You can make these cocktails. Start right now.
I’ve never been a follower of American horse racing, but I do enjoy the hype and pageantry of the three-race set known as the “Triple Crown” — in the US, it’s the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes.
The Kentucky Derby falls near my birthday, so for decades my birthday partly has been a Derby-watching event, replete with fancy outfits, good hats and, especially, whiskey juleps. The Mint Julep is the universally accepted symbol of the Derby, and the Run for the Roses starts the ice-crushing the season right.
Today’s Preakness Stakes also has an official cocktail, though not one as storied as the Derby’s Mint Julep. While you’d expect it to be something called the “Preakness Cocktail,” it is instead called the “Black-Eyed Susan.” (The race likes to think of itself as the “Run for the Black-Eyed Susans,” though black-eyed Susans don’t bloom until high summer. It’s Maryland’s state flower, so what the heck.)
You can get the Black-Eyed Susan recipe at the Preakness website, and a good back story at A History of Drinking, so I won’t bother with it here. At first glance, the current recipe—it seems to change frequently, presumably to accommodate the changing list of race liquor sponsors—looks light and fruity, just the thing you’d want if you’re drinking them for hours on a hot day with thousands of other people who are drinking, too.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stand close inspection. It’s a very dodgy-looking blend of whiskey and vodka, with lots of orange juice and sour mix. Basically, it’s good whiskey, ruined. I’m not going to drink even one of those, no. Who thought that would be a good idea?
The Real Preakness Cocktail
Fortunately, to make up for that curious derailment, there really is a drink called the Preakness Cocktail. You’ll hardly ever encounter it, but it’s worth knowing.
Historians tell us that George Backert, head barman at Baltimore’s Emerson Hotel, invented the Preakness as a contest entry. It seems the Pimlico racetrack owners were looking for a good evening cocktail to serve at the first Preakness Ball in 1936, and Backert’s simple twist on the classic Manhattan won the honor of becoming the first official cocktail of the afterparty.
The formula is quick and simple, and uses ingredients that are typically available in the average home bar:
The Preakness Cocktail
- 2 oz rye whiskey (Rittenhouse)
- 1 oz sweet vermouth (M&R Rosso)
- ½ tsp Bénédictine
- 2 dashes aromatic bitters (Angostura, Peychaud’s, Bittercube Bolivar)
Stir all ingredients with ice until very cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail stem. Express and garnish with lemon or orange twist, or (some say) with a cherry.
The Rittenhouse is a 100-proof straight rye whiskey; its relatively high proof gives the drink a good whiskey backbone, but an 80- or 90-proof whiskey would likely do well in this drink, too.
I like the earthy qualities of the M&R Rosso vermouth, but the Preakness also works well with the sweeter, more lush Carpano Antica, if you’re in a mood for that.
Bénédictine is the special ingredient that keeps this from being a straightforward Manhattan. It offers a little herbal background to the whiskey that isn’t part of the normal profile. In my opinion, it’s easy to overdo Bénédictine; a half-teaspoon splash seems just about right.
I’ve seen suggestions that the original Preakness might have used Peychaud’s bitters, but most listings suggest Angostura. I’ve found that many of the aromatic bitters on the market work well in this drink.
The Preakness is certainly an evening drink, as befits its history as the standard-bearer for the Preakness Ball. It is definitely not something you could drink all afternoon, standing in the sun (or rain) at trackside.
But it is a handsome cocktail, one that should be revived, and a welcome variation for those of us who are long-time lovers of the Manhattan in all its forms.
So here’s to the Triple Crown, to George Backert, and to his Preakness Cocktail.