Let’s arrange the menu, the venue, the seating for today’s installment in Good. Food. Stories.’ ongoing series of Hamilton-inspired drinks. Mr. Jefferson, welcome home.
If I made a Thomas Jefferson cocktail based on every one of the historically significant moments he was involved in over the course of his lifetime, it would be something like a mille-feuille mind eraser, layer upon layer with accomplishments, schemes, and travails.
In his own way, the man was non-stop, a Founding Father who was present from the birth of the new nation through the first rumblings of Manifest Destiny. Though Jefferson himself only wanted to be remembered on his tombstone as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, as well as the founder of the University of Virginia, there’s a lot more he (characteristically) omitted.
What Jefferson did in his life was well-documented, but who he was is a question long debated by historians and scholars: famous for his reticence, yet leaving a forest of writings whose public proclamations and private feelings contradict themselves at every turn.
As Daveed Diggs so exquisitely stated in Hamilton’s America, “You don’t have to separate these things with Jefferson. He can have written this incredible document and several incredible documents with things that we all believe in, and he sucks.”
And that’s where we find ourselves with this Thomas Jefferson cocktail, inspired by the gentleman farmer from Virginia. A velvety but maddeningly opaque drink with an undercurrent of bite, it’s an intriguing stunner that plays with the many contradictions in Jefferson’s life.
Start with gin. Yes, Jefferson stocked his personal cellars with Madeira and wine, but those spirits will make this drink look muddied and dark, and Jefferson was all about presenting the right outward impression.
Choose a bottle with a botanical nose—avoid Hendrick’s, with its strong cucumber notes, for instance—and look for a more subtly herbal blend. I’m a fan of St. George’s Botanivore here.
Jefferson was both interested in horticulture and gardening on a personal level, as evidenced by his his obsessive cataloging and acquisition of plants at Monticello:
Botany I rank with the most valuable sciences, whether we consider its subjects as furnishing the principal subsistence of life to man & beast, delicious varieties for our tables, refreshments from our orchards, the adornments of our flower-borders, shade and perfume of our groves, materials for our buildings, or medicaments for our bodies.source
But he also used botany as a cover for many of his exploratory missions and travels to promote his own political agenda. In 1791, Jefferson and his bestie/right-hand man James Madison traveled throughout New York and New England for a month, taking notes on the flora and fauna of the region but also sussing out the political climate of the region’s constituents who’d just replaced Senator Philip Schuyler with Republican-leaning Aaron Burr. (Who says you can’t mix business and pleasure?)
A few years later, Jefferson met the French botanist André Michaux and pressed President Washington to sent him west to explore the geography and botanical bounty of the territories (and, oh, along the way, set the stage for Western expansion).
Though that mission never came to fruition, the same mix of scientific curiosity and private desires for empire building propelled the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Likewise, the next ingredient in this Thomas Jefferson cocktail—wheat beer—also speaks to his agrarian interests as well as his cloudy state of mind and tendency to mask his thoughts, even to the point of self-delusion.
The examples to make here are almost too overwhelming: do we discuss how Jefferson’s belief that a strong federal government bordered on monarchical oppression went at odds with his biggest Presidential accomplishment, using his own executive authority to double the size of the United States via the Louisiana Purchase?
His insistence on considering himself a simple farmer, even though the acres of land on his vast estate were not cultivated by his hands, but by the enslaved men and women that Jefferson also considered his property?
Most obviously, what of his famous phrases that “all men are created equal” and entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” when he was unwilling and unable to confront the realities of slavery throughout his lifetime?
An unfiltered wheat beer, with its slightly sweet flavor profile and hazy hue, represents this dichotomy between “the head and the heart” wherein Jefferson’s mental utopia is sullied by historical hindsight. If you can, pick a beer from a Virginia brewery, like Port City’s Optimal Wit.
Creme de violette lends the cocktail its color and its connection to Jefferson’s time in Paris. Though the liqueur itself is Austrian in origin, using violets plucked from Alpine meadows, sweet and syrups made from floral essences, including roses and violets, had been popular in Europe since the Renaissance.
Jefferson always had a taste for the finer things in life, a personality trait whose flames were fanned to the point of a raging inferno during his diplomatic stint as the United States’ Minister to France.
As Joseph J. Ellis writes in American Sphinx, “French wine, French food, French architecture and the discreet charms of French society were all obvious sources of pleasure [ . . . ] and he let it be known throughout Parisian society that though he had been born a Virginian, France was his adopted home, just as the French people were his brethren in spirit, if not in blood.”
Creme de violette is refined elegance in a bottle. And it’s got the same hue as those Paul Tazewell costumes. **fans self**
Countering the floral sweetness of creme de violette is ginger syrup, the sharp-tongued antagonist that keeps the drink in balance. Its warm spiciness sneaks up on the palate, giving a lingering burn to each sip. Plus, Jefferson was a ginger, and I couldn’t resist making that reference.
Finally, the velvety texture of this Thomas Jefferson cocktail comes from the inclusion of an egg white, the ingredient that gives shaken drinks their luxurious foamy crowns and rich mouthfeel. It’s a slippery ingredient that requires you to get your hands dirty, which is something Jefferson never wanted to do in the political sphere.
Whether it was the back-room dealings he orchestrated as de facto leader of the Republican faction, all the while publicly swearing that he detested the idea of political parties, his cover-ups of his sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, or his machinations to move the seat of government from the urban, financially-centered states of New York and Pennsylvania to the shores of the Potomac, Jefferson relied on Madison, James Monroe, and members of the press to send messages, spread rumors, or clap back at the Federalists.
Finally, finish the cocktail with a few crimson drops of Angostura bitters, a reminder of Jefferson’s comment that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
The final result: a deceptively smooth cocktail that slowly reveals its complexity, just like the man from Monticello.
- 1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 1-inch knob of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced into rounds
For the Cocktail
- 2 fluid ounces (1/4 cup) botanical gin
- 2 fluid ounces (1/4 cup) wheat beer
- 1 fluid ounce (2 tablespoons) 2 tablespoons creme de violette
- 3/4 fluid ounce ginger syrup (recipe below)
- 1 egg white
- Angostura bitters
Make the ginger syrup:
- In a small saucepan, bring the sugar and water to a simmer, stirring occasionally until the sugar dissolves.
- Add the ginger, remove from the heat, and cover the saucepan.
- Let the syrup steep for 30 minutes, then strain into a heatproof container like a Mason jar.
- Cool to room temperature before using in cocktails. Extra syrup can be refrigerated up to 1 month.
Make the cocktail:
- Pour the gin, beer, creme de violette, ginger syrup, and egg white into the base of a Boston shaker.
- Seal and shake vigorously for 45 seconds to 1 minute.
- Unseal the shaker and add a handful of ice cubes.
- Reseal and shake for 30-45 seconds more.
- Strain through a Hawthorne strainer into two architecturally appropriate coupes or other cocktail glasses.
- Shake a few drops of Angostura bitters onto each cocktail and serve.