The Return of the Pan American Clipper

The tropical, brandy-based classic has become a sleeper hit among bartenders.

If any one person is responsible for the Pan American Clipper’s quiet return to cocktail menus, it’s St. John Frizell. About a decade ago, the proprietor of Brooklyn’s Fort Defiance and the forthcoming Gage & Tollner made a personal mission of following the tracks of a then-little-known author and globe-trotting bon vivant named Charles H. Baker Jr. 

Baker’s books, notably The Gentleman’s Companion, or Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask, published in 1939, blurred the line between cocktail book and travelogue, bringing far-flung drinks from tropical locales, including the Mexican Firing Squad and Remember the Maine, to modern cocktail menus. Yet until recently, the Pan American Clipper—a bracing mix of apple brandy, lime and grenadine, plus a dash of absinthe—received little attention. Even in his book, the usually verbose Baker gives little by way of explanation, noting only that the drink hails “from the Notebook of One of Our Pilot Friends Who—when Off Duty—May Seek One.”

The Pan American isn’t the only “clipper cocktail” to exist; it’s one of a number of spirit-forward sours named for, and sometimes served on, aircraft. According to Pan Am Clippers: The Golden Age of Flying Boats, written by James Trautman in 2007, Pan American Clippers served a proprietary Clipper Cocktail consisting of golden rum, dry vermouth and a dash of grenadine—very similar to the El Presidente. Meanwhile, the South Pacific route served a similar South Seas Clipper (gin, orange juice, Curaçao). And in 2006, under the purview of Martin Cate, the Alameda, California, tiki bar Forbidden Island introduced the China Clipper (amber rum, five-spice syrup, lemon juice), named for the 1930s seaplane that took its maiden voyage out of Alameda.

But it was the brandy-based Pan American Clipper that made it into Baker’s book, and subsequently caught Frizell’s attention. “I often go back to his books to look for inspiration,” says Frizell. “I remember looking at the spec and thinking, ‘This is essentially a Jack Rose with absinthe, so this will taste good.’ And it does!” He added it to the menu in 2014—the same year Cocktail Kingdom reprinted The South American Gentleman’s Companion, another Baker book that was originally published in 1951, with an introduction written by Frizell.

Until recently, Frizell stuck closely to Baker’s original instructions, using two ounces of brandy, specifically Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy, as the base. “Last winter, I had a dream where I split the base between the bonded apple brandy and Jersey Lightning,” an unaged apple brandy made by Laird’s, recalls Frizell, noting that the split base markedly improved the drink. “You get the benefits of the barrel flavor that plays nicely with the pomegranate, the baking spices that come out in the bonded apple brandy, but you also get this really fresh, apple-y flavor from the unaged. It makes for a lighter drink, the color is better, it’s more lively.”

The pink drink has long been a sleeper favorite among bartenders, earning a longtime spot on the menu at the recently-shuttered Flatiron Lounge and, of course, Frizell’s Fort Defiance. It’s also a standby off-menu option at Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere. But, more recently, the Pan American Clipper has begun to claim a larger share of the spotlight, particularly as brandy has gained popularity among bartenders. With so few brandy standards to turn to, beyond the Sidecar and the Jack Rose, the Pam American Clipper—essentially, an improved brandy sour—has proven to be a versatile addition to the canon.

At Dama in Los Angeles, the drink features Calvados, specifically a single-barrel selection from a small producer that managing partner and beverage director Pablo Moix scored while traveling through Normandy with fellow brandy enthusiast Thad Vogler. There, the drink fits seamlessly into the restaurant’s focus on drinks sourced from the Caribbean, but which stand firmly outside the tiki realm.

New York’s Holy Ground also calls on Calvados in their rendition. “It provides more structured fruit for what’s typically an austere cocktail, and makes a more forgiving version,” says beverage director Nathan Lithgow, who punches the formula up with several dashes of Angostura bitters. Lithgow first encountered the drink at Maison Premiere, he recalls. Now, he favors the Clipper for its “wintertime sensibility,” he says. “It functions as a solid nightcap as well as a richer first round.”

In addition to providing a welcome showcase for brandy and absinthe, the drink also evokes a different era, when pilots, such as the one referenced in Baker’s recipe, were viewed as glamorous, jet-setting daredevils. After Baker retired from cruising, he settled down in Coconut Grove, Florida, very close to where Pan Am had just opened the first international airport. It’s likely part of the reason that Baker included its namesake drink in his book, Frizell explains.

While he isn’t convinced that he’s the reason the Pan American Clipper has been revived, Frizell’s deep interest in Baker—and this drink in particular—hasn’t hurt. “I’ve certainly been talking about it forever,” he says.

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