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Chasing A Fix

Jane Ryan goes on the hunt for a Fix, and attempts to finally nail down a definition for this illusive category of cocktails.

Slings, fizzes, juleps, sours and flips – all pretty common terms if you’ve ever perched at the bar of a classically themed drinking den. Cocktails have been categorised since the very first manual was published, and there’s usually well defined differences between the groupings – apart from the fact that the term sour could apply to nearly all the categories, but that’s a gripe for a different day.

There is one however that you’ll rarely find on a cocktail menu and which the majority of bartenders would be hard pressed to tell you what made it different from any other mixed drink. Enter the fix – a category so illusive across drinking history that each definition seems to erase the previous one.

Having stumbled across it in an excel document of recipes from a well known bar in London (what did you think being a booze journalist encompassed?) I struggled to think of any fix I knew. Bemused by a cocktail that I couldn’t neatly define, and one which I wasn’t sure I’d even tried, I turned to the history books to find out what on earth a fix was and if I could order one anytime soon.

Ok so before the history books I obviously googled the thing. Which didn’t really help because if you search for Fix Cocktails or Cocktail Fix you’ll simply learn how to balance out something you’ve really made a mess of late one Saturday night when making Martinis for the entire house party seemed like an excellent idea. Amidst the advice of add a ton of fruit juice and hope everyone is too drunk to notice you mistook whisky for gin, I did stumble across one article from 2006 by Paul Clarke, a self described Seattle-based cocktail enthusiast who proved very helpful.

Paul’s article was all about another article (cocktail writing inception?) published in the American Imbibe, written by Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh. There Ted Haigh wrote “In its short 38-year lifespan, even bartenders pondered what made a fix a fix.” Excellent, the thing is apparently already dead.

If Dr Cocktail had made things more illusive, Paul quickly came to my aid by describing the fix as such; “Starting with a mix of booze, lemon juice, water, sugar and ice, the fix evolved into a concoction made with pineapple or raspberry syrups, and occasionally liqueurs, before disappearing as the new century dawned.”

So with that little knowledge, pineapple, raspberry and the basic ingredients to a sour (told you a sour could be any cocktail it feels like) I jumped over to Facebook – the best journalistic tool invented since the white pages, and the yellow ones too for that matter. Luckily London’s bartending community is pretty active on social media and I soon had some clarification on the subject, as well as some agreement that is was a pretty weird category. “Generally they are served over crushed ice as a sour, sweetened with either pineapple or raspberry or sugar syrup. The Bramble would a modern example of a fix,” wrote one of my oft-hassled friends who is a constant fountain of knowledge.

Finally we have an example of a fix. The Bramble is such a well-known and loved drink I’ve actually written about it already, and definitely drank a few too many. So I have tried a fix, and I can report back that it was delicious. But I was still a bit confused about the whole pineapple thing and why drinks with variously flavoured syrups needed their own category. I wasn’t ready yet to write it off as cocktails with an ego and be done.

Which is when another oft-hasseled friend suggested getting in touch with cocktail historian David Wondrich, who is the most knowledgeable person when it comes to cocktails and where they all started. He’s also a bit of a hero of mine – the man loves a drink and can write beautifully and humorously about booze, what’s not to love? But I’ve already met him you see and completely embarrassed myself by gushing out how much I loved him while standing there in a floor-length white dress. It’s a long story… and I’m sure he doesn’t remember it at all but on the tiny, infinitesimal chance that he does I’m never, ever contacting him. Not even to discover the origin of a fix.

Thinking that was the end of rabbit warren I sent one more message, this time to Dean Callan, who is incredibly intelligent and has every cocktail book ever published. I hadn’t bothered before as he was always travelling but, because he’s wonderful, as soon as he returned home he scanned in every relevant page he could find in his cocktail library to do with fixes.

And we’re back in business.

With Dean’s help I had all the recipes published in Harry Johnson’s Bartenders’ Manuel which started doing the rounds in 1882. Harry has four versions, a Brandy Fix, a Gin Fix, a Whiskey Fix and a St Croix Fix. The first three follow a standard recipe of spirit, pineapple syrup, sugar and lemon or lime juice all served over crushed ice and garnished with fruit in “a tasteful manner.” The St Croix Fix is a little different, calling for rum, pineapple syrup, sugar and specifying lemon juice as well as normal cubed ice.  No matter, from this we can see that if we decided to walk into a bar with Harry Johnson behind it and ordered a fix the only real question we’d be asked is what spirit. Upon presentation we’d receive a beautifully garnished pineapple-flavoured cocktail served over crushed ice.

But fixes go back further than 1882. And if I couldn’t interview David Wondrich I could at least consult his book Imbibe, where he writes “The two earliest classes of lesser Punch – the Fix and the Sour – entered the historical record at the same time, in a Toronto saloon’s drink list that is dated, by hand, to 1856, which means there is no surefire way of determining which one came first.” At this point I'm still thinking isn't a fix just a fancy sour – so maybe Wondrich and I wouldn’t have gotten on anyway…

He goes on; “the Fix, or “Fix-up” (which gives us a clue as to its etymology) isn’t exactly complicated – it’s merely a short Punch with fancy fruit garnish. As such, it’s a surprisingly mysterious beverage: It appears in just about all the bartender’s bibles published before prohibition and is among the few drinks listed as essential for the bartender to know in Paul Lowe’s influential Drinks: How to Mix and Serve from 1909 – and yet devil a drinker do you find actually ordering one.” My point exactly.

From 1856 we jump to Jerry Thomas (oft-called the granddaddy of bartending) who published a recipe in his 1862 Bartenders Guide calling for sugar, lemon, water and spirit in a tumbler filled with two-thirds of ice. Which means it wasn’t until Harry Johnson came along 20 years later that fix recipes call for the sugar to be replaced with pineapple syrup, or at least sit alongside the sugar.

So far this has all been very American, and I wanted to confer with London’s Savoy Cocktail Book, first published in 1930, by Harry Craddock to see what it could offer on the subject. All I'll say on that point is that sometimes the Brits are a little behind the times. That or Craddock didn’t get the pineapple memo as all his recipes call for lemon, sugar, a spirit and water or cherry brandy. He also weirdly specifies “In making fixes be careful to put the lemon skin in the glass.” Righto Harry...

Back to New York we go, and this time to the modern day.

My last source was no doubt the most helpful. If only we started with this one. Dead Rabbit’s (NYC bar recently named best in the world by 50 Best Bars) Drinks Manual has a chapter entitled Fixes and Daisies in which it says: “A fix is a more ancient beast, prized for its plumage made of pineapple syrup instead of orange or raspberry. As you can see, American bartenders of this era adopted incredibly specific categories for drinks. It must have helped greatly with the accelerated pace of urban life to be able to yell out to the man behind the stick “Whiskey Fix” and not have to waste time specifying the flavour of syrup you expected in your whiskey sour.  The below examples encompass the era of the daisy and fix from approximate start until the styles faded from popular parlance. Rejoice, for they have returned.”

Wonderful information really, apart from the fact the fix hasn’t really returned as they had one recipe for a fix in the chapter all about fixes – which looked delicious to be fair but isn’t really a sign of impending fix domination. It was also served straight up, which is possibly a modern take on the classic but confused me more over the whole crushed ice issue.

The thing is the fix is just too strange a beast. Some say it has raspberry, others say only pineapple defines it and then we have historical recipes which have neither pineapple or raspberry. Even modern day recipes can’t agree. And let’s not even get going on the crushed ice. Others may disagree, and possibly have a very clear idea of what a fix is, but I say bartenders back in the 1800s became over zealous with classifications and have left us in a bit of a muddle about what to call things nowadays. Thus ends my illusive chase of the fix – a category of drink which may or may not contain pineapple and raspberry sugar syrup, which may or may not be served straight up but which defiantly contains sugar, spirit and citrus. So a sour then, just with a better garnish – you heard it here first folks.