This week’s cocktail is a post-Prohibition heavyweight, that plays with rye whiskey, Chartreuse and apple-based spirits. We owe it all to an unassuming, Maryland turtle… it’s the Diamondback.
I have quite a few things in common with terrapins: we like to feed on shrimps, crabs, clams and mussels; we are known to hibernate in the winter; and we like to catch raindrops in our mouths. We also share the Diamondback cocktail – for the terrapins, it’s their namesake and for me, well, I just like to drink them.
The diamondback terrapin (so called because of the pattern on its shell) was the inspiration for the Diamondback Lounge at the Lord Baltimore Hotel where the cocktail was invented. This aquatic turtle which thrives in the mangroves and marshes of North America, is Maryland’s official state reptile, and University football fans will recognise the Maryland Terrapins’ jaunty, beshelled mascot with an ‘M’ emblazoned on its proud chest.
The Lord Baltimore Hotel (which still stands today) was one of the tallest structures in Baltimore when it was built in 1928. The Diamondback Lounge no longer exists at the hotel, and the bartender responsible for the eponymous cocktail remains a mystery, but the most well-documented record of the recipe can be found in Ted Saucier’s Bottoms Up, published in 1951.
It calls for 1.5oz (40ml) rye whiskey, 0.75oz (20ml) applejack, and 0.75oz (20ml) yellow Chartreuse, shaken with ice, strained over ice in a rocks glass and garnished with mint. History buffs among you will note the post-Prohibition date on Saucier’s tome – and considering the 100 proof strength of each ingredient, the Diamondback would have been a pretty powerful reintroduction to drinking for the native Baltimorian.
But the contemporary Diamondback comes in a slightly different guise. How has the cocktail changed its geometry for the modern-day drinker?
The great Chartreuse debate
Saucier’s recipe calls for the use of yellow Chartreause, but in 2005, Seattle bartender Murray Stenson put his version of a Diamondback on the Zig Zag Café’s menu, swapping yellow Chartreuse for green. A bold move – with the green variant coming in at an even higher ABV than the original yellow, making this cocktail even more potent. But with the rye whiskey threatening to dominate the flavour profile, the more herbal and pronounced green Chartreuse was perhaps chosen by Stenson to stand up for itself. Fast-forward to 2011 and Jim Meehan adopts the green method too in his landmark PDT Cocktail Book.
Stenson is also responsible for a change in method and serve style. His recipe calls for the three ingredients to be stirred over ice, rather than shaken, strained into a chilled cocktail class and garnished with a cherry. Meehan eschews the cherry but it isn’t rare to see a Diamondback garnished with a lemon peel.
Which rye when?
The choice of whiskey is also left up to interpretation. While Saucier’s recipe (and most since) simply call for ‘rye whiskey’, Stenson’s choice of Rittenhouse Straight Rye 100 proof (50% ABV) has been adopted by Diamondback fans as their favourite pour. Its notes of dried fruit, spices and caramel are the perfect companion for the herbal green Chartreuse and complements the applejack component (more on that soon).
Interestingly, Meehan reverts to Saucier’s loose prescription of rye whiskey, but raises its measure from 1.5 oz (40ml) to 2 oz (50ml). With that in mind, we can confirm that slightly lighter Woodford Reserve Kentucky Rye or Wild Turkey Straight Rye sit beautifully in a Diamondback. As does Finalnd’s Kyro Distillery’s Malt Rye for something slightly less conventional, but no less delicious.
What on earth is applejack?
Saucier’s recipe calls for the addition of applejack. UK drinkers probably won’t be familiar with this apple brandy spirit. So-called for its production method of ‘jacking’ (freezing fermented cider and then removing the ice) it originated in New Jersey in 1698 and is attributed to the Laird family. During the 19th and 20th centuries, it declined in popularity, but post-Prohibition, The Laird family were granted permission to make it again for ‘medicinal purposes’ and its popularity rose again.
Stenson honoured the Laird family in his reinvention of the Diamondback, citing the use of Laird’s Straight Applejack (Laird’s standard applejack bottling contains neutral alcohol along with apple brandy), while Meehan simply states the use of apple brandy in his recipe. It isn’t uncommon to see the use of Calvados in the place of applejack – spirits in kind, but using different apples.
And the riffs keep coming. New east London bar from Remy Savage, A Bar With Shapes For A Name, has bottled its version of a Diamondback for delivery. It combines Knobb Creek (at 50% ABV, a nod to the original recipe), cider eau-de-vie (a tribute to applejack), Chartreuse MOF (neither green nor yellow, a diplomatic choice), raspberry eau-de-vie and manuka honey. “This drink from the 1950´s is « big » both aromatically and in terms of ABV,” the team writes on its Instagram post. “We made a few changes to try and soften it up and give it a crisp yet delicate fruity finish.”
My favourite version, below, uses Saucier’s ratios and ingredients but stirred and with an added cherry as per Stenson’s recipe. It’s enough to get me, and the terrapins, out of hibernation.
How to make a Diamondback:
Stir over ice and strain into a chilled Nick & Nora glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.