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Grande Bretagne Cocktail Nos. I and II

Charles H. Baker, Jr., describes the Grande Bretagne Cocktail No. I as “One of the Five or Six Chief Cocktails of the Whole Wide World.” Strong words, even for Baker! As you can imagine, I was eager to give it a try.

Versions I and II of this cocktail both came from a nameless Greek bartender who worked on the M.S. Bremen for Raymond-Whitcomb Cruises. Baker published his book in 1939, when the Bremen, built by Hapag-Lloyd and launched in August 1928, was still an international sensation. From Hapag-Lloyd’s history, written in 1929 present tense:

With her futuristic silhouette, [the Bremen] embodies technology, momentum and glamour in equal measure and is depicted in exciting modern poster art, becoming the icon, embodiment and highlight of the brief “golden” Twenties.

I was lucky enough to turn up one such iconic image, as you’ll see above.

Between the first printing of Baker’s book in 1939 and the second printing in 1946, the Bremen met an unfortunate end. Again, from Hapag-Lloyd, in 1941 present tense:

The “great ‘Bremen,'” lying alongside in Bremerhaven and awaiting refit as troopship, is gutted by fire in March. After an inferno lasting two days, the most popular ship ever to operate under the NDL flag is no more than a burnt-out wreck. A mentally retarded ship’s boy (16), who later accuses himself of the crime, is executed as the fire raiser. Whether he was really the arsonist was never clarified.

Since the Bremen was, at the time, being retrofitted for use as a German warship, I suppose this was for the best.

In spite of this nautical connection, the cocktail appears to be named for a luxury hotel in Athens. Perhaps the Greek bartender used to work there and brought the drink along with him to the Bremen?

Anyhow, on to the drinks! Baker provides two variations of this cocktail. No. I calls for “dry apricot brandy”; as mentioned previously, I’ve been trying to figure out whether Baker uses this term to refer to a reasonably dry liqueur or, instead, an eau-de-vie. For this cocktail, he once again says that “unless fine dry apricot brandy is used, the result is sweet, abortive, disillusioning in the extreme.” And interestingly, No. II replaces the “apricot brandy” with kirschwasser, which is really an eau-de-vie! Could this be the solution to the apricot mystery?

I started by making both Nos. I and II with eaux-de-vie:

Grande Bretagne No. I

Shake with ice, then strain into a chilled Manhattan glass (I used a coupe).

Grande Bretagne No. II

Shake with ice, then strain into a chilled Manhattan glass (I used a coupe).

Both of these drinks were just plain lousy. But when I remade No. I with Orchard Apricot Liqueur, the result was tasty—a little heavy on the lemon, perhaps, but generally very good.

If that weren’t evidence enough, I finally looked in the section of Baker’s book where he provides information about various cocktail ingredients. Under “apricot brandy,” he mentions Marie Brizard, a liqueur, as an example of a dry apricot brandy.

So there you have it: When Baker says “dry apricot brandy,” he really means “a high-quality apricot liqueur.” If that isn’t news you can use, I don’t know what is. Also, go make a Grande Bretagne No. I. I’m not sure it’s one of the best six cocktails in the world, but it’s very much worth a try.

(Next time on Through the Book With Jigger, Beaker & Flask: A complete history of the Crimean War, followed by a disquisition upon the molecular chemistry of early 20th century cordials. Don’t miss it.)

Grande Bretagne No. I (Apricot Eau-de-Vie): ★★☆☆☆ 

Grande Bretagne No. I (Apricot Liqueur): ★★★★☆ 

Grande Bretagne No. II: ★★☆☆☆ 

Posted by on November 11, 2010.

Categories: 2 Stars, 4 Stars, Apricot Brandy, Apricot Eau-De-Vie, Baker Drinks, Egg White, Gin, Kirschwasser, Lemon, Orange Bitters, Peach Bitters

5 Responses

  1. Craig Lane, at Bar Agricole, makes a fantastic version of this cocktail, it may make you believe that it is one of the five or six chief cocktails of the whole wide world.

    by Dion on Dec 4, 2010 at 1:03 pm

  2. Sorry… I’m not certain I agree with your reading of the text about where the bartender worked.

    CHB Jr. says “he [Eddie Hastings] … told me about the little Greek barkeep in his [1] tiny bar and his [2] miraculous inventions.” I take it that you are reading his [1] to mean Eddie Hastings on the Bremen, but I suspect that his [2] and his [1] have the same sense, i.e. the Greek bartender, so it is probably the hotel bar in the Grande Bretagne in Athens.

    Anyway, lovely poster picture. I really appreciate all of the work you are putting into this.

    by Ben Bennett on Mar 24, 2011 at 6:17 pm

  3. That would make a hell of a lot more sense, wouldn’t it? Thanks for the correction, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the weblog!

    by Jeff on Mar 26, 2011 at 11:53 am

  4. Just made it with Eau-de-Vie and it was- in fact- lousy. I think that next I will try it with Marie Brizard Apry and hope for better…

    by Keith on Oct 5, 2011 at 12:04 am

  5. […] key to this puzzling drink, per, is that though Baker seems to call for an apricot eau de vie, what he really means is an apricot […]

    by A Cocktail Lesson from the ‘Mad Men’ Era, via Bon Appétit 1961 | Recipes Gourmet Share on Oct 18, 2013 at 7:32 am

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About The Gentleman's Companion

This weblog documents one man’s ill-advised quest to sample every drink in The Gentleman’s Companion: Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask, by Charles H. Baker, Jr. That man is Jeff Williams, an amateur bartender in San Francisco, California. When he is not making drinks, he enjoys lazing about in the park and writing […]more →