Drink in History—The Brandy Alexander

What do Lennon and anthracite have in common?


Not much… except for the sweet sipper named Brandy Alexander. As the pre-Prohibition forerunner of a category of cocktails deigned as ‘dessert drinks,’ the modern-day Brandy Alexander is a concoction of brandy, crème de cacao, cream and topped with freshly grated nutmeg. Today on National Brandy Alexander Day we celebrate this beautiful concoction.  


Stories with international intrigue surround its birthright—from Russian tsar Alexander II to the cocktail created for a British royal family wedding in 1922. However, most cocktail historians point to a New York bartender as the original creator—at least the version that calls for gin instead of brandy. 


Enter anthracite.  


As the early 20th century story goes, barkeep Tony Alexander was commissioned to create a drink for a party. The soiree—held at Rector’s, a popular New York City restaurant of the time—was thrown to launch an ad campaign for a railroad company hailing the use of anthracite, a clean-burning variety of coal. As the central ‘celebrity’ of the campaign, New Yorker socialite Phoebe Snow, a fictional character devised solely for marketing purposes, rode the train in all white. Why? Thanks to anthracite, she could now arrive at her destination completely unsoiled and soot-free. (Back in the day, rail travel, with coal-burning engines, was a dirty endeavor.) Thus, the Brandy Alexander, with its pure-as-driven-snow appearance, was the ideal social lubricant for the railroad’s rendezvous.  


This original gin version of the Brandy Alexander appeared in print in the 1916 cocktail recipe book by Hug Ensslin, “Recipes for Mixed Drinks”. According to etymologist and American food historian Barry Popik, the brandy rendition didn’t appear until the 1940s.  


Over time, this became what imbibers came to know as the one and only Alexander cocktail. Pop culture certainly helped with the proliferation of its new persona.  


In 1970, actress Mary Richards asked for one during her interview in the pilot episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. At LA’s Troubadour club in 1974, John Lennon was kicked out for heckling the Smothers Brothers. This was the very same night he was introduced to the Brandy Alexander (and a lot of them).  


Later he explained why it happened, “It was my first night on Brandy Alexanders — that’s brandy and milk, folks.” Despite the negative first encounter, Lennon deemed it his ‘milkshake’ of choice. It also became a favorite of Ringo Starr. 


In 2007, on Feist’s record The Reminder, there’s a song named after the cocktail in which the indie artist describes a dysfunctional lover as her Brandy Alexander. And there’s probably no better characterization of the drink: “Always gets me into trouble,” and, “It goes down easy.”  


And even today, rebel rousing bar star and author Jeffery Morganthaler has sung its praises. On his self-entitled cocktail blog, he wrote this homage: “All this talk of chocolate martinis is giving me diabetes. Sure, you can pour a bunch of sweet, creamy liqueurs into a glass and call it the ‘Fine Art of Mixology’, but you’d be missing the whole point. Why not try something that’s going to reward you from start to finish, a drink that packs the Bacchanalian punch of brandy with the delicate flavors of chocolate and cream?” 


If there’s ever a season for a whopping dose of Bacchanalian punch, it’s now. With its creamy texture, the brandy-based tipple makes an excellent alternative to the king of sweet, creamy cheer in a glass.  


Brandy Alexander

Brandy Alexander


  • 1 1/2 oz. cognac 
  • 1 oz. dark crème de cacao 
  • 1 oz. cream 

Preparation: Add ingredients into a shaker with ice and shake until well-chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass or coupe. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.

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