Arsenic and Old Lace
Updated: Jan 19
Today we are celebrating the birthday of Hollywood icon Cary Grant (January 18, 1904 – November 29, 1986) by trying our hand at an Arsenic and Old Lace, the cocktail named after the 1944 Frank Capra comedy that starred Grant in the male lead. Early in the film, which is based on the hit 1939 Broadway play by Joseph Kesselring, Grant’s character, Mortimer Brewster, discovers that his beloved aunts are merry murderesses, who take in lonely old bachelors as boarders and kill them by serving them a glass of elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine and a pinch of cyanide.
Unlike the punch of Aunt Martha’s and Abby’s special brew, Arsenic and Old Lace is a delicately layered cocktail made with gin, crème de violette, dry vermouth and absinthe.
The cocktail dates back to 1917, when it appeared as the Attention Cocktail in Hugo Ensslin’s Recipes for Mixed Drinks:
¼ French Vermouth
¼ Crème de Violette
Shake well in a mixing glass with cracked ice, strain and serve.
The Attention became known at Atty after Prohibition, eventually taking the Arsenic and Old Lace name sometime in the 1940s. The Gin Is In website suggests that the absinthe is the “arsenic” and the crème de violette is the “old lace,” though no one knows for sure.
The recipe, like the cocktail’s name, has changed over the years. The original recipe reflects the early twentieth century obsession with cocktails made with equal parts. Gin, vermouth, absinthe and crème de violette have remained constants as ingredients, though the ratios have changed to appeal to evolving trends and tastes.
In our modern adaptation, we’ve made the cocktail more gin forward and significantly reduced the absinthe. The result is a delicate cocktail with violet chocolate notes sure to please your favorite auntie.
Arsenic and Old Lace
2 oz gin (Tanqueray or your favorite London Dry)
¾ oz vermouth
1 oz crème de violette
Dash of absinthe or Pernod (a cheaper and more readily available alternative)
Mix all of the ingredients over ice. Stir and strain into a coupe glass. Top with a dash of crème de violette. Garnish with a twist, flower or anise star.