Vintage Cocktails: The Brandy Alexander


KIMBERLY VOSS PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Central Florida. She blogs at womenspagehistory.com. She is the author of The Food Section (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) and a co-author of Mad Men & Working Women (Peter Lang, 2014)

Photo credit: Lance Speere

Photo credit: Lance Speere

On the pilot episode of the 1970 “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the title character is interviewing for a broadcast journalism job. She’s a spirited single woman looking for a job in a new city. Offered a drink, she responds that she would like a “Brandy Alexander.” It was the kind of response that leads her soon-to-be-boss Lou Grant to remark that Moore has “spunk.” The gruff Grant then reveals that he hates “spunk.”

Not hated is the chocolaty, brandy-based cocktail that became popular during the early 20th century and consists of equal parts cognac or brandy, crème de cacao, and cream. (Crème de cacao is a chocolate-flavored liqueur with hints of vanilla.) All the ingredients are shaken vigorously over ice until it becomes frosted. The beverage is usually poured in a cocktail or martini glass and served with a sprinkling of nutmeg powder. Grated nutmeg is frequently used as a garnishing as well. The creaminess of the drink has led some to call it a Milk Shake.

The Brandy Alexander has a long history, being the more popular spinoff of the gin-based Alexander cocktail, which first appeared early in the twentieth century. (The brandy-based drink was initially known as the Alexander #2.) However, several theories exist as to the actual origin of the drink. One belief is that the brandy variation first appeared in London in 1922, specially concocted for the wedding celebration of Princess Mary and Lord Lascelle. In other histories, however, Algonquin Round Table member Alexander Woollcott bragged that it was named after him. In another version of the drink’s origin, it supposedly took its namesake from Russian tsar Alexander II.

One of the earliest known printed recipes for the Alexander can be found in Hugo Ensslin’s 1916 Recipes for Mixed Drinks. This has led historian Barry Popik to surmise that the cocktail was likely born at Rector’s, New York’s premier pre-Prohibition lobster palace, by a bartender named Troy Alexander.

Variations of the Brandy Alexander are as numerous as the tales of its origin. In one version, the Dreamy Alexander is a drink prepared with equal amounts of crème de cacao and Cointreau and is served with a slice of orange inserted on the rim of the glass. Another variation is the Mocha Alexander and is a combination of crème de cacao and coffee liqueur served with a garnishing of cocoa powder. Substitute crème de menthe for crème de cocao and you have Alexander’s Sister.

Regardless of the variations or the history of the drink, the Brandy Alexander continues to live on in pop culture, sipped by the likes of Jack Lemmon, Lee Remick, Joaquin Phoenix, and Steve Martin on film. On television, it has made appearances in everything from the earlier mentioned Mary Tyler Show to the Rockford Files, Cheers, Chuck, and The Big Bang Theory.

Its popularity is likely due to the cocktail’s sweetness, which has one television character disappointed when it doesn’t live up to expectations. During the first season of AMC’s “Mad Men,” Peggy Olson, who like Mary Richards was known for her spunk, orders a Brandy Alexander during a blind date because it is a drink that she has seen the sophisticated Joan order in the past. Joan’s version of the drink, for some reason, was usually sweeter, Peggy remarks.

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