If you took an informal poll of people who like to drink for fairly well-adjusted social reasons on the topic of which decade marks the birth of the Sea Breeze, the general consensus would be the ’80s. And for those of us who came up in that decade, you know well that the vodka, cranberry and grapefruit concoction, along with its Brat Pack bar brethren—the Bay Breeze, Cape Codder and Malibu Breeze—were consumed with giddy warm-weather abandon.
“I’ve been bartending for 22 years, so I started before the revival,” says David Moo, the owner of Quarter Bar, where the Sea Breeze makes an occasional appearance, in Brooklyn. “I learned all those drinks and made them—the Sea Breeze, Woo Woo, Sex on the Beach, all that.”
But while ’80s aficionados can certainly take a victory lap for that decade being a popular progenitor of the Sea Breeze, it’s not where the drink originated.
Some have speculated that the Sea Breeze can actually be pinned to the post-cranberry panic of the 1960s. Yup, cranberries were once controversial. In November 1959, a bunch of berries in the Pacific Northwest were found to contain traces of the herbicide aminotriazole, basically a bog weed killer that caused cancer in lab rats. The U.S. Secretary of Health at the time advised Americans to eschew cranberries if they weren’t absolutely sure of their origin.
Naturally, cranberry farmers took a big hit. In order to recover, a little growers’ collective that formed in 1930 known as Ocean Spray started publishing recipe booklets to encourage the use of cranberries in all of its solid and liquid forms.
According to the archives at Ocean Spray, in the 1960s the company began suggesting a cranberry-centric cocktail that included vodka and grapefruit. “[There’s] a recipe card and two ‘Cranberry Kitchen’ newsletters that include cranberry juice and grapefruit but not the Sea Breeze specifically,” says Christina Ferzli from Ocean Spray. “From what I can recall, there were many versions of the Sea Breeze cocktail, but Ocean Spray was the one to add cranberry to it.”
As it turns out, that simple 1-2-3 cocktail was actually a ruby-hued riff on something else. “The lack of knowledge of American bartenders meant a lot of recipes got lost or were changed to fit the ingredients on hand,” says Freddie Sarkas, the head bartender at Liquor Lab in Manhattan. “At the same time, we saw the rise of the Cranberry Growers Co-op, which later became Ocean Spray. It marketed an easy drink with gin and cranberry called the Harpoon. That drink would eventually become both the Cape Codder and the Sea Breeze.”
In 2013, Moo came across an entirely different recipe for the Sea Breeze, and it piqued his interest. “I was browsing cocktail recipes when I came across it. It wasn’t necessarily in an old book—I actually don’t remember where I found it. But I do remember reading that the original recipe was from the 1920s, but it didn’t give an exact year, and it involved gin,” he says. “I thought, That sounds like a considerably better drink. So I made one for myself, and it was delicious. I put it on the menu.”
What Moo likely came across was Erik Ellestad’s now-defunct blog “The Savoy Stomp,” where the San Francisco bartender had been working his way through the recipes from Harry Craddock’s 1930 “The Savoy Cocktail Book.” Indeed, toward the back of the book, in the section entitled “Coolers,” the drink appears as the Sea Breeze Cooler. The instructions: In a tall tumbler, add the juice of half a lemon, two dashes of grenadine and equal parts apricot brandy and dry gin over ice. Craddock also added soda water and garnished with mint.
In perusing about a dozen books from around the same time frame, nary a Sea Breeze exists. The closest versions are the ginless Apricot Cooler in the 1953 “UKBG Field Guide to Drinks,” and the much closer (in terms of ingredients) Pendennis Club’s Famous Special, on page 81 of “The Gentleman’s Companion” by Charles Baker, which includes one jigger of gin, a half jigger of “the best apricot brandy procurable,” the juice of one entire lime or half a lemon, two dashes Peychaud bitters, and the fanciful addition of a kumquat split in two and seeded.
Perhaps you have time for further in-depth, dogged searching, but at this moment of rabbit hole research, we’re going to declare the following: While the cranberry-grapefruit-vodka version of the drink is likely credited to a clever marketing campaign by Ocean Spray, the real Sea Breeze is, in fact, a gin-based invention of that London denizen of cocktail sophistication, The Savoy.
Moo’s version is a mashup of the old and new: gin, equal-parts house-made grenadine and fresh ruby-red grapefruit juice. He rolls the drink—that is, builds it in a tall glass filled with ice, no garnish. “It’s on my menu as the 1928 Sea Breeze. I chose the year at random.”
Adam Dennis, a bartender at the Madison Beach Hotel in Madison, Conn., also tweaked the version he makes on his menu to be a combo of old and new. “Like many of the cocktails we know and love, the Sea Breeze did not start out as the libation you would expect to receive in today’s saloon,” he says. “It was originally a gin-based cocktail often served with grenadine and apricot brandy. In later years, it evolved as a vacation-to-the-beach type of drink, fusing itself to the likes of the Blue Hawaiian or Cape Codder.”
So maybe you’ve made fun of the Sea Breeze and its ilk, or maybe you haven’t given it much thought at all, which, perhaps, is what makes the Sea Breeze one of the best examples of a drink that doesn’t stand out but one that stands up in its forms from both the past and the present—a perfectly refreshing representative of egalitarian drinking.