If the Black Eyed Susan were a race horse, it would be a sprinter. It makes one strong move, then fades quickly.
The strong move occurs this weekend when the cocktail will be in demand at Pamlico Race Track, during both the running of the Black Eyed Susan Stakes on Friday and the Preakness Stakes on Saturday. Over these two days, about 25,000 servings of the libation, poured into commemorative glasses, will be sold at $8 apiece, track officials say.
But as soon as Preakness weekend ends, so does the does the local thirst for the Susan.
"Preakness Week is the only time we sell it," said Stephanie Kuzma, general manager of The Owl Bar at the Belvedere, a stronghold of cocktail aficionados. At the B&O Brasserie, bartender Brendan Dorr reported that the Susan did not have much of following.
"We don't get much call for it," he said, adding that at his bar the mint julep, the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, gives the Susan a run for the title of the favorite drink of the spring.
Nonetheless, every third Saturday in May, I am drawn to the Susan.
Over the years I have noticed that, like a racehorse that keeps changing jockeys, the Susan has changed recipes.
The traditional version, printed in the 1985 edition of The Junior League of Baltimore cookbook "Hunt to Harbor," called for vodka, rum and triple sec, mixed with orange and pineapple juices. Later versions called for a shot of peach schnapps. Pineapple juice came and went as a favored mixer. Grapefruit juice had a short run. Orange juice has been s a constant, but some recipes call for sizeable dose, and others suggest a simple "splash."
Susan's shifting recipes have corresponded with which liquor company has adopted the drink. Early Times is now a sponsor of the Black Eyed Susan, and the track recipe calls for a dose of the 80-proof whiskey.
"I have seen one variation that had about 10 ingredients," Martin Taffe told me. He is beverage director at Pimlico and this week began making massive amounts of the cocktail, storing reserves in refrigerated three-gallons jugs that will be tapped on Saturday.
Taffe has been making the Susan for 20 years at the track, sometimes using a mix, sometimes making the drink ad lib. He ticked off the current recipe:
"A shot of vodka, a shot of bourbon, a splash of orange juice, some sweet and sour mix, garnish with a slice of orange and a cherry." The drink is served in a 10-ounce highball glass, filled with crushed ice. The ideal vessel, he said, is the commemorative glass emblazoned with the names of the Preakness winners.
While admitting the Susan is not as reknowned as the mint julep, Taffe defended the cocktail. "It is tasty, sweet, refreshing, but powerful," he said. Since the drink has shed pineapple juice and added bourbon, it has manned up, he said. "With two different kinds of liquors, it is not girly," he said.
On a recent glorious spring afternoon at Pimlico I watched Taffe prepare the drink. With a bottle of bourbon in one hand, vodka in the other, he poured the liquors into an ice-filled glass. Then came the sweet and sour mix, basically lemon juice and sugar, and finally a splash of orange juice. It was topped with a garnish of orange slice and cherry.
I took a sip and was pleasantly surprised. About the only good thing I could say of prior incarnations of the Susan, the ones with pineapple juice, was that I liked the commemorative glass they came in. But this Susan, with the bourbon and the sweet and sour mix, had body, flavor and tang.
The sun was shining, the horses were cantering, a gentle breeze was blowing. Life was good
Mary John Snyder of Cockeysville was sitting in the Pimlico grandstand near me, watching Taffe make Black Eyed Susans. The drink looked appealing, she said, and soon Jim DeRemer, a track bartender, was making her one.
"It is very refreshing," Snyder said after taking a sip. "A good drink for a hot day."
After sampling the track's version of the Black Eyed Susan, I meandered over to the Grand Cru wine bar in Belvedere Square. There, proprietor Nelson Carey and bartender Chris Attenborough had devised a new version of the Black Eyed Susan.
This one was made with Pikesville Rye, Cointreau, white rum, simple syrup and fresh lemon and orange juice. It was served in a commemorative Preakness glass, one from Carey's collection, filled with crushed ice. It sells for $8. It was garnished with strips of lemon peel and a dark cherry that when assembled looked like the Black Eyed Susan flower.
"The rum and Cointreau set it apart," Carey said. "The rye gives it a Maryland touch," he said, even though the whiskey, once a local favorite, is now made in Kentucky.
Using fresh fruit juice is essential, he said, because "freshly squeezed juices are high in acidity, and they produce a more balanced cocktail."