Lost Cocktails: The Roosevelt Hotel's Williwaw vs. The Willawa Cocktail

The Menu for the Blue Room at the Roosevelt Hotel, August 1959

Recently I purchased a menu from the famed Blue Room at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, dated August 1959. If you didn’t know, the Roosevelt claims to be the home of the Sazarac and the “Famous Ramos Gin Fizz” -- though both drinks originated elsewhere. The Roosevelt, undeniably, had a fantastic marketing team during the mid-century. A few years ago I stopped in for a Sazarac or two at the hotel's Sazarac Bar. They were good, though mixed and served with a healthy lack of enthusiasm, if not quite a surplus of contempt. Given that I’ve collected bar ephemera from the Roosevelt for years, including blue glass swizzles and drink die-cut incentive giveaways in the shape of a sazarac, I was a little disappointed. But any lingering disenchantment I felt was stripped away when I procured this menu.

It is a glorious thing, with a blue and yellow fold-out cover image of the hotel, over which reads the banner “The Bue Room Supper Menu” on a mauve sky. The menu itself is pretty amazing, ranging from “Relishes, Appetizers and Supremes” through Oysters served a myriad of waysincluding three types of stews (milk, half and half, or cream), chafing dishes, “Off the flaming sword” and all the way to “Desserts Aflame.” There are sweetbreads two different ways, (domestic) caviar sandwiches, three kinds of rarebit (Novia Scotia, Welsh, and Yorkshire), and a whole chorus line of frog’s legs. To finish the meal there are eight different types of cheeses, including the mythic, lost-to-the-ages Lederkranz, and something called “Frozen Flame Continental Brandied Fruits Liquers ($1.50). But despite these riches, it is the drink menu on the back that hypnotizes me.

Drink Menu, The Blue Room at the Roosevelt Hotel, New Orleans, August 1959

This page is a portal to cocktail nirvana: Cocktails, Mixed Drinks, Scotch, Bourbon, Tall Drinks, Liqueurs, and etc. Not only is there the famous “Sazarac” and “Ramos Gin Fizz” but “The Big Mamou,” “The Jambalaya,” “The Salty Dog,” a “Bayou Swizzle,” and, believe it or not, “Seagram’s Seabreeze,” a drink touted as “Gin and Tonic at its Exciting best” (hence it probably isn’t that vodka drink from the 1980s). You can even order a Grasshopper in “red, white, green, blue, or gold as you prefer!” Whereas the Sazarac has garnered plenty of attention, any one of these specialty drinks warrants at least its own blog post, if not more. But rather than these specialty drinks, it was a “mixed drink” that caught my eye, one that I had never heard of before: The Williwaw.

If you don’t know, a williwaw is a hurricane or sudden, strong gust of wind, from the Patagonian word for hurricane, which makes the drink’s appearance on a New Orleans menu interesting since the Hurricane drink was invented right down the road a decade before. The Williwaw could be the Roosevelt’s attempt to create a drink to match the Hurricane’s success during the 1950s.  

1964 drink list for the Sazarac Room from the Roosevelt

The Williwaw is listed on my 1959 menu, again in my 1964 die-cut “Sazarac” drink incentive giveaway menu, and I have found it listed on another Roosevelt hotel die-cut for the Ramos Gin Fizz, dated 1956. Initial research turned up two recent drinks: a Williwaw Swizzle and mention of a Williwaw drink -- half beer, half Irish whisky, and a dollop of horseradish "for zest" -- but both of these are modern drinks by people probably unaware of the historic drink. With a little more digging, A.J. Rathburne’s Good Spirits led me to Ted Shane’s All New Bar Guide, illustrated by Vip, 1960 – a book that I surprisingly don’t have. I do have the first edition “Authentic and Hilarious” Bar Guide, dated 1950 which doesn’t have a recipe for the Williwaw:

1.5 oz. Brandy

1 oz. Cherry Brandy

.5 oz. Simple Syrup

2 dashes Angostura

Shaken, strained into a cocktail glass.

At first I was unsure if this is the correct recipe since the Roosevelt menu lists the drink under “Mixed Drinks” rather than “Cocktails,” but given that a) the drink appears on the Roosevelt’s menu through the 1950s and is added to Shane’s book sometime during the same decade, and b) that the Roosevelt’s mixed drink section also includes other “up” drinks such as the Clover Club, Clover Leaf, and Side Car, I daresay that the recipe given in the Shane/Vip book is the correct one. I used Cherry Heering for the cherry brandy and went a little lighter on the simple syrup. The drink was a little one note for my tastes: round enough, but a bit too much cherry and a bit too astringent on the finish. There was more depth as the cocktail warmed up, but overall it wasn’t one I’d keep on my revolving list. Once I dig up a bottle of Kirschwasser, I'd like to try this again. I also tried the cocktail with Luxardo, just for laughs, but found that the maraschino’s flavor is much too pronounced. Finally, I took a left turn and substituted Benedictine for cherry brandy, and it was much, much better – surprisingly balanced with a slight hint of almonds from the Benedictine (cherry or apricot pits?) – but really couldn’t be considered the same cocktail. 

While researching though, I came across the recipe for the “Willawa” cocktail in the exhaustive Jones’ Complete Bar Guide (1977). It is a very similar drink that is better known than the Roosevelt Williwaw:

1 oz. Brandy

.5 oz. Galliano

.5 oz. Cherry Brandy

.5 oz. Cream

Shaken, served up, with a dusting of Nutmeg.


Galliano Drink Book, Sept., 1968, and the recipe for the Willawa

Seeing as there are multiple different spellings of Williwaw, the storm: williwa, willawa, williwaw, etc, I thought that this might be the original cocktail, that is until I found its recipe and provenance in Galliano’s giveaway recipe booklet from 1968 (shaped like a Galliano bottle), which attributes the recipe to the “Australasian United Kingdom Bartenders Guild – Prize Winning Recipe – Terry Honan, Southern Cross Hotel Melbourne.” Seeing that the Southern Cross didn’t open until 1962, and the Williwaw’s recipe was published in 1960, it seems that Honan just reduced the amount of cherry brandy, replaced the simple syrup with Galliano, and added cream and nutmeg, renaming his drink the Willawa rather than the Williwaw.

The Williwaw vs. The Willawa

Initially I thought that this was a little shady – a rip-off or redo of an established cocktail – but after constructing Honan’s drink, I found it much more pleasurable than the original. The Galliano gives the drink depth; the nutmeg boosts the aromatics, especially since the licorice of the Galliano peeks through; the cream gives the drink a velvety lushness that is enjoyable. Overall, it is a nice fall/winter cocktail. I’d be happy having this drink on a dessert cocktail menu.