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The Blue Whale Chasing the Signature Drink of Marathon Champ Bill Rodgers

The Blue Whale Chasing the Signature Drink of Marathon Champ Bill Rodgers

This marks the debut of an occasional series in which our Senior Drinks Columnist, Dr. David Wondrich (yes, he really is a Doctor; OK, no, not that kind) takes a concise look at the history and, to coin a word, mixologistics of a particular historic cocktail—or if not historic at least old and pleasant. Why? So you’ll have something different to mix yourself this cocktail hour, that’s why.

As someone who has been publishing little histories of mixed drinks for a good 20 years, from time to time I attract random questions on the stories behind various cocktails or their evolution. 

Usually these are easy enough to handle: there’s either a Zombie myth I can dispel, a general origin I can add, or sometimes an inventor I can reveal. But every once in a while, though, I get a real stumper. Take, for example, this thing that Twitter user “Borbogymus” tossed over the transom the other day: 

“do you know anything about the regional nature of a Blue Whale being made with Vodka, instead of rum, in the Finger Lakes?”

Uuuuuhhhh—OK. This is like that thing you find among your wedding presents that you have no idea who it’s from, what it is, or even if it’s right-side up or not. Rum? Vodka? For all I knew, the damn thing—which rang no bells whatsoever—was made with Chanel No. 5, and I hadn’t been in the Finger Lakes region of New York since my cousins’ Newfoundland pulled me out of Lake Skaneateles on the off chance that I was drowning (I wasn’t). I must have been eight at the time. 

I confessed my bafflement and turned my attention to other matters, at which point a sticky synapse deep in the back of my brain finally fired and flashed a picture of a pint glass full of Windex with a straw and a largish plastic whale sticking out of the top. The Blue Whale. 

As far as I can recall, I never actually drank a Blue Whale, mostly because I couldn’t afford one. Back in the mid-1980s, it was something that you saw people getting ripped on if you frequented a certain subcategory of New York party bar that the Daily News characterized in 1987 as “surf bars, or places with a distinctive surf motif” and “a delirious return to the irresponsible days of summer vacation, when life really was a beach.” 

For a drinker such as myself, accustomed to patronizing New York’s many fine–OK, fine-ish—old-man bars (now almost all gone, alas), these joints seemed fancy. They were not. If that weeklong rental in the Hamptons, when you and 11 of your other mostly-broke college buddies shared a two-bedroom cottage three blocks from the beach, didn’t give you enough hangovers and regrets, places like Lucy’s Surfeteria and The Big Kahuna were there to fill the deficit. Now (getting back to the matter at hand), it’s true that these bars used vodka in their Blue Whales, at least according to the Daily News. But given their relation to authenticity, however you define it, perversely that makes me more likely to believe that the Blue Whale was originally a rum drink. My wife used to work at Caramba! at the time, which was to Mexico as the surf bars were to Malibu, and they used to make their famous Frozen Margaritas not with tequila, but with Everclear smuggled in from Jersey (it was illegal in New York at the time). 

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