Today, for instance, I was doing research on the Adirondack League Club, a private hunting and fishing preserve that began in the late 1800s, when I came across a mention of two regional specialties I had never heard of: Adirondack Pie and the Mountain Ash Cocktail.
Adirondack Pie, apparently, is a stack of 15 to 20 very thin pancakes slathered with butter and maple sugar between each layer, then topped with whipped cream and cut like a cake. Sounds tasty, but I was more intrigued by the Mountain Ash Cocktail, also called the Adirondack Cocktail.
This, according to The Adirondack League Club, 1890–1990, edited by Edward Comstock, Jr., was "the usual precursor of the morning meal at Bisby Lodge ." The ingredients included rye, water, sugar and macerated mountain ash bark.
Macerated bark? I know the name Adirondack is supposed to be an Algonquin insult meaning "bark eater," but I've never heard of anyone here actually eating (or, in this case, drinking) it.
"The cocktail is best enjoyed as a spring tonic, because the green, growing layer of the bark has a particularly nutty, almond-like aroma just as the buds are swelling," the description in the book continues.
Then I found an 1890 article from the New York Times that tells more of the story, with a slight variation on the recipe:
"One of the features of the Bisby Lodge is the mountain ash cocktail. It is indigenous to the Adirondacks. It was invented by an ingenious member of the old Walton Club, which was the pioneer social organization of the North Woods.... Before breakfast the cocktail was placed before each man. Camping out was not the luxury in those days that modern civilization has made it. A bed of boughs in a log hut close by the lake side was regarded as the height of comfort. The cocktail was supposed to overcome and banish the chill that sometimes accompanied the sleep under these circumstances.
The ash is pure tonic, and this is how Gen. Sherman, now President of the Bisby Club, makes the cocktail: A little sugar dropped in a glass, not more than a teaspoonful, just enough water to dissolve it and convert it into a syrup; then bark scraped from the mountain ash; over this pour a bolus of gin; let the decoction stand with a lump of ice, then to be disposed of in the usual way.
"No member of the Walton Club," says Gen. Sherman, "was ever known to have rheumatism after partaking of this delightful beverage, and as an appetizer its superior is not known."
As it turns out, bark is not as odd a drink ingredient as I had imagined. Aside from the most popular bark used in cooking—cinnamon, or cassia—various tree barks are common ingredients in bitters. Bitters are a kind of alcoholic beverage; they were once considered medicinal, which made them very popular during Prohibition, when the local pharmacy became a substitute liquor store. Nowadays they are often mixed in cocktails, having seen a resurgence in the last decade or so along with other classic bar ingredients.
Angostura Bitters and Peychaud's Bitters are two of the more popular brands. The Angostura recipe is a secret, though it supposedly contains no angostura bark, which comes from a South American tree that is used in other brands of bitters. Quinine, which flavors tonic water, occurs naturally in the bark of the Peruvian cinchona tree, though it is now produced synthetically.
So, really, the Mountain Ash Cocktail is just a rustic gin and tonic. I'll have to remember that next time I'm camping in the woods.