Though it’s not terribly popular in today’s cocktail zeitgeist, dairy has been a major force in the history of American drinks for over two centuries. From old-fashioned classics like eggnog, the Tom & Jerry and New Orleans–style milk punch to 20th-century drinks like Alexanders and Grasshoppers, milk and cream have long had a foothold in cocktail culture—even within the tropical genre.
According to Garret Richard and Ben Schaffer’s new book, Tropical Standard: Cocktail Techniques and Reinvented Recipes, tiki bars offered dairy- and chocolate-filled tropical dessert drinks as a final course, meant to counteract the slew of citrus-forward cocktails that guests would consume first. Trad’r Sam in San Francisco served a Banana Cow (rum, brandy, Bénédictine, banana and cream) as early as the late 1930s), and Trader Vic published a variation without brandy and Bénédictine, and with milk in place of cream, in his 1972 Bartender’s Guide. Meanwhile, globetrotting writer Charles H. Baker Jr. recorded Pineapple Milk, or Leche Preparada Piña, as a concoction of brandy or rum, milk, pineapple, vanilla and sugar, in his 1939 Gentleman’s Companion. And, by 1941, Don the Beachcomber was offering his Rum Cow to patrons at his Los Angeles bar, where it was featured in the “later,” or postprandial, section of the menu.
The little-known drink has long been a fascination for Jelani Johnson, formerly of Clover Club and Gage & Tollner, and now head bartender at Le Coucou. He originally encountered the Rum Cow in his study of tiki classics and, though he was skeptical of the simple mixture of rum, milk and sugar, he gave it a shot. To his delight, it worked, and more than a decade later, he’s still advocating for the cocktail.
As his affection for the Rum Cow grew, Johnson experimented with adding more complexity by splitting the rum and sugar elements and adding bitters. During his tenure at Clover Club, he served a maximalist, nine-ingredient version of the drink that featured four rums, vanilla and cinnamon syrups and two types of bitters.
Nowadays, Johnson has come around to the idea that the charm of the Rum Cow lies in its elemental nature. “You gotta play with it to realize that the original is the best,” he says. He’s pared it down to a single rum, milk, simple syrup and a dash of Angostura bitters with freshly grated nutmeg on top. His addition of bitters, he says, complements the spice flavors in the rum and goes well with the nutmeg garnish.
For the rum, Johnson favors barrel-aged Jamaican rums, so long as they’re not aggressively funky. At Gage & Tollner, he used Denizen Merchant’s Reserve, though he also suggests aged expressions from Appleton Estate or Plantation. That said, he’s also fond of Smith & Cross, a choice he says is “a little unhinged” because of the rum’s 57 percent ABV, but delicious. In general, Johnson finds the Rum Cow to be an inviting entrée into the world of heavier, more complex rums that might otherwise intimidate those new to the spirit.
But the milk portion is less flexible. The quality of the milk is crucial to the success of the drink; Johnson says that whole milk is a must, as reduced-fat milk is far too watery for this application. And though he’s experimented with alternatives like almond milk, nothing has come close to the creaminess of full-fat dairy. To the mix of milk and rum, he adds simple syrup to sweeten the drink without adding distracting flavors, and nutmeg finds a natural home here, as it often completes dairy-laced beverages.
As for the presentation, Johnson offers two options. The first is classic and Alexanderesque, served up in a coupe. Alternatively, the Rum Cow can be served in a wine glass or milkshake glass over ice, with the option of adding a little whipped cream on top. The latter presentation, he says, channels the soda fountain influence in the work of Donn Beach. “He definitely took inspiration from the soda fountain, which is one of his hallmarks that isn’t really talked about much,” Johnson notes. Beach, after all, started serving drinks in the early years following Prohibition, during which dry spaces like soda fountains had an outsize influence on the American palate.
Though Johnson says that guests need a little convincing to try the Rum Cow, their reactions to the drink are overwhelmingly positive; it’s sweet without being cloying and goes well with a variety of desserts. He favors the Rum Cow as an after-dinner bartender’s choice, honoring the oft-forgotten legacy of tropical dessert drinks. And there’s something immensely appealing about its eye-catching look, which immediately starts a conversation between bar patrons, who often end up ordering one for themselves. “It kind of sells itself once it’s on the bar,” Johnson says. “Everybody wants to try it.”