The Pan American Clipper cocktail is notably recorded in the works of world traveler and food/beverage/crisis journalist, Charles H. Baker, who left, it seems, the first, or only, record of this drink named for an airliner. Baker, known for recording other classic cocktails such as the Mexican Firing Squad, and the Remember the Maine, found his opportunities by traveling far and wide, often to places of unrest. He recorded more than one revolution in Cuba, and, for it all, survived relatively unscathed. The Pan American Clipper, however, is not born of trauma, rather, Baker records it as a favorite of his pilot friend who flew Pan Am Clippers. Baker, the story goes, had retired to the coast of Florida, where he met the aviator, and found the drink. True or not, it makes a good story. If nothing else, Baker did indeed record the cocktail in the pages of The Gentleman’s Companion, or Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask, and it’s a good thing he did for this is a cocktail worth having.
The Pan Am Clippers were big, luxurious flying boats operating between North America and exotic far away destinations. At the time, air travel was still a novelty, ocean liner was the way to go, but the voyage across the sea could take days, even weeks. Pan American World Airways changed that with their sea planes. The Clippers could go as far as 1,000 miles before refueling, and with some fuel stops scattered around the world, they were ranging far and wide, even across the Atlantic ocean. For the first time, commercial trans-Atlantic air travel was available, as was service across the Pacific, but only for some. In the Summer of 1939, when the Clippers first took flight, only the very rich could afford the $750 ticket from San Francisco to Hong Kong. That’s $750 in 1939, when a diner meal was ten cents.
While faster than a steamship, Clipper travel still took awhile, so each craft was well appointed with compartments, sleeping accommodations, comfy sofas, and, come chow time, specially created meals which included cocktails. Some of the Clipper cocktails are still known from old in flight menus, and deserve some exploration, however, the Pan Am Clipper cocktail is not one of them. According to Baker, it existed only in his pilot friend’s notebook, which means, while the well healed enjoyed fine drinks en route to wherever, they did not enjoy this one. Too bad for them. We can have it much cheaper than a Clipper flight to Hong Kong.
Like many drinks of the time, the Pan Am Clipper, as recorded by Baker, is a stingy drink. Sure, there’s plenty of brandy in it, but, for a classic, it seems out of whack. That doesn’t mean bad, but if we examine the recipe on paper, it’s a bit like a Jack Rose, with absinthe. Apple brandy, lime juice, grenadine, and absinthe should make a fine cocktail, but Baker never got there. Don’t blame him, though, old cocktail recipes are just like that sometimes.
Our recipe makes some adjustments. Baker’s original has, we feel, too much lime, and not enough grenadine, so we use less, and more respectively, which brings us close to a typical sour. Two ounces apple brandy, 3/4 ounce of lime juice, and 1/4 ounce of grenadine pull everything back in balance, almost. The grenadine, if you’re using real grenadine like our choice, RAFT, is sweet, but not syrup. It comes with a bitter, or sour, or dry note that needs a little help. A teaspoon of simple syrup puts everything in place. You could use 1/4 ounce of syrup, but, tight as it is with more sugar, it treads heavily on the character of the original. Baker’s Pan Am Clipper is dry, and apple forward. Ours is a bit softer, but keeps the apple brandy front and center.
Traditionally, this cocktail was likely made with Laird’s Apple Brandy, or applejack, and that makes a fine Fall drink with plenty of apple flavor, in spite of the grenadine and lime. However, for a lighter, crisper, equally refreshing glass, we favor Clear Creek 2 Year Apple Brandy. The apples taste fresh, light, bright, as they should, and it works here, especially with a dash of Haint absinthe. Absinthe can dominate, no doubt about that, but if you dash gently, adding just enough for a bit of depth to this cocktail you come away with something worth keeping in your notebook. After all, it was good enough to make it into a Clipper captain’s notebook, and good thing it did, for the glorious, luxurious, golden age of the flying boat was short lived. Just over 2 years after their inaugural flights, war had reached the U.S., the Clippers were reassigned to military transport duties, and passenger service by airliners of the sea was gone, but not forgotten. There’s still a cocktail named the Pan American Clipper.
Charles H. Baker’s Pan American Clipper Cocktail
1 jigger (1.5 oz) Apple brandy
1 oz Lime juice
1 tsp Grenadine
1 dash Absinthe
Shake with ice, and serve in a Manhattan glass. No garnish.
The Portland Pour Pan American Clipper
2 oz Clear Creek 2 Year Apple Brandy
3/4 oz Lime juice
1/4 oz RAFT Grenadine
1 tsp Simple syrup
1 dash Haint Absinthe
Shake with ice, and serve up. Garnish with a lime twist.
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