The Poor Suffering Bar Steward
The New York Times, February 29, 2004: “scialom–Joe. Internationally acclaimed mixologist and creator of the Suffering Bastard.” The obituary went on to say that Joe would be sorely missed by his family, but gave no clue as to where he lived or died. I had a mission. I had to discover how to make a Suffering Bastard, and hopefully I’d find out something about Joe Scialom along the way.
Google turned up no results whatsoever when I plugged Joe’s name into their search engine, but the words suffering and bastard, when entered in that order, surrounded by quotation marks, yielded “about 805 [hits] in 0.13 seconds.” I was onto something.
Webtender.com offered a recipe that called for gin, rum, lime juice, bitters, and ginger ale, and several other cocktail-related sites gave similar formulas for the Suffering Bastard, so I thought I should perhaps consult some of my old cocktail books. Trader Vic Bergeron, the restaurateur who helped forward the Tiki-Bar movement started by Donn the Beachcomber in 1934, wrote a couple of cocktail recipe books, and I had a feeling that the Suffering Bastard was perhaps served at one of his joints. I have only his first tome, though, published in 1948, and there was no sign of the drink there. Next I consulted the index in Beachbum Berry’s Grog Log (1998), a fine compilation of Tropical drink recipes written by Jeff Berry and Annene Kaye. My search, looking under “Rum Drinks” and “Gin Drinks” yielded naught. Time to go back to my Google search.
Cocktail.com sported a recipe for the drink and a little additional information: “Served at the Rongovian Embassy, Trumansburg, New York, sadly out of business.” And I got even more information at barnonedrinks.com where I found a recipe submitted by a certain John Lara, who thoughtfully added, “The series of drinks, Suffering Bastard, Dying Bastard, Dead Bastard is from the Rongovian Embassy to the USA., a weird bar in Trumansburg, New York. Only a few have done the series and found their car. Generally you end up waking up on a golf course somewhere.” What’s this? There’s more than just one bastard out there? Three bastard drinks from one bar?
While all this was going down I received a phone call from my good friend Doctor Cocktail, a drink maven in Los Angeles. “You’ll never believe this,” I told him, and went on to spill the story about the three bastards from the Rongovian Embassy. “No,” he said, “The Suffering Bastard is a drink from Trader Vic.” Turned out that Bergeron did, indeed, include a recipe for the drink in his 1972 book, Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide (revised), but it was a mundane affair, calling for Trader Vic’s Mai-Tai “Mix,” according to Doc. We decided that the Rongovian Embassy story was far more interesting.
I heard from Doc one more time in regard to the trio of bastards. He e-mailed to inform me that the Suffering Bastard was included in Beachbum Berry’s Grog Log, but the drink was listed under “Bourbon Drinks,” since their Suffering Bastard contained bourbon–not the rum found in the other recipes. And underneath the formula was a short history lesson: “From Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo, Egypt, Circa 1950.”
The book went on to tell the story about The Suffering Bastard. It supposedly started out as The Suffering Bar Steward, words supposedly uttered by a harried bartender at Shepheard’s bar, and misheard, and subsequently bastardized, so to speak, by a group of British military types. There was no mention of Joe Scialom, though. I was beginning to feel sorry for the poor bastard.
A Google search for “Rongovian Embassy” led me to therongo.com, a web site that informed me that this joint was once again in business, but not much more information was there save for their phone number, so I called, chatted to Mike Schott, a convivial bartender, and eventually I got the ear of Susan Elardo, a long-time manager of this quirky joint that features live music, Mexican food, and three bastard drinks on the cocktail list.
Elardo guided me to Alex Brooks, the man who opened the Rongovian Embassy in 1973. He now lives in Maine, is retired from the hospitality industry, and pursues his hobby of painting to pass the time. Brooks* chuckled when I mentioned the drinks, but he wasn’t really sure where the recipes came from, and he’d never heard of Joe Scialom.
Months passed. I was lost. I was suffering, too. This story had so much promise, but I’d reached a dead end. God took pity on me, though, and made me look through the 2002 book, Esquire Drinks, by David Wondrich, when I was looking for an entirely unrelated cocktail. Lo and behold–Wondrich had covered the Suffering Bastard. And he covered Joe Scialom, too.
Turns out that Joe was, indeed, the bar steward at the Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo that Beachbum Berry mentioned in his Grog Log. Esquire magazine reported on the man, and the drink, in 1947. Scialom created the drink as a hangover cure–“to be un-hung, you must be re-drunk” the book tells us–and its original name was, indeed, The Suffering Bar Steward.
Rest easy, Joe Scialom. Your suffering is over. Lucky bastard.
The Suffering Bastard
1 ounce bourbon
1 ounce gin
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
1 dash Angostura bitters
2 sprigs fresh mint
Fill a cocktail shaker two-thirds full of ice and add the bourbon, gin, lime juice, and bitters. Shake for approximately 15 seconds. Strain into an ice-filled collins glass. Top with the ginger ale, and add the garnish.
* Update 2013: I’ve kept in touch with Alex Brooks over the years—he’s a fascinating man, and when he was young he actually knew Charles Baker, Jr. who apparently visited the island of St. Thomas when Brooks and his family lived there in the 1960s.