This is a drink that nearly everyone will enjoy. It knows no gender or cultural boundaries; indeed, it started out as something of an ambassador in a highball glass. It does, however, have a kick to it (thanks to the ginger) and it's most certainly not a drink to be scoffed at by your single malt-sipping brethren. Your grandfather probably had a few of these when he came home from World War II. – Brad Miles
Sometimes you don’t want all the fuss and circumstance of seeking out obscure liqueurs. Sometimes you don’t want to muck around with separating eggs or carefully measuring drops of flower water.
Sometimes you just want a drink, and, when the weekends are hot and lazy, you want that drink to be long, to be refreshing and to be quick to put together. Sometimes you just want a Buck, or a Mule, or a Dark and Stormy, all drinks cut from the same cloth and built around a formula that works with almost any spirit at all.
There are those that hold that a Buck is made from a mixture of spirit, sour citrus and ginger ale, while a Mule will take that formula and sub in spicier ginger beer for the more mellow ginger ale. There are those who insist you can use either soft drink as your mixer and call it a Buck, and there are those who just know that the formula just works and you should just call for it when you’re thirsty and the sun is over the yardarm. Oh, and that ginger beer is always better than ginger ale, but either will do in a pinch.
Origin of the Species
Claims abound that the Buck takes its name from The Buck's Club a London social club founded in 1919, which did indeed feature a drink called The Buck’s Fizz, created by a bartender who worked there by the name of McGarry. Unfortunately, the Buck’s Fizz contains neither spirit, nor sour citrus, nor ginger beer. Instead it consists of Brut Champagne and fresh orange juice, and if made to the standards of McGarry, a touch of good grenadine. In other words, a Buck’s Fizz is what we know as a Mimosa, something decidedly not a Buck in the liquor, ginger and citrus vein.
From 1890 or so, there was The Horse’s Neck, a drink that started life as ginger ale with a very long strip of lemon peel inside, and evolved into the Horse’s Neck With a Stick (or a Kick), the above fitted out with a slug of whiskey, or more commonly brandy. American in origin, the Horse’s Neck (kick version) became a staple of British Navy wardrooms by the 1960s, and was notorious enough that Ian Fleming, in Octopussy, called The Horse’s Neck “the drunkard’s drink.” Fleming is alleged to have been quite partial to them himself.
There is nothing wrong with a nice spicy ginger ale topped up with a snort of whiskey or brandy, but it is not quite balanced enough for serious tippling and it lacks a certain panache. Enter Ginger Beer and Citrus.
Ginger Beer v. Ginger Ale
The difference between modern ginger beer and ginger ale is usually to do with sweetness and spice. Contemporary ginger beer is generally less sweet than ginger ale and packs more of a spicy ginger kick. Both began life in a different form, as a brewed, fermented beverage, and it’s still worthwhile to brew your own ginger beer if you have a little time on your hands. The flavor will be better than any that you can buy, and the alcohol levels will be negligible, hovering in the same range as kombucha. (NB—Follow the directions carefully. Anytime bottle fermentation takes place, there is a risk of explosion, in this case, a very sticky risk.)
Historically, though ginger beer was produced in much the same manner as sour dough bread, from a starter euphemistically called a "Ginger Beer Plant.” Ginger Beer Plant is not a leafy green, but rather a toxic looking white mass, a mixture of microorganisms, fungi and yeast that was fed with sugar and grew, with the starter periodically halved and passed off to friends. It’s certainly worth trying if you can get your hands on some, but sugar, yeast and time will yield roughly the same results, with a whole lot more control of the finished product.
Early mass-produced ginger based soft drinks began to appear in the United States by the mid- 1800s, and early brands like Vernor’s Ginger Ale moved into what came to be called a “Golden Style,” with a flavoring extract aged in oak barrels for four years before use. Ginger Ale was so popular (it was the most popular soft drink in the United States until the 1930s) that many unscrupulous companies failed to use ginger at all, instead relying on Capsaicin to spice up their products. These early ginger ales were most likely closer to what we now call ginger beer; accounts refer to them as both sweet and powerfully spicy.
The modern, “Dry” style of ginger ale took off around the time of prohibition, particularly in the hands of John McLaughlin, who first brewed up Canada Dry in 1907. This style has a more mellow ginger flavor, is arguably easier drinking, and is most definitely dominate in today’s soda aisles.
For our purposes here, particularly with strong spirits, I’d go with ginger beer, relying on homemade, or the excellent products from Maine Root, Fentiman’s, Barritt’s, Fever Tree, and myriad other, smaller, mostly local options. Reed’s is a pioneer in returning true ginger beer to American shelves, and their Extra Ginger Brew is a nice option with a lot of bite.
A Brief Note on Execution
Bucks are forgiving drinks, designed to be made quickly and go down easy. They are essentially a highball, or what some bartenders call “one and ones,” dressed up with a squeeze of citrus. You can trust your eye on these more than you can with most. Don’t fuss with them, just enjoy them.
A Further Note on Ingredients
As long as your spirits are of decent quality, your citrus juice is fresh, and you’ve got a nice, spicy ginger beer on hand, you really can’t go wrong. Pair your citrus with the spirit: rum, tequila, and gin tend to have an affinity for limes, brown liqueurs like lemon, and vodka, well vodka can work with anything, giving its legally mandated neutrality, though the Moscow Mule version of the Buck, using vodka, lime and ginger beer, has had an enduring run of popularity.
A Whole Mess of Recipes
Your Basic Buck
1 ½ -2 oz. of Good Spirit
½ oz. or juice of half a lemon or lime
Fill a glass with ice. Add spirit and citrus juice, top with ginger beer, stir gently and serve.
Adapted from Charles Baker, Jr.
¾ oz. aged, dark rum
¾ oz. light rum
½ oz. fresh lime juice
4-5 oz. ginger beer
Fill a tall glass with ice. Add your rum and lime and top with ginger beer. Give it a gentle stir, garnish with a lime wedge or wheel if you wish and serve.
2 oz. Bourbon
2 Dashes Angostura Bitters
¾ oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
½ oz. Simple Syrup
1 Medium Strawberry
Place lemon juice and strawberry into a mixing glass and muddle strawberry vigorously. Pour in bourbon, bitters and simple syrup. Add ice and shake. Strain over ice into a collins glass and top with ginger beer. Garnish with finely sliced strawberry and lemon wheel.
1 ½ oz. Tanqueray Gin
¾ oz. lime juice
1 oz. simple syrup (or 1 teaspoon superfine granulated sugar)
8 to 10 mint leaves, chopped
2 oz. ginger beer plus more for topping up.
Muddle the lime juice, simple syrup, and mint leaves together in the bottom of a mixing glass. Add ginger beer and gin. Shake well. Pour into a highball glass filled with ice, and top with additional ginger beer and a sprig of mint.
Dark & Stormy
(Gosling’s Black Seal Rum has a trademark on the Dark & Stormy, and they are litigious bastards, who have been known to sue bars, writers and others who recommend a Dark & Stormy be made with any other sort of rum. Fortunately, Gosling’s Black Seal rum is excellent in the drink. Unfortunately, the trademarked recipe does not include any lime juice, which I think enlivens the drink and elevates it. The absence of lime also, of course, makes the Dark & Stormy not a buck at all. Anyway.)
2 oz. Goslings Black Seal Rum
Fill a Collins glass with ice. Fill with ginger beer, leaving two-three fingers of head spice at the top of the glass. Top with the black seal rum. To make a better drink, something we could call a “Black Seal Buck,” squeeze in a bit of lime juice.