New life for the black-eyed Susan drink at Preakness


Feelings have mellowed about the ever-changing Preakness cocktail

May 12, 2014|By Richard Gorelick, The Baltimore Sun

Take vodka, rum, whiskey, bourbon, peach schnapps, orange juice, pineapple juice, sour mix, orange-flavored liqueur, elderflower-flavored liqueur, shake, pour into a souvenir glass and garnish with an orange slice, cherry and mint sprig.

Then dump it on the infield grass and get a real drink.

It's the poor old black-eyed Susan, the official cocktail of the Preakness.

It has been mocked, derided and dismissed as a publicity stunt. Campaigns have been waged to replace it. Its history has been mangled and misunderstood. It's been yellow, it's been orange, and it's been red.

"It's a drink that has no roots in classical mixololgy," said Tim Riley, the beverage director for the Bagby Restaurant Group. "For better or for worse."

If the black-eyed Susan once elicited outrage, feelings appear to have softened. And the cocktail is now just one of those things Baltimoreans have learned to accept with a shrug and a laugh.

And unlike the the Kentucky Derby's official drink, the precious mint julep, which people tend to take with utmost seriousness, the black-eyed Susan is open to interpretation.

Riley has learned to work with the black-eyed Susan, if not exactly love it.

For the week leading up to the Preakness, Cunningham's restaurant in Towson will be serving Riley's homage to the black-eyed Susan.

His version, which he is calling the brown Betty, has a base of bourbon and rum, combined with a homemade orange liqueur and fresh pineapple juice, and served over crushed ice. (See the attached gallery for photos and recipes of assorted takes on the black-eyed Susan.)

"Instead of starting from scratch," Riley said, "we tried to take the best of the drink over the years. Pineapple and bourbon are a great combo."

It's nice to see Susan getting a break. The cocktail has a hard time of it.

From almost the very beginning, it has been received as a bald-faced attempt to create for the Preakness, the Triple Crown's everlasting Jan Brady, a cocktail that would have the cachet of the mint julep.

Shortly after its introduction at the 1973 Preakness, The Baltimore Sun sniffed that it was "a mixture concocted more by Madison Avenue than a bartender."

It wouldn't be the last insult hurled at the black-eyed Susan.

The drink was created for the Preakness by the Harry M. Stevens Co., the longtime caterers at Pimlico.

Brenda Handleman, who retired from Pimlico Race Course in 2005 after 45 years, remembers the efforts that went into developing a signature cocktail for the Preakness. One of the goals for the team creating the black-eyed Susan, she said, was achieving a pale yellow color for the cocktail.

But the biggest challenge was to produce mass quantities of the cocktail, quickly.

The caterers contracted with the Heublein Co., a Hartford, Conn.-based liquor distributor, to come up with a pre-mix that would help them to concoct and serve hundreds and possibly thousands of the newly created cocktail at the Preakness.

Heublein also marketed its black-eyed Susan mix outside of Preakness. And in some versions of the black-eyed Susan origin story, it is credited, incorrectly, with inventing the cocktail.

"I think it was wonderful that we had something that was an integral part of the Preakness," said Handleman, who acknowledged that she was never a particular fan of the drink.

"I'm a wine drinker," she said. "Or bourbon and water. The worst hangover you'll ever have is from a sweet drink."

In 2001, Pimlico introduced a new version of the black-eyed Susan, responding, it said, to the growing preference for vodka over bourbon and rye.

This new version was a base of rum and vodka, splashed with orange and pineapple juices. This was promoted as an improvement on the original, which was a base of rum and vodka, splashed with orange and pineapple juices

You read that right.

Along the way, the original black-eyed Susan had been briefly reformulated into a bourbon-based drink, which people came to assume was the original. In any event, it was time for whiskey to go away.

But then, whiskey came back. It was part of the official black-eyed Susan cocktail in 2011, when the recipe called for vodka, Early Times Kentucky whiskey, sour mix and orange juice. It was rum's turn to take a hike.

Over the years, rum and whiskey have appeared and reappeared. For a while, peach schnapps was an essential ingredient. And the makeup of fruit juices has changed.

There have been a few constants. Vodka, in spite of its brief hiatus, has been part of the beverage almost from the start, as has pineapple juice. Always, always, the drink has been served at Preakness in a souvenir glass.

"It keeps changing," said Brian McComas, owner of Ryleigh's Oyster Hunt Valley, which is holding a Preakness viewing party Saturday, one of a series of Triple Crown parties the restaurant is hosting with Sagamore Racing. "It's usually had a basic sour formula, but with a vast array of spirits."

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