The inspiration for Al Sotack’s South Bronx was straightforward: “I wanted to push back on the idea that the Bronx is a shitty cocktail,” he recalls.
A partner at Brooklyn’s Jupiter Disco, Sotack’s interest in the classic Bronx began almost a decade ago, when he adapted the drink for now-closed Philadelphia bar Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co.
“Its history is murky, like most cocktails,” he warns, “but it’s affiliated with Philadelphia history.” The 1934 book What Shall We Drink, by Magnus Bredenbek, claims that a Bronx restaurateur discovered the drink in Philadelphia in 1905; however, that’s only one of several origin stories for the drink.
Still, the tenuous local connection was enough to pique Sotack’s interest in the two versions that appeared in Hugo Ensslin’s 1916 Recipes for Mixed Drinks. The standard Bronx calls for dry gin and equal parts sweet and dry vermouth, plus the juice of half an orange, while the “dry” Bronx doubles the dry vermouth and calls for muddling slices of pineapple and orange. Both versions are shaken.
Sotack, however, envisioned the drink as a Martini or a Manhattan, meaning that the drink would be stirred, not shaken. He treats the small amounts of fruit juice “like bitters, almost as an accent,” he says.
To evolve into its final form took several weeks. “I definitely made this drink 10 times,” Sotack says. “There’s no way I started with a half-teaspoon of juice, the way I now make it.”
The current recipe starts with two ounces of gin, split between two Old Tom–style expressions: one and a half ounces of Hayman’s, plus a half-ounce of Ransom. While the choice of Old Tom was an effort to recreate the flavor of a 19th-century gin drink, the split base concept drew from the tiki playbook of the mid-20th century, which often blends multiple rum styles in a single drink. “The Ransom is such a weird, specific thing,” Sotack explains. “I’ll often use it as more of an accent.” Together, the Old Tom mix is “nice and usable in a cocktail,” he says.
The next step was to dial in the vermouth component. “When I was formulating the drink, I knew I wanted it to be in the style of a perfect Manhattan or Martini,” he recalls. He settled on a half-ounce each of blanc and sweet vermouths, the former adding rounder vanilla notes in lieu of the more acidic dry vermouth typical of the “perfect” construction. “Knowing I was going to incorporate both pineapple and orange, it seemed like it would taste better than just sweet [vermouth], or just dry [vermouth],” he notes of his unorthodox tweak.
Meanwhile, codifying the juices was tricky. For the sake of precision, that component was calibrated for teaspoons, rather than the more nebulous “barspoon” measurement.
“At the Franklin, we were notorious for using the teaspoon and half-teaspoon a lot,” Sotack says. “It was really a balancing act: getting a little bit of pineapple and orange into it in a really small amount.” Done right, the fruit “brings something cool to the table, but doesn’t dominate the drink.”
The finishing touches come courtesy of nine drops of barbecue bitters (“fruit and spices go well together,” says Sotack) and a lemon twist for garnish. While orange peel might seem like the logical choice to echo the orange juice in the drink, Sotack found lemon worked better. “It’s a Martini, so I want it to be a little brighter, more floral,” he notes. “The lemon wakes it up a little.”
However, not everyone agrees that Sotack’s finessed interpretation ought to bear the South Bronx name. Sotack recalls a fellow bartender, who hails from the Bronx, who tried the drink assuming that the name was a reference to the 1987 song from hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions, and expecting the drink to project a similar energy. His chief complaint? “It’s too elegant,” recalls Sotack.