The Corpse Reviver No. 1 never stood a chance. Relegated to obscurity the second it was named, its inclusion in The Savoy Cocktail Book suspended it in unfavorable contrast with the far more appropriately named (and popular) Corpse Reviver No. 2. Surely you’ve seen that version on bar menus. But have you ever encountered the No. 1’s staid mixture of Cognac, Calvados and sweet vermouth? Probably not.
That said, it’s not without its fans. Among them are author and barman Frank Caiafa. “It’s a great drink,” he says. “The name stinks.” To be fair, the name only stinks because it is a misnomer. The drink hardly fits the bill for a true “corpse reviver,” that is, a drink designed as a hangover remedy. While it’s hard to imagine the Manhattan-like No. 1 bringing someone back from the brink, the Corpse Reviver No. 2 more aptly possesses such a power. The equal-parts mixture of dry gin, quinquina wine, Cointreau and lemon juice, with just a touch of absinthe, is bright and refreshing, especially against the brooding profile of its sibling.
In fact, Caiafa asserts that the two versions of the Corpse Reviver featured in The Savoy Cocktail Book, first published in 1930, can be neatly differentiated by assigning each a word from their shared title. “The first one is ‘corpse’ and the second one is ‘reviver,’” he explains. In other words, the Corpse Reviver No. 1 functions best not as a remedy, but as a nightcap. In The Waldorf Astoria Bar Book, he writes that the drink “makes for a terrible ‘eye opener,’ but it is one heck of a post-dinner Manhattan alternate.”
If anybody besides the most devoted of cocktail practitioners had ever bothered to divorce the Corpse Reviver No. 1 from its far more famous twin, they might have noticed its merits. The drink is spirit-heavy, featuring two parts Cognac to one part each Calvados and sweet vermouth, resulting in a hint of fresh apple flavor rounded out by vanilla and herbal notes. Essentially a split-base Manhattan variation, the Corpse Reviver No. 1 has a lot in common with drinks that are held in far higher esteem, landing squarely in the company of American classics like the Saratoga and the Vieux Carré. It also overlaps with other apple brandy Manhattans like the Bentley, which likewise first appeared in the Savoy.
Unlike some other, more compact bar guides of the era, The Savoy Cocktail Book, which sought to contain all cocktail knowledge up to that point in a single volume, does not provide a clear snapshot of the milieu from which it sprang—at least not at first glance. However, once you wade through all the 18th-century punches (Fish House, Arrack, Claret), 19th-century relics (flips, fixes, daisies) and drinks ripped from pre-Prohibition bar manuals (Aviation, September Morn), a sense of the fashionable aesthetic of London cocktails around the year 1930 starts to emerge. In this context, the Corpse Reviver No. 1 fits right in. It can even be considered exemplary of that time and place.
At the American Bar in the Savoy Hotel, Manhattan variations, many featuring split bases, were the order of the day. The connection (and short shipping route) between London and France made for a proliferation of French products in the London bar scene. Calvados and Cognac were paired with everything from rum to gin, liqueurs and a variety of fortified wines. Among these were the fabulously named Kicker, Personality a la Roy, Princess Mary’s Pride, Whist and Wow.
Like the Corpse Reviver No. 1, none of these spirit-forward mixtures called for bitters. But Caiafa, whose goal is always to stay true to the original recipe when possible, finds that the drink benefits from a little oomph. “At the end of the day, all it needed to me was a dash of bitters,” says Caiafa, who calls for orange bitters bolstered by an expressed orange twist. He hopes that the drink might one day step out of the shadow of its fraternal twin; that in time the Corpse Reviver No. 1 will be, well, revived.