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Methods to Make a Colleen Bawn, the Decadent Rye Whiskey Cocktail to Drink by the Hearth

Methods to Make a Colleen Bawn, the Decadent Rye Whiskey Cocktail to Drink by the Hearth

All good Christmas cocktails start with the story of a murder, so here we go:

In Ireland, in early September of 1819, the body of 15-year-old Ellen Hanley was washed ashore on the banks of the River Shannon. Hanley, a poor girl, was distinctive for her extraordinary beauty, which had caught the eye of a wealthier man named John Scanlan, and the two were married in secret. But shortly thereafter, tempted by a better dowry, he instructed his manservant to kill Hanley and hide the body. The servant was only half-successful; the body found, the evidence damning, both Scanlan and his servant were hanged, and Hanley was interred under the inscription “Here lies the Colleen Bawn, Murdered on the Shannon, July 14th, 1819.”

The story of innocence, cruelty, and justice captivated the public. It was dramatized into a novel called The Collegians by Gerald Griffin in 1829 but caught wide attention when retold on stage in 1860 by a playwright named Dion Boucicault, under the name The Colleen Bawn (an anglicization of the Irish cailín bán, which means something like “pure/innocent girl”). The Colleen Bawn was a hit and would be adapted again and again over the years, into more plays, operas, films, and in our case, a cocktail.

Now, what any of this has to do with rye whiskey, Yellow Chartreuse, Bénédictine, and eggs is really anyone’s guess. The Colleen Bawn cocktail first appears in print in 1903, in Edward Spencer’s The Flowing Bowl. Spencer lived in London, and would’ve been familiar with the story, but if he had any special reason why he named a dessert cocktail made of American whiskey and two French liqueurs after a murdered Irish child, he certainly kept it to himself.

I first had this drink when I was living outside Boston, where it was on the menu at Green Street Grill in Cambridge. It was simply one of the best things I’d ever had, and I had always assumed this cocktail was common knowledge. Many years later, I’ve come to recognize it as a Boston phenomenon, one of those drinks that are tasty enough to bounce around the city, but esoteric enough to find difficulty gaining wider purchase beyond its borders.

And esoteric it is. The Colleen Bawn is wild. The full egg, for one. No ingredient under 80 proof, for another. Generally, in cocktails, you’d use something like Yellow Chartreuse or Bénédictine, but not both, and certainly not a full ounce each. But, as in the stunning Widow’s Kiss, the Yellow Chartreuse and Bénédictine are like fraternal twins separated at birth, and fit into each so perfectly you can’t find the seam. Their herbal interplay is incredible—layer upon layer of honey sweetness, peeling away one by one to reveal saffron-like spiced depth and an impossibly complex finish—buttressed by the oak of the whiskey up front and on the finish, while the significant proof is a constant presence, balancing the decadence of the whole project. 

This is one of those drinks poorly situated for regular consumption. It’s too sweet for everyday, too strong, too expensive, too much. But for the longest night of the year, say, or for sitting beside a crackling fire, or for a Christmas treat before bed, the Colleen Bawn is sip-for-sip one of the most delicious things you can imbibe. It certainly is a winter tradition in my house, the perfect final drink on a cold night, something, perhaps, to tell a ghost story to. 

Colleen Bawn

  • 0.75 oz. Yellow Chartreuse
  • 0.75 oz. Bénédictine
  • 0.75 oz. rye whiskey
  • 1 egg

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker, seal without ice, and shake briefly, five to 10 seconds, to whip and emulsify the egg. Open the shaker and add ice, seal again and shake hard for 10 to 12 seconds. Strain into a cocktail glass or small wine glass, and garnish with some shaved nutmeg and cinnamon.


Photo: courtesy

Liqueurs: You need both Bénédictine and Yellow Chartreuse for this drink to work. It’s the combination of the two together that makes the real magic here. Some recipes seem to have mis-transcribed the original and call for Green Chartreuse, which is higher proof and completely different. This is a mistake—use Yellow Chartreuse.

Rye Whiskey: It’s not like this is struggling for proof, but nonetheless I think it shines brightest when you use a 100-proof Kentucky rye, like Rittenhouse, or Wild Turkey 101. Also good were the lower proof herbal ryes like Bulleit or Dickel, but I didn’t think it worked quite as well—the proof helps keep the whole thing in check.

Other Ingredients: Spencer’s original 1903 recipe calls for an extra “teaspoonful” of sugar, and many modern recipes repeat this, presumably for authenticity. Nevertheless, it’s frankly insane to think this drink needs more sweetness—there are two full ounces of liqueurs here. It’s already dessert. Skip the sugar.

Garnish: Most modern recipes just call for nutmeg, but Spencer himself called for both cinnamon and nutmeg. This seems like overkill, until you try it—the nutmeg’s somewhat exotic spice complements the cinnamon’s warmer, sweeter spice. You can make it work with just nutmeg (or just cinnamon, honestly), but I particularly like it with both

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Proportions: Most recipes call for 1 oz. of each of the ingredients, which would make the equivalent of 3.25 oz. of 80 proof spirits, so I’ve cut it down to 0.75 oz. to be a little more manageable. You can try to use 75 percent of an egg if you want to keep the ratios of the same, but I don’t think it suffers.

Egg: Raw eggs are used in cocktail all the time. See here for a more thorough disclaimer about the safety of their use, but I’ll say if you’re immunocompromised or just feel weird about it, grab a pasteurized in-shell egg, or just 1 oz. of pasteurized pre-cracked eggs instead. If you don’t want any eggs, make a Widow’s Kiss instead. This build needs the egg to keep the sweetness manageable.

Source: Robb Report

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