After-dinner cordials were once sweet to the end

Delicate dessert drinks are still found in Madison
After-dinner cordials were once sweet to the end
Elise Juelich
The Pink Squirrel at Smoky's Club

Following World War II, an era of newly acquired affluence emerged and dining out thrived. This was the golden age of supper clubs, and likewise, the after-dinner drink. That’s not to say that drinking post-meal was something new. Anyone who has watched Downton Abbey knows that drinking spirits before dinner was considered crass until cocktails debuted early in the 20th century. But the concept of the after-dinner drink as we know it today was born with the baby boomers.

During the 1950s and ’60s, desserts rarely graced supper club menus–perhaps a dish of green mint ice cream if you were lucky. Instead, sweet libations were the sophisticated way to cap a night out. I recall well accompanying my parents on the prerequisite postprandial trip to the lounge, with its subdued lighting and plush carpet. Most of all, I remember sitting at the bar, captivated by bottles filled with liquid stained glass, Goldschläger with its tiny bits of floating gold leaf and the improbably tall Galliano carafe that resembled the Eiffel Tower.

Cordials, like crème de menthe, were frequently enjoyed neat–straight up in a small stemmed glass–or as a frappe, drizzled over crushed ice. Some were unique proprietary brands like B&B (brandy and Benedictine), Drambuie (concocted from scotch), and Chartreuse (a secret formula). More spectacularly, these liqueurs were wedded with other spirits and ingredients to make numerous classic cocktails. Some are still around while others have disappeared.

Most famous of all in Wisconsin is the Grasshopper, but it’s only one of many once fashionable creamy drinks. Probably second-best-known is the Brandy Alexander, flavored with white crème de cacao. The original version, however, simply known as an Alexander, was formulated with gin. Whimsical indeed was the Pink Squirrel, whose iconic shade came from crème de noya, a rose-colored almond-flavored liqueur. Invented at the Greenwood Supper Club in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, it was much favored in its heyday by our parents and grandparents, rarely found nowadays but still available at Smoky’s Club.

A dessert drink didn’t have to resemble a milkshake. The Stinger, composed of brandy and white crème de menthe shaken over ice and served straight up in a martini glass, was the last word in chic. Likewise presented in a cocktail glass was the Bobby Burns, made with scotch, sweet vermouth and Benedictine. Served on the rocks in an old fashioned glass, a Rusty Nail mixes scotch with Drambuie. Supposedly this was the favorite tipple of Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack. Name aside, I love a Hanky Panky. This 1902 creation was the brainchild of Ada Coleman, head mixologist at the legendary American Bar at London’s Savoy Hotel. Comprised of gin, sweet vermouth and Fernet Branca, it’s traditionally garnished with an orange peel but I think improved with a squeeze of fresh orange juice.

As American tastes became worldlier, wine became a staple with dinner and ever more sumptuous desserts returned to the table. After-dinner drinks gradually faded away and along with them, a bit of unaffected fun.

Dan Curd is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine. His Relish column appears monthly.