Elizabeth Thompson, Papermag.com
It’s hard to miss the five-martini lunches and constant scotch drinking on the fantastic AMC drama series Mad Men, but plenty of classic cocktails, from the Old Fashioned to the Brandy Alexander, have also made cameos. To honor these hidden stars, we asked good sports Toby Maloney, noted barman and cocktail consultant, and Alex Kelley, Brandy Library spirit sommelier, to tell us what each character’s poison reveals about him or her. Here’s a look at a few of these cocktails and the best places to drink like one of Mad Men‘s irresistibly troubled characters!
WHO: Don Draper, creative director and partner at Sterling Cooper ad agency; identity thief; slightly ashamed cheater to the max.
WHAT: Rye, bitters, sugar, soda (and, depending on the bartender, an orange or lemon slice and a maraschino cherry)
WHEN: At the office, Don takes his his Rye straight, but the Old Fashioned is Double D’s drink when he’s out and about.
IS DON WHAT HE DRINKS? Yep! “Someone who drinks an Old Fashioned is about manipulation,” Maloney says. “You know the whole James Bond thing, ‘Shaken, not stirred?’ That wasn’t because [Bond] was suave, it’s because he was kind of an asshole and wanted to make the bartender work harder. With an Old Fashioned you are the master of that cocktail. It’s a sugar cube and three dashes of bitters, and then you tell them how many ice cubes you want. You tell them if you want a lemon, or an orange. It’s all about control.”
WHERE TO FIND IT IN REAL LIFE: Little Branch and Smith and Mills make excellent classic renditions, but the fresh ginger in the Ginger Old Fashioned at Carroll Gardens’ Brooklyn Social nicely complements the depth of the bourbon.
WHO: Peggy Olson, an innocent Bay Ridge girl who starts at Sterling Cooper as a secretary and quickly gets promoted to copywriter (and knocked up by Pete Campbell).
WHAT: Cognac, dark crème de cacao, heavy cream
WHEN: In season one, Peggy has a Brandy Alexander on her unsuccessful date with Carl the truck driver.
IS PEGGY WHAT SHE DRINKS? Yep! This drink is rich and sweet but, as Kelley says, it means business. “It looks pretty, but it’s mostly booze. It’s not a girly drink.” He also noted that, “the flavor isn’t potent, but the effects certainly are” — an apt description for this once unassuming but increasingly empowered young woman.
WHERE TO FIND IT IN REAL LIFE: Brandy Library‘s Alexanders come with a sugar cookie garnish — a nice snack for studying up on their comprehensive collection of cognacs and calvados.
WHO: Rachel Menken. She hires Sterling Cooper to revamp the image of the department store she heads, becomes one of DD’s season one ladies, and is perhaps the most grounded character on the show to date.
WHAT: White run, dark rum, orgeat (an almond-based syrup), uraçao (orange liqueur), bitters
WHEN: On the series premiere, Rachel has a Mai Tai when Don takes her for drinks
IS RACHEL WHAT SHE DRINKS? When we asked Toby what’s appealing about this drink, he said, “It’s a drink you could have sitting on the beach, or you could drink it on a winter day in New York and use it for that escape.”
Rachel smartly declines Don’s ill-conceived plan to escape to California, and, it would seem, is the exact opposite of the Mai Tai drinker.
WHERE TO FIND IT IN REAL LIFE: According to Maloney, it’s the curacao and orgeat, ingredients originally used by Mai Tai creator Trader Vic, that takes the drink above and beyond. “Unless a bartender really does their research, they’re going to put in pineapple and grenadine and turn it into a syrupy mess.” The Rusty Knot (where Maloney designed the cocktail list) and Employees Only both stick to the drink’s authentic recipe
CAMPARI AND SAMBUCA CON MOSCA
WHO: Salvatore Romano, art director for Sterling Cooper, closeted gay.
WHAT: Campari, an herbaceous aperitif, and sambuca, an anise flavored liqueur, are both from Italy. According to Maloney, the three espresso beans in a Sambuca con Mosca (“Sambuca with flies” in Italian), represent “health, wealth, and luck. That’s where the idea comes from that there can never be an even number of anything in a cocktail.”
WHEN: Season one, Sal goes to drinks with Elliot Lawrence, a salesman for Sterling Cooper client Belle Jolie. His night starts with a Campari with a twist and ends it with a Sambuca con Mosca and an invitation to Elliot’s hotel room.
IS SAL WHAT HE DRINKS? Yep! “Campari is for a sophisticated palate, probably drunk by someone who’s spent some time in Europe,” Maloney says.
Sal’s handsome, speaks Italian, and his always-debonair three piece suits make him, by far, the most sophisticated Mad man.
WHERE TO FIND IT IN REAL LIFE: Lots of bars carry Sambuca and Campari, but the classic Negroni, equal parts gin, Campari and vermouth, or the Americano, Campari, vermouth, and club soda, are always options, too. Clover Club adds club soda to create their frothy Negroni Swizzle, and The Hideout‘s Unusual Negroni substitutes the less alcoholic bitter Aperol, for a less medicinal effect.
WHO: Betty Draper, a picture-perfect housewife with an unused diploma from Bryn Mawr and an increasingly evident disdain for her husband and children
WHAT: Gin, lemon juice, and simple syrup
WHEN: Don and Betty’s young daughter, Sally, has been bartending for her parents this season, making her mother a Tom Collins when the neighbors come for bridge night.
IS BETTY WHAT SHE DRINKS? Yep! Like her drink, Betty is a polished surface with underlying complications galore. According to Maloney, the Tom Collins is ordered by people who “want clean lines, things kept simple and straight forward, and that complexity from the gin.” He also said it’s a tough drink to get right: “it’s one of the litmus tests of a good bartender, to see how someone can take just a few basic ingredients and use gestalt to make something much better than the sum of its parts.”
WHERE TO FIND IT IN REAL LIFE: Branch out from Pegu Club‘s martini! Their extensive collection of gins, with over twenty specialty lables, from California to Holland and France, can instantly punch up a TC.
Reid Mitenbuler, seriouseats.com
What are the characters on Mad Men drinking? The short answer: everything, all the time. They also drink so much it’s a surprise the alcohol vapors don’t explode every time they light up their Lucky Strikes, because they’re also smoking all the time.
While the quantities of alcohol alone speak volumes—take your pick between three-martini lunches or three fingers of something brown—the choices say even more about a period in American history when the drinkscape uniquely reflected the cultural forces that created it.
Season 6 premieres on April 7 and is set in the late 1960s, but the series begins in the 1950s. In the popular imagination, it’s often a bland decade: the men wore gray flannel suits and fedoras and the women looked like Donna Reed. After two decades of economic depression and war, Don Draper and the people around him seek normalcy and calm, and the drinks follow suit. The characters revel in America’s postwar affluence and newfound international stature as Betty Draper offers easy drinking and imported Heineken at her around-the-world dinner party.
Draper, for his part, ignores the Netherlands and is often seen drinking a variation of the old-fashioned featuring a veritable fruit salad of cherries and citrus slices. He also downs Canadian Club, a blended whisky containing nearly flavorless grain neutral spirits, giving it a lighter, less robust taste than the straight bourbons some viewers assume he’s drinking. It pairs perfectly with the TV dinners advertising executives also helped launch into success during the 1950s.
Draper’s lighter whiskey also shows the power of advertising. Shortly after Prohibition, many Americans were skeptical of blends because of their association with bootlegged liquor. Distillers at the time had limited stocks of the good stuff, and needed to stretch it as far as possible, a trend that would continue through the lean war years. Plus, market research showed that many people had acquired a greater taste for blended products during Prohibition, so that’s what they promoted. By 1950, Draper’s blended whisky outsold heavier straight whiskies by a factor of eight. In 1951, Business Week noted the prevalence of advertising promoting similar products that were “light,” “mild,” and perfectly in step with the flavor of the times. Distilleries consolidated into behemoths that pushed national brands, and regional tastes faded as products powered by national ad campaigns catered to the widest audience possible.
But the 1950s were never really as dull as they seem on Nick at Nite. Draper takes his excursions into the bohemia of Greenwich Village to visit the social, sexual, and cultural undercurrents that bubbled into the 1960s and the series’ later seasons. Draper’s secretary, Peggy Olson, begins breaking into the old boys’ club by drinking whiskey alongside her colleagues.
Betty Draper, on the other hand, stays chained to outdated social norms and drowns her pain with “acceptable” drinks like Tom Collinses and vodka gimlets, where the sting of the alcohol is hidden by sugar or fruit juice.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with sugar or fruit juice, and as Megan, the new Mrs. Draper, settles into her relationship with Don, she’s rumored to enjoy tropical drinks such as mai tais and zombies when the upcoming season kicks off in Hawaii. It all seems like paradise, but one of the big questions about Season 6 is if Don will upset his new life by slipping into his old ways. Our wager? This downfall could be sparked by shots of tequila, which became increasingly popular in the 1960s. As we all know, tequila makes you crazy…
But the most telling drink pairing on the show is Roger Sterling and his vodka. Sterling prowls around an office filled with light and sterile-looking modern art that perfectly matches vodka’s clean, antiseptic taste. The drink also mixes with anything, a perfect fuel for a character whose charm and wit masks his confused search for his right place in the world.
Sterling’s vodka hails from a Soviet Union embroiled in a Cold War that hatched the Vietnam War and cracked open the generational fault line between baby boomers and their parents. Boomers chose vodka, which gradually outsold their parents’ brown spirits as the 1960s reached its fever pitch. It’s a subversive choice for Sterling, who divorces his wife for a much younger woman and then experiments with LSD, but doesn’t quite know what to think of it.
Sterling’s brand of vodka says it all. We often see him drink Smirnoff, but in Season 3, set in 1963, he ships a contraband bottle of Russian brand Stolichnaya to the U.S. while honeymooning in Greece. He later shares the bottle with Draper in his office when Pete Campbell walks in, forming a triumvirate of entitlement and white male privilege that is beginning to crumble in the world right outside their window. Draper and Sterling are relaxed and in charge as they helm the rudder to the universe, oblivious as they drink what other Americans aren’t allowed to have. Campbell, as always, is an ambitious striver worried about being cheated from what he’s due. He’s there to say thanks for a promotion he secretly feels didn’t come soon enough.
Sterling offers him a drink, but adds, “Not the Stoli.”