Selma Slabiak has always wanted to get drunk with the man they called “Monk.” But since the Far East hotelier legally known as Walter Ellett Antrim died nearly 80 years ago, the Brooklyn bartender has settled for a close consolation: meditating on the cocktails he left lingering—in particular, the “messed-up Manhattan” that’s come to bear his name.
Danish-born Slabiak, late of Aska and The Breslin, first encountered Monk Antrim by way of Charles H. Baker, Jr., the boundless travel writer known for the two-volume Gentleman’s Companion. The second book in that set, subtitled Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask, overflows with vignettes of Baker’s boozing exploits throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, with particular care paid to Southeast Asia. Alongside cameos from distinguished figures like Ernest Hemingway and “Bill” Faulkner, there’s frequent mention of the lesser-known Antrim, “one of the most interesting chaps who ever hit the Islands.”
As Baker tells it, Antrim, who was born in Cairo, Illinois, in 1898, started as a dishwasher at the high-end Manila Hotel in the Philippines; by the time the two met, in 1926, Antrim had become the celebrated manager of the entire operation by grace of his personality and apparent skill behind the bar (“a careful, almost clinical, student of potable liquids”).
Prior to decamping east, Antrim fashioned himself into the collegiate equivalent of Max Fischer in Rushmore. He served as a “yell leader” at Stanford, firing up the home crowd at games. He was the announcer for the track and field teams. He was the cartoonist and editor of the student humor magazine. He served as president of the Ram’s Head Society, an all-male theater troupe, while also leading his own five-piece jazz orchestra (he played the drums). After graduation, Antrim departed to New Zealand to take an illustrator job with a news service, eventually drifting over to the Philippines, then under American control following the Treaty of Paris.
“He sounds like a guy who had a lot of swagger,” says Slabiak. “I’m sad I never got to meet him.”
While Baker and others praised Antrim for his elaborate Manila Hotel Mint Julep No. 1, fancified with pineapple, cherries and Barbados rum, it’s the man’s eponymous offering that grabbed Slabiak’s attention. The OG recipe for the Antrim Cocktail—Cognac and Port, shaken with a little sugar—at first struck her as odd.
“I thought it sounded a little intense and sweet,” says Slabiak. But then she tried it and “was surprised how balanced it was.” In workshopping the drink, she introduced some twists of her own: stirring instead of shaking, adding orange bitters, a barspoon of gomme syrup and a lemon express. “This just made the drink a little closer to the 21st-century palate,” she says, adding that the gomme syrup, which she makes with gum arabic, is the key edit. “[It] gives it that really, really nice texture.”
Having tried a few, Baker’s original disclaimer about the drink remains relevant: “This is a slow creeper-upper, so prend garde!”