, lime and allspice dram, was once a nearly forgotten obscurity. Yet the reappearance of allspice dram (also known as pimento dram or allspice liqueur) in the U.S. circa 2008, coupled with bartenders’ ongoing affection for tiki drinks, resuscitated the once-ailing Lion—with a few tweaks and updates.
The drink first appears in 1937’s Café Royal Cocktail Book, published in London. Unfortunately, it’s not clear whether the author of the book created the drink or ripped it off from some anonymous barkeep. The recipe also appears in the 2009 edition of Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, which helped resurface the drink stateside. “We might assume the author of the Lion’s Tail was a Prohibition refugee,” Haigh surmises; the name is a Britishism that refers to “twisting the lion’s tail”—meaning provoking the British.
Cross-reference Haigh’s book with Haus Alpenz’s reintroduction of once-obscure allspice dram to the U.S. market, and you get a sense of when— and why—the Lion’s Tail entered modern cocktail consciousness. Today, the Lion’s Tail can be spotted swishing across the U.S. from Baltimore to Seattle, both in classic form and inspired variations.
Baltimore bartender Amie Ward says the simplicity of the original is what drew her to create an amaro-spiked version of the Lion’s Tail, Coda di Leone, while redoing the bar program at Bryan Voltaggio’s Italian concept Aggio. “I snuck in the Amaro Sibona, because its silky spices and bitterness melded best with the allspice dram and whiskey.”
Meanwhile, Chad Robert Austin of Bootlegger Tiki in Palm Springs, California, tilts the drink back toward the tiki canon, adding rum and supplementing the allspice with falernum syrup. Again, the drink’s accessibility plays a part: “I literally had been reading a cocktail book the night before and it was one of the simpler cocktails that caught my eye so I remembered it.” When a guest asked for a “dealer’s choice” drink, he made the Lion’s Tail; when the guest’s companion asked for something similar, he invented what would become his Lion’s Fang variation, with rum adding additional bite.
Of course, there’s always a bartender who can’t resist the impulse to turn a simple drink into something baroque. At New York’s The Dead Rabbit, co-owner Jack McGarry tinkered with almost every aspect of the drink: rye supplanted bourbon; the bar’s house Orinoco bitters replaced the Ango; a couple of unexpected touches—orange juice, pear liqueur and crème de cacao—are added to the mix. Of the original formula, only the lime juice and pimento dram remain.
“It was a historical classic,” McGarry says. “We wanted to breathe new life into it.”