The black-eyed Susan has reigned as the official cocktail of the Preakness for more than 40 years. But there was once another official cocktail of the Preakness, although as far as anyone knows, it was never served at the Preakness itself.
It was called The Preakness, and it made its debut at the first-ever Preakness Ball, a lavish affair held on May 15, 1936, at the Fifth Regiment Armory.
A variation on the popular rye Manhattan, with the addition of Benedictine, the cocktail had been selected from eight entries by a panel of judges that had met a few weeks before the ball in the John Eager Howard Room of the Belvedere Hotel.
The Baltimore Sun reported on the cocktail contest judging, as part of its extended Preakness Ball coverage, but the Sun's story provided little help for anyone doing forensic research into the history of cocktails, as Gregory Priebe of Baltimore points out in the new book "Forgotten Maryland Cocktails."
The Preakness -- along with the diamondback, the frozen rye and the Vilma special -- are among the cocktails whose sometimes murky histories are detailed in Priebe's book, which he co-authored with his wife, Nicole Priebe. "Forgotten Maryland Cocktails" is scheduled to be published on Monday by History Press.
The original Preakness cocktail may lived a mayfly's life. A story in the Baltimore Sun about the second Preakness Ball, in 1937, reports that the names and prices of the evening's featured libations were quoted on "odds boards" that hung over the three bars at the Fifth Regiment Armory.
"The 'Preakness cocktail,' a highlight of the first Preakness ball, wasn't quoted, incidentally," the Sun dryly noted.
"I've never had anyone ask for it in the three years I've been living here," said Ryan Sparks, the head bartender at Bookmakers Cocktail Club in Federal Hill. Brendan Dorr, the doyen of Baltimore's cocktail scene, said he can remember only a few calls for it.
Aaron Joseph, the head bartender at Wit & Wisdom, said he wasn't surprised that the Preakness vanished. "It's such a spirit-forward cocktail it would have polarized drinkers," he said. "You would either love it or you'd hate it."
Joseph, who wrote the foreword to "Forgotten Maryland Cocktails," emphasized that The Preakness was never intended to be consumed outdoors on a hot spring day. "It's an evening cocktail," Joseph said. The citrus-based black-eyed Susan, Joseph explained, is made for daytime drinking. "It's a brunch cocktail," he said.
The story of the Preakness cocktail comes at about the halfway point in "Forgotten Maryland Cocktails," right after a chapter on Prohibition and before one on the "Dark Age of the Cocktail," which the Priebes place between 1970 and 1985.
Part history, part recipe collection, the book has the same breezy tone as "A History of Drinking," the blog the Priebes have been writing since 2009.
"I had always been interested in cocktails," said Priebe, 42. "When I was 21, my birthday present from my parents was the Mr. Boston [Official Bartenders Guide]."
Priebe said he didn't know how all-consuming his blog topic would become. "It's a hobby that's got horribly out of hand," he said.
The Priebes — he's an instructional designer for Harford Community College and she works for OneMain Financial — immersed themselves in the cocktail scene, reading the right books, meeting the right people and traveling every year to The Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, an annual festival for mixologists, writers and cocktail lovers. Priebe said he enjoyed the attention the blog was getting and being part of the cocktail community.
Priebe began to think that there might be a story to tell about the history of cocktails in his hometown. "Baltimore needed its fair shake," Priebe said. "We used to be the second culinary mecca behind New York."
The a-ha moment, when he knew Baltimore's cocktail history could fill a book, was sparked by an old Haussner's menu from the 1970s that his mother had saved. Looking over the cocktail list last summer, he recognized many of them, but found himself intrigued by a drink called the Pine Valley and wanted to find out more.
Priebe quickly got hooked on cocktail research, which drove him into old menu collections, newspaper archives and periodical rooms. The Pine Valley, it turned out, was Haussner's version of the old frozen rye, a potent mix of rye whiskey, orange Curacao, pineapple syrup and citrus juices.
The frozen rye, which was voguish in the first decades of the 20th century, was invented at the bar of the Hotel Belvedere, Priebe said. For him, that meant that there were important stories to be told about Baltimore's role in the history of cocktails.
"That's Maryland's cocktail and no one else has got it. The frozen rye was quintessentially us," said Priebe. "It just screams Maryland -- it's like an alcoholic snowball."
The frozen rye, unlike the Preakness cocktail, never went away completely. But it was revised, sometimes renamed, and found new homes. It trended among the fashionable set in Europe, during the Prohibition era, and eventually went "underground," to use Priebe's word, finding a home in the bars of Baltimore's country clubs, which, Priebe said, were monastic about preserving traditional ingredients and recipes.
"It's almost like the dark ages when the monks would take custody of relics and preserve them," Priebe said. "The country clubs absorbed some our knowledge [of cocktails]."
Wit & Wisdom's Joseph said frozen rye is a "fun" cocktail.
"I've been doing renditions of them for a while," he said. "I really think it's one of those cocktails that could be popular with the weather warming up."
The Maryland cocktail with the strongest reputation in the drink world, Priebe said, is the diamondback, a Truman-era cocktail consisting of rye, yellow chartreuse and applejack. The cocktail was the rage at the Diamondback Lounge in the Lord Baltimore Hotel.
"It fits the craft community definition of a true classic," Joseph said, explaining that the flavors of the individual ingredients are transformed through the art of mixology. "The proportions haven't been deviated from."
The history of cocktails is often confusing. For every diamondback with a clear history, there are countless other cocktails with cloudy ones, Priebe said.
He likes an expression used by the cocktail historian, author and Esquire contributor David Wondrich to describe the origin stories of cocktails as "history agreed upon in a bar."
"It wasn't like today, when a bartender can make his name by inventing a new cocktail," Priebe said. "Someone would go into a bar and ask for something special, and the next night someone else would go in and say, 'That thing you made for Joe, can you make it for me?'"
Wondrich agreed. "A bar is not a lab setting," he said. Even when people did bother to record their encounters with new cocktails, their recollections weren't always trustworthy. "You're often trying to reconstruct things based on a hazy memory."
That's one of the challenges facing cocktail historians like the Priebes, Wondrich said.
"I look it like doing a jigsaw puzzle that's missing three quarters of the pieces, without the box cover," Wondrich said. "Sometimes you just get the pieces."
But sometimes, as the frozen rye did for the Priebes, the whole picture comes together.
The Belvedere Frozen Rye
Juice of a half lime
Few dashes orange juice
Few dashes pineapple syrup
Few dashes orange Curacao
Balance rye whiskey
Put slice of orange and slice of pineapple in a large champagne glass, allowing them to stick out beyond top of glass. Fill glass with fine ice and pour drink over it, with cherry on top. Serve with straw.
The Preakness Cocktail
The following recipe is a simplified version but still very similar to the traditional recipe recorded in most cocktail books. By all accounts, it's simply a Manhattan variant. Recipe adapted from David Wondrich.
2 ounces straight rye whiskey
1 ounce Martini & Rossi red vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1/2 teaspoon Benedictine
Stir with cracked ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and twist a swatch of thin-cut lemon peel over the top.
About the book
"Forgotten Maryland Cocktails" by Gregory and Nicole Priebe will be released Monday by The History Press. 176 pages, $19.99.