The Third Rail: Speed Drinking


Last night I dropped by one of the most ambitious book parties I’ve ever seen. Inspired by her book, Speed Shrinking , Susan Shapiro hosted a crew of therapists who each dispensed advice to attendees in three-minute intervals. Think of it as therapy meets speed-dating. And like speed-dating, a key ingredient was a free-flowing bar, which reminded me of how psychiatry inspired one of the strangest cocktails out there.

There is no better drink to celebrate psychiatry’s highs and lows than the Asylum Cocktail, created by William Seabrook. I first learned about this cocktail in The Art of Mixing Drinks , a 1950s popular distillation of the Esquire Drink Book. The basic recipe is equal parts simple and bizarre: a dash of grenadine, 1 part Pernod, and 1 part gin. Using a glass filled with ice, pour each (in that order) over the back of a spoon to carefully layer the three ingredients.

As David Wondrich describes it: “the Asylum seems to instill a trancelike, unblinking calm that is difficult to otherwise achieve.” Which makes me wonder, who needs a shrink when your bartender can prescribe one of these?

The Asylum has a sweet, liquorice-heavy flavor, but it also has a distinctive look. A layer of clear liquor and a layer of purplish syrup are separated by not just a greenish layer but the type of liquid that would have been imagined by Wes Craven. When combined with ice, Pernod becomes smoky, and so by pouring the liquid carefully over ice rather than stirring the two beforehand you have a Mr. Wizard-type visual of your drink smoking internally. It’s like a lava lamp that you can drink, finally fulfilling that fifth-grade bet you made.

But that science-fair effect is not the only reason why the Asylum cocktail is worth remembering today. The notorious part of its creation relates to the creator himself, William Seabrook. And by “notorious” I don’t mean “a subpar movie about a posthumously beatified rapper.” When I call William Seabrook notorious I am referring to the fact that he “became a cannibal because no one else could describe what human flesh tasted like well enough.”

That, my friends, is journalistic dedication.

Seabrook himself visited a mental institution, though not, surprisingly, for cannibalism. He checked to cure himself of alcoholism. Did the plan work? Well, he created a cocktail named in honor of the attempt. I think that answers the question.