Reginald Vanderbilt, the early-20th-century millionaire often credited with inventing the Stinger, described it as “a short drink with a long reach, a subtle blending of ardent nectars, a boon to friendship, a dispeller of care.” (At least that’s what a syndicated 1923 newspaper article reported, though in his updated edition of Imbibe, David Wondrich describes the article as “gossipy.”) It’s a difficult promise for any cocktail to live up to, and I doubt that most people these days would consider creme de menthe, one of the cocktail’s two ingredients, to be an “ardent nectar.” (Though I’ve been discovering recently that it can make a very good mixer.)
The other ingredient is brandy, and most recipes insist that you use a good one. Higher-quality spirits generally make for higher-quality cocktails, of course, but it’s particularly important when one spirit makes up three fourths of the drink. Coincidentally, I was recently sent a sample of a brandy aged in bourbon and new oak barrels from the newish Kentucky distillery Copper & Kings, and I was excited to use it in a Stinger.
I’d already tried the cocktail with the cheap Paul Masson Grande Amber brandy I had sitting around, and thought it was fine but a little harsh tasting, not necessarily something I’d make again. The Copper & Kings brandy transformed the drink, making it taste cleaner and mintier. The mint is more of a cooling sensation than a flavor, backed up by the nutty, round sweetness of the barrel aging on the brandy and complemented by the spirit’s grape backbone. The cocktail tastes quite a bit like the brandy itself—smooth and fruity with a bit of minerality and some sweeter bourbon notes. Lesson learned: don’t make a Stinger with any brandy you wouldn’t drink straight.
As for how you make a Stinger, the answer varies depending on what you read—for a drink with only two ingredients, there are a lot of variations (some of which call for additional ingredients). If you follow the recipes in old cocktail books, you’ll use equal parts creme de menthe and brandy. Don’t do this. I tried it, and the result is so sweet it’s undrinkable. Adding more brandy to bring the ratio up to 2:1 still wasn’t enough; my favorite was 3:1, which is David Wondrich’s recommendation. In his book Boozehound, Jason Wilson has a variation he’s called the Stinger Royale, with 2 ounces of brandy, a half ounce of creme de menthe, and a dash of absinthe, which makes a drier cocktail with just a touch of licorice (I like it, but prefer Wondrich’s recipe).
Every recipe I’ve read calls for white creme de menthe, presumably because the bright green version mixed with brown spirits would look disgusting (from what I’ve read, they taste the same). What I had, though, was homemade, a greenish-brown color that wasn’t all that different from the brandy. It’s also traditional to shake the Stinger rather than stirring it, but I can tell you from experience that stirring works just fine. And while it’s supposed to be served neat, three ounces of almost straight alcohol is a lot to drink before the cocktail warms up too much. In the future I’ll either make the drink smaller (1½ oz of brandy to ½ oz of creme de menthe) or serve it over a large ice cube.
2 ¼ oz brandy
¾ oz creme de menthe
Shake or stir with ice and strain into a coupe glass—or, if you like, a rocks glass with a large ice cube.
A close cousin of the Stinger is the Dimention, which I found in the 1948 cocktail book El Arte del Cantinero and as far as I can tell has been almost entirely forgotten. It adds creme de cacao to the mix, which makes for a mint-chocolatey drink with a boozy background, like a more grown-up Grasshopper. (The creme de cacao I used, though, is homemade and barely sweet; I think the cocktail would be too syrupy with a commercial version.) It’s darker and earthier-tasting than the Stinger, with a deep chocolate flavor. Whereas the Stinger seems like a fall, winter, or even spring cocktail—the mint brightens it up quite a bit—the Dimention tastes like something I’d want in the depths of winter, with snow falling outside.
1 oz brandy
½ oz creme de menthe
½ oz creme de cacao
Stir with ice and strain. (I like this one over ice too, but it can also be served up.)