Friday, August 5, 2011

Jamaica Ginger Blues

A preacher drank some ginger, he said he did it for ’flu
That was his excuse for having the jake leg too
He got the jake leg too, he got the jake leg too.
—I Got the Jake Leg Too, recorded by the Ray Brothers, 1930

The distinction between alcoholic beverages and medicinal preparations has not always been sharply drawn, though Prohibition in the U.S. helped to force the issue. Sometimes a patent medicine was all the booze one could put a hand to. Patent medicines were often dangerous in their own right, but Jamaica ginger extract or “jake,” which had been harmless for years, became the means by which a couple of bootleggers poisoned thousands of people with an additive they believed was harmless, causing often permanent paralysis of the limbs and other symptoms.

The jake leg story haunts me, so I was grimly amused to find recipes with dashes of Jamaica ginger in the elegant Café Royal Cocktail Book. While the poisoning episode seems confined to the early part of 1930 and the victims were drinking a couple of ounces of the stuff mixed with cola, here’s a patent medicine turning up in some Canadian whiskey cocktails. In light of the history, it’s hard not to feel a little spooked.

Nevertheless, I wondered what they tasted like.

There’s a recipe for something called “Flu,” (nice macabre touch), which contains 3/4 Canadian Club Whisky, 1/4 lemon juice, 1 dash Jamaica ginger, 3 dashes rock candy syrup, 3 dashes ginger brandy. The instructions say to shake and strain but do not ice. Leaving aside the question of why anybody would bother to strain something like this without ice, I’m wondering if anyone actually drank this for flu or whether it simply tasted like one might. I think I’ll pass.

Then we have the Hot Deck. It sounds like a Manhattan with a little Jamaica ginger in place of the bitters. Now we’re getting somewhere. Here it is, with plain culinary ginger extract standing in for the jake.

Hot Deck
  • 1 dash Jamaica Ginger (1/4 tsp ginger extract)
  • 1/4 Martini Sweet Vermouth (3/4 oz sweet vermouth)
  • 3/4 Canadian Club Whisky (2 1/4 oz straight rye)
Mix and strain into a cocktail glass.

Though not excellent, this is a perfectly drinkable cocktail. It may not be accidental that the dash of ginger is put first since it takes over the whole thing, and blended whiskey, had I actually used it, would probably fare worse.

These drinks also turn up in the venerable CocktailDB, along with other Jamaica ginger recipes. I tried another, Here’s How, which seems to refer to how to make a weird drink out of good ingredients. Don’t. There is even a nifty icon on the CocktailDB home page called Strange Drink Chemistry that talks about Jamaica ginger and links to the recipes. While they don’t look very nice, they probably won’t poison you.

1 comment:

  1. "(P)robably won't poison you." is a very reassuring description of a drink. ;)


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