How a Victorian-era cocktail has been sadly lost to hard time
Ah, to sit in a favorite pot house with a trusty companion buying gum-ticklers, each one followed by a hearty shout of “No heeltaps!”
Enough to make one consider calling it a night? Giving up drinking altogether?
It would make more sense if this were Victorian England and the trusty companion was Charles Dickens. Oh sure, he gets credit for some of the greatest novels and stories ever written, but few ever give him a pat on the back for giving us a look at Victorian drinking habits or for being among the best sources for drinking terms from the period.
In “The Pickwick Papers,” we learn a pot house had nothing to do with, say, a dispensary in Colorado. For Victorians, “pot” was any kind of drinking cup, mug or glass. Places selling individual drinks in such vessels were called “pot houses.” Similarly, servers were known as “pot boys,” and, as for Dickens buying those rounds of gum-ticklers? He would be your “pot companion.”
Now the gum-ticklers coming from this generous celebrity are easier to define. A gum-tickler was a potent cocktail that seared, buzzed or tingled the mouth when sipped.
Heeltaps were pieces of leather cobblers at the time attached to keep the heels from wearing too quickly. Shouted in a bar, it meant no heeltaps on the floor, or, in modern terms, “Bottoms up!”
For all the cocktail enlightenment Dickens can be credited with, however, he left the world with one of the most enduring mysteries, unsolved to this day.
What in the hell is a Timber Doodle?
In January 1842, Dickens and his wife, Catherine, sailed to America for the first time. The visit left Dickens with a rather distasteful opinion of the country, particularly slavery, but also the general mannerisms and vulgarities of the people.
He was notably left appalled at chewing tobacco. “Washington may be called the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva,” he later wrote.
Returning home that July, he began working on a book based on the trip called “Martin Chuzzelwit,” an unflattering story of an American family.
The disastrous trip left Dickens and the young country estranged until he returned in 1867. It produced one positive, however — his introduction to an American obsession we now call the cocktail. He recorded his introduction in a publication called “American Notes for General Circulation,” and therein described a visit to a Boston bar.
“The bar is a large room with a stone floor, and there, people stand and smoke, and lounge about, all the evening dropping in and out as the humor takes them. There, too, the stranger is initiated into the mysteries of Gin-sling, Cocktail, Sangaree, Mint Julep, Sherry-cobbler, Timber Doodle, and other rare drinks.”
And there it was. The Timber Doodle.
Dickens always penned plenty of mystery, but none surpass the Timber Doodle.
Scholars have spent unending hours determining the real-life characters and incidents that are fictionalized in “David Copperfield,” for example. The identity of Pip’s generous benefactor in “Great Expectations” is a turning point in the story. The reformation of Scrooge from his stingy and curmudgeon ways in “A Christmas Carol” has long fascinated students studying the tragedy and sadness in Dickens’ own life.
Yet, while he took the time to learn the names of so many “rare drinks” from his American bar experience, he never gave details on what was in them or how they tasted.
Drink historians have identified some of them in the writings of others, thus providing us a chance to sample the bar-top favorites of Victorian imbibers.
British tourist Capt. J. E. Alexander toured the country about nine years before Dickens and carefully recorded the recipe for one of the most popular drinks of the time, cleverly called The Cock Tail, as well as four others he wrangled from a bartender at New York’s City Hotel.
The Cock Tail, which Dickens incorrectly called Cocktail, is a concoction of simple syrup mixed with rye whiskey, water, bitters and a bit of ground nutmeg. By the time it made the rounds in London, however, the main ingredient had become gin, rum or brandy, all being more plentiful than rye.
In 1837, British novelist and sea captain Frederick Marryat toured the United States and also became enamored with this American cocktail thing. In one of his many journals, he wrote, “I once overheard two ladies talking in the next room to me, and one of them said, ‘Well if I have a weakness for any one thing, it is for a mint julep!’ — a very amiable weakness, and proving her good sense and good taste. They are, in fact, like the American ladies, irresistible.”
Many credit him with introducing the julep to Great Britain, although it never had the charm in foggy, cold, damp England that it had in the sultry southern United States.
The Gin-sling is one of Dickens’ rare drinks that has endured through time and can still be found on many bar menus. It consists of a little simple syrup or sugar, gin and water, all poured over ice and topped with a sprinkling of nutmeg.
The Sherry-cobbler easily found its way back to England and was welcomed by upper-class imbibers for its light touch and impressive — meaning expensive — ingredients. Rather than hard alcohol, it called for sherry, muddled orange slices, a little simple syrup and fresh berries. Similarly fruity and wine-based is the Sangaree, a punch drink made with strong Madeira wine, but otherwise very much like sangria.
But with all those, The Timber Doodle apparently was lost in time.
Many sleuths have tried to solve the mystery by noting the timberdoodle is a type of American woodcock. Just as some theorize the term cocktail was derived from the feather of a rooster stuck in a drink to identify it as having alcohol, some think the Timber Doodle was not a single drink at all, but another term like cocktail for strong drinks of all kinds.
That would tend to put Dickens’ description in error, so others believe there must have been an actual drink, one perhaps not good enough to survive except in name.
Interest was such that it perhaps influenced what has become one of Berlin’s most popular bars. It’s named Timber Doodle and uses the American woodcock as its logo. Whether the owners are fans of Dickens or strange birds is not clear, but Timber Doodle does have a signature drink called The Timber Doodle. The recipe is a secret.
The truth is, Dickens, who liked to portray himself a temperate drinker, certainly seems to have researched many pubs, taverns and bars to have acquired the vivid descriptions found in his many writings. When he died in 1870, his wine cellar stored 209 bottles of sherry, 41 bottles of Madeira, 148 bottles of port, 474 bottles of red Bordeaux, 41 of red Burgundy and 350 bottles of Champagne. That’s a partial list. That would seem to make it doubtful he mistook a generic term for an actual drink.
The world may never know.
Perhaps somewhere awaiting discovery is a centuries-old notation, perhaps listing only the ingredients without a name, that holds the secret of the Victorian Timber Doodle. Until then, the world can still enjoy the ageless libations discovered by Dickens on his travels.
While not a Victorian drinking term, Dickens did provide one of the best and most timeless phrases for any cocktail lover in “Oliver Twist.”
“Please, sir, I want some more.”
This is the recipe for the Cock Tail, obtained from America’s first celebrity bartender, known only as Mr. Willard, in New York’s City Hotel. It was written down by Capt. J. E. Alexander, a British tourist, in 1833.
The Cock Tail
1 tablespoon sugar or simple syrup
2 ounces rye whiskey, rum, gin or brandy (as one chooses)
3 ounces water
4 dashes bitters
Nutmeg sprinkled on top
Mix the first four ingredients and then pour in a highball glass. Sprinkle a pinch of nutmeg on top.
(Note, the original recipe did not call for ice, but modern tastes suggest pouring the ingredients over ice before sprinkling on the nutmeg).