Unraveling the Roffignac Cocktail (Pt. 2)

In which I attempt to contract a febrile affection or two.

By Robert F. Moss


(For the story up to now, see Part 1 of Unraveling the Mysteries of the Roffignac Cocktail)

Secrets of Red Hembarig Revealed

I was stuck hard on the identity of the sweetener named Red Hembarig, but I plugged away at it periodically. A forum thread on eGullet (which included a helpful response from cocktail and punch guru David Wondrich) speculated that "Hembarig" was a corruption of himbeere, the German word for raspberry, and that "red Hembarig" was nothing more than raspberry syrup.

This didn't strike me as fully satisfying—why would Arthur include raspberry syrup as an alternative to raspberry syrup?—but it was just the hint I needed. Back to the newspaper archives, and with a little trial and error I was able to track down not only "himbeer syrup" in turn of the century New Orleans but something even more interesting: a syrup that pairs himbeer(raspberries) with essig—the German word for vinegar.

And there you have it. The elusive "Red Hembarig" is, I believe, Arthur's elision of himbeeressig syrup, which means the long-lost ingredient of the great Roffignac cocktail is . . . (pause for drama) . . . raspberry vinegar syrup!

Now, raspberry vinegar, to modern palates, seems more fit for salad dressings than for cocktails. But, it was rather common in drinks a century or more ago. Like a lot of things in the world of 19th century imbibing, it comes out of the medicinal realm.

You can find raspberry vinegar and raspberry vinegar syrup recipes in any number of 19th century handbooks for pharmacists and chemists. The formula from the 1884 edition of the National Dispensary is pretty typical: you mix a "convenient quantity" of fresh raspberries with a "sufficient quantity" of sugar (the precision of these pharmaceutical recipes is amazing) and let it rest for 3 days. Then, you press and strain out the juice and let it sit until it has completely fermented and become clear (which should take a day or less), then filter it. You mix this liquid with sugar (2 parts of liquid to 3 parts of sugar), heat it to a boil, then strain and bottle.

And what do you do with such a concoction? The National Dispensary notes that "This syrup has no special medicinal virtues. It forms an agreeable addition to mixtures, and with water a pleasant drink for febrile affections." Febrile affections (per Rudy's List of Archaic Medical Terms) means pretty much any medical condition accompanied by a fever, so it might be safe to say that raspberry syrup is good for whatever ails you. During the Civil War, in fact, a letter writer to the New York Times recommended raspberry vinegar as "a grateful, cooling and wholesome drink for the fevered, sick and wounded."

But why wait until you are sick or wounded? Pharmacists and bartenders alike (and, in old New Orleans these occupations were often one in the same) discovered somewhere in the mid 19th century that raspberry vinegar syrup made an agreeable addition to cocktails, too.

In How to Mix Drinks (1862), Jerry Thomas includes not one but three recipes for raspberry vinegar syrup. In one, you first make raspberry vinegar by macerating 30 pounds of raspberries in 7 1/2 gallons of wine or cider vinegar for eight days before pressing and straining it. Then, you dissolve 80 pounds of sugar in the vinegar, boil it for 2 minutes, then skim and strain. Another recipe calls for 3 1/2 lbs sugar, 1 pint raspberry juice, and 2 pints of vinegar.

Thomas does not provide, any recipes for drinks using the syrup, but there are plenty out there in other publications, some alcoholic and some not. Raspberry shrub--a few tablespoons of the vinegar syrup mixed with a glass of water--was a popular summertime beverage, while hot raspberry ade (which added lime juice) was a wintertime refresher. Amanda Hesser of the New York Timesrediscovered raspberry vinegar as a beverage componenta few years ago, using it by the spoonful to spruce up a glass of sparkling water or prosecco. Her recipe, borrowed from a 1900 New York Times article, is for 1-1/2 quarts raspberries macerated for three days in one cup of vinegar, then mashed and strained and made into a syrup by simmering with a half pound of sugar.

Raspberry vinegar syrup was particularly popular in New Orleans, where it was commonly referred to by its German name himbeeressig. Why the German was used in New Orleans and not elsewhere in the country is uncertain, but New Orleans did have a substantial German-American community, and its members played a prominent role in the city's pharmacy, hotel, and restaurant trade.

Advertisement for Loubat's Syrups for Soda Fountains (<i>Times-Picayune</i>, March 5, 1934)
Advertisement for Loubat's Syrups for Soda Fountains (Times-Picayune, March 5, 1934)

One commercial vendor of himbeeressig syrup in New Orleans was the Loubat Glassware and Cork Company, which dates back to at least the 1870s (and is still in the restaurant supply business today as the Loubat Equipment Company). In the 1920s, it advertised himbeer essig as one of the 14 flavors of Loubat's Syrups, which it sold to soda fountains in one-gallon jugs for $1.50 a piece.

So, it seems, there was plenty of raspberry vinegar syrup floating around the pharmacies, soda fountains, and bars of New Orleans around the turn of the century. Little wonder that it made its way into a few liquor drinks.


The Legacy of the Roffignac Cocktail

And that brings us back to the Roffignac. Having equipped myself with a bottle of Cognac and dozens of recipes for "Red Hembarig"—that is, himbeer essig—syrup, I was ready to take a crack at constructing perhaps the original Roffignac cocktail.

But, first, here's how not to create raspberry vinegar syrup. Flush with the victory of uncovering himbeer essig, I raced to the Historical Cocktail Testing Facility. All the recipes I had uncovered called for days and days of steeping, but I was in the heat of the hunt and figured I could cut corners and mix one part of the raspberry syrup made in my previous Roffignac forays with one part cider vinegar. This, emphatically, does not work, and the pungent vinegar concoction quickly ended up in the Failed Experiment Disposal Unit (a.k.a. kitchen sink drain), wasting an ounce and a half of perfectly good rye whiskey in the process.

I resigned myself to having to wait, using the recipe for raspberry vinegar syrup from Jerry Thomas's How to Mix Drinksand recalculating the proportions to make a more manageable amount.

Himbeer Essig, or Raspberry Vinegar Syrup

12 oz. raspberries
24 fl. oz. (3 cups) cider vinegar
32 oz. sugar

Put raspberries and vinegar in a large plastic container and let them soak for 8 days. Strain through a sieve, mashing and pressing the raspberries to extract all their juice. Put the liquid in a saucepan along with the sugar, bring to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Let it simmer a minute or two, then cool and bottle.

The preparation of the syrup will give your house a good fumigation and send the wife and kids running for the doors. But, once it cools and the flavors blend in the fridge overnight, it's a truly remarkable substance: sweet and tangy and complex, the bite of the vinegar mellowed and smoothed by the raspberries and sugar.

Now, there's just one confusing thing about Stanley Clisby Arthur's recipe for a Roffignac. "Sirup" appears twice in the ingredients list: 1 jigger of whiskey, 1 pony of "sirup", seltzer or soda water, and, finally, "raspberry sirup". In the instructions that follow, he says simply to add the whiskey, then "the sirup, which may be raspberry, grenadine, or red Hembarig." So, does this mean you use a pony of regular simple syrup and a splash of raspberry, grenadine, or "red Hembarig"? Or, do you use a full pony of the flavored syrup?

A Roffignac made with a jigger of rye and a pony of regular raspberry syrup is nicely balanced. The same drink made with a pony of himbeer essig was quite off: way too pungent and strident. I loved the zing of the raspberry vinegar, but it was much too strong. So, I tried a few variations where I moderated the himbeer essig, cut it with plain simple syrup, added in a little bitters, swapped Cognac and rye in and out.

A version made with rye whiskey and a blend of simple syrup and himbeer essig was getting close to the mark, but something about that vinegar tang and the sharp edge of the rye just wasn't quite there.

Finally, I mixed up one with Cognac and himbeer essig diluted 2 parts to 1 with a simple syrup made with demerara sugar, which has a nice pale brown color and a little darker, richer flavor than a syrup made from granulated white sugar. I stirred it up, took a sip, and and thought to myself, Damn. That tastes almost exactly like Coca-Cola. With, of course, a very pleasing kick.

Could this be the original Roffignac? A drink as mild as Coca-Cola but as potent as a Sazerac?


The Original (Perhaps) Roffignac Cocktail

1.5 oz. Cognac or other good brandy
2/3 oz. simple syrup
1/3 oz. himbeer essig syrup
soda water

Combine the Cognac and syrups in a rocks glass and stir. Fill glass with ice, top with club soda, and give one final stir.

Arthur calls for a highball glass, which would be at least eight ounces, but unless you just drown the thing in soda it leaves it awfully empty. I generally use a 6-ounce rocks glass, which seems more appropriate.

A Roffignac Cocktail, Rye Whiskey Version
A Roffignac Cocktail, Rye Whiskey Version

A Roffignac Rebirth?

While I like my version of the Roffignac, I am painfully aware that I'm totally shooting in the dark, trying to recreate a cocktail I've never tasted before and with ingredients that are murkily established at best.

It doesn't seem possible to me that a whiskey soda with a splash of raspberry syrup would have been special enough to become a signature New Orleans drink, one that would rival the Sazerac or Ramos gin fizz. My Coca-Cola-esque version seems more like the kind of thing that would have gotten the attention of locals and tourists alike. But I'm just guessing.

Errol Laborde at MyNewOrleans.com recently retold an amusing anecdote about Roffignac cocktails taken from an 1892 edition of the Mascot literary magazine. I'll let you read the anecdote over there, but the fact that the Roffignac passes itself off as a temperance drink further suggests that it would have been very soft drink like in

Larborde also notes that the Roffignac, which never came back into fashion after Prohibition, lingered on as the house specialty at Maylie's, which opened in 1876 and lasted 110 years. When Maylie's closed in 1986, Laborde writes, "so did the public life of the Roffignac."

1986, alas, was just a bit before my (legal) drinking time, but perhaps someone who remembers the Roffignac from Maylie's could weigh in on the concoction: was it just a raspberry-flavored whiskey-and-soda, or something more subtle and complex? Does anyone from New Orleans remember seeing a bottle of himbeer essig syrup at soda fountains or elsewhere?
Maybe, just maybe, the public life of the Roffignac is not at its end just yet.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

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