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The Rise of Baltimore’s Orange Crush Cocktail

The Orange Crush cocktail—a mix of OJ, orange vodka, triple sec and lemon-lime soda—may have started on Maryland's shores, but it’s become a phenomenon throughout the state and beyond.

Orange Crush Cocktail Recipe

Phil Lewis’ right side is bigger than his left.

It’s a common physical trait among the staff at Harborside Bar & Grill in West Ocean City, Maryland, one that’s got nothing to do with uneven hammer curls or dramatic reenactments of Sly Stallone’s ’80s classic, Over the Top. Harborside, as all the signs and shirts will tell you, is the undisputed birthplace of the Orange Crush. 

The key to a Crush is actually its namesake action—the swift yanking of an industrial press juicer that flattens fresh orange halves, sending frothy OJ plummeting into a pint glass filled with ice, vodka and triple sec. Harborsiders repeat this same motion thousands upon thousands of times each season, reps that lead to Popeye-like dominant-arm definition. “We’re all disproportional,” jokes Lewis, who’s tended bar at Harborside for 12 years. A squirt of lemon-lime soda finishes off the Old Line State’s unofficial cocktail, a concoction that’s crept from its laidback beach town beginnings to become a coastal phenomenon.

Popular though it may be, the Orange Crush is not hip. It’s not slick. It demands no bottled-in-bond spirits or artisanal bitters; it requires no pre-Prohibition coupes, shoegaze-inspired nicknames or maraca-esque overhead shaking. It’s a drink created in Maryland, by Marylanders, and by all accounts that’s good enough for them.

Harborside owners Chris Wall and Lloyd Whitehead, along with their friend Jerry Wood and bartender Kelly Flynn, invented the Crush more than 20 years ago, screwing around with a bottle of Stoli O on a slow Sunday afternoon in the fall of 1995. The bar’s current build, which shares bits of DNA with drinks like the 007, the Greyhound and even the Daiquiri, is not a secret: cubed ice, two ounces each orange vodka and triple sec, the juice of one crushed orange and a splash of Sierra Mist.

It’s since been replicated by dozens of establishments, but nothing has slowed Harborside’s sales. “I have no idea why,” says Lewis, “but everybody says that they just taste better here.”

No level of fealty to the originator could prevent the Crush from spreading its Vitamin C-laden wings. A refreshing, non-threatening hot-weather option that satisfies both bonafide lushes and people who claim to hate the flavor of alcohol, it quickly began catching on at establishments outside Ocean City—call it Crushifest Destiny.

“In the 2000s, you started to see it migrate, across the [Chesapeake] Bay and into the city,” says Brian McComas, whose three Ryleigh’s Oyster outposts have won “best of Baltimore” awards for their Crushes. This is a man who takes process seriously. Each of his restaurants is equipped with a pricey ice machine that spits out 2,500 pounds of “fish ice”—those slow-melting, buckshot-size pellets that keep your Blue Points chilly. He likes it better for Crushes than conventional cubes—it looks prettier and melts better. At his suburban location in Timonium, McComas installed a walk-in refrigerator dedicated solely to storing fresh fruit—loads of oranges, but also lemons, limes and grapefruits—for his menu’s eight other variations. The investments seem to have paid off: McComas says he sold 300,000 Crushes in the 2015 calendar year.

What about this unassuming drink has made it such a hit? “It’s popular because it’s not a pretentious cocktail — it can be made by anyone, really,” says the mysterious taste-tester behind the Twitter @The_OrangeCrush. For the past three summers, the account’s anonymous owner, who lives in Ocean City, has embarked on a self-guided “Crush Tour,” patronizing 50-plus venues in a search for the best renditions. Consistency is key for this tough Crush customer, who takes into account everything from the quality of the citrus (“juice must be squeezed in your presence”) to drier variables like size and price.

At this point, the Crush has moved beyond Maryland’s borders up toward the Jersey Shore and Long Island, but these out-of-state versions have not impressed the opinionated Tweeter. “Usually it gets messed up,” the intrepid drinker says. “Kind of like crabcakes get messed up anywhere else, too.”

Back in Baltimore, places of all persuasions have cashed in on the Crush phenomenon, installing the hand-operated juicers—locals call them “crush machines”—and building out menus that riff on the base formula. (Grapefruit Crushes, which swap in Ruby Red vodka and that fruit’s fresh juice, now rival the original in popularity.)

Bars don’t have to be beachy to get in on it. “It’s one of the few actual cocktails people who normally drink light beer and a shot will order,” says John Reusing, owner of Bad Decisions. A downmarket hangout with an upmarket liquor list, the Fell’s Point bar is a destination for geeks with esoteric tastes, but it’s also frequented by more conventional boozers. With the latter group, Reusing relies on the Crush as a gateway of sorts. “Once they trust you to make a good one, you can add a tweak here or there, and all of a sudden they are enjoying a complex cocktail,” says Reusing, who’s turned skeptics on to spirits like Campari and Aperol this way.

But not every bar involved in Baltimore’s burgeoning cocktail scene is properly equipped to make the populist tipple, at least as it was originally conceived. Though Moscow Mules and Old-Fashioneds are among the most called-for drinks at the Federal Hill bar Bookmakers, beverage director Ryan Sparks also receives a fair amount of requests for Crushes, which he handles in a couple different ways.

“If someone orders something, I’m going, to the best of my ability, make that drink happen,” says Sparks. Using St. George Spirits’ orange vodka, Pierre Ferrand Curaçao and fresh (but not crushed to order) orange juice, he can put together a solid high-end Crush approximation—but he’s also fond of steering customers toward house drinks that he’s deemed its spiritual sisters.

Recently, Sparks has pitched customers the Painkiller riff that his coworker Briana Savage makes with Jägermeister, fresh pineapple and orange juices, coconut cream and nutmeg; Sparks has also put together a spicy-sweet Crush-esque rendition with green chili-infused vodka, Ancho Reyes, watermelon and lime.

That places like Bookmakers are so willing to bend to accommodate a drink that isn’t in their creative wheelhouse is a heartening sign of the post-pretense flexibility of the modern cocktail bar, but it also speaks to the ubiquity of the Orange Crush in the very particular state that birthed it.

“We like things that start here,” says Ryleigh’s owner McComas. “When it’s ours, it’s ours.”

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