Hardly a Christmas season goes by without my wife and I wedging our way into the cozy confines of Martin’s Tavern, a Georgetown favorite where John F. Kennedy wooed Jackie and Richard Nixon enjoyed meatloaf.
We started with an order of Welsh rarebit (a dish that, when I was a child, I thought was a way of serving rabbit) and we ordered drinks — which is when the trouble began. While my wife pondered possible cocktails, I asked the waitress for a pint of Guinness. That got my wife thinking about a favorite old drink she hadn’t had for ages: Black Velvet, a simple vintage standard made by combining equal parts stout and champagne in a tall glass. She made the mistake of asking for one.
Stumped, the waitress said she would see whether the bartender knew how to make the drink and did so with a tone that made it clear that she didn’t have time during a Saturday night in the holiday season to bother with silly obscurities. “It’s just Guinness and champagne,” I said to her back as she disappeared into the crowd around the bar.
After a little while, she returned with a nicely poured Guinness for me and a pinkish umbrella drink for my wife. “What’s that?” my wife asked. “A Red Velvet,” she said, a name that liquor promoters have used with any number of concoctions. “No, I’m sorry,” my wife replied. “I asked for a Black Velvet.”
“We don’t do that,” the waitress said.
“It’s just equal parts champagne and Guinness,” I protested.
“The bartender said he doesn’t do that.”
At which point I was tempted to order half a pint of stout, a glass of champagne, and an empty glass into which to pour them.
“Do you want this?” the waitress asked my wife of the pink mystery cocktail. My wife declined.
A request for a Black Velvet didn’t always lead to confusion and recriminations. Tallulah Bankhead drank it when she had drunk too much the night before: “Wracked with hangover I do my muttering over a Black Velvet,” she wrote in her autobiography. Cecil Rhodes, whose ill-gotten colonial wealth funds the famous scholarships that bear his name, drank Black Velvets at breakfast. A century ago, the drink was particularly popular at Oxford, where the Vile Bodies crowd called the draught “Blackers.”
The Black Velvet was also known as a “Bismarck,” not to be confused with the jelly doughnut of the same name. Old Count Otto von Bismarck not only drank the stuff in quantity but claimed paternity. According to biographer and Oxford don Alan John Percivale Taylor, Bismarck “smoked Havana cigars from morning to night; drank much ‘Black Velvet’ — the mixture of stout and champagne which he invented; rode in the woods and swam in the Rhine.” I should note that Bismarck did not claim to have invented riding in the woods.
Not everyone has been a fan of Black Velvet/Blackers/Bismarck. In 1877, The Gentleman’s Magazine in London shook its editorial head at Bismarck’s “drinking bouts, where a horrid mixture of stout and champagne was quaffed by the bumper.” That excess “earned him the nick-name of ‘der tolle Bismarck’ — that is, mad or wild Bismarck.”
Eminent British literary critic, oenophile, and epicure George Saintsbury derided the drink in his 1920 Notes on a Cellar-Book. He wrote dismissively that in the “once celebrated” Bismarck, the champagne was always overwhelmed by the stout. “All the wine does is to make the beer more intoxicating and more costly,” Saintsbury wrote. “Thus the thing is at once vicious and vulgar.”
Horrid, vicious, and vulgar, oh my. There I was thinking that the bartender and the waitress at Martin’s Tavern were engaged in a conspiracy of stubborn obtusity, and all along they were just looking out for our reputations!
And so all is forgiven. Sometime early in the new year, I plan to get a reservation at Martin’s Tavern for the Nixon booth. And once seated, before I order up some meatloaf, I will ask for a Black Velvet. Or a Blackers. Or a Bismarck. I don’t want to make it too easy.
Eric Felten is the James Beard Award-winning author of How’s Your Drink?