Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: Blood & Sand

This classic cocktail has its origins in a Rudolph Valentino bullfighting picture!

Juan Gallardo breakfasted early as was his custom on the days of a bull-fight. A little roast meat was his only dish. Wine he did not touch, and the bottle remained unopened before him. He had to keep himself steady. He drank two cups of strong black coffee and then, lighting an enormous cigar, sat with his elbows resting on the table and his chin on his hands, watching with drowsy eyes the customers who, little by little, began to fill the dining room.

Blood and Sand: A Novel, Vicente Blasco Ibáñez

With the onset of Prohibition, the craft and career of bartending nosedived in America. From the middle of the 1800s onward until the Black Saturday of January 17, 1920, the bartender was a respected professional. He—and it was invariably a he—was a trusted arbiter of disputes, a man trusted with confidences, and an important member of his community. The path to a place behind the stick was, as with any other trade, begun with apprenticeships and years of learning before a young bartender was trusted to take his place alone.

Part of this golden age of the American Bar was the development of many of the drinks that endure to this day. A balanced tipple, made from the finest and freshest ingredients was a mark of the quality drinking establishment and a point of pride. But when the 18th Amendment took effect on that dark Saturday, your learned professional had three choices—leave these shores to ply his trade, usually in Europe or Cuba, become a criminal and toil in a Speakeasy, often with inferior products and poor ingredients, or find new work altogether.

The result was that the cocktail or mixed drink, a unique American invention, stagnated and declined. By the time of Prohibition’s repeal, the mentors who had run bar programs were largely abroad, dead or selling door to door. When the liquor began to legally flow again, the craft, lacking a sense of human history, began to spiral downward until it reached its nadir in the late 1970s and 1980s, when getting a proper drink was next to impossible.

During these dark days, few new drinks were created that have endured and lingered. The Sidecar is one. Another is The Blood & Sand, a drink notable for arising from the depths of Prohibition, but also for being one of the few classic cocktails that rely on Scotch Whisky for its kick and flavor. The recipe appears incongruous, the ingredients a bit of a muddle, but they come together in a glorious cocktail, one that is not bracing enough to be called an aperitif or digestif, nor sweet enough to be considered a dessert drink, but that walks a middle line, and shows off the best of the alchemy of the bartender.

From Page to Screen To Glass

In 1908, Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, best known for his Los Cuatro Jinetes del Apocalipsis (The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse), published Blood and Sand, a tragic novel centered around a bullfighter and a love triangle. It attracted some notice in Spain, but it did not attract much other attention until Hollywood came calling, turning it into a silent film with Rudolph Valentino in 1922 and a Tyrone Power vehicle in 1941 (and at least one other, modern remake).

The Valentino film was one of the top grossing movies of 1922 and along with The Sheik, helped establish Valentino has a true movie star, the kind of man that women wanted and men wanted to be.

Sometime after the Valentino film hit screens, an enterprising cocktalian took it upon himself to pay homage to the film in liquid form. Unlike many of the other classic cocktails, this one seems to have little fanfare or dispute about it. We know that it appears to have first found print in Harry Craddock’s 1930, The Savoy Cocktail Book, and it may well be a Craddock original. It seems to not have the immediate popularity of many other early cocktails, and there is little in the record about it, or its creation.

Were it not for famed restaurateur Joe Baum’s resurrection o f the Rainbow Room in 1987, the Blood and Sand might still linger in the margins. Hell, all cocktail culture might still be lingering in the margins without Baum, because he had the foresight to hire Dale DeGroff to oversee the beverage program at the Rainbow Room, instructing him to look to the past. That education took DeGroff back to the classic cocktail books that started to appear in the late 1800s. One man, truly, begat a revolution, writ large in the way we drink today, and writ small by blessing some forgotten drinks, including the Blood and Sand, for his menus.

A Note On Ingredients: Cherry Brandy

The original recipe for The Blood & Sand, as it appears in the Savoy:

1/4 Orange Juice
1/4 Scotch Whisky
1/4 Cherry Brandy
1/4 Italian Vermouth

Shake well and strain into cocktail glass.

We know, of course, that Italian Vermouth referred to the red, sweeter style. Scotch Whisky and orange juice are clear enough (probably), but what of this Cherry Brandy? It could mean any number of things, and the lack of clarity here is troublesome, given that choosing the wrong spirit results in a drink that is at best, different than what Craddock intended, and at worst, undrinkable.

The first obvious conclusion is Cherry Eau de Vie, a clear, un-aged spirit made by fermenting and distilling whole cherries, usually sour and usually with pits, and bottling it at a minimum of 37.5 percent alcohol. The second choice would be kirschwasser or kirsch, the German version of the same thing, but bottled at higher proof. Both of these spirits are clear, quite dry, and have a delicate cherry flavor with hints of almonds from the stones and a strong alcohol backbone.

It could also be assumed to be Maraschino liqueur, the funky liqueur made in Italy from Maraska cherries, or the truly awful, artificially flavored “Cherry Brandy” produced mass market by brands like DeKuypper.

None of these are what Craddock intended for this drink—when he wants this sort of product, he calls for it directly by name, not the more euphemistic “Cherry Brandy” (and the chemical mess of products like DeKuypper didn’t exist then). Rather Cherry Brandy in this context seems to refer to a Danish liqueur that was first marketed in 1818 as Heering Cherry Liqueur and was known as Cherry Heering Liqueur or Peter Heering in many older recipes. It is made by macerating lightly crushed Danish Cherries and a proprietary spice blend in neutral spirits, aging the mixture in barrels for up to five years, while adding sugar along the way.

The resulting liqueur is a deep ruby in color, redolent of a cherry orchard, tasting of real fruit, sweet, but balanced by the spice mixture and vanilla notes from the barrel. It has a deep rich flavor that can’t be matched by cheaper artificial flavored liqueurs and is the modern go to in this drink, though Cherry Marnier is alleged to work as well.

A Sense of Balance

The original recipe for The Blood & Sand calls for equal parts of four ingredients, and at first glance, it doesn’t seem to offer any sense of proportion or balance. Two ingredients on the sweeter end of the spectrum—the Cherry Heering and the Sweet Vermouth—are met with smoky Scotch and the relatively low acid orange juice. But something happens in the mixing—the spice notes of the Heering and the vermouth enhance each other, bringing them to the fore, and the sweetness makes the mild bitterness present in the vermouth pop, while the cherry plays beautifully with the wine in the vermouth. The Scotch of course brings in alcoholic heft and a whisper of smoke, while the barrel flavors in the whiskey shake hands with the barrel notes in the Heering. But still, it seems that relatively low acid orange juice just isn’t enough.

Orange juice is roughly one point lower on the pH scale than lemon juice, but in actual practice that is huge jump in perceived acid taste. pH is related to Hydrogen ion concentration in a solution, but for the purposes of cocktails, it’s only important to remember that one point on the pH scale, which ranges from 1 to 14, with 7 being pure water, is related to a tenfold change in Hydrogen Ion concentration. For a point of comparison, as we move in the direction of acid solution from pure water, milk registers at about a pH of 6, black coffee at about 5, tomato juice at 4, orange juice at 3, lemon juice at 2 and sulfuric acid at 1. Simply, there doesn’t seem to be enough orange juice in the Blood & Sand to balance out the sweetness of the vermouth and Heering. But there is magical alchemy happening here, and the resulting cocktail, while on the sweeter end of the scale, tastes like a lightly alcoholic, very high coco content dark chocolate, flavored with a whisper of orange. It is gloriously rich and satisfying.

Of course, some people do find the recipe as written to be too sweet, and some alternate recipes have sprung up. Ted Haigh, in Vintage Sprits and Forgotten Cocktails, ups the proportions of orange juice and Scotch a bit, while dialing back the vermouth and Heering. Jim Meehan, in the excellent The PDT Cocktail Book ups the OJ a bit and the Scotch even more. The resulting drinks are quite different than Craddock’s Blood & Sand, with a significantly more pronounced whisky character, but are recognizable as offspring of the original.

Another solution for those who find the cocktail too sweet would be to use Blood Oranges in place of the more common Valencia or Seville Orange. The slightly lower pH of blood orange juice will offer a more tart cocktail, one that might please a palette less in tune with the original.

A Note on Ingredients: The Scotch & Vermouth

Most recipes for the Blood & Sand call for a blended whisky, and the most ubiquitous of them when a brand is specified is Famous Grouse. In general, the Grouse is a great mixing scotch, easy on the wallet and playing well with other ingredients. Dewar’s also works here, as it has a bit more heft than the more fruity Grouse, and certain single malts—avoid those that are extremely peated—can add a nice sense of luxury to the drink. Because Scotch is so variable depending on the level of peat, the length of maturation and even the place of aging, some experimenting is worthwhile. The heavier body of a Single Malt can be terrific in a Blood & Sand, and the different flavor components of different labels will add different nuances to the finished drink. In short, save the rare and expensive bottles for sipping, use what you can afford and like, and be wary of Laphroig like levels of smoke.

For the vermouth, it is a star ingredient here. Make sure it is fresh, and consider breaking out the Cocchi Vermouth di Torino or the Carpano Antica Formula for this drink. The end result will be stunning, but Dolin or Noily Pratt will work as well, giving you a slightly lighter finished drink, but one that still sings.

Some Recipes:

The Blood & Sand, Savoy Cocktail Book, Harry Craddock

¾ oz. Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whiskey
¾ oz. Cherry Heering Liqueur
¾ oz. Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
¾ oz. Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and shake until very cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail
glass and serve without garnish.

The Blood & Sand, The PDT Cocktail Book, Jim Meehan

1 ½ oz. Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whiskey
¾ oz. Orange Juice
½ oz. Cherry Heering
½ oz. Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled coupe. No garnish.

The Blood & Sand, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, Ted Haigh

1 oz Scotch Whisky
1 oz Orange Juice
¾ oz. Cherry Heering or Cherry Marnier
¾ oz. Sweet Vermouth

Shake in an iced cocktail shaker, and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a cocktail cherry.