If the rumors we hear are correct, Rolls-Royce will be unveiling an all-new Phantom this summer. The arrival of a flagship Roller isn't quite as rare as the coronation of a new member of the British Royal Family, but is tres recherché nonetheless. Since the nameplate's founding nearly 100 years ago, this will be only the eighth generation of Phantom to be delivered into the greedy hands of the world's vilest oligarchs. If you're one of the .01 percent, this is cause for a drink, and what better cocktail to raise in toast than one named for the brand itself? (For us 99.99 percenters, the answer is easy: Molotov.)
As you might expect, the Rolls-Royce cocktail is kind of a classied-up version of an upscale iteration of an already elegant drink, conjugated from the classic (gin) martini and it well-married brother, the Martinez.
"It's basically a very wet martini," says Paul Hletko, founder of FEW Spirits, an Evanston, Illinois gin and whiskey distillery acronymically (and winkingly) named for local maven Frances Elizabeth Willard, who helped found the Women's Christian Temperance Union – one of the forces behind Prohibition.
"Two-to-one is a fantastic ratio of gin to vermouth that really lets the vermouth shine, and then having that split between dry and sweet vermouths gives you fantastic and rich complexity, with that little bit of Benedictine being that really nice herbal add," Hletko told us.
It all sounds intriguingly botanical, and the drink itself has a reputation as being a favorite among bartenders, a coupe brimming with insider insight. "In the history of drinking there are many cocktails made with vermouth and gin," says legendary mixologist Charles Schumann from Schumann's Gastronomie in Munich. "Nowadays it is one of the forgotten cocktails."
But while it makes sense that a Manhattan made with scotch is called a Rob Roy (he's a Scottish legend), and, as we proved in this series, that the name of the ye olde Taxi cocktail derived from its vivid resemblance to the golden hue that was just then emerging on that semi-public conveyance, whence does a tawny glass of spirits get named for what has been the pinnacle of autodom for more than a century?
In digitally thumbing through our beloved 150 year old library of classic cocktail books, we find that the Rolls-Royce cocktail first appeared around 1930. Though more than 25 years into the existence of the car company, this was during the reign of the first generation Phantom—a smooth bastard with a 7.7-liter OHV straight six and a four-wheel boosted brake system licensed from Hispano-Suiza. It was also during the short-lived (1921-1931) existence of the American Phantom, a group of about 1200 luxe vehicles produced for the Jazz Age domestic market in Springfield, MA and mainly bodied by the Brewster coachworks in Long Island City, NY.
As an interesting corollary, the drink first shows up in the Savoy Cocktail Book, the brainchild of another British/American hybrid: Harry Craddock. Born in the UK, Craddock came of age mixing boozes at New York's famed Knickerbocker and Hoffman House hotels, before abandoning our temperant union to become the best-known bartender at London's American Bar in the Savoy Hote.l An Ur-text of mixologists worldwide, Craddock's "Savoy" it is still in print today.
"It's very possible that Craddock created the Rolls-Royce Cocktail, catering to all the Bright Young Things of London society that congregated at the American Bar," says Phil Brooks, historian of the Rolls-Royce Foundation, an independent not-for-profit dedicated to the preservation of all things Rolls.
"My suspicion, totally unproven, is that he originated the drink in New York and brought it with him to London, as one of the over 200 cocktails he placed on the American Bar's menu. Bright Young Things, be they in London or New York, liked Rolls-Royces and bought them, both before and after World War I. No doubt many in that customer base would have liked a Rolls-Royce Cocktail."
Fair enough as far as conjecture goes, but we are interested in historical fact (or, at least we feign interest to keep the article going until the eventual drinking part). So we dug deeper, making inquiries at every major R-R organization we could find. We tried the Rolls-Royce Enthusiast Club, and the Rolls-Royce Owners' Club. We even went right to Goodwood, the headquarters of the company. Bubkes.
"We unfortunately have no official historical information about the source of this drink," says Gerry Spahn, director of communications for Rolls-Royce North America. "Yet, while the story of the Rolls-Royce cocktail's origins may have been lost to the sands of time, we are honored that it was immortalized in the Savoy's cocktail handbook."
Spahn did point out that the ultra-luxe brand and the imbibing of cocktails have a long and interconnected history. "Since the founding of Rolls-Royce – and the inclusion of coach-built cocktail sets – our customers have always expected the highest level of creativity and ingredients from their mixologist, all the way through the modern cocktail hamper," he says, referring to the $45,000 custom drink kit (pictured above) available for contemporary Rollers. "A passionate owner could have used this as the very basis for the uniquely British yet internationally inspired libation."
Sure. But the actual explanation for the drink's origin may be much simpler than that. "When you look at cocktail history, people wanted to have their drinks have a name that was exquisite, fancy, and really tried to describe what it was," says Paul Hletko of FEW. "I don't think you get cars that are much more elegant and classic than a Rolls Royce. And certainly that same description of class and elegance is going to apply to the Rolls-Royce cocktail."
Occam's Razor suggests that the limited assumptions in this account make it most compelling, even if it is something of a tautology. (Like most ultimate-quality superlatives, a Rolls motor car is something of a tautology as well: the answer to the question its very existence poses.)
Anyway, how does it taste? Well, the Rolls-Royce surprised us. We've experimented with wet Martinis in the past, but our love of more alcohol always won out over enriched flavor. This was as different from downing a glass of cold gin perfumed with an atomized spritz of Martini & Rossi as a Genesis G90 is from a Ghost. It was delicate, refined, and complex, with the citrus and sweetness of the FEW gin mixing with the quality vermouths – especially the Carpano Antica – and the borderline floral Benedictine to provide a layered and deliberate but never astringent or perfumed quality.
It stuck with us. It delighted us, sensorially. It wasn't a drink we'd want to have every night. It was an occasion drink, for a special evening, the way a Rolls-Royce is an occasion car for a voyage to a notable destination. It made the night distinctive, unlike every other drunken night in our lives.
The last time we borrowed a Rolls Phantom Sedan to test drive, it came with a trio of cut crystal liquor decanters and rocks glasses for the pampered back seat occupants. We filled them with gin, Campari, and Noilly Prat, and mixed up a batch of Negronis. When our new Phantom arrives, we know just what we'll be concocting.
The Rolls-Royce Cocktail
2 oz FEW American Gin
½ oz Dolin Dry Vermouth
½ Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth
1 dash Benedictine