Drink of the Week: The Chatham Cocktail

The Chatham Cocktail.Looking up “Chatham” on Wikipedia, I can count some 15-plus municipalities in the United States and Canada with the name, alongside numerous neighborhood and towns with the word “Chatham” in them. Also, legendary British PM, William Pitt the Elder, who I sorta kinda remember from my AP European History class, was the first Earl of Chatham.

I very briefly wondered if it was possible that today’s drink could be remotely related to a long-closed West L.A. restaurant I remember my mom taking me to in my childhood. Well, for starters, the Chatam closed in 1987, and I don’t think they made cocktails. Yes, they did make the Chatam Special, a sandwich with turkey, swiss cheese, coleslaw…maybe some ham. In any case, what of that missing second H?

So, all I really know of the Chatham Cocktail’s origins is that one of the world’s most important cocktail gurus, L.A.’s own Ted Haigh of the oft-mentioned-here “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails,” sent it to another key cocktailian, Gary Regan of Regan’s Orange Bitters #6 and “The Joy of Mixology.” It was in that book — a really good 2003 cocktail and bartending primer from 2003 aimed primarily at people in the booze business, but definitely of interest to us hobbyists — that I found this very simple, very sophisticated, and really quite altogether decent drink. It’s more than worth a try if you have the ingredients available to you.

The Chatham Cocktail

2 ounces gin
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce ginger liqueur or ginger brandy

Combine the liquids in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Think about why most English names don’t really mean anything…except for Baker, Butcher, Carpenter, and Smith, anyway.

Despite the fact that I have a hard time using a fruit squeezer without the juice flying all over the carving board and into my face, this is a very easy drink to make. Still, not every home bar has ginger liqueur or ginger brandy, and it might not be easy to find a reasonably priced bottle. BevMo and Total Wine & More carry Domain de Canton for about $35.00 or so, but according to their website, there is not a single bottle of DeKuyper’s presumbably much cheaper ginger brandy within a 50 mile radius of North Hollywood’s Drink of the Week Manor. Bol’s version has weird typos on its page, so who knows where you’ll find that.

I, however, was lucky to be graced with a bottle of very tasty DeKuyper’s Mixologist Collection Ginger Liqueur by a publicist long ago, and it definitely works for me here. If you can find it, consider yourself lucky; I’d apparently have to drive 22 miles to find a bottle in a liquor store.

So, my ginger liqueur choices were limited, but not so with my gins. My first version of the Chatham Cocktail included one of my defaults, Bombay Dry Gin. It was a relatively austere drink — not excessively tart, but definitely not particularly sweet either, and the floral gin flavorings were well exposed. It was a very decent choice for those who like their martinis with a lemon twist. A somewhat more balanced drink, lighter on the florals, came using value-priced Gilbey’s Gin. The best version for me, however, featured pricier Plymouth Gin, which is a teensy tiny bit sweeter than the standard London dry style. The Plymouth-gin based Chatham Cocktail was perfectly balanced between the sweet, tart and floral flavors, and was extremely drinkable.

For those who like their drinks a bit sweeter, having something of a sweet tooth myself, I feel your pain here. The best I can tell you is that upping the sweet ginger liqueur to 3/4 of an ounce did not ruin the drink with a dry gin, but that making it an entire ounce kind of did. Somehow it was the wrong kind of sweetness, with some unlovely, oddly bitter tasting undercurrents.

I thought I might have better luck adding half a teaspoon of sugar, which most of the online recipes I found suggested. For me, that had pretty much the same unlikable result as excessively boosting the ginger liqueur. However, my in-house cocktail newbie guinea pig declared that version of the Chatham Cocktail to be just fine, so maybe give that one a try if you’re not loving the more severe original recipe.

(Update: I just stumbled over a reference to a probably long-gone Chatham restaurant in Paris in David Embury’s “The Fine Art of Mixing Cocktails.” So maybe that’s the provenance of this particular beverage.)