Friday drinks: monkey gland

Happy Friday! This week we have an unusual cocktail with a controversial background – the monkey gland.

The monkey gland mixed by Jeff Stewart. Photo by Jeff Stewart.

I am always surprised where Jeff Stewart’s cocktail selections take me. Still, this week’s choice surprised me more than most. The monkey gland gets its odd and rather unappetizing name from the genuine article – yep, monkey testicles. Before you write off this drink though, no monkeys were harmed in the making of this absinthe cocktail. However, primates were involved in the sordid story behind the drink’s unusual moniker.

English: 1920 image of Dr. Serge Voronoff from...

Dr. Serge Voronoff. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress collections.

In 1920s France, there was an innovative French surgeon of Russian descent called Serge Abrahamovitch Voronoff. Voronoff conducted some very “Island of Dr. Moreau” experiments but for real. His most famous procedure was grafting, you guessed it, monkey testicle tissue to men. He hoped to promote long life and vitality. Believe or not, he made quite a good living performing his procedures as men with means (millionaires) sought his treatments. In fact, he required a monkey farm on the Italian riviera to keep up with the demand for the operation. His practice occupied the entire first floor of an expensive Paris hotel, until his techniques were proven ineffective. He soon fell out of favor and eventually died in disgrace.

The surgeon became the butt of many jokes. Ashtrays depicting monkeys hiding their family jewels, with the phrase “No, Voronoff, you won’t get me” painted on them, became popular in Parisian homes. And Harry MacElhone, owner of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, created the monkey gland cocktail as a riff on the bizarre procedure.

Interestingly, Voronoff was actually on to something. He believed there was a substance in the glands that would promote vitality. In time, his basic assertions were proved accurate. There was a substance in the glands that caused men to act and feel younger. It’s testosterone. And as recently as 2005, Voronoff’s work has been cited as the foundation for modern anti-aging regimes.

absinthe rig

Absinthe rig. Photo by Chris Dag.

As I mentioned, the monkey gland cocktail contains no primate parts and thus no anti-aging properties. However, it is rather potent. It’s mixed with the highly alcoholic spirit, absinthe (45-74% ABV/90-148 proof). When Jeff said he was mixing an absinthe drink, I was stoked. I’d never tried absinthe and was intrigued by the fabled spirit AKA the green fairy. Its history is besmirched with accusations of being dangerous, addictive, and psychoactive. The liquid was first administered as a medicine; one of its uses was to ward off malaria. (Don’t ask me. I don’t know how that was supposed to work.) This is not a delicate spirit, so it’s often mixed in a cocktail or with sugar. Probably the most pertinent thing you should know about absinthe is: it tastes like anise or black licorice.

Now, I like licorice just fine. And Jeff warned me, this will taste like licorice. But that didn’t quite describe the quality of the flavor. It’s like testosterone-laced licorice. The flavor is aggressive. Hostile-takeover of your tongue leaps to mind. The licorice flavor takes up residence in your taste buds and rearranges the furniture. This was after only two sips of the monkey gland, which was all I needed on this drink. Sorry gang, my glass was more than half-full with this cocktail.

However, TV writer LaToya Morgan (“Shameless,” “Parenthood”) and feature writer-director Barbara Stepansky (“Trojan Cow,” “Hurt,” “Fugue”) enjoyed their monkey glands to the end, as did Jeff. It was three to one on this tasting, so I encourage you to at least sample the monkey gland, if only to say you did.

Jeff recommends Plymouth or Hendrinks gin for this drink plus real pomegranate grenadine. He says you can substitute pastis, another anise-flavoured spirit, for absinthe. Pastis has a much lower alcohol content and became popular during the French absinthe ban. Jeff says pastis makes the monkey gland slightly less interesting.

Wanna try Jeff’s recipe? Here it is.

1.5 oz. gin
1.5 oz. fresh-squeezed orange juice
1 tsp. grenadine
1 tsp. absinthe

Combine ingredients in iced cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously for 25-30 seconds and serve in a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist. And drink it while you watch this…

Keep your glass-half full. Drink responsibly.

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