The Murky History of the Brass Monkey
If you grew up in the ‘90s, you probably became first acquainted with Brass Monkeys through the Beastie Boys song of the same name. That, or through a party that served up malt liquor with a splash of Tropicana as their signature drink. There’s no denying that the Beastie Boys were responsible for popularizing the Brass Monkey, but the origins of the drink are much more mysterious. In fact, the Brass Monkey they were rapping about was not orange juice and beer (or malt liquor), but a canned precursor to Smirnoff Ice.
Indeed, there are two different kinds of Brass Monkeys out there: One is a mixture of malt liquor and orange juice and the other is a premixed cocktail “beverage” produced by the Heublein Company in the '70s up until the '90s, that consisted of orange juice, vodka, and dark rum. While the legitimacy behind the origin story of the canned Brass Monkey is questionable, the story goes that the drink was named after a popular club in Macau, China after World War II.
But it also might have its origins in the colorful colloquialism ”cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey,” a phrase that originated in the mid 19th century. Some say the phrase came by way of a British sailor, others insist it was born in Australia. Kate Douglas Wiggin’s The Story of Waitstill Baxter, written in 1913, includes the sentence: “The little feller, now, is smart’s a whip, an’ could talk the tail off a brass monkey.”
It’s shockingly hard to find any information about the origin story of the real Brass Monkey. In fact, a number of popular cocktails—the Bloody Mary, Cosmopolitan—have competing origin stories, perhaps because drinking histories can be the least reliable of all. Whose idea was it to pour orange juice into their forty? Where did it come from? There are some theories out there.
“The Brass Monkey’s origins are cloaked in mystery and has been a point of contention for years,” says Tre Stillwagon, bartender at Greenwich Village’s Analogue. “Whether it be the argument that it’s a poor man’s shandy, shoddily constructed at a bodega with one part malt liquor to one part orange juice or one of the fallen soldiers of the punk cocktail era consisting of tequila, gin, sour mix, grapefruit and orange juice, we can all agree that this is one of those libations that is perplexing in the sheer amount of intrigue it’s stirred up.”
Regardless of Stillwagon’s dissection of the “poor man’s shandy,” he was able to offer up some information on the real Brass Monkey—the one the Beastie Boys rapped about back in 1986. “The actual drink that is originally referred to in the titular song was actually fairly interesting in that it was one of the first pre-batched cocktails ever produced next to rock and rye. The Heublein company fabricated an entire elaborate marketing scheme that was rife with tales of World War II espionage and perplexity about it. I don’t think I'd like to consume the Brass Monkey anytime soon, though I’ve never been one to turn my cheek to a cocktail adventure.”
It seems that no one has a clue as to the origins of the Brass Monkey, even the managing partner of a NYC bar called Brass Monkey.
“I'm guessing you're inquiring about the Brass Monkey drink which is half a forty (generally Old English) of malt liquor with orange juice,” says Marisol de la Rosa. “We don't serve a brass monkey. Also, our bar is not named after that brass monkey, but rather the nautical term ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.’”
Ad Roc might be disappointed. The rest of us? Hey, whatever works, right? If you want to mix your forty with orange juice, do so with gusto and reckless abandon. You chug that mixed drink like you’re a ten-year-old chugging… well… regular orange juice. As for the Brass Monkey the Beastie Boys sang about so many years ago? Pour one out.