I was just getting into classic cocktails when I took a chance and ordered an ominously named Corpse Reviver at a local restaurant. Up until then, I’d been sticking to drinks with a few simple ingredients, easy to pronounce and not difficult to procure if I wanted to make them at home. This drink had an absinthe rinse, and it called for Lillet Blanc (which I’d only ever heard referenced as an ingredient for James Bond’s Vesper).
One sip, and I understood that while simplicity could be marvelous, so could complexity.
A little research told me that the cocktail I’d experienced that night was part of a series of Corpse Reviver drinks, so named because they were traditionally served as hair-of-the-dog remedies. Though many versions exist, the one I had ordered, the Corpse Reviver #2, was the most famous. The drink was created by Harry Craddock, who ran the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London in the 1920s and '30s. Craddock also compiled the Savoy Cocktail Book, still found on backbars all over the world today.
A note Craddock includes along with his Corpse Reviver #2 recipe will give you a sense of Craddock’s sense of humor: “Four of these taken in quick succession will unrevive the corpse again.”
A couple of years ago, I walked into my favorite craft cocktail bar wanting to try the other version of this famous drink: the Corpse Reviver #1. In particular, I wanted to try the version from Craddock's book. (Craddock's note on the #1 reads: “To be taken before 11 a.m., or whenever steam and energy are needed”).
Luckily, my favorite bartender was working that day. He made me a Corpse Reviver #1 (Cognac, Calvados, and sweet vermouth), and I told him about my ongoing research on cocktails.
“Want to drink through it?” he asked. How could I refuse?
From here, I drank through a whirlwind tour of unnumbered Corpse Reviver versions.
We tried a Parisian version, which layered a variety of room-temperature liqueurs. We sampled the 1871 version from The Gentleman’s Table Guide, which suggested filling a wineglass half with brandy, half with Maraschino and adding two dashes of Boker’s bitters.
We mixed a 1954 Savoy Corpse Reviver with white creme de menthe, brandy, and Fernet Branca, and we both oohed and ahhed over The Cafe Royal Cocktail Book’s version, from 1937, which features brandy, orange and lemon juices, and two dashes of grenadine — everything shaken and topped with sparkling wine. It would have fit any brunch menu.
Still, my new favorite came from Patrick Duffy’s The Official Mixers Manual from 1956. This version combines the juice of one-fourth a lemon and a jigger of Pernod in a highball glass filled with cubed ice, and is topped off with sparkling wine. It’s bracing and a bit savory, with strong anise flavors and lots of tart citrus. The bubbles keep it all from feeling too serious.
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Though the Corpse Reviver no longer sounds ominous to me, the series is the perfect complement to a spooky celebration (or perhaps to the morning after).
I recommend starting with the #2, like I did. Who knows, maybe you’ll even be inspired to create your own.
Corpse Reviver #2
adapted from The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock
1 ounce gin
1 ounce Cointreau
1 oounce Lillet Blanc (or Cocchi Americano)
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
1 dash absinthe (to rinse)
Add absinthe to a coupe glass to coat and then pour it back into the bottle. Shake all other ingredients with ice, strain into the rinsed coupe, and garnish with an orange peel (blood orange is a nice touch).