Ah, March; the start of Autumn. Leaves are falling, and so too the drinkers packing the pubs on St Patrick’s Day. On the 17th of March the Irish pubs will be full with Paddys, Guinness a-pouring, a sea of green and streams of whiskey flowing. But there won’t be a lot of cocktails.
For some reason there’s few cocktails calling for Irish whiskey. Perhaps you can put it down to a no-nonsense Irish attitude to drinking, as summed up by Irish band the Pogues: “When the world is too dark/ And I need a light inside of me/ I’ll walk into a bar/ And drink fifteen pints of beer.”
And yet, a good drop of the Irish — something with a bit of weight to it — is ideal for mixing. Not as big in the mix as rye, nor as smoky as some Scotch, Irish whiskey hits that Goldilocks quotient of being ‘just right’, as it is here in the Black Thorn.
Like the day after a night on the tiles in an Irish bar, there’s a little confusion surrounding recipes for this drink (Boothby’s World Drinks, 1934, describes five different recipes). Often the recipe calls for sloe gin — which makes sense, given that the blackthorn tree begets sloe berries from its thorny branches. For its part, The PDT Cocktail Book helpfully distinguishes between a Black Thorn (English) with sloe gin and the Black Thorn (Irish). Dig out Gaz Regan’s Joy of Mixology and you’ll see he’s tweaked The Savoy Cocktail Book’s recipe, switching in sweet vermouth for the dry and altering the proportions to be more Manhattan-like. But turn to Harry Johnson’s 1934 Bartenders Manual and you’ll see the recipe we like.
Cocktail historians Jared Brown and Anastatia Miller write that Johnson named this drink so as to distinguish it from another one, the Thorn cocktail. Yet maybe that’s not quite right, given the Black Thorn’s decidedly non-black colour. The Thorn, on the other hand, calls for Calisaya, a dark,herbal bitter likely to result in a darker drink.
Whatever the reason Johnson named the drink so, I’d like to think that it is more to do with the plummy, fruity character of the drink and an effort to make something become more than the sum of its parts — a drink reminiscent of sloe berries, say — with whatever ingredients were on hand.
Either way, the reason for drinking this is that it is delicious. And what’s a good, no-nonsense reason to drink? As the Pogues’ Shane MacGowan once said, “I drink because I’m thirsty.”