Pan American Airways, “Pan Am” for short, was at one point the epitome of style for jet-setting travelers, so it’s no surprise that its eponymous cocktail is equally fabulous. A mixture of apple brandy, lime juice, grenadine, and absinthe, the bright-hued sour dates to 1939, when prolific cocktail writer and world traveler Charles H. Baker included the recipe in The Gentleman’s Companion. Baker had settled down in Coconut Grove, Florida, near Pan Am’s first international airport; in his seminal book, he wrote that the recipe came “from the notebook of one of our pilot friends who—when off duty—may seek one.”
The off-duty pilot’s drink of choice certainly owes a significant debt to the Jack Rose, a sour-format cocktail created around the turn of the 20th century, which combines apple brandy with lemon juice and grenadine. (Applejack is the drink’s original base spirit, hence its name.) Like another Gentleman’s Companion drink, the Remember the Maine, the Pan American Clipper adds anise-flavored absinthe, at that time an ingredient of questionable legality in the U.S., an inclusion that likely reflected its creator’s travels around the globe.
St. John Frizell, the owner of Brooklyn’s Fort Defiance and the newly reopened Gage & Tollner, is widely credited with helping to revive the legacy of Baker, and in 2014 he put the Pan American Clipper on the menu at Fort Defiance; it also appears at his tropical-influenced bar Sunken Harbor Club. If you’d like to honor the drink’s American roots, you can reach for Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy, as Frizell did in his version. Laird’s is perhaps the best-known American apple brandy, with a colonial history dating to the 1600s. (George Washington once asked for the recipe.) In keeping with the globe-trotting of Baker himself, you can instead use calvados, which is produced in the Normandy region of France. Whichever apple spirit you use, you’ll want to opt for apple brandy instead of applejack for the drink’s backbone; the latter is blended with neutral grain spirits, resulting in a thinner and slightly less complex apple flavor profile.
Although grenadine might make you think of a saccharine-sweet Shirley Temple (or its grown-up big sister, the Dirty Shirley), the pomegranate-based ingredient is in fact the sweetening agent of many excellent pre-Prohibition cocktails, including the Pink Lady and the Ward Eight. Opt for a high-quality brand, or you can even make your own. Lime juice is the drink’s sour component, while two dashes of absinthe round out its flavors.
Whatever your profession, this pilot favorite might just become your off-duty drink of choice, too.
2 ounces calvados or other apple brandy
3/4 ounce lime juice, freshly squeezed
1/2 ounce grenadine
2 dashes absinthe
Garnish: lime wheel
Add all ingredients into a shaker with ice and shake until well-chilled.
Strain into a chilled coupe glass.