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.
“No. Not really. No one’s really asked for it.”
That was the answer given by Chesapeake Room head bartender Henry Lewis when asked whether patrons of his bar had requested a certain regional cocktail with deep roots in one of the area’s most famous sporting events.
If you had trouble guessing that the cocktail in question was the black-eyed Susan, the official libation of the Preakness Stakes, well, you’re not alone.
The black-eyed Susan — originally a drink made with equal parts rum, vodka and fruit juice — has over the course of its history been disparaged, reconfigured and, for long stretches of each year, forgotten. Yet it hangs on.
Capitol Hill bars seldom lose a chance to tie pop cultural events to drink specials.
The first Saturday of this month, for instance, provided a moment of rare convergence for the liquor-soaked.
Cinco de Mayo gave bar hoppers the chance to indulge in margaritas, sangria and south-of-the-border beers to celebrate the Mexican troops’ victory over the French at the battle of Puebla in 1862.
And the Kentucky Derby gave fans of horse racing an opportunity to down mint juleps, those bourbon and mint concoctions so long associated with the Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs.
The chalkboard menu outside Wisdom, a cocktail bar on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill, said it all: “Happy Cinco de Derby/Sangria + Juleps.”
But the black-eyed Susan, which has been associated for decades with Baltimore’s Preakness, the Triple Crown’s middle race, doesn’t seem to have that kind of pull, at least on Capitol Hill.
“We like the race. We like drinks. I don’t know about the black-eyed Susan.” said Matt Manley, bartender at the Tune Inn, one of Capitol Hill’s longest operating drinking establishments.
Manley said the bar had no plans to run drink specials tied to the race, although he said they’d definitely be watching the ponies Saturday. “I don’t know what it adds to the race,” Manley said of the black-eyed Susan.
At Wisdom, bartender Tania Morgan said, “We talked about serving black-eyed Susans on Preakness Day, but we’re not sure we’re going to do it or not.”
She said a customer had asked about them, but owner and mixologist Erik Holzherr hadn’t made the call yet. Part of Holzherr’s hesitation might arise from his own standards. Wisdom bills itself as a “premier cocktail parlour,” and it doesn’t sound like the Susan makes the grade. “It’s just a bad drink,” Holzherr said.
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?
“It isn’t that distinctive,” Kasper said. During his time at the Sun, Kasper encouraged readers to submit recipes for cocktails that could take the place of the Susan. He thought he was on to something in the 1980s after he and a panel of judges sifted through 80 recipes and declared the “Mr. Pim” a winner. It was a combination of Maryland rye whiskey, lemon and simple syrup.
Kasper and his anti-Susan forces thought the recipe would click with the Preakness organizers. They stuck with the Susan.
Rowdiness in Charm City
The 137th Preakness Stakes is set for this Saturday. It’s long been a rowdy affair, as befitting its hardscrabble Pimlico address in Charm City.
The grandstand and jockey club, like at Churchill Downs in Kentucky and at New York’s Belmont Stakes, is typically a genteel setting, complete with avant-garde hats and plenty of seersucker. But the infield party, with its tens of thousands of patrons, has resembled spring break, leading to its “Freakness” nickname.
Beer is a big part of that, even though race organizers in 2009 banned the BYOB policy that was standard operating procedure for years.
The official “Lord of the Infield” is a creature called Kegasus, a beer-swilling centaur who is available for promotional events with his sidekick UniCarl, whom the Preakness website describes as “part human, part unicorn, part personal assistant and part personal trainer.”
In this beer-centric scene, the black-eyed Susan will also be sold, as it has for decades, in commemorative Preakness glasses.
“The best thing to be said about it was the glass,” Kasper said of the cocktail.
So, for now, the Susan endures as the drink of the Preakness, if not in the hearts of cocktail lovers.
“When people ask me what is in a black-eyed Susan, I usually tell them ‘equal parts of rum, vodka, fruit juice and bad judgment,’” Kasper wrote in 1996.
When told of this long-ago passage, the Tune Inn’s Manley said, “That sounds about right for the Preakness.”
Visitors get their first look at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which opened to the public on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. The new memorial is located off Independence Ave. SW between the Rayburn House Office Building and HHS. Buy photo here.