Henry Lewis, head bartender at the Chesapeake Room, prepares his version of the black-eyed Susan cocktail, which will be offered as a special during Saturdays Preakness Stakes horse race.
At the Chesapeake Room, Lewis, who designs the drink menu, said he’s never fielded so much as a question about the drink. Intrigued by its local roots, though, Lewis came up with his own version of the cocktail and said the establishment will be offering specials come Saturday.
“This is pretty experimental here,” Lewis said as he mixed up his own version: equal parts Catoctin Creek Rye whiskey from Virginia and Sloop Betty Vodka from Maryland, splashes of orange and pineapple juice, the fresh-squeezed juice of a lime and Oregon pitted cherries soaked in heavy syrup, all over crushed ice. “I can’t imagine what it will taste like,” he said.
Quite refreshing, as it turns out. But would anyone have known otherwise?
“The black-eyed Susan is still looking for a lover. It’s the odd cocktail out,” said Rob Kasper, a former Baltimore Sun writer who long chronicled the drink in his capacity at the paper and at times led campaigns, to no avail, to retire it in favor of a better one.
“I have tried to run the black-eyed Susan out of town,” he wrote in May 1996.
The following year, he wrote, “The best advice I have ever come across on how to enjoy a black-eyed Susan is to fill a glass with shaved ice, add equal parts of orange and pineapple juices, then forget about adding any booze.”
But race organizers have stayed with the Susan over the years, for whatever reason.
Some of that might be its tie to the Maryland state flower, also the black-eyed Susan. And some of it might be tied up in good-timing traditions.
“It is a great excuse to have fun in the spring and early summer,” Kasper said, adding that, “It benefits immensely from its association with the Triple Crown, the Derby, the mint julep.”
Still, Kasper said, it’s not in the same league as its Kentucky brethren.
“Mint julep is the president. Black-eyed Susan is the vice president … and like the vice president, it keeps shifting. In this case, the recipe.”
Ah, yes. While the mint julep has stayed remarkably consistent over its lifespan — bourbon, simple syrup, shaved ice, muddled mint — the Susan has had many incarnations.
Lewis’ cocktail at the Chesapeake Room, after he studied up on traditional recipes for a few days, is tied to local distillers.
The drink was once primarily composed of rum and vodka, mixed with triple sec and garnished with fruit. This recipe is traced back to the early 1970s, when organizers began thinking of ways to celebrate the Preakness Stakes’ 1973 centennial, the year Secretariat won the Triple Crown.
In the late 1980s, peach schnapps was added to the mix. That was dropped. Grapefruit and pineapple juices were added and dropped.
The most recent recipe, changed after Early Times became a sponsor, swapped the rum for bourbon. According to Kasper, that wasn’t such a bad thing.
“The bourbon and sour mix really help it. Before it was pretty much a fruit drink that snuck up on you,” he said.
A Failed Coup
Today’s cocktail world is one defined by artisanal and antique recipes. Why hasn’t it caught on there?
James Jones, communications director for DC Vote, tapes a "DC Constituents Service Day" sign on the wall as he stands with other DC residents outside of Rep. Andy Harris's office on Capitol Hill to protest Harris' actions against D.C.'s marijuana laws on Thursday, July 24, 2014. DC Vote encouraged DC residents to bring their complaints about city services to the Maryland congressman.