Among the myriad microtrends that have been lately sweeping through the kind of bar that stocks 17 different kinds of bitters and more brands of rye whiskey than vodka is one that involves slipping animal protein into the drinks—and I don’t mean eggs or dairy. Whether it’s an attempt to clear the bar of vegans or a way of appropriating some of the cultural juju attached to the bad-boy, porkophilic chef, this incorporation of meat juices, fats and even solids has produced some interesting, if occasionally challenging, drinks and a whole lot of hoopla about the novelty and daringness of the whole idea.
The average age of the staff and clientele in these bars hovers somewhere around 30. If they had spent the late 1970s and early 1980s loitering in cocktail bars rather than watching the Electric Company, they would know that the combination is nothing new. In fact, from the late 1950s until some time in the Reagan administration, there were few drinks with more cachet than the concoction known as the “Bullshot.”
Essentially a Bloody Mary with beef bouillon or consommé in place of the tomato juice, it was apparently thought up by the white-coated technicians behind the bar at Detroit’s Caucus Club in 1952 or thereabouts. A couple of years of rumination, perhaps chiefly (as Newsweek suggested) in Hollywood, and suddenly in 1957 it was everywhere. In January, you had Broadway columnist Earl Wilson predicting it would catch on “because it’s so full of vitamins,” while, 3,000 miles away, one of the Los Angeles gossip columnists was proclaiming that the “Downtown Boys” in “Ivy League suits” who hung out at the swank Cook’s Steakhouse had adopted it as their own. By July, Dorothy Kilgallen (another Broadway columnist) was pronouncing it “the most popular drink among the fashion models.”
Kilgallen also highlighted a key factor in the drink’s success when she warned, “Don’t ask for it west of Madison Avenue or the bartender will ring up Bellevue.” The Bullshot was, in the parlance of the day, a “freak drink”: something unusual, odd, deliberately attention-seeking; something that requires ingredients or techniques that will generally cause a regular bartender to grumble. There is, however, a constituency from which we expect such things: celebrities. And indeed, the Bullshot became the celebrity drink par excellence. When Richard Chamberlain, at the first flush of fame due to his playing Dr. Kildare on TV, was taken out to lunch at La Grenouille by the cougarish Joan Crawford, they got bombed on Bullshots. Around the same time—1963 or so—Hope Lange was popping into bars on the Upper East Side and teaching the bartenders how to make ’em. A few years later, it was what Malcolm McDowell ordered when he was on his press tour for A Clockwork Orange. So it continued right up until the boldface names got onto the gym kick and switched to white-wine spritzers, sometime in the late 1970s.
Since its rise and fall, the drink has soldiered on in certain oldschool steakhouses and theater-district joints where the clientele is, let’s say, well seasoned. The drink is not on the menu at Joe Allen but ask and you shall receive; Stephanie Ervin, venerable bartender there, notes that they “probably make five a month.” Gabrielle Hamilton keeps a version on her cocktail list at Prune—but then again, it also lists a Long Island Iced Tea, so it may just be 1970s nostalgia.
During the Bullshot’s heyday, not every celebrity fell into line. When Marilyn Monroe heard about an article claiming her consumption of vodka and bouillon had been holding up production on The Misfits, she was indignant. She only ever drank a little sherry, she claimed (which is as may be), and besides, “What a horrible thing to do to vodka.” She wasn’t wrong, I suppose. The Bullshot is something of an artifact of its time, like Trader Vic’s Rumaki. Still, when I mixed one up for this article, my first in at least 25 years, I finished it and even, briefly, contemplated another. OK, so I’m a freak.
1½ oz vodka
2½ oz Campbell’s beef broth (canned beef broth is traditional here)
Juice of 1 lemon wedge
2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
2 dashes Tabasco sauce
Shake all ingredients well with ice, then strain into an Old-Fashioned glass full of fresh ice. Grate a little black pepper on top.
Photo credit: Michael Scott Berman