What the Hell Is a Crusta?

Meet the Crusta, a fussy mid-19th-century drink that few people have heard of, let alone drunk—and one that is seeing something of a revival today. Lizzie Munro explains the obscure sugar-encrusted cocktail.

In the world of drinks, there exists a kind of family tree, wherein the julep is a cousin to the smash; the radler, a pan-European kind of shandy; the daisy, forefather to today’s Margarita. And within that family somewhere lies the Brandy Crusta, a rich, fussy and obscure cocktail that, frankly, few of us have ever heard of—let alone actually tried.

It’s an ironic twist of fate considering that the Crusta, in its 19th-century heyday, was one trailblazer of a drink. Invented by an Italian bartender named Joseph Santini in New Orleans, it was one of the city’s first true calling-card cocktails; originally mixed in the 1850s, it predates even the rye whiskey-based Sazerac.

“It’s one of the first cocktails that introduced the idea of complex presentation and garnishes,” explains Leo Robitschek, who became well acquainted with the Crusta when he put it on the menu at Eleven Madison Park a decade ago. Later, in 2012, he reintroduced it at The NoMad, where the drink secured a spot on the opening menu.

At its heart, the Crusta, which died out sometime in the early 20th century, is a twist on the Fancy Cocktail—both served in a wine glass and garnished with lemon peel—formally described in 1862 by Jerry Thomas in How to Mix Drinks. And, like so many cocktails in the canon, its base spirit was originally interchangeable (whiskey, gin and brandy were all acceptable), though the Brandy Crusta quickly became the flag bearer of the category.

Unlike many drinks in the book, however, the Crusta was particularly notable, as Robitschek rightly suggests, for its two elaborate garnishes. Firstly, it required that a long strip of lemon peel be fitted just inside the inner rim of the cocktail, the edge peeking out over top of the glass (“Pare half a lemon the same as you would an apple,” suggests Thomas). Secondly, it called for a sugar-crusted rim—the first-ever drink to do so—hence its name.

“It’s fancy, it’s seductive, it’s rich, it takes a little bit of skill and it’s got its own culture.”

The recipe was unorthodox as well. Like Thomas’s Fancy Brandy Cocktail, it called for both Curaçao and bitters to be mixed with spirit and served over ice. But importantly, the recipe also insisted on a small squeeze of lemon. While lemon juice, in larger quantities, was a component of many drinks in Thomas’s chapter on daisies and sours, it was a much rarer ingredient in the era’s “Cocktails,” the category within which he placed the boozy, spirit-forward Crusta.

“It was a little bit of an epicure’s drink,” explains David Wondrich, citing this unusual formula, which relies heavily on good Cognac. (The base spirit, of course, was part of the drink’s undoing: The late 19th century would see the phylloxera outbreak wreak havoc on France’s vineyards, and Prohibition would render it totally unavailable, at least in America.) It’s that peculiar spirit-to-citrus ratio, too, that’s since caused plenty of confusion as to where exactly the Crusta fits into the cocktail family tree—and why it’s important in the larger history of drinks, if at all.

Most bartenders suggest that it’s the Crusta’s ancestral role that makes it important. “It’s the precursor to the Sidecar,” says Jamie Boudreau of Seattle’s Canon, purporting a commonly held notion that the two drinks are inextricably linked.

It’s not an inexact claim: Both the Crusta and the Sidecar are based in brandy and orange liqueur, the latter mimicking the Crusta stylistically down to its sugared rim. But some correctly suggest that the Sidecar didn’t begin its life with a saccharine garnish—that wasn’t added until more than a decade after its invention. And whereas Santini and, later, Thomas, were tremendously light-handed with the Crusta’s characteristic splash of lemon juice, that’s never been the case with the Sidecar, which sports a more citrus-heavy ratio. (Ask Wondrich, and he’ll tell you that the Sidecar’s more likely predecessor was, in fact, the daisy.)

So then, what is a Crusta, really? Described by Wondrich in Imbibe! as “a cult drink, one with few but fanatic devotees,” the cocktail today still tends to inspire an extremist approach; its second coming has been marked by bartenders eager to push the boundaries of that characteristic sugared rim—perhaps in a nod to Santini’s own pioneering efforts.

At London’s Nightjar and at Santa Monica’s Belcampo Meat Co., for example, brandy-based Crustas are garnished with dehydrated yogurt and powdered green Chartreuse, respectively. On the other end of the spectrum, Boudreau cleverly plays off of the very notion of classicism in drinks: At Canon, he’s offered a $1,100 Brandy Crusta, made with J. G. Monnet Cognac from 1875 and Cointreau from 1930. He estimates that he’s sold at least three—enough to warrant the drink’s return to the menu this fall alongside other historic cocktails made with vintage spirits.

Finally, there are those who, like Robitschek, stay true to a modest version of that original formula. Among them, unsurprisingly, is Chris Hannah of Arnaud’s French 75. In 2004, he was the first to bring the drink back to New Orleans.

“It was not on any menu in the entire city,” explains Hannah. “It’d fallen off the radar.” His version, shaken and strained into a sugar-rimmed glass, has been balanced to suit the modern palate, but otherwise stays true to the original. Like many of today’s Crustas, too, it includes a small dose of maraschino liqueur, an addition made popular near the close of the 19th century.

Since Hannah introduced the Brandy Crusta to his menu, nearby bars have followed suit, and he estimates that the drink began to gain traction in its home city about five years ago. “We wanted to have something unique to New Orleans,” he explains.

And it’s fitting. If there’s anywhere that the Crusta—a drink that stands so firmly on a branch of its own—might belong, surely it’s within the city whose very fabric was woven so much in tandem with the history of cocktailing.

“It’s fancy, it’s seductive, it’s rich, it takes a little bit of skill and it’s got its own culture,” says Wondrich. “It’s in the universe of New Orleans.”