Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Cobblers were one of the most popular beverages of the nineteenth century. They brought about the world-wide popularity of the drinking straw. That ubiquitous cocktail shaker? Originally patented as a "cobbler shaker", as this was the first drink to be commonly shaken!

The cobbler is one of the earliest popular "American iced drinks", and was often mentioned in the same company of "cock-tails", "slings" & "juleps" along with such other forgotten treasures of the early 1800's including the "purl talabogus" ("A drink made by mixing spruce beer, rum or other liquor and molasses"), "clear sheer" (no idea!), "gum ticklers" (a "gill of spirits, generally rum, taken fasting"), "phlegm-cutters" ("double dose just before breakfast"), "Sangarees" (highball-like cobblers with spices like nutmeg or cinnamon in place of the fruit), and "Timber Doodles" (lost to time).

Included in every pre-prohibition cocktail book, and most of those that followed, there seems to be a remarkable consistency in the (albeit it simple) recipe. There are many variations including the "Champagne", "Catawaba", "Claret", "Sauterene" cobblers as well as versions using whiskey or bourbon. By far, the most popular was the "Sherry Cobbler", which mirrored the country's appetite for sherry at the time.

Sherry was hugely popular world-wide before prohibition, and was one of Spain's most famous wines. When the phylloxera plague wiped out the world supply, in the late 19th century, it was a huge blow to the sherry market. It never fully recovered, and sales continued to decline throughout the 20th century.

Sherry is now making a comeback. For me, it's a taste I've yet to acquire. If you have acquired the taste, by all means, you should try a sherry cobbler! Otherwise, a variation using a wine or spirit that you already enjoy is probably going to work better for you.

In 1839, the 'Southern Literary Messenger" included this recipe in a narrative:

"Powder your fine white sugar, or crystal candy, and sprinkle the mass through a sieve, over a tumbler of pounded ice—every particle of which is broken into lumps not larger than a pea. In another vessel, pour two wine glasses of pale gold sherry over the fine cut peelings of half a lemon—peelings which have suck'd into their pores sufficient acid from the ripened pulp, to make the pungen'. rind flavored like a China orange— and then, for a minute or so, suffer the spirit of the wine to extract the rich aroma. Next, dash the contents of one tumbler to the other, till fruit and fluid, ice and sugar, sweet and sour, warmth and frost, arc mixed and married by this delicate "runaway" process, and the dew of their bridal-kiss coats the sides of the vessel with a creamy veil. Then—allowing the new married couples to cool from the first extatic moments of their swimming embrace,—you sip the delicious pair in the dreamy elysium of their "honey moon!" 'Tis a raving mad " receipt," this—I know you will say so—but as a friend used to exclaim about my poor, dear mother's Pigeon pies—"I'll write poetry about it yet!"

An eloquent description, and the recipe is still very close to where we will end up. Some recipes call for stirring, some for shaking, but I love this description of the (then) common practice of mixing by pouring from one tumbler to another creating a "rainbow" arc.

In 1846, a  British military officer returning home from Canada, published "Canada and the Canadians" in which he describes Canadian experiences. He discusses the popular Sherry Cobbler in this passage: 

An American gentleman—mind, I lay a stress upon the second word—never bolts his victuals, never picks his teeth at table, never spits upon the carpet, or guesses; he knows not gin-sling, and he eschews mint-julep; but he does, I am ashamed to say, admire a sherry cobbler, particularly if he does not get a second-hand piece of vermicelli to suck it through. Reader, do you know what a sherry cobbler is ? I will enlighten you. Let the sun shine at about 80P Fahrenheit. Then take a lump of ice; fix it at the edge of a board ; rasp it with a tool made like a drawing knife or carpenter's plane, set face upwards. Collect the raspings, the fine raspings, mind, in a capacious tumbler; pour thereon two glasses of good sherry, and a good spoonful of powdered white sugar, with a few small bits, not slices, but bits of lemon, about as big as a gooseberry. Stir with a wooden macerator. Drink through a tube of macaroni or vermicelli. (Test Veau henite, as the English lord said to the garpon at the Milles Colonnes, when he first tasted real parfait amour.-—Cest beaucoup rnieux, Milor, answered the waiter with a profound reverence.

Gin-sling, cock-tail, mint-julep, are about as vulgar as blue ruin and old tom at home; but sherry cobbler is an affair of consideration —only never pound your ice, always rasp it.

Here we see an early description of a pasta straw. More commonly used were hollow shafts of rye grass or simply "straw". Metal or glass straws saw limited use as well, until the invention of the paper straw in 1888 which quickly replaced all other devices.

Checking in with the good professor, Jerry Thomas wrote this as way of introduction to the cobbler.:

"Like the julep, this delicious potation is an American invention, although it is now a favorite in all warm  climates. " The cobbler" does not require much skill in compounding, but to make it acceptable to the eye, as well as to the palate, it is necessary to display some taste in ornamenting the glass after the beverage is made. We give an illustration showing how a cobbler should look when made to suit an epicure."

His recipe remains the standard:

Sherry Cobbler (Jerry Thomas, 1862)
(use large bar glass)
2 wine-glasses of sherry.
1 table-spoonful of sugar. 
2 or 3 slices of orange.
Fill a tumbler with shaved ice, shake well, and ornament with berries in season. Place a straw as represented in the woodcut.

Harry Johnson's "Bartender's Manual", published 20 years later in 1882, also saw fit to add a comment on the cobbler in his recipe.

Sherry Cobbler (Harry Johnson, 1882)
(Use large bar glass.)
1/2 table-spoonful of sugar;
1/2 wine-glass of selters water, dissolve with a spoon;
Fill the glass up with fine crystal ice;
Then fill the glass with sherry wine;
Stir well with spoon, and ornament with grapes, oranges, pine-apples, berries, etc.; serve with a straw.
"This drink is without a doubt the most popular beverage in the country, with ladies as well as with gentlemen. It is a very refreshing drink for old and young."

As I studied the progression of recipes that followed, we seem to have 2 schools of thought that stem from these 2 recipes. Some use sparkling water like Harry suggests, some do not. Most say to shake this one, some say to stir.

In 1895, George Kappeler in his book "Modern American Drinks" decided to list 2 recipes. One using 2 jiggers of sherry, gum syrup and calling to be "mixed", the next using one and a half jiggers, fine sugar to sweeten, and called for the drink to be shaken.

The name "cobbler" is most commonly attributed to pebbled look of the "cobbles" of ice in the drink. All recipes demand very fine ice, shaved ice seems to be the most popular way to prepare, though many descriptions call for the ice to be pulverized to the point where no piece of ice was "larger than a pea".

The recipes share two additional commonalities. They call for the drink to be decorated with "fruits of the season"; usually berries, but sometime grapes, and they called for the use of a straw.

Some call for Maraschino or Curacao to sweeten, this sounds right. Some call for the orange or lemon slices to be muddled, this works if you muddle lightly but a good hard shake will muddle the oranges as well and leave them in better shape for presentation.

The amount of sugar used seems to vary quite a bit. A tablespoon of fine sugar is a common measurement. As much as 2 parts sherry to one part sugar syrup. Others as dry as 4 ounces of sherry to two teaspoons of sugar. You know how you like your drinks, adjust the sweetness accordingly.

By 1922, Robert Vermeire was commenting in his book, "Cocktails How to Mix Them", on how they made cobblers in the "old days". Here I thought it best to literally bring you a page from his book:

Jerry Thomas's book lists eight variations of the cobbler. Harry Johnson also managed to sprinkle eight recipes throughout his book, though not the same eight.

By 1927, Harry McElhone in "Barflies and Cocktails" includes only two lonely recipes. The port cobbler and the sherry cobbler. His sherry cobbler seems a mix of several cobbler recipes, perhaps a "best of the best" in his eyes.

Sherry Cobbler (Harry McElhone, 1927)
"1/3 Ice in a tumbler, add 1/2 glass of Brandy, 1/2 glass of Curacao, 1/2 glass of Maraschino, 1 glass of Sherry.
  Add syphon. Stir well, decorate with fruits in season. Float a little Port Wine on top.

(This sounds pretty good, I could probably cut my teeth on sherry with this mix.)

By 1948, David A. Embury (obviously of the "Harry Johnson School" here) gave this excellent summation of the cobbler in his book "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks":

"Like the Fixes and the Daisies, the Cobblers are served with straws in a goblet filled with finely crushed or shaved ice and are decorated with fruit and a sprig or two of mint. They differ from Fixes and Daisies (which are basically Sours) primarily in that Cobblers contain either no citrus juice at all or, at the most, only one or two dashes. They consist of either a wine or spirituous liquor combined with either sugar syrup or some sweet liqueur. While seldom served today, Harry Johnson, circa 1880, said of the Sherry Cobbler; "This drink is without a doubt the most popular beverage in the country, with the ladies as well as the gentleman. It is a very refreshing drink for the old and the young."

 In making any of the Cobblers, the goblet is first filled with fine ice. If goblets are not available an 8- to 10-ounce Highball glass can be substituted. The ingredients of the drink are not separately shaken but are poured over the ice in the glass, the sugar or liqueur first and the wine or spirituous liquor last. The contents of the glass are then churned with a bar spoon until frost appears on the outside of the glass. Straws are then inserted and the drink is decorated with fruit and mint and served.

We find ourselves here in the twenty-first century, and the cobbler has become arcane, forgotten and neglected. Gary Reagan, Dale DeGroff, Dave Wondrich, Robert Hess, and many other modern "masters" have given a nod to the cobbler in one or more of their books, though I have to wonder how many of their readers have actually given the drink a try.

Some of the best modern advice, comes from David Wondrich's "Imbibe", (a must read for anyone really interested in the history of cocktails).

David not only lists Jerry Thomas's original recipes, but gives great advice on finding the right modern wines to use for arcane recipes with names like the "Hock" cobbler (for which he says to use a "nice Moselle").

The cobbler could be on its' way back. I recently attended a holiday gathering with some of the country's best mixology minds, and a brandy cobbler was prominently featured. It was very popular with the crowd!

Could it be one of the top drinks of summer 2011? It's been a very popular refresher in the past, and it would certainly fit the trend of unearthing arcane gems and dusting off for renewed consumption.

Since this post is timed better for New Year's Eve celebrations than summer coolers, I'm going to feature the "Champagne Cobbler".

One of the original cobbler recipes to appear, I thought the best advice on the making of this drink came in the "Honorable William (Cocktail) Boothby's" 1908 publication "The World's Drinks and How to Mix Them". Here he instructs:

CHAMPAGNE COBBLER (Wm. Boothby 1908)
  Fill a cut glass with fine ice, and lay some assorted fruits on the top of it; then take a large mixing glass and place one dessertspoonful of sugar and dissolve it in a little water; add a wineglassful of champagne (pour carefully), mix and then pour over the decorated ice in the goblet, and serve with straws.

A "wineglassful" and "jigger" were typically interchangeable measurements that approximated 2 ounces.

A "Lewis Bag" and a "dead-blow" hammer will pulverize ice nicely.
Step 1) Fill glass with fine ice and lay some assorted fruits on top.

When you make your lemon twist, be sure to spray the oils over the top of your drink.
Step 2) Add 2 teaspoons of powdered sugar to bottom of large mixing glass and dissolve it in a little water.

Step 3) Add 2 ounces of champagne* (pour carefully) and mix with the sugar.

Step 4) Pour over the decorated ice in the goblet, and serve with straws.

*Yes, I know that's not real champagne in the photo. Wanting to provide photos for the blog, and not having a champagne budget this week, I opted for a more reasonably priced (and still tasty) substitution from California, Korbel's Natural Russian River Valley "Champagne".

The keen observer may have noticed the bottle of "Sugar Cane Syrup" lurking in the mix. Here's the deal, when you get to the bottom of this one, especially this time of year, a "re-load" is very easy. Simply pour 1/4 ounce of simple syrup over your ice, refill with champagne, stir and recycle that ice! Then again, there's always the "easy" way...


"Pull out that julep cup, fill with crushed ice and fruit, pour 1/4 oz simple syrup over ice, fill with champagne."

I could have just said so to begin with, but where's the fun in that!
Happy New Year!


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