by Darcy O'Neil on October 2010
An opportunity to present drink history to the bar community in New Orleans always inspires my creativity. With so many great bartenders and mixologists churning out great cocktails, my efforts are less public than they once were. I’ve eschewed the shotgun approach for the more refined sniper tactics. The Wet Grave is one of those bullseye cocktails that combines everything I love about drinks. History, unique ingredients, great taste and a deadly name.
I rarely create a cocktail in short order, usually it’s a process where I collect information over a period of weeks or months. The first step to the Wet Grave cocktail was the discovery of the name. It’s not something I made up, but discovered while searching for historic drink recipes and it is an old nickname for New Olreans.
The name is referenced in a book called “Trans-Atlantic Sketches” detailing travels around America in 1833. I’ve also found references in old newspapers and other ephemera. In Trans-Atlantic Sketches, the author, one Captain J. E. Alexander of the 42 Royal Highlanders, travelled around the New World and landed in New Orleans. His stay, even though reluctant, painted a vivid picture of this American city that doesn’t resemble any other American city.
“The Wet Grave, where the hopes of thousands are buried.” Capt. J.E. Alexander
The name “Wet Grave” came from the fact that New Orleans was a tough city to live in. Yellow fever, snakes, alligators, rum and other pestilence regularly shortened residents life expectancy.
Those that were destitute and didn’t make proper burial arrangements were sunk into the water saturated ground. Most of the time the grave diggers had to stand on the coffin, or burlap sack, to sink it into the water filled grave. For many people it seemed a cruel ending to a persons life because for the remainder of eternity those poor souls were left to sleep in their cold, wet graves. Obviously, people apply living standards to their final resting place and nobody likes to be cold and wet.
“Great reluctance is felt to burying a coffin in a wet grave, and it is very disagreeable.” The Laws Relating to Burials (Great Britain)
From Trans-Atlantic Sketches
New Orleans is called the “Wet Grave,” because, in digging “the narrow house,” water rises within eighteen inches of the surface. Coffins are therefore sunk three or four feet, by having holes bored in them, and two black men stand on them till they fill with water, and reach the bottom of the moist tomb. Some people are particular, and dislike this immersion after death; and, therefore, those who can afford it have a sort of brick oven built on the surface of the ground, at one end of which, the coffin is introduced, and the door hermetically closed, but the heat of the southern sun on this "whited sepulchre," must bake the body inside, so that there is but a choice of disagreeables after all.”
The Museum of the American Cocktail Big Easy Soda session gave me the perfect opportunity to create a cocktail to match the name. The question was what kind of drink? Since the session was on soda fountain history, I had to work a soda ingredient into the drink. I didn’t want this to be carbonated because I wanted to create a drink more like the Corpse Reviver, Tombstone or other ironically named drink.
Acid Phosphate seemed to be an obvious choice. It was immensly popular at the soda fountain and was used in a number of cocktails in the early 20th century. It also gives a drink something different in terms of a sour quality, less fruity with a more “blank slate” sourness.
The choice of base spirit was either going to be brandy or whisky, with an outside chance of rum. I went with whisky, specifically bourbon (Makers Mark), since it has a long history of use in cocktails and New Orleans. Brandy seemed a bit too light and gin didn’t fit in with the developing mental image of the drink.
With a base of bourbon and Acid Phosphate as the sour element I needed a balancing sweet flavour. I decided upon Claret syrup because it was used at both the soda fountain and the saloon. Claret syrup is very easy to make. Basically it is a mix of 1 part simple syrup (2:1) and 1 part red wine, traditionally a Bordeaux (which the Brits called Claret) but any red wine will do, technically .
It’s probably not advisable to use Thunderbird, Cisco, MD 20/20, Night Train Express or other hobo wine. Better choices are a big Australian Shiraz or Italian Chianti which will give you loads of fruitiness. Lighter reds will give you less flavour allowing the other ingredients to come through. It’s your choice, but don’t bother using vintage wines, blends work best for consistency and are easy on the wallet. I used a Canadian Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot blend from the Niagara region with great results. The Niagara wine region of Canada is parallel to that of Bordeaux and Cab-Merlot is a common blend in both.
To bring some dynamics to the Wet Grave, I add two teaspoons of French Vermouth. Depending on the vermouth used you may need to adjust accordingly. I used Vya in this recipe with great results, but Martini or Noilly Prat will work just fine. The final touch is 3 dashes of Peychaud bitters.
Wet Grave Cocktail
1¼ oz Bourbon (Makers Mark)
½ oz Claret Syrup*
2 tsp Dry Vermouth
1 tsp Acid Phosphate
3 dashes Peychaud Bitters
Shake and strain.
At the MotAC Soda session there was a great question: “Why were Peychaud bitters selected for this cocktail?” My honest answer was that it was a geographic consideration along with the secondary colour issue. Now, that isn’t to say that flavour wasn’t a factor. If the flavours were weirdly off, then I would have found something else to use, but Peychaud’s was a very pleasant addition and was definitely the right bitter to use in this cocktail.
Like most cocktails, the flavour can vary depending on which bourbon, wine and vermouth you use. The overall flavour combination works very well though. The most telling part for me was that my teetotalling wife enjoyed it. She has yet to indulge in the study of classic strong drinks, which is fine as she is a certified super-taster, but this drink seems to have charmed here. She even noted that the acid phosphate made a significant improvement in the taste of the drink as we tried to determine how Acid Phosphates works with other ingredients.
And that is how an original cocktail is created. Sure, you can do what Dr. Bamboo did, and tap your inner strip-bar bartender and create his now infamous “Bombshell McGee” cocktail, but unlike the ladies of the “United Poll Works Union 305” a great cocktail requires more than a playful stage name, a bucket of concealer and the ability to dance to “Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard. Though, many cocktails created by less experienced bartenders do share some of these stripper attributes, like concealer and playful names. In an odd twist, drinking these “cocktail” will make any girl at a bar dance to Def Leppard. Weird.
Overall, the Wet Grave is the best original cocktail I have created to date.