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The Japalac Cocktail

From Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails

Juice of 1/4 Orange
0.75 oz Rye
0.75 oz Dry Vermouth
1 tsp Raspberry Syrup

Add all ingredients to a mixing glass.
Shake with large ice and strain into a coupe.
Garnish with an orange twist.


* * *

The term “varnish” pops up a lot when it comes to cocktails.  As noun, verb, or adjective, it presents a view of reality that is not quite real — one that has been glossed, propped up, and given a fresh shiny coat.  After one too many, the term certainly fits.  The Varnish is also the name of a retro, proper cocktail bar in Los Angeles, one which both Ted Haigh and I count among our favorite places to drink.  “Varnish” and drinking, then, seem to go hand-in-hand on several levels, so is it too much to assume that, at some point in history, someone would have named a drink after the stuff?

That someone was A.S. Crockett, and that point in history was 1931 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.  Now, I can’t say for certain that it was Crockett who invented the drink or when it actually came about, but Crockett certainly wrote the book (Old Waldorf Bar Days) on the Japalac.  First introduced in 1895, Jap-a-Lac (the original spelling) was a color varnish produced by Glidden that quickly became a leading product in the space.  Its slogans varied from “Wears Like Iron” to “Makes Old Things New”.

According to Haigh, the somewhat unfortunate name of the product comes from Glidden’s use of Japan drier, which sped up drying times.  From period advertising, such as the one shown below (1921), Glidden was going for an obvious association with Japanese culture, and specifically, its lacquered goods. Other images, dating from even earlier, depict Japanese women on the Jap-a-Lac can.  This isn’t surprising.  The 1854 Convention of Kanagawa had opened up the historically insular Japan to the West, and by the end of the 19th Century, the shogunate had ended and a new, more industrial Japan was emerging to the world.  In 1860, the first Japanese delegation visited America, and all things Japanese — including the Japanese Cocktail — captured the imagination of the land.  So, it’s no stretch to think that the term Jap-a-Lac was chosen by Glidden for any reason other than it conjured up the exciting colorfulness of the newly-introduced Japanese culture.

Jap-a-Lac Advertisement, 1921

You’ll note that this is not a standard size drink. It is, as Haigh goes out of his way to note, a classically proportioned pre-Prohibition cocktail, and here, Haigh tells us, small works best.  I’m not one to argue, especially as the drink is just lovely.

Haigh added the Japalac to his revised edition of “Vintage Spirits…”, and I’m glad he did.  It’s a drink with a story to tell — one which may seem a little off-putting at first, but which I think ultimately celebrates, above all things, the ability for a proper drink to get you varnished.

Raspberry Syrup: Nothing could be easier to make.

Wash a cup or so of fresh raspberries.
Place them in a bowl and muddle them slightly.
Cover them with Simple Syrup.
Let stand overnight.
Strain out the solids.

Japalac Cocktail on FoodistaJapalac Cocktail

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