There's a running joke among Baltimore bartenders: What's in the Black-Eyed Susan … this year?
The Preakness cocktail has been a staple of the festivities, even though its recipe seems to change year to year. Not too long ago, vodka was the primary spirit featured, and most recently, it has been a combination of rum and bourbon. (This year's Black-Eyed Susan, according to the Preakness website, includes vodka, bourbon, orange juice, sour mix and a garnish of an orange and a cherry.)
Brendan Dorr, president of the Baltimore Bartenders' Guild, said he wouldn't mind seeing a more interesting — but still accessible — twist on the official recipe.
"It doesn't have to be a thrilling cocktail, but it could be a better cocktail," Dorr said recently.
We agree, so we asked five local bartenders to reimagine the Black-Eyed Susan. The only requirement? They had to include at least two ingredients from this year's recipe. The drinks will be on sale at their respective bars this weekend, or you can recreate them at home with the recipes.
Pour whiskey, puree and sour into a highball glass. Add ice and stir to mix. Top with ginger beer. Garnish with mint sprig.
For the past few years, Dorr has worked Under Armour founder Kevin Plank's high-profile Preakness parties. He makes sure to show up with plenty of this cocktail, which uses peach puree to give it a bright summertime flavor.
"We have to make it palatable for the masses," Dorr said. "If you start putting things like Fernet Branca in drinks that are supposed to be for thousands of guests, you're going to have a lot of Fernet Branca cocktails left over."
Combine all ingredients, minus ginger ale, in a Collins glass. Top with ginger ale. Garnish with black sugar rim (sugar mixed with powdered charcoal) and a skewered strawberry and house-pickled Thai chili pineapple.
Erin Harper grew up a horseracing fan, so the bartender at Cultured inside Mount Vernon Marketplace was eager to put her own twist on the Black-Eyed Susan.
Her version makes the whiskey the most prominent element of the cocktail, she said. It also swaps the sour mix for cinnamon syrup and lemon juice. "I was making it a little modern by cutting down on the juice and letting the whiskey and other flavors stand out a little bit more," Harper said. "I still wanted to remind you of the original."
Don't be alarmed by the use of charcoal either — it's only a tiny amount for coloring, and is completely safe to ingest, Harper said.
Ten Ten American Bistro's B.E.S. (1010 Fleet St., bagbys1010.com, $10)
1 ounce Rittenhouse Rye whiskey
1 ounce Lyon Distilling white rum
1/2 ounce Rothman and Winter's Orchard Apricot liqueur
1/2 ounce orange juice
1/2 ounce pineapple syrup (combine 1 cup pineapple juice and 1 cup sugar over low heat, stir until all sugars are dissolved and then remove from heat)
1/4 ounce lime juice
Six drops Bittermen's 'Elemakule Tiki bitters
Combine and shake all ingredients with ice. Serve in a rocks glass with a large cube and garnish with a cherry.
Rob Vogel wanted to update the Black-Eyed Susan with craft touches to better reflect Baltimore's evolving cocktail scene, so the Ten Ten American Bistro bartender turned to bitters.
"I've never seen a [Black-Eyed Susan] recipe that had bitters in it, so I just wanted to have something that would play with all of those ingredients really well," Vogel said.
Another modern touch: Cutting back on the orange juice, and replacing it with the apricot liqueur. Readers will have time to find out firsthand, as Ten Ten will have the B.E.S. on its menu until June 11, the day of the Belmont Stakes.
Woodberry Kitchen doesn't carry citrus juice behind its bar, so bartender Andrew Nichols was intrigued by our challenge.
The combination of verjus, the pressed juice of unripe grapes, and honey has become Woodberry's go-to alternative for sour mix, Nichols said. The addition of malort, a wormwood liqueur, gives off a bitter tang that mimics the flavor of an orange, too, he said.
The cocktail also tips its cap to a throwback Black-Eyed Susan ingredient.
"The nectarine tincture is a nod back to the older recipes that often included peach schnapps," Nichols said. "We thought it was a more elegant way to approach incorporating that flavor."