Binny's Home Bartender: Orange Blossom
“Well, I'm going down to Florida
And get some sand in my shoes
Or maybe Californy And get some sand in my shoes
I'll ride that Orange Blossom Special
And lose these New York blues”
- Orange Blossom Special
We are already a few weeks into spring, but you wouldn’t know it from the weather. We are still adrift in the late winter doldrums, but the hardiest early bloomers are splashing the dull gray landscape with bursts of spring color. Snow drops, crocuses, and reticulated irises are all in bloom with jonquils and daffodils hot on their heels. In Washington D.C., the cherry trees have bloomed and even further south, in Florida, the year's main citrus bloom has occurred. And, while the season for most citrus fruits is quickly waning or over, we are just entering the heart of the Valencia orange harvest.
Valencia oranges are a citrus cross developed in Southern California in the 19th century. They were soon adopted by Florida’s citrus growers and have become famous as THE “juice” orange, in both states, for producing sweet, richly colored juice. Given the seasonal purgatory we are in at the moment, good orange juice is just the ticket for creating a trestle between winter and spring.
Enter the Orange Blossom cocktail, a simple three ingredient recipe that provides citrusy refreshment, without the sharpness of lemon or lime, combined with the complex aromatic profiles of Sweet Vermouth (we recommend Dolin Rouge for its layered herbal notes and relatively light body) and Gin (the original recipe calls for Old Tom Gin, but you can use a London Gin for a drier drink. We also confess to finding Plymouth to be an excellent compromise). This is an old school cocktail with roots going back to the pre-prohibition era. We find it in print in The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book from 1935 along with some variations1 but it surely dates to much earlier.
Railroad and music geeks alike will note that at that same time the Orange Blossom Special2 , a seasonal luxury train (when such a moniker wasn’t an oxymoron in the States), carried passengers from New York to Florida during the winter months. The schedule overlapped peak citrus season and the new year’s bloom, providing the name for this famously ritzy way to escape down the eastern seaboard from cold northerly climes.
The train’s fame was such that a couple of songwriters went out of their way just to take a look, after which they penned (in 1938) one of the most iconic bluegrass songs ever written, the Orange Blossom Special. The tune was meant to rhythmically mimic the train gaining speed and eventually highballing down the track. It was a real workout for fiddle in the hands of bluegrass artists like the seminal Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys and became known as “the fiddle player’s national anthem”. By the time Johnny Cash recorded his famous version in 1965, lyrics had been added and Cash’s arrangement didn’t even include a fiddle. The one constant in every version, and they are countless, is the inconstant tempo of a train building speed as it rolls down the track. You have likely heard this rollicking boot stomper whether you realize it or not.
We recommend mixing up an Orange Blossom cocktail and dreaming of warmer days or warmer climes. Imagine you are in a finely appointed Pullman Car (Chicago made)3, on your way to a land fragrant with orange blossoms and no matter how fast the train goes, how intense the rhythm of the wheels clicking along the rails becomes, you are relaxed and enjoying a refreshing cocktail. Oh, and crank up a lively version of The Orange Blossom Special.
The OBS is the perfect bridge between seasons in your cocktail routine but will continue to serve you well as the weather warms. A sunny Sunday morning on the patio with an actual newspaper or, perhaps, Easter brunch4, are a couple of ideal real-world applications for this tasty classic cocktail but this mixologist must confess that we wouldn’t turn one down at five o’clock either.
- 1 oz. Gin (Old Tom)
- 1 oz. Sweet Vermouth (Dolin Rouge)
- 1 oz. orange juice, freshly squeezed
- Garnish: orange wedge
- Add the gin, sweet vermouth and orange juice to a shaker with ice. Shake until well-chilled.
- Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe.
- Garnish with an orange wedge.
- The Adirondack is listed as a pre-prohibition cocktail with a simple 1 to 1 gin to orange juice ratio and calls for Gordon’s (a very common call at the time). The author states that the drink made it through the tribulations of prohibition and emerged as one of the few widely known cocktails in the U.S. While the Orange Blossom specifically calls for Old Tom Gin the Orange Blossom #2 listed beneath it goes back to a 1 to 1 gin to orange juice ratio with no particular gin called for.
- The OBS ran from 1925 until 1953.
- In another odd connection to Chicago, some speculate that the authors of the song didn’t see the OBS but mistook one of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy’s famous Twin City Zephyrs, streamlined luxury Art Deco masterpieces in their own right, for the OBS. The Museum of Science and Industry has the Pioneer Zephyr on display if you are inclined to see a truly spectacular example of the Streamline Moderne movement.
- For those wanting a little more kick than a Mimosa delivers. We promise not to ask why this extra fortification is necessary.