So You Think You're a Cocktail Geek, huh?: Cocktail Slide-Rules and the "Cocktail Computer."

Sometimes "cocktail books" aren't books at all. Recently, someone sent me a link to this Kickstarter campaign for Lily Szajnberg’s proposed Cocktail Computer – an analog gizmo that selects cocktail recipes for you based upon which ingredients are in your home bar. It has a pretty great retro look and promises additional sets of recipe cards beyond the initial 100. I like the concept and hope that it comes to fruition. It also reminds me of similar interactive cocktail guides which aren’t traditional books (and what is a book if not interactive?). I therefore thought I’d post the first of what will probably be many discussions of non-traditional bartender guides.

There of course have been actual “cocktail computers” – handheld electronic devices that give you drink recipes – such as the Sharper Image's Professional Bar Guide or the Bar Master Deluxe talking version, shaped like a flask and with "bar sound effects," but these are pretty much just electronic databases and require that the user knows the drink that they are looking for… And whereas these are actually computers, meh, they are somehow boring to me, unimaginative. I’d rather discuss earlier computation devices for cocktails, such as drink “slide-rules.”

Yes, cocktails are science, and most modern craft cocktail aficionados would consider themselves nerds, (I can’t think of a more geeky book than David Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence which goes into great detail about the intricacies of ice manufacture and centrifugal clarification) but there isn’t anything that says Geeky Science as much as a slide-rule – those analog computers for logarithms popular until the pocket calculator came around.

Whereas the slide-rule has existed in one form or another since the 17th century, it enjoyed a period of exceptional popularity in America during the 1950s and 1960s due to the space race, moon landing, and ensuing lionization of scientists, engineers, and physicists – which nicely meshes with the mid-century cocktail craze. Most of the cocktail slide-rules that I have encountered stem from this period though the patent for similar advertising devices goes back at least to 1932, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were drink recipe slide charts from this post-prohibition period as well.

In short, what I am describing as cocktail slide-rules are mixing guides that consist of a cardboard or plastic outer sleeve with a numbered list of drinks, various components, and a symbol key printed on it, as well as cut-out windows through which appears the sliding inner chart of measurements and preparations. A user would slide the inner chart to the number of the drink recipe desired and a “guide” of numbers and symbols corresponding to liquid proportions and preparations would appear in a window.

The Cocktail Mixer slide-rule, copyright 1953

These were usually used as advertising giveaways, with companies printing their logos somewhere on the outer sleeve. There was the “Cocktail Mixer,” copyright 1953 and the “Cocktail Mixing Guide,” copyright 1964, both by the Perrygraf Corporation, which is still in business.

The Cocktail Mixing Guide, copyright 1964

There were usually recipes for 100 cocktails, 50 per side, which considering the relatively small amount of space allowed for potential ingredients is pretty impressive and substantiates the idea that the majority of classic cocktails consisted of relatively few ingredients. This is an important idea, especially given the tendency of some modern craft cocktail designers to overload their drinks with too many ingredients (I can soapbox about this, drawing parallels to the proliferation of flavored vodkas in the 1990s – 2000s, and earlier froufrou drinks of the 1980s, but I’ll save that for a later post). I like that the inventors of the “Cocktail Computer” claim that the majority of classic cocktails rely upon just 24 ingredients and, if we are to judge by the cocktail slide-rule, even fewer ingredients are necessary to construct a pantheon of mid-century cocktails. The Perrygraf slide-rules list gin, whiskey, Italian and French vermouths, scotch, vodka, Benedictine, brandy, Bacardi rum, rye, absinthe, Chartreuse, “curacoa” (sic), maraschino, sherry, claret, Jamaica rum, crème de “cocoa” (sic), crème de menthe, Cointreau, and “Prunell”(prunelle, a liquor made from sloe, the fruit of the blackthorn bush), which is included just for the classic cocktail the Beau Brummel (which I think warrants a future blog post). In other words, just 21 types of booze (err, maybe 20 since Prunelle barely counts with just one cocktail).

But I don’t want to take the idea of fewer ingredients too far, because that road leads us to such silly things as H. i. Williams 1943 book 3 Bottle Bar (“Hospitality Poured from 3 Bottles, The cost fits any budget,” NY: M.S. Mill Co), which argues for a complete bar that consists of only whisky, gin, and dry white wine. My general point is that the cocktail slide-rules offered a surprising wealth of possible cocktails with relatively few components.

The Smart Alec Cocktail

Of the cocktails listed on the Perrygraf slide-rules there are quite a few unfamiliar to me, though many ended up being known cocktail but with different names. Of these, though, is the Smart Alec, a promising brandy cocktail that is similar to the Bijou. It is an ounce each of brandy, Chartreuse, and Cointreu, two dashes of Angostura, stirred and strained up. I'm still hound-dogging the history of this cocktail. I've found it as the Sir Knight cocktail in the ubiquitous Angostura Professional Mixing Guide that appeared first in 1947 and peppered the market in the 1960s (available here via; I've seen stacks of these little books in vintage stores). And whereas it doesn't show in earlier prohibition and post-prohibition cocktail books (though I've just done a cursory search) like Jack's Manuel, The Stork Club, or Meier's Artistry of Mixing Drinks, it does show up as the Smart Alec in Walter Winchell's syndicated newspaper column "Walter Winchell On Broadway" for June 4th, 1932, a year before the repeal of prohibition: "Before I forget: Here's the Smart Alec cocktail -- one part cognac, one part chartreuse, one part cointreau, dashes of bitters to dull the burn. Don't waste ice on it!" It is listed in the Cocktail Database with yellow Chartreuse and orange bitters, but in my recreation, aided by Will Hollingsworth at Cleveland's Spotted Owl, we used dry curacao rather than Cointreau, green Chartreuse, Angostura (as per the slide-rule) and a flamed orange peel over the drink. The result was delicious, well-balanced, and with a pleasing roseate amber color. Personally, I found it nicer than a Bijou and much less cloying than a Last Word. I remade it at home with Armagnac, Cointreau, and Fee Brothers barrel-aged orange bitters and it was just a bit too astringent and much too orangey. I think that the Angostura and curacao are the way to go here. 

Another of my favorite examples of the cocktail slide-rule is the “Exec-u-Toy” combo “Cocktail Slide Rule” and bottle opener from 1964 with 30 drink recipes. The recipes are all pretty standard with the exception of the Duchess (1 oz. gin, 1 oz. French vermouth, 1 oz. absinthe, which is different from the standard recipe which calls for Italian vermouth rather than gin) and the Twister (which is pretty much a Moscow Mule with 7 Up instead of ginger ale).

The "Dandie" Cocktail Slide Rule

100 Cocktails Slide Rule

There are other examples, such as the “Dandie” Cocktail Slide Rule from Australia and the Cocktail Calculator from the U.K. (which I found on Chris Gillians’ Calculator and slide-rule database), both of which also appear to be mid-century. But despite their self-descriptions as slide-rules and calculators, these are little more than drink guides, little different from other non-book drink databases because they don’t actually do any math for you. In future posts I’ll discuss the many Dial-a-Drink slide charts and bar equipment such as shakers, bottle openers, trays, and paper ephemera that work along similar lines as the slide-rules mentioned above, and which date back at least the Napier cocktail shakers of the 1920s (reproduced in the 1990s by William Sonoma and Restoration Hardware, and currently made by Oggi and numerous other companies).

Hiram Walker promotional slide-rule

The only slide-rule that I’ve found that does more than just lists recipes, like these other examples, is a give-away for bar-keeps from Hiram Walker which displays a copyright of 1951, though I’m not sure if that is for the device or for the Hiram Walker brand, especially since the slide-rule appears to be more modern than 1951, possibly the late 1960s. Whereas this slide-rule lists 46 cocktail recipes, it also includes a logarithm for figuring out the cost per drink according to price paid per case of booze.

What sets this Hiram Walker slide-rule as well as Szajnberg’s Cocktail Computer above a simple cocktail guide is that they do some figuring for you. The Cocktail Computer works somewhat like an early punch card data entry system/computer in that you use the cocktail sticks/swords to designate the three main drink components you have and the “machine” computes the possible recipes available to you. Pretty neat. I hope the project happens. In the meantime, in true cocktail nerd fashion, I’m going to try and track down some Prunelle and make a Beau Brummel.