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To “twist the lion’s tail” is an old phrase from the late 1800s, and it means to annoy the British—or put it in their own terms, as written in the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable by E. Cobham Brewer, “to see how far the Britishers will bear provocation.” That such an expression exists at all is, in and of itself, funny. Perhaps you’ve glimpsed a video of a bold and agile monkey, swinging down from the trees to poke a big cat for seemingly no reason but the thrill of living dangerously? This phrase refers to being that monkey.
The Lion’s Tail is also a cocktail, one whose name clearly derives from the expression, and is composed of bourbon, lime juice, allspice liqueur, and Angostura bitters. It emerges from the Café Royal Cocktail Book in 1937, written and compiled by William J. Tarling, then-president of the U.K. Bartender’s Guild. Tarling’s book was expansive, showing a voracious and non-judgmental appetite for new cocktails and new spirits (it’s one of the first anglophone books to include tequila, for example). Ever the gentleman, he credited the originators of the cocktails where he could, and so beside this first mention of the Lion’s Tail, he notes, “Invented by L.A. Clarke.”
The aforementioned is, more or less, everything we know about the origins of the Lion’s Tail. It’s an incomplete picture, and invites questions like: What, if anything, does provoking the British have to do with a combination of an American spirit, Indian citrus, Jamaican spice liqueur, and Trinidadian bitters? All four were, or had been, colonies of the English crown, so perhaps this drink has them all ganging up together? Or is it merely a reference to the Americanness of the bourbon, and the somewhat icy relationship between the two countries in the interwar period? No one knows. And if that weren’t difficult enough, attempting to suss out the identity of L.A. Clarke is even harder, the kind of wall you could (if you were a professional drinks writer, say) bang your head against for half a day and get absolutely nowhere—I’ll spare you the false starts and specious leads, but suffice to say no one has any idea. The cocktail appears in Tarling’s book, and as best I can tell, disappears for 70 years, until it’s unearthed by Paul Clarke in 2005, and popularized by Ted Haigh in his 2009 update of Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails.
Fortunately for us, none of this ignorance can stop us from actually drinking and enjoying a Lion’s Tail, which, I think you’d agree, is the part that matters. It’s especially relevant now, as the Lion’s Tail is the perfect transitional drink for mid-fall, and for evenings cool but not yet cold. It straddles categories: The irrepressible brightness of the citrus juice makes it refreshing, but the depth of the bourbon and the intensely textured allspice dram and bitters keep it spicy and resonant, like if a Jamaican jerk chicken and a Whiskey Sour couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The allspice dram in particular doesn’t mess around—even a little bit brings a double-barreled blast of spice to the drink—making this drink equally suited standing around an afternoon barbeque or sitting around an evening fireplace. And while we don’t know what part of all that the English find annoying, all I can say is that it sounds a lot like their problem, not ours.
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake hard for eight to 10 seconds. Strain off the ice into a cocktail or coupe glass. Garnish with a lime peel, a lime wheel, or nothing at all.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Allspice Dram: Allspice dram, a.k.a. pimento dram, was a lost ingredient in America until 2008, when the St. Elizabeth’s brand began getting imported from Jamaica. St. Elizabeth is authentic and rum-based and as good an allspice liqueur as you could want, and it’s what most cocktail bars use. Recent years have seen an expansion, and we now have Hamilton’s and Bitter Truth, and certainly others. Everyone I’ve tried has been delicious; odds are good that St. Elizabeth is the one you can find, but feel free to experiment as you wish, any of the three will do the job you need them to do.
Bourbon: I found the bourbon variable comparatively unimportant. In fact, allspice dram is so intense, I found all the other variables comparatively unimportant. Most of the time when I’m making Lion’s Tail cocktails, I’m using the well bourbon at a bar, which in my case historically has been the Evan Williams Black Label, and which I mention only to say that this is good with any bourbon you grab. Still, the spirit does affect the drink, it just depends on what you’re trying to achieve—if its daytime, a “sweeter” style of bourbon like Four Roses Small Batch will be round and full and offer big vanilla tones to shade the allspice. If you’re aiming for more of a campfire vibe, the new Double Char bourbon from Bib & Tucker will bring a welcome and delicious, sweet kiss of smoke to the background.
Lime Juice: Lime juice has a tarter edge than lemon, with a malic acid zing (like green apples) in addition to the classic lemon’s citric acid. Allspice has a strong preference for lime, and bourbon has a strong preference for lemon. Either makes a fine drink, so I defer to the mysterious Mr(s) Clarke, and use lime as originally called for, but if all you had was lemon juice, you can still make a delicious Lion’s Tail.
Simple Syrup: If you used allspice dram as the sole sweetener of the drink, you wouldn’t be able to taste anything else, so simple syrup is here just to boost the other flavors a touch and even out the lime. To make it, put equal amounts of sugar and hot water into a bowl or pot, and stir for about 30 seconds. Refrigerate it, and it’ll last a month before going bad.
Ratios: It was hard to choose between 0.25 oz. and 0.5 oz. of allspice here. The 0.5 oz. measurement is original, and what most recipes call for. On the other hand, this is a lot of allspice dram. Try it the above way. If you feel like it’s too much and you want to reduce the allspice, remember that the liqueur brings sweetness in addition to flavor, so make sure to commensurately increase the simple syrup to retain balance.