The hour was about right for a Corpse Reviver tasting—noon, around the time when one might arise from a fitful night of sleep, nursing a hangover sewn into the deep seams of the brain during an evening of carousing; the time when such a wretched soul might go in search of a hair of the dog, an eye-opener, a fog cutter—a corpse reviver, in other words.
The Top Three
But there were no hungover judges on a recent panel, convened at the PUNCH offices to find the best example of the sour in question. Guest adjudicators Frank Caiafa (Peacock Alley at the Waldorf-Astoria), Eryn Reece (Banzarbar) and Tristan Willey (Long Island Bar) arrived bright-eyed and ready to taste through a dozen examples of the cocktail, culled from bartenders across the United States, to determine which recipe best honored the drink’s reputation.
The Corpse Reviver being tested was, of course, No. 2, the more famous and popular of the two drinks that made their debut in The Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930 and go by that name. It is an equal parts mixture of gin, Lillet Blanc, lemon juice and Cointreau, with a dash of absinthe acting as accent. Asked if they ever drank or served the Corpse Reviver No. 1—a mixture of brandy, apple brandy and sweet vermouth that also appeared in the Savoy and never really took, perhaps because it was too similar to the Manhattan—the judges shook theirs heads in unison in a silent but decided “No.”
In the current century, the drink’s profile received a one-two boost from the increased popularity of gin cocktails and the return of absinthe to the American market, landing it on many early craft cocktail bar menus. Once back in circulation, the Corpse Reviver settled into its traditional role as an early-hour pepper-upper. (The original Savoy recipe carried the note, “Four of these taken in swift succession will unrevive the corpse again.”) In modern parlance, it’s known as a brunch drink. “I’ve included it on most menus for Sunday morning,” said Caiafa.
With other recipes that call for equal measurements, there’s a tendency among bartenders to play around with the proportions. The Corpse Reviver, the panel agreed, is the exception to this rule. “Unlike other equal-parts drinks, this drink needs to be equal parts,” said Caiafa. Too much citrus and the cocktail is overly tart; an excess of gin and it’s too dry.
The participating bartenders seemed to agree. More than most previous “Ultimate” tastings at PUNCH, the recipes stuck to the straight and narrow, with a minimum of experimental touches and next to no off-the-wall riffs. Each drink was solidly recognizable as a Corpse Reviver.
Because of this fidelity to the original recipe, adjustments were introduced in only a few areas. The brand of orange liqueur varied, though Cointreau was called for most of the time; a number of recipes employed Cocchi Americano, a common substitute for Lillet (the original recipe called for Kina Lillet, a much more quinine-forward expression that no longer exists); and many different gin brands came into play, but the judges tended to think that this choice, in the end, wasn’t of great importance when it came to this particular cocktail.
“I feel you can take out one gin and substitute another and it’s the same drink,” said Willey. “The only thing I taste is the strength of the gin. I’m not getting any of the nuances. Every ingredient except the lemon juice is massively herbaceous. There’s a lot of flavor to this drink.”
The treatment of the absinthe, meanwhile, was critical for both the judges—who looked for the liqueur in taste and aroma with each cocktail—and the contestants, who introduced it in myriad ways. It was mixed along with the other ingredients; dropped on the surface of the finished drink; sprayed into the empty glass; sprayed on top of the finished drink; rinsed in the glass; and shot by atomizer through a flame.
One ingredient not looked for by the panelists, but one that kept turning up like a bad penny, was a garnish. In particular, a cherry. “There’s no cherry in a Corpse Reviver,” said Reece, looking almost offended when such fruit first arrived at the table. “I don’t like cherries in citrus cocktails. I think of this drink as garnish-less.”
Caiafa and Willey agreed. And, so, confusion mounted as fully five of the 12 examples of the drink were served with cherries. One cherry-adorned version, which somehow also smacked of grapefruit, was deemed a fruit salad. “There seems to be an assumption that the cherry is a thing,” said Willey.
Unsurprisingly, none of the three winning cocktails contained a cherry. However, the winner did involve a garnish—a lemon twist. (It was the only cocktail of the tasting to wear a twist.) The work of Alicia Perry of San Diego’s Polite Provisions, it did not adhere strictly to the equal-parts doctrine, but came close, containing one ounce of Plymouth Gin, and three-quarter ounces each of Lillet, Cointreau and lemon juice, while a quarter-ounce of simple syrup lent roundness to the flavor profile. A pastis rinse completed the formula.
Curious about the effect the lemon twist had on the drink, the judges recalled two additional versions of the recipe—one where the twist was expressed over the drink but not inserted; and one with no twist at all. The panel approved of the mixture in all iterations, suggesting that the presence of the lemon twist was a contributing, but not critical factor in its success.
Placing second was Death & Co.’s house recipe, submitted by head bartender Matthew Belanger. This rendition was nearly textbook: equal parts Beefeater Gin, Cointreau, Cocchi Americano and lemon juice, with two dashes of absinthe, mixed with all the ingredients, and no garnish. All commented on the drink’s fresh, bright quality. “Pretty damn standard,” said Willey.
Third place went to James Bolt of The Gin Joint in Charleston, South Carolina. Bolt went for equal parts as well, choosing Big Gin from Washington State as his spirit, Leopold Bros. as his absinthe, and, in an unusual move, Cointreau Noir, a blend of Cointreau and Cognac, for the liqueur. Like the Death & Co. drink, it was regarded as an upstanding representation of the cocktail.
Also admired by select judges were readings by Tom Macy of Brooklyn’s Clover Club (equal parts Tanqueray, Cointreau, lemon and a split of Lillet and Cocchi, plus three dashes of absinthe, as well as the dreaded cherry) and the unexpected inclusion of a recipe by sly PUNCH editor Chloe Frechette (equal parts Beefeater, Cointreau, lemon and Cap Corse Mattei Blanc Quinquina, topped with three sprays of absinthe from an atomizer).
Each recipe came armed with one thing that the judges all agreed was perhaps the cocktail’s greatest weapon: its name. “A lot!” declared Willey when asked how much he thought the moniker factored into the drink’s notoriety. Who doesn’t think its cool to order a Corpse Reviver? The “No. 2” adds a further touch of mystique. “People feel they can order it with confidence and feel like they know something more about it. The ‘No. 2’ intrigues them.”
If that’s so, why isn’t the Corpse Reviver No. 1 ordered as frequently?
“That’s for someone being super cocktail geeky,” said Reece.