The Futurity Cocktail Offers a Sip of Yesterday’s Tomorrow
The first reference to the Futurity Cocktail I can find dates to 1898, when it was described in the New York Herald as one of the “cocktails that are in favor.” Well, okay. What wasn’t in favor as the century closed and the cocktail’s golden age reached its apogee.
The recipe has remained largely unchanged since it first appeared, though grenadine crept into it in the early 20th century and persisted—grenadine was very wily back then.
The Futurity was described as made of “sloe gin and Italian vermouth, to which is added a very little of Angostura bitters.” It was one of those classes of drinks that never really disappeared yet never really caught on. The recipe has remained largely unchanged since it first appeared, though grenadine crept into it in the early 20th century and persisted—grenadine was very wily back then. The drink managed to survive Prohibition, and even rode a small wave of popularity in the years following Repeal.
It’s an intriguing cocktail on a number of counts. For starters, there’s the name. It has a modern, alluring ring to it, so it might come as a surprise that the word “futurity” has been around since at least Shakespeare, who was credited for first using it in print. (Sir Walter Scott may have had the best usage, however, when he described events that had not yet happened as “still in the womb of futurity.”)
Still, “futurity” sounds modern and, well, futuristic. It’s in decided contrast to most other words we employ to describe the alluring vastness of the future, all of which have the intonations of a musty-smelling lawyer trapped in the catacombs of history: “hereafter,” “forthcoming,” “henceforward,” “by-and-by,” and “in the fullness of time.”
Drinking a cocktail perpetually in the future has strong appeal, because under obscure laws it means the drinker will never age. At least, that’s my interpretation. Except there’s this: This cocktail was surely named not after the future, but after a type of horse race. Horses that may not even be born yet can be entered in a race that takes place some years hence. This is called a futurity. Futurities also exist for dogs, barrel-racing ponies, and Texas longhorns. This sadly takes it out of the realm of clean futurism and science fiction, and gives it the earthy aroma of a stable.
As such, the Futurity joins with other drinks whose names derive from horse-racing culture, including the Saratoga, the Jockey Club, and the Man o’ War. Some accounts suggest that the Futurity Cocktail was once as popular at the Kentucky Derby as the Mint Julep (now the “official drink” of the Derby), but evidence supporting this is more rare than Triple Crown winners. The quiet if dogged persistence of the Futurity Cocktail can be ascribed to one simple fact: It’s a fine drink. It’s tart and tangy, and anchored by a dark, vermouthy ballast. What’s more, it makes an excellent showcase for sloe gin, a spirit that’s about as distant from the future as is possible.
It’s a fine drink. It’s tart and tangy, and anchored by a dark, vermouthy ballast.
Sloe gin emerged several centuries ago from British farmhouse kitchens. Farmers would take cheap, inexpertly made gin and render it more palatable by infusing it with various fruits and berries. Among the most popular was the sloe berry, a tart, plummy fruit that grew on shrubby blackthorn trees related to the rose bush, and native to much of Europe and parts of Asia and northern Africa.
Other homemade flavored gins fell out of favor as the modern 20th century progressed, but sloe gin somehow survived, moving from home kitchen to commercial distiller. Plymouth Sloe Gin first appeared in 1883 and has long been a standard-bearer in the category. “Sloe Gin Wins Following with Peculiar Flavor,” read one 1936 headline from The Sacramento Bee. (“Sloe gin drinks have attained unusual popularity in Sacramento,” the article noted, “partly because of the berry tang this type of liquor possesses.”)
Sloe gin has since weathered peaks and valleys, although mostly it has lingered in valleys, fiercely loved by few and ignored by everybody else. It has never been celebrated with fireworks but has rather been a lone sparkler in the gloaming, never sputtering out but never emitting enough light to cast a shadow. For generations, it has been largely relegated to ankle-height shelves at liquor stores.
The craft cocktail revival and its embrace of all liquors antiquated and extinct have fueled a modest revival. Plymouth Sloe Gin was revived in the late 1990s, and in 2004, craft cocktail pioneer Audrey Saunders wrote that she eagerly awaited its U.S. arrival (which didn’t come until 2008), adding that it’s “a fantastic winter warmer on its own and wonderful in a cocktail such as the Bramble.” Distillers such as Hayman’s, Sipsmith, Spirit Works, Fords, and Monkey 47 have released their own sloe gins.
When the Kentucky Derby rolls around this spring, I’d urge you to consider an alternative to the regal but weary Mint Julep to elevate your viewing pleasure.
When the Kentucky Derby rolls around this spring, I’d urge you to consider an alternative to the regal but weary Mint Julep to elevate your viewing pleasure. Yes, it may be sacrilege to cast bourbon aside in favor of what writer Kingsley Amis claimed was the “only all-English liqueur.” Yet Amis added that it was often drunk by riders “before going off to hunt the jolly old fox,” giving it a connection to a noble, equine past.
Also, I believe that a few sips of a Futurity will grant you visions of the future, which may well enable you to foresee the Derby’s winner. Enjoy your early retirement.
The post The Futurity Cocktail Offers a Sip of Yesterday’s Tomorrow appeared first on Imbibe Magazine.