The Ad Campaign that Birthed the Brandy Alexander (or Brandy’s Dad, anyway)

Late January seems to be a dead zone of (interesting) alcohol-related history. So it was with relief that I found that today (January 31) is Brandy Alexander Day. If you haven’t run across the Brandy Alexander, then you should. With brandy, crème de cacao, cream, and ground nutmeg, it’s like a milkshake that makes you forget math. It’s the favorite drink of two Anglophone heroes – Mary Tyler Moore and John Lennon (who called it “the milkshake”). No wonder the Brandy Alexander gets its own day.  

But there doesn’t seem to be any reason why that day is January 31. One article suggested that the cocktail was invented in 1922 to celebrate the wedding of Princess Mary and Henry George Charles Lascelles, but that wedding took place on February 28. January 30, 1969 is the anniversary of The Beatles’ last appearance as a group and their famous rooftop concert. So, maybe drinking a Brandy Alexander on January 31 while listening to Yesterday might set you right. But Yesterday was written by Paul, and his favorite drink is marijuana. The origins of this cocktail is so hearsay and multi-claimed that my research proved fruitless. In the depths of despair I came across Brandy Alexander’s dad – the Alexander. While the Alexander’s origins aren’t 100% certain, it’s story is interesting. So we turn to the obvious – trains.

In the early 1900s, trains were a relatively convenient way to travel when its alternatives were boats and carriages pulled by a horse. However, there was more of a chance of death or injury than one should be comfortable with. Between 1902 and 1911, 4,146 passengers were killed traveling by train and another 13,410 were injured. Within those same years, 33,761 employees were killed and 403,259 were injured. Trains derailed regularly, overworked, exhausted employees made mistakes, and various railroad technologies had yet to be implemented, like electric signaling systems, brake systems, and not doling out cocaine to keep your engineers awake. And, unlike having a heart attack at the price of hotdogs in the dining car (which causes most of Amtrak’s current day casualties), you died in a pretty gruesome way. Sometimes the Grim Reaper got a twofer when an employee hit by a train would fly through the air and hit another person on the platform, injuring or killing them. It was a great time to be alive, but apparently very few people stayed that way for long.

Even if you got from Point A to Point B in one piece, you got there really dirty. Bituminous coal and wood burning engines essentially enveloped passengers and employees in a sulfurous cloud, which probably drew their attention away from the passengers and employees who had died on the trip. So you would arrive at your destination covered in soot and with Orson Welles’ lungs. In the 1870s, John Wooten invented the Wooten Firebox which enabled locomotives to burn anthracite more efficiently and the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western railroad began using only anthracite coal in its passenger locomotives. Due to this, they dubbed themselves “The Road of Anthracite.” This doesn’t sound very inspiring until you realize that anthracite allowed railway journeys that wouldn’t make you dirty.

Naturally, they promoted the hell out of this advantage. To do this, they created a character named Phoebe Snow and centered an ad campaign around her. Phoebe Snow was white. Very white. She had pale white skin and was dressed from head to foot in white, from the ostrich plumes in her hat to her gown to her boots. Phoebe was depicted in her white costume, immensely enjoying her train travel. She stood out on the observation deck, dined on gourmet food brought by attendants, and flicked on electric lights. She was accompanied by little poems.  

My gown stays white

from morn till night

upon the road of Anthracite


Now Phoebe may

by night or day

enjoy her book upon the way

Electric light

dispels the night

Upon the Road of Anthracite

If you’re suddenly understanding the turn of the century captivation with rolling a wheel with a stick, you are not alone. Nevertheless, the campaign worked and DL&W somehow finagled Ms. Snow into Americana folklore. She was sort of like Paul Bunyan or John Henry only her legendary achievement was the ability to stay really clean on a train while eating caviar. To celebrate their great success, DL&W threw a party at the Rector Hotel in New York. And the Rector’s bartender Troy Alexander thought Phoebe needed something for her party. That something was booze and Alexander created a white cocktail to match the white character. He created the original Alexander, which consisted of equal parts gin, crème de cacao liqueur, and cream, shaken and served in a champagne glass.

In the coming years of Prohibition, the drink was very popular because it covered up the foul taste of bathtub gin, because when you wake up blind from bad moonshine the last thing you’ll want to do is find your toothbrush. Some 20 years later, the Brandy Alexander (same drink but with brandy substituting gin) showed up in W.J Tarling’s 1937 Café Royal Cocktail Book – Coronation Edition. In the 1946 Roving Bartender, Bill Kelly goes with brandy for his recipe and notes that “the boys during Prohibition used gin.” Brandy, of course, would tint the drink brown which would hardly suffice for Phoebe’s train travel braggadocio.

But it will work just fine for us. To celebrate the esoteric origins of Brandy Alexander Day you get the option of an Alexander or a Brandy Alexander. You can drink to John Lennon, Troy Alexander, or Phoebe Snow. Just stay clean, would you?


1 oz sweet cream (no milk!)

1 oz gin

1 oz crème de cacao

Shake over ice and strain into a cocktail or champagne glass. Drink on a train or near someone with a whistle.

Brandy Alexander     

1 oz brandy

1 oz sweet cream (no milk!)

1 oz crème de cacao

Sprinkle with nutmeg shavings

Shake over ice and strain into a cocktail or champagne glass. Drink wherever you want.   

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