July 13 is the birthday of the world-famous Hollywood sign and that means we’ll be mixing the Hillside cocktail. Let’s face it, the Hollywood sign is a cultural icon, appearing frequently in film and TV, immediately establishing where the action is. Over the course of its life it’s been changed, deteriorated, rebuilt and used in any number of pranks. It’s worth drinking to, it’s on a hillside, and to us that’s enough to make the Hillside cocktail Drink of the Day.
The Hollywood Sign
Back in 1923 some real estate developers decided to promote a new housing development in the hills above Hollywood. So they spent $21,000, a lot of money in those days, to erect a giant wooden sign that read “HOLLYWOODLAND.” Each letter was 50 feet tall and 30 feet wide, and the sign was studded with around 4,000 light bulbs.
By the 1940s it had deteriorated. In 1944 the letter H went missing from either vandals or winds. By 1949 local residents complained. Those folks endorsed demolishing the sign but the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce stepped in and offered to repair it. The Chamber entered a contract with the city, which specified that the “LAND” ending be eliminated. It was time to reflect the whole district, not just a specific housing development.
That worked for a while, but after a 1978 windstorm the wooden sign was again splintered, broken and looked like it said “HuLLYWO D.” That wouldn’t do. So Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy, set out on a public campaign to restore it. He and eight other donors each gave $27,778 to sponsor each of the nine letters. That version still stands today, with letters made of steel.
But while the sign may now be durable it hasn’t escaped mischief. Some acts have been official, like illuminating it in multiple colors for Los Angeles County’s millennium celebration. But the guerrilla acts are much more fun and more famous. It has twice been altered to read “HOLLYWeeD,” first by a merry prankster and later for the legalization of recreational marijuana. Perhaps our favorite, for Hollywood’s centennial a group of Caltech students tackled the sign with cherry pickers, large sheets of plastic and duct tape. The sign read “Caltech.” Their identities never surfaced, but that stunt remains famous on campus.
The Hillside Cocktail
The Hillside cocktail comes to us from the venerable Varnish, hidden behind Cole’s French Dip in downtown Los Angeles. The Varnish is the real deal, and there’s even an instructional video on the Hillside Cocktail recipe. Note that we use their recipe for the Tuxedo cocktail. And there’s also the Italian Rivalry cocktail we mixed when covering the Cole’s vs. Philippe grudge on National French Dip Day.
The Hillside cocktail falls into the category of Negroni variations. It’s a solid cocktail that calls for two specific ingredients beyond gin and dry vermouth: Amaro Nonino and Chartreuse Elixir Vegetal. The Amaro Nonino is something you want to have around to mix the ever-popular Paper Plane, not to mention the Spaghetti Western cocktail.
The Chartreuse Elixir Vegetal is a highly concentrated form of green Chartreuse, bottled at 69% alcohol content. It comes in a small bottle of 100ml, and wasn’t even available in the U.S. until 2022. It’s important because it’s widely available. The supply of regular Chartreuse is somewhat strained due to the monks deciding to keep production level despite increased demand. The resultant Chartreuse shortage is not yet an existential crisis for humanity, but we’re concerned.
The Hillside cocktail recipe is simple to mix. It follows the familiar 2:1:1 ratio of ingredients we know so well, modified with a couple or three dashes of the Chartreuse Elixir Vegetal. If you have Chartreuse itself handy you can substitute it for the liquor, in a very small quantity.
- Add all ingredients to your trusty mixing glass.
- Add ice and stir to chill.
- Strain into pre-chilled Nick and Nora glass.
- Express twist over drink and add to glass.