Ahead by a neck

Ian Wisniewski saddles up for a challenging cocktail
By Ian Wisniewski
Preparing a Horse’s Neck, by topping up a measure of bourbon with ginger ale (some recipes include an optional dash of Angostura Bitters) sounds simple enough. But then combining the ingredients is not the most demanding element of this cocktail.

What really distinguishes a Horse’s Neck is the garnish, which even for experienced bartenders is one of the most challenging, and extravagant to prepare. For a start it takes an entire lemon (which needs to be organic to ensure it’s unwaxed and hasn’t been sprayed after harvesting).

As a certain skill is required to remove the zest, in a way that forms a neat band perhaps 1.5-2 centimetres wide, and which remains in one piece, having spare lemons is a sensible precaution.

Seeing the lemon spiral being prepared by a trained professional is part of the theatricality of the cocktail experience, starting at the top of the lemon and carefully working round, while also avoiding the pith which is a source of bitterness.

But that’s merely stage one. Stage two is arranging the spiral in the glass so that it appears as an impressive feature, poised and evenly spaced all the way down to the bottom, in a ‘helter skelter’ manner (rather than simply dangling around). And that’s not easy.

One end of the lemon spiral is first positioned so that it hangs over the rim of the glass, and creates the impression of a horse’s neck. The rest of the spiral’s position within the glass is secured by feeding in ice cubes, which help to push the zest against the side of the glass, with the ‘yellow’ side facing decoratively outwards. Ice also helps to push the spiral down the glass, with the end of the spiral (effectively the horse’s tail) secured at the bottom of the glass by the ice.

A Horse’s Neck is served in a highball glass, being tall this style of glassware is ideal to accommodate a long drink, with a narrower diameter making it easier to position the spiral than a broader glass.

Although the spiral’s principal role is to make a visual statement, such an abundance of lemon zest does also of course contribute to the flavour of the drink. Meanwhile, choosing from the broad range of bourbons available, a drier style can work better to balance the sweetness of ginger ale. And whether or not to add a dash of Angostura Bitters is entirely a matter of personal preference. But it can certainly make a difference, introducing a slightly spicy note and greater complexity.

Although Angostura Bitters is a classic ingredient in various cocktails, it plays a supporting role, in the sense that recipes always stipulate a minute quantity.

The exact origins of the Horse’s Neck are unclear, though its first manifestation was a non-alcoholic combination of ginger ale and ice, garnished with lemon. When the recipe graduated into an alcoholic one is difficult to pin point, perhaps early in the 20th century.

During Prohibition (1919-1933, when the production, importation and retail of alcoholic beverages was banned in the United States) the Horse’s Neck retained a legal status by returning to its roots, and temporarily became non-alcoholic again.

Meanwhile, whether the name of the cocktail inspired the garnish, or vice-versa is uncertain, though it seems more logical that experimenting with garnishes would have resulted in a cocktail with a certain look, and subsequently provided the name.

The Horse’s Neck is an example of the ‘highball’ style of cocktail, a term that developed in the USA, though not from the bartender community, but from a traditional means of communicating with a train driver.

If a train was running behind schedule and the driver needed to up the tempo, the signalman would indicate this by raising a ball on a pole. As this ‘high ball’ was associated with speed, the name was soon transferred to a style of drink that was also all about speed, being a quick combination of a minimal, but specific range of ingredients (though excluding lemon or lime juice).

Some recipes stipulate brandy rather than bourbon as the spirit for a Horse’s Neck, the reason being that brandy was the original spirit used in this cocktail.

So if you’re in a bar and want to order a Horse’s Neck, then it’s best to go through all the options and ingredients, to make sure that you get the drink you really want.