Squeeze lemon or lime juice into a collins glass
Add the juiced shell of the fruit
Add a couple of lumps of ice, then the spirit of choice
Top with ginger ale
Our friend Daniel over at FUSSYlittleBLOG makes a drink that he likes to call the Unfussy Cocktail. Actually, it’s less a drink than a philosophy – that while there’s a place for a perfectly measured and assembled drink, sometimes you just want to throw a couple of things together in a glass and be on your way. Daniel’s Unfussy Cocktail is a master recipe for a 1:4 liqueur-and-spirit treat. Find a liqueur you like, mix a bit of that into a bit more booze, and, as they say, “Bob’s your uncle.”
If this way of drink making appeals to you – and it should – then allow me to introduce you to the Buck family. The rules of the Buck are simple: spirit, lemon or lime juice, most often the shell of the juiced fruit is added, and ginger beer or ginger ale. Proportions vary from source to source, so we’ll adopt the always appropriate “to taste”. If you like a little less kick, go for less alcohol or more ginger ale – you get the idea. If it tastes good, you’ve done the job.
The history of Bucks can be a bit slippery, chiefly because, as drinks go, Bucks seem to have wandered in and out of the witness protection program over the past hundred and twenty-five years. Key to making them is, of course, ginger ale or beer, which is where I began my search. Today, we often associate ginger beer with the Caribbean – which is fair, as the area is a plentiful source of the root, if far from a world leader in its cultivation. According to the “All Things Ginger” site, the top producing countries in the world are India and China, which leads one to ask: What do the East and the Caribbean have in common? Colonization by European powers.
To find the origins of ginger beer/ale, we need to look all the way back to the fermented honey beverage called mead. How far back does mead go? Pretty much all the way to the dawn of recorded history, which means it may be even older still. Rather than cover 12,000 years in this post, let’s jump ahead to a variation of mead known as metheglin (yes, you may call our forefathers who were hooked on the stuff “meth” addicts), which is simply mead with various herbs and spices – ginger common among them. Now, if you were going to spice up your mead, you needed, well, spices, and those spices needed to come from somewhere – typically from somewhere further away than the local Tesco. Enter the Age of Discovery and the spice trade. We’ll skip the bulk of the poking-around-to-see-what-we-can-find 14th and 15th centuries and jump straight into the corporate spice trade salad days of the early 1600s, when every nation with a flag boasted an “East India Company” of some ilk and success. The British were near the head of the pack, and pretty soon spices were all the rage back home. Truth be told, ginger had reached Europe centuries before, but it was during the early 17th century that the industry surrounding spices really boomed.
References to spiced mead – metheglin – can indeed be found in the literature of the time. A play written in the mid 1590s – a little number called “Love’s Labour’s Lost” by one William Shakespeare – references the drink. Half a century later, the drink is still popular, as, in 1666, diarist Samuel Pepys “had metheglin for the King’s own drinking, which did please me mightily.” In 1669, a servant of Sir Kenelme Digbie’s published “The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Knight Opened: whereby is discovered several ways for making of metheglin, sider, cherry-wine, etc.” Which means that, a decade-and-a-half before (1655), when William Penn and Robert Venables decided to relieve Spain of Jamaica – all in the good name of England, mind you – the gentlemen would most likely have been very familiar with metheglin and ginger.
Fortunately for Penn and Venables, the Spanish had already been in the area for a good while, and the ginger crops were in full bloom. Conquistadors had introduced ginger to Mexico in 1547, and it soon spread across what were then the Spanish Antilles. By the 1580s, Hispanola was a leading exporter of the root. Since ginger was thought of as a curative – who today still doesn’t think of ginger ale when their stomach is giving them trouble? – its importance to colonists and those back home alike was key. And it’s this medicinal angle that most likely caused ginger to first wind up in a variety of foods and beverages over the centuries (never mind that it’s yummy).
The ginger beer/ale thing really seems to have taken off during the mid-to-late 1800s. An article by Ken Previtali for the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors tells us that the origin of modern ginger ale dates back to the early 1850s and the Irish. While other claims abound, these, Previtali writes, were most likely “gingerades”, not true ginger ales. Whatever the name, by the 1860s, ginger ale was the number one soft drink in America – a position it would hold for seventy years. And, where there’s demand, supply is bound to blossom. Looking at the founding dates of several key ginger beer/ale producers, we can see this is true: Vernors (1866), Barritt’s (1870s), Blenheim’s (late 1800s), Canada Dry (1904).
The connection with ginger ale and cocktails also seems to begin at around this time. In the first edition of his Bar Tender’s Guide (1862), Jerry Thomas includes no mention of ginger ale, but a recipe for “ginger lemonade” is given. By the time the 1887 edition of Thomas’ book is released, “Brandy and Ginger-Ale” is included, and Thomas specifically recommends the Irish kind. The virgin version of the drink, the Horse’s Neck, being typically imported ginger ale and a long lemon peel, appears just a few years later in George Kappeler’s “Modern American Drinks” (1895). Where the Bucks seem to come in is with a lady named Mamie Taylor.
Mamie Taylor was a singer of light opera and musical theater who, apparently, caused enough of a sensation for the public that her namesake drink was all the rage around 1900. Comprised of Scotch, lime juice, and ginger ale, the drink was proclaimed a “seductive summer drink” and “a mixed drink of considerable vogue”. In his Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, Ted Haigh tells us that “poems were written about the drink, jokes were told and articles were written using Mamie to illustrate au courant sophistication.” But times and fashion change. By the 1920s, Haigh writes, Mamie began to fade from view.
While the Savoy Cocktail Book of 1930 still includes the Mamie Taylor, by the mid-1930s, the Bucks were taking its place. I can understand this, as not only was Mamie Taylor a long-forgotten star but the Buck was just a cooler, most masculine sounding drink to order, especially in the back alley speakeasies of Prohibition. Most prominent seems to have been the Gin Buck (with lemon juice), although the Barbados Buck (half each Dark Rum and Light Rum with lime), the Jamaica Buck (all Dark Rum), Brandy Buck, and Whiskey buck all make appearances at around the same time.
When it comes to the rise of the Buck in the wake of the Mamie Taylor, the influences of Prohibition can’t be overlooked. During the reign of the 18th Amendment, “Bathtub” Gin – little more than moonshine flavored with juniper extract or turpentine – was big on the scene. It wasn’t great, but it was something to drink. To mask the more unpleasant qualities of Bathtub Gin, bartenders employed cocktails with large amounts of fruity mixers. The Mamie Taylor – or Buck, as it was now known – fit the bill perfectly, but just like the Taylor, its lifespan was to be relatively short.
Much like Doctor Who, it was time for the then-Maime Taylor-now-Buck to undergo another regeneration. In 1941, so the story goes, Jack Morgan of the Cock ‘n’ Bull pub in Los Angeles found himself sitting on a case of Smirnoff Vodka, which he couldn’t move. Morgan’s head bartender, Wes Price, was cleaning out the dead stock when he decided to mix up a Vodka Buck for actor Broderick Crawford. Crawford loved it, and soon – like the Mamie Taylor before it – it was au courant sophistication among the Hollywood set. Once Hedda Hopper wrote about Greer Garson’s love of the drink, well, the Moscow Mules (as the drink was christened) were out of the barn. So popular was the Moscow Mule, that it’s arguably the spark that led to Vodka becoming America’s most popular spirit today. But, I ask, how many of you have ever ordered a Moscow Mule?
No, the Taylor-Buck-Mule lineage seems to be a bit cursed, which is surprising given how delicious it can be. While the drinks technically fall into the highball family, David Embury in “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks” (1948) insists that the addition of citrus juice puts Bucks into a class all by themselves. We won’t concern ourselves with such delineations here because the Buck is really about simplicity and informality. Throw in your shot of booze, squeeze in some lemon or lime, add the shells, ice, and top with ginger ale or ginger beer. Everything about the drink is really a matter of personal taste, and if you take to it, you’ll soon find your own specific recipe and rhythm. If you can’t make a Buck in under thirty seconds, you’re doing it wrong.
Should you find yourself in a modern speakeasy, a Buck by any of its myriad monikers should be easy to come by. Especially popular and delicious is Audrey Saunders’ modern resurrection, the Gin-Gin Mule, which adds mint and calls for house-made Ginger Beer. House-made ginger beer? Have faith, we’ll cover that soon. In the meantime, start with Barritts, Blenheim, Reed’s, and Vernors or any other that strikes your fancy. Ginger beer or ginger ale? The former will typically have more bite, but anything with some personality is always au courant sophistication.
Esoterica: In the 1930s, “body by Jake” didn’t mean being pumped – instead, it meant that you were probably paralyzed or worse from drinking Jake, Jamaican ginger extract patent medicine. The Jake epidemic affected some 50,000 to 100,000 people in early 1930. Jake had been popular as a treatment for stomach ailments for more almost fifty years, so why the sudden problems? Prohibition.
It turns out that a couple of enterprising gents discovered that they could “hide” the alcohol in Jake from government tests if they added triorthocresylphosphate phosphate (TOCP) to the extract. Sure, TOCP did that job well, but being a plasticizer, it also did nasty things to the nervous systems of those who consumed it. The first signs of poisoning were “Jake Leg” and “Jake Walk”, a distinctively high-kneed stride. Blues artists the Allen Brothers sang “I can’t eat, I can’t talk. Been drinking Jake, Lord. Now, I can’t walk.” The enterprising poisoners were soon caught and sentenced to a couple of years in prison.
Jake Leg features in the book, “Water for Elephants”, soon to be a major motion picture.