I first heard of a Brass Monkey when I was in high school, from the Beastie Boys (RIP Adam Yauch) song of the same name (I also learned about
from them). Back then, alas, drinking was limited to whatever beer was at a party (usually cheap swill) or whatever liquor could be stolen from parents’ liquor cabinets, so needless to say, I didn’t get a chance to sample it. I wasn’t even sure if it really existed, or it was just a joke. White Castle
This all changed in college. The first couple of years were frustrating, as no one I talked to knew about it, and after I turned legal the bartenders I asked replied with blank stares. Finally, my friends and I discovered it, at the liquor store, in the form of a premixed cocktail from Heublein. It was rum, vodka, and natural flavors, and was pretty strong, being 17.5% alcohol. The taste was somewhat harsh, but good—it was lemonade-y in flavor, and best over ice.
After college, they stopped selling it, and it kind of faded from my memory. About fifteen years later it came up again, with a huge difference. These new drinkers claimed it was malt liquor mixed with orange juice. This sounded awful to me, but feeling nostalgic and experimental, I gave it a try. The “preparation” consisted of drinking the malt liquor down to the top of the label, and then topping it off with the orange juice. Surprisingly, the result was very palatable. I’m not normally a big fan of malt liquor in general (Mickey’s, in my opinion is the best of the lot, and even that’s just okay) but the OJ really added something to it. I was confused, though, on the disparity between the two drinks I’d had with the same name.
And in fact, it gets even stranger. There’s a third variant, which is made from gin, triple sec, tequila, OJ, sour mix, and grapefruit juice. I know that drink recipes sometimes list different ingredients, but usually there’s much more common ground. Essentially, it seems depending on the crowd or the area you live in any alcohol mixed with any citrus juice or flavor can be called a Brass Monkey.
Tracing the drink’s name is a little convoluted, too. Heublein, which began making the prepackaged version in 1972, had an ad campaign which claimed it was based on a World War II spy named H.E. Rasske, who ran guns into
China while operating out of a bar in named The Brass Monkey, which also served a drink by that name, and this became Rasske’s code name. It’s also a British expression—“it’s cold enough to freeze the tail of a brass monkey!” (or in the 20th century, his balls), based on the common figurine/statues of such. Taking it further, the derivation of the statue/figurine brass monkey has a couple of stories, too. Some claim it’s the brass plate that helped keep cannonballs piled up and unrusted, while others claim it refers to the metal spheres mounted on brass arms on either side of ship’s compasses, to offset any magnetic shifts. Evidently the latter is considered more likely. Macao
Back to the drink itself, I can certainly recommend it for folks looking to try something a little different. Happily the original prepackaged version is now available again, from Diageo, (which is the same company that owns Guinness) after they got it from one of the companies that absorbed Heublein. Or you can try the gin, triple sec, tequila, etc. type, although as I mentioned, you’ll most likely have to tell the bartender the ingredients. Finally, there’s the malt liquor—OJ mix, which has the advantage of being cheap, and it helps to stave off scurvy (of importance if you’re drinking with time-traveling 17th century sailors).* I’ll close with the ending of the Beastie Boys song.
“We got the bottle—you got the cup”
“Come on everybody let’s get fff…” **
*Actually, if you are drinking with 17th century sailors, maybe ask them which nautical explanation for “brass monkey” is correct, and then get back to me.
** I didn’t censor this—it’s the actual lyrics, which cut to the chorus to avoid completing the naughty word, kind of like Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft.”