How crude, sexed-up cocktails wound up defining a decade of drinking

Reprinted with permission from PUNCH,

The crudest era in cocktail history begins with a man pruning his peach trees in Florida in the early ’80s. The gentleman in question is Earl LaRoe, a flavor scientist for National Distillers, a wine and spirits company that, at the time, was struggling mightily. In an effort to turn around sagging sales on the heels of a wave of anti-alcohol sentiment (much of it driven by concerns about drunk driving), executives at National Distillers asked him to help develop a lighter, sweeter, lower-proof product.

Why not peach liqueur? he thought.

DeKuyper Peachtree Schnapps was inauspiciously released in the early fall of 1984, two years after the first wave of “fruity” schnapps had hit the American market to decent success. These products, like National Distillers’ new 48-proof, crystal-clear, naturally flavored peach cordial, were quite different from the historically dry schnapps (i.e., fruit eau de vie) that had been made in Central Europe and the Alps since the 1500s.

As The New York Times wrote, “[It was] sweet and uncomplicated, something one does not have to get used to, like whisky or dry red wine.”

At the time, whenever they were rolling out a new product, Jack Doyle, an executive at National Distillers, would have his buddy Ray Foley come into their Park Avenue offices to offer some thoughts. A former Marine, one-time joke writer for Johnny Carson and longtime bartender, the no-nonsense Foley was managing The Manor, a multi-room restaurant and wedding venue in West Orange, New Jersey, that sold more liquor than any other venue in the state. If Foley liked something, National Distillers knew he could help move a lot of it quickly.

“For day-to-day drinks you can’t be doing those stupid cocktails with 14 ingredients, five of them organic, two you can only get on Wednesday . . .” Foley tells me.

He was, and still is, a firm believer in creating simple cocktails that a bartender can produce repeatedly in high volume. Right there on Doyle’s desk, Foley mixed the Peachtree Schnapps with some orange juice. Doyle liked it, and joked he could “still smell the fuzz” of the peach.

As he cut a navel orange wedge for garnish, Foley dubbed his new drink the Fuzzy Navel.

“Jack immediately bought suitcases for all his salesmen and ordered them to go around the country with bottles of Peachtree and orange juice,” recalls Jaclyn Foley, Ray’s wife and the co-publisher of Bartender Magazine, which they launched together in 1979. “They were all soldiers, like an army, marching into the bars with those stuffed suitcases. ‘Hi, we have a new drink . . . would you like to try it?’”

For the record, multiple cocktail blogs repeat a story that a liquor distributor named Jack Sherman created the Fuzzy Navel at the Wagon Tongue Bar in Omaha.

“That would be bulls – – t. How would a product launched in New York first take off in Nebraska?” asks Jaclyn. I likewise find no proof that it is true, though Sherman may have created the Hairy Navel spin-off, which calls on the addition of vodka. (Amusingly, his bar has since become the Waggin’ Tongue Kennels & Grooming.)

The Fuzzy Navel was such an immediate hit that DeKuyper Peachtree Schnapps became the ninth-best-selling alcohol in America (with 1.7 percent of the total market), moving over 12 million bottles in its first year on shelves. It was the fastest-selling new alcohol product since Prohibition.

That same year, no less than William S. Burroughs, writing for Esquire, called Peachtree Schnapps “the liquor industry’s equivalent of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.” That wasn’t exactly a compliment.

While critics derided this new cocktail trend, young drinkers lapped it up. The Chicago Tribune attributed Peachtree and, in turn, the Fuzzy Navel’s popularity to the “so-called ‘flavor generation’ — baby-boomers who were reared on sugary colas and for whom lower-alcohol beverages signify health, fitness and safe driving.”

Fuzzy Navels were also cheap, as Peachtree was only about $5 a bottle.

“The days for acquiring a taste for alcoholic drinks are over,” exclaimed Patricia Wiley, director of new products for National Distillers, at the time. “The baby-boomers have a sweet tooth and want instant gratification.”

In 1987, thanks in part to the success of Peachtree, Jim Beam bought National Distillers for $545 million — around $1.2 billion today. That same year, Beverage Network reported that America’s most popular drink was now officially the Fuzzy Navel (No. 2 was the Long Island Iced Tea).

It had become, as William Grimes wrote in his book, “Straight Up or On the Rocks,” “a kind of cult, rallying points for young drinkers in search of fun and not too picky about taste.”

The Fuzzy Navel and its spin-offs signaled to bartenders that giving a drink a silly, sexualized name was a major selling point. These drinks suggested sweetness, a ton of juice and not a lot of thought — because who really needs to contemplatively sip a Silk Panties?

The Silk Panties, named “Drink of the Year” by Bartender Magazine in 1986, gave way to the Slippery Nipple, aka the Buttery Nipple (Baileys Irish Cream and Sambuca or butterscotch schnapps), the Slow Comfortable Screw (sloe gin, Southern Comfort, vodka and orange juice) and the Redheaded Slut (peach schnapps, Jägermeister and cranberry juice).

“The cheekiness of these names dovetailed with the new MTV brand of brazen sexuality,” says Jason Rowan, a longtime cocktail writer who had just moved to New York during this era. “Madonna, Samantha Fox, chicks being badass as they stepped up to being sexually aggressive to an extent not really seen before.”

The “Citizen Kane” of sexually named cocktails arrived in 1987. National Distributing, which sold Peachtree nationwide, devised a Spring Break Contest in Fort Lauderdale with a simple charge: The bartender who could sell the most peach schnapps during the week would get a $100 bonus. At a spot called Confetti, a costume-themed dance club where confetti literally fell from the ceiling, 25-year-old Ted Pizio essentially took the red-hot Fuzzy Navel and mixed it with a Cape Cod. He called it the Sex on the Beach.

The Sex on the Beach quickly became the de facto order at the country’s growing crop of beach-themed bars.

In New York magazine’s summer “Scenes” of 1987, for example, writer Daniel Shaw cites Lucy’s Surfeteria on the Upper West Side, where Columbia coeds devoured Ocean Pacific fajitas and “ ‘Sex on the Beach’ is not a suggestion, just a drink on the menu.”

The drink went viral, and it didn’t seem to matter that most places didn’t know the original recipe. Countless sickly sweet combos would eventually claim the same name: one popular variant had vodka, Chambord, Midori, pineapple juice and cranberry juice, while another swapped in grenadine. Often, it was just served as a shot — half vodka, half Peachtree, with a splash of grenadine.

The Sex on the Beach and its cohorts soon spread from chic nightclubs in major markets to local watering holes in smaller towns, eventually becoming a critical part of chain restaurants like TGI Friday’s (where a drink called the Diddy on the Beach still persists). They also firmly rooted themselves in popular culture, proudly ordered in such hip ’80s movies as “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Earth Girls Are Easy” (and ultimately used as a punchline by 2007’s “Shrek the Third” and 2009’s “I Love You Man”).

In 1988’s “Cocktail,” the Fuzzy Navel and Sex on the Beach famously appear in the opening stanza of Tom Cruise’s standing-on-the-bar-shouting poem “The Last Barman Poet”:

I see America drinking the fabulous cocktails I make/
Americans getting stinking on something I stir or shake/
The Sex on the Beach/
The schnapps made from peach

That poem would also mention the Ding-a-Ling, a veracious-sounding but completely phony cocktail, and the Orgasm, a truly vile combo of amaretto, Kahlúa and Baileys.

“Some might say this poem,” wrote Jason Wilson in his book “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits,” “pinpoints precisely the nadir of bartending in the twentieth century.”

Nevertheless, he still sees the positives in the era. While Wilson realizes that more time was surely spent coming up with risqué names for these drinks than on the actual recipes, he does note, “Perhaps hundreds of years from now, when the history of our era in bartending is written, this type of shot will represent a primitive but significant stage of craft.”

I think he’s right. I started writing this piece on a lark, thinking I’d simply catalog a funny little footnote in cocktail history. Quickly, however, I learned that these suggestive drinks were 1980s cocktail history. The liqueurs they were based on dominated alcohol sales in an era when dark spirits like bourbon were being left for dead and vodka wasn’t yet red-hot. These drinks represented the flavor profile of the decade. They are also revealed its general proclivities.

“There’s something grade-schoolish in us all that gives us a kick out of just pronouncing the names of these drinks,” Ray Foley, as his alter-ego “Hymie Lipshitz,” writes in the introduction to his 1987 “pournography” entitled “X-Rated Drinks.” Back then, he had a solid theory for their popularity: “[S]ince from the time of the pyramid-building Pharaohs on down, spirits have been used as a liquid facilitator of, ah, amatory purposes.”

Lipshitz’s 250 recipes included such long-forgotten hits as the A.S.S. (Absolut, spearmint schnapps and Sambuca), The Ball Banger (ouzo and orange juice) and three different Bend Me Over cocktails. A brief mention of the book in Playboy would lead to it becoming a minor sensation itself — even if the only way to buy it was to send a personal check for $6.90 to the Foleys’ P.O. box in New Jersey.

If the sex-drink craze had mostly disappeared by the end of the 1980s, one of the most popular and still enduring entries in the canon would arrive in the mid-1990s, perhaps fueled by the then-rising popularity of lascivious bachelorette parties.

The Blowjob Shot was made by slowly layering Baileys, Kahlúa and amaretto and then topping it with whipped cream. It was to be drunk by putting your hands behind your back, and moving your mouth agape toward the shot glass sitting on the bar . . . or in a man’s waistband. (“[T]he mother-in-law is liable to call the whole thing off when she sees the bride . . . downing a ‘blow job’ shot from some stranger’s lap,” Herbert I. Kauet wrote in his 1999 guide “The Bachelorette Party: Creating an Event She’ll Remember Forever,” the earliest such written mention I could find of the drink.)

“It seems to me that much can be learned about a society in any given point in time by the names it produces for its cocktails,” wrote Andrew Sachs on an early-internet era cocktail forum. “Let’s hope that the early 1990s have more to say for itself than this.”

They say it’s always darkest before the dawn. By the late 1990s, some of the cocktail world’s modern luminaries were laying the foundation for a revival of classic drinks that would send Peachtree Schnapps into exile.

But like Hammer pants and the perm, the Fuzzy Navel and its brethren were never really meant to last.

As Grimes wrote toward the end of the era: “[T]he sort of drinker who would step up to the bar and order a Teeny Weeny Woo Woo with a straight face turned out to be unreliable.”

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