Luxury Spirits
History of the Jack Rose Cocktail
Posted: December 10, 2019

Straight Up: The History of the Jack Rose

The Jack Rose is making a comeback... but here is its history.

Welcome to our next classic cocktail deep dive, The Jack Rose. 

While cocktails mainstays like the Martini, Manhattan, and Daiquiri have never gone out of style, the Jack Rose is a classic cocktail that hasn’t fully pulled off its comeback. Yet. This tart, light, fruity cocktail is built around citrus, grenadine, and a wildly interesting but little-known spirit, Applejack.

While modern examples of Applejack can be thought of as American apple brandy (Calvados would be a French equivalent), essentially a spirit distilled from hard cider, in the 17th and 18th century Americans used a primitive technique called “freeze jacking” to turn hard cider into Applejack (sometimes called “Jersey Lightning”). The process involved freezing casks of hard cider during the winter months, removing the ice (pure water) that formed, thereby making what was left a thicker, more potent beverage.

While the historical version was syrupy and yeasty (and possibly toxic), the modern version is distilled no different than brandy, whiskey, or rum, and is just as refined and delicate as any cognac. Nevertheless, applejack has been in decline since the 1800s when more traditional spirits (bourbon, rum, gin, vodka) that use grain or sugar cane became more economical to produce on a larger scale than fruit spirits, which is why a cocktail like the Jack Rose is such a rarity. 

So when did the cocktail first appear, and who invented it? One exciting story goes that it was named after a mobster, Jacob Rosenzweig AKA “Bald Jack Rose”, who liked to take his applejack sour with a dash of grenadine. But as much as we’d like to tell you that the cocktail was named after an infamous gangster, the Jack Rose cocktail had been popular and widespread well before the height of Bald Jack’s career.

If we forget Bald Jack, the two leading claimants are Frank J. May and Frank Haas. Frank J. May was a mixologist of Gene Sullivan’s Café in Jersey City, and in 1905 Frank J. May took out an ad in the Police Gazette, claiming to be “better known as Jack Rose, [and] is the inventor of a very popular cocktail by that name”. But cocktail historians are confused as to how/why “Frank May” would be nicknamed “Jack Rose”, and how (if May’s claim is true) the cocktail’s use of Applejack and its rose hue could be completely coincidental… So we’re left with Frank Haas, veteran bartender at Eberlin’s on Wall Street, as the most promising candidate.

A reporter all the way back in 1899 wrote about drinking a Jack Rose with Frank Haas at Eberlin’s, and Frank later claimed in an interview to have invented the cocktail. It should be noted that Frank Haas is the well-documented inventor a cocktail named The Daisy, which also features citrus and grenadine, predating the Jack Rose.

Whoever invented it (our money is on Haas), the recipe wouldn’t be published until 1908 by Jack Grohusko in Jack’s Manual on the Vintage and Production, Care and Handling of Wines and Liquors. Grohusko’s recipe calls for “1 teaspoonful sugar, 10 dashes Raspberry syrup, 10 dashes lemon juice, 5 dashes orange juice, Juice ½ lime, 75% cider brandy.” While this version was the first to see print, the definitive version of the cocktail would lean in more heavily on the citrus and ditch the raspberry syrup for its second key ingredient: grenadine.

The sweet, fruity, pomegranate-based syrup would find its way into William Boothby’s revised edition of The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them (1912), the recipe given to him in 1905 by R. H. Townes in New York:


JACK ROSE COCKTAIL
A LA R. H. Townes, 62 WILLIAM ST., NEW YORK.

The juice of one lemon, one part Grenadine syrup, and two parts Apple Jack. Shake well with cracked ice, and strain into a cocktail glass.


When properly made, the apple aromas that are subtle and subdued in the applejack spirit practically leap from mixing glass once mixed. Whether by accident or design, the acids, sugars, and tannins in grenadine and lemon juice wake up the apple brandy by replacing what was lost from the apple during the distillation process, namely the mixture of sweet and tart.

Jacques Straub popularized a variant of the cocktail in Drinks (1913), which used lime juice instead of lemon, but the basic structure of the drink remained the same. Over the next few decades slight variations on the recipe would pop up, occasionally using raspberry syrup instead of (or in addition to) grenadine, and occasionally using limes in lieu of lemons, but mixologists stuck to Boothby’s recipe.

But while the drink would finally coalesce in the 1910s, it would also take its first big hit in popularity. Remember that gangster, Baldy Jack Rose we mentioned earlier? In 1912 he was involved with an infamous mob hit, and according to a January 5th, 1913 issue of the Arizona Republican, “There was a serious slump in cocktails which were known as Jack Roses... bartenders decided that perhaps under another name the Jack Rose cocktail might again become a good seller. Accordingly, they now call it a "royal smile."

The second setback for the Jack Rose came by way of prohibition. Unlike gin, rum or whiskey, applejack is a spirit unique to America, and the dismantling of distilleries meant that even after prohibition was repealed, applejack had all but disappeared from America. Mostly. As David A. Embury lamented in The Fine Art of Mixing Cocktails (1948), “Sad to relate, the best apple brandy in this country is to be found in the cellars of farmers who, in total defiance of Internal Revenue laws, distill "Jersey Lightning" for their own personal use.” 

Embury’s 1948 book would help give applejack (and the Jack Rose cocktail with it) a boost by highlighting the Jack Rose cocktail as one of six essential cocktails that could be modified into an infinite number of cocktails. Once you understand the principles of why the Jack Rose worked, you would be able to understand the Whiskey Sour, the White Lady, the Daiquiri, the Sidecar, and so on.

According to Embury, the key was the ratio of 8:2:1. This meant 8 parts base spirit (applejack), 2 parts sour (lemon or lime), and 1 part sweet (grenadine). Though his recipes are far drier (and boozier) than his predecessors or modern interpretations, his book was enormously influential to cocktail culture and may have given American applejack a brief lifeline.

Over the following decades, applejack distilleries would continue to close, and the Jack Rose would pass further into obscurity. Laird & Company would be the only major applejack distillery to survive, and the Jack Rose vanished from cocktail menus during the 1960s through the 1990s (sometimes referred to as the “Dark Ages” of cocktail culture). But the last two decades have seen a major cocktail revival, and renewed interest in pre-prohibition cocktails has brought the Jack Rose (and applejack) back to life for a modern audience.

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A photo of a delicious looking adult beverage as seen from above.
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