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A Cocktail Worth … One Million Dollars

The first reference to the Millionaire Cocktail, as best I can figure, was in 1905 in a syndicated newspaper article. “Down in the financial district the ‘Millionaire’s Cocktail’ is now regarded with general favor,” the account noted, “since even those who have failed to score on the market can comfortably imagine themselves to be wealthy after a second or third.”

Yes, it was a heady time. The stock market had been rising with only minor hiccups since 1896, and eventually peaked the following year. Fortunes arose. Plutocrats swanned. According to Google Ngram, which calculates word usage over time across countless books and magazine articles, the word “millionaire” peaked in popularity in 1905.

That year, America was also home to roughly 5,000 millionaires, a small but growing sliver of a population of about 88 million. Never mind that the average worker at the time made 22 cents an hour. Aspiring to amass a million dollars occupied the minds of the masses: Books released that decade included The Millionaire Baby, The Musical Millionaire, The Millionaire Master, A Millionaire Girl, A Millionaire Daughter, and The Menace of the Millionaire; or if I Had a Million.

The plots in the millionaire books varied widely, as did the ingredients in the cocktail. The 1905 reference claims that the drink’s foundation was a Martini with the addition of sugar and lime juice. Other variations included Gordon’s gin and absinthe with orange bitters and anisette; equal parts of brandy, rum, and gin adulterated with lemon juice and maraschino; and Jamaican rum, sloe gin, and apricot nectar.

But the most common version—which appeared in a 1940 Esquire article and cropped up in various cocktail books of the era—was three parts whiskey to one part curaçao, often with a touch of grenadine and sometimes shaken with an egg white.

The main allure appears not to be the taste, but its transformative effect. Anyone could feel like a millionaire with a few sips and modest outlay. In Milwaukee, you could order a Millionaire Cocktail at Club Oasis for 35 cents, with the promise that it would “make you feel like one.” The Old Heidelberg Bar in Daytona Beach offered up a Millionaire Cocktail in 1939, when it was the most expensive drink on the list: At 40 cents, it cost a nickel more than their other drinks. It was the featured drink in 1935 at a Brooklyn hotel bar called The Bud, which, to be honest, does not sound like a place where millionaires would hang out.

The notion that millionaires were all Daddy Warbucks types living absurdly large lives faded in the following decades, largely thanks to inflation. “The mere millionaire is becoming almost an inconspicuous figure,” noted The Literary Digest as early as 1927, pointing out that in the minds of many, “a millionaire today is a ‘poor man.’”

Today, America is home to about 22 million millionaires—if they all gathered in one spot, they would exceed the population of all but three states. This overabundance of millionaires has further eroded its golden luster and aspirational allure. The final turning point, as best I can figure, was in 1997 when Mike Myers’ unfrozen Dr. Evil in Austin Powers cluelessly demanded “One …million … dollars” to avoid the nuclear destruction of the world. When a million dollars becomes the punchline of a joke, its time is nigh. These days, The Wall Street Journal publishes sad-sack stories about boomers struggling to make ends meet because they were foolish enough to retire with a mere million in the bank.

Anyone with gumption these days aspires to be a billionaire. So, the Billionaire Cocktail naturally has arisen. Among the first was a version at the pioneering Manhattan craft cocktail bar Employees Only, which served the drink late in the first decade of the 2000s. Variations of it were featured in the New York Times Cookbook and Tom Sandham’s 2012 book World’s Best Cocktails.

[The Billionaire] was made with Grand Marnier Cuvée 1880 and served in a Tiffany Martini glass, dusted with edible gold flakes. It cost $175 and got a lot of press.

Another variation of the Billionaire cropped up around 2018 at a New Jersey restaurant called Le Malt. It was made with Grand Marnier Cuvée 1880 and served in a Tiffany Martini glass, dusted with edible gold flakes. It cost $175 and got a lot of press. “Billionaire Cocktail … is the state’s most expensive drink,” crowed the headline in the Morris County Daily Record.

This seemed emblematic of the times. While the Millionaire Cocktail was designed to be accessible to everybody, to make everyone feel richer than they were, this version of the Billionaire Cocktail was not. The Millionaire Cocktail opened the door to everyone; the Billionaire Cocktail seems to delight in closing it. You can’t be a billionaire, it said. You can’t even afford this drink.

Of course, the joke is on those who actually ordered the Billionaire Cocktail. Because billionaires don’t drink overhyped cocktails dusted with gold. They drink 1869 Chateau Lafite, or 1907 Heidsieck champagne recovered from a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea.

Billionaires are different than you and me. They have better liquidity.

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