He didn’t know it at the time, but Frank J. May developed the unofficial New Jersey cocktail. Whether you’ve heard of it or not, the ingredients of the “Jack Rose” are always the same: citrus, grenadine, and NJ’s own Applejack brandy. Both the origins of the cocktail, and the brandy used to make it, are steeped in New Jersey’s past, but their presence today can be found far from the confines of the Garden State. While its title as “state cocktail” is completely anecdotal, this is the story behind the brandy, the cocktail, and the man who put it all together.
Brandy is the foundation of the Jack Rose. For the uninformed, brandy is a type of liquor made from fruit—usually grapes—and its inception was more of an accident. As France partook in triangular trade in the 16th century, merchants were at the mercy of taxes on liquid volume. These sellers quickly realized they could avoid this taxation by distilling their products. So, by removing water from their wine, they could transport the same amount of alcohol in a lower volume for a lower price. By storing the distilled wine in wooden barrels, its flavor inadvertently became deeper and better. On the receiving end, instead of diluting the wine with water, buyers drank the dark and fruity liquid as brandy. Brandy caught on throughout colonial America, but there is one specific brandy encoded specifically in our state’s DNA.
Applejack is cited as one of America’s oldest spirits, and its genesis was in Monmouth County, New Jersey. In 1698, a Scottish emigrant named William Laird took his distilling skills from his homeland and applied them to the apples that littered the Garden State. William’s concoction grew popular throughout New Jersey. It was so popular, in fact, that George Washington requested the recipe for his troops during the French and Indian War. Two decades later, William’s descendant, Robert Laird, officially sold the first bottle of his family’s applejack under the name Laird & Company. From there, the business was born. Since then, Laird & Company have survived a fire, Prohibition, and World War II, while continuing to churn out their signature brandy. It wasn’t until the Roaring 20s that the drink became a part of New Jersey’s unofficial state cocktail.
If you thumb through Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” the Jack Rose is immortalized in its text. Narrator Jake Barnes leisurely sips a Jack Rose in a hotel bar. When he is stood up by his love interest, Barnes winds up wandering the Paris streets. The scene is sensual and tragic, but how did the unofficial New Jersey cocktail become such a monotonous detail in one of the Great American Novels? While the history isn’t crystal clear, local folklore points to one figure as the mastermind behind the mixology.
According to a 1905 edition of the National Police Gazette, Frank J. May was your everyday bartender. Between his interest in wrestling, he took care of his bar located on Pavonia Avenue, a block east of Hamilton Park in Jersey City, New Jersey. May’s downtown bar was a hotspot and became even more popular with his invention of the Jack Rose. The origin of the name is contested, but the prevailing theory is that the drink was named after popular New York City gambler, Baldy Jack Rose.
The drink was a smash, and represented the luxe attitude of New York City’s Roaring 20s debauchery. However, the drink’s reputation, and May, took a hit. In 1912, NYPD Lieutenant Charles Becker alleged murdered bookmaker Herman Rosenthal. Baldy Jack Rose, a prominent figure in New York’s underworld, testified against Becker. This put Rose in the NYPD’s crosshairs, and Rose soon fled the city to Connecticut. However, the flame war between the New York’s sub-rosa gangs and the NYPD soured the idea behind the libation. After the murder case, sales of the Jack Rose tanked. Bartenders even considered changing the name to avoid the negative connotation. Despite this, its legacy survived, and the drink’s identity lives on across the world to this day.
The Jack Rose is, apparently, the quintessential brandy drink. It’s so classic that Laird & Company even states on their website: “The Jack Rose is to Applejack what the Martini is to gin.” The Jack Rose’s reach has spread far beyond New Jersey, and can be found throughout the United States and Europe. The cocktail, at its core, is a sour made with brandy, and despite some creative liberties, the recipe is the same. Two parts Applejack brandy are combined with one part lemon juice, and a half part grenadine. Lemon juice can be substituted for almost any sour citrus juice, and some recipes add a dash of bitters.
Have you tried the unofficial New Jersey cocktail? Let us know what you think in the comments.