Mark Twain Cocktail

For Mark Twain's birthday

Your cocktail calendar entry for: November
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Today we’re mixing the Mark Twain cocktail.  Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was born on November 30, 1835.  As you know he was an American writer, humorist, entrepreneur and lecturer.  In addition to being America’s foremost humorist, Mark Twain was a lover of whiskey and cats.

But he was also a drinker of distinction and should receive the same birthday honors as drinking authors like Ernest Hemingway (Green Isaac Special), William Faulkner (Absalom’s Retreat) and John Steinbeck (the Jack Rose).  Indeed, Faulkner himself described Twain as “the father of American literature.”

Samuel Clemens Becomes Mark Twain

Mr. Clemens was raised in Hannibal, Missouri, a port town on the Mississippi River.  His father died in 1847 when Samuel was eleven years old so he left school the next year to become a printer’s apprentice.  In 1851 he began to work as a typesetter and contributed articles and humorous bits to the Hannibal Journal.  When he turned 18 he left town and plied his trade in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Cincinnati.  He’d go to the public libraries in the evening to educate himself.

But growing up on the Mississippi left Clemens with a burning ambition:  to become a steamboat pilot.  He got a pilot to take him on as a trainee and after a couple of years received his pilot’s license.  But he also got another thing – his pen name.  The phrase “mark twain” was the leadsman’s cry for a measured river depth of two fathoms, which was considered safe for a river steamboat.

Samuel’s brother Orion became secretary to the governor of the Nevada Territory in 1861 and the two brothers traveled west together.  Samuel tried mining but failed, so he went to work at the local newspaper, Territorial Enterprise, in Virginia City, Nevada.  That’s where he first used his pen name when he wrote a humorous travel account.

His first big success came in 1865 when he published the humorous tale The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County in New York’s The Saturday Press.  National attention followed and he was sent as a reporter to such exotic locales as Hawaii and the Mediterranean.

Mark Twain Hits His Stride

Twain went on to marry Olivia Langdon in 1870.  They lived in Buffalo, New York, where he owned a stake in the Buffalo Express newspaper and worked as a writer and editor.  They did the usual stuff like have children, but the family moved to Hartford, Connecticut in 1874 and spent summers at Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York, the home of Olivia’s sister.

Twain wrote many of his classic novels over 17 years in Hartford and summers at Quarry Farm.  Here we’re talking about classics:  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Life on the Mississippi (1883) Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).

Twain became well known for his humor and acerbic wit.  Whether it was before, during or after this productive time there are more than a few worth repeating:

“Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.”

“A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.”

“I did not attend his funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”

“Always do what is right. It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.”

“It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt”

“The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.”

“Reader, suppose you were an idiot.  And suppose you were a member of Congress.  But I repeat myself.”

Mark Twain, Drinking, and the Mark Twain Cocktail

No doubt about it, Mark Twain was a heavy drinker.  Indeed, he drank from morning until night and enjoyed plenty of cigars along the way.  He had two basic rules for drinking:  don’t do it alone and never turn down a drink.  As he put it, “Never refuse to do a kindness unless the act would work great injury to yourself, and never refuse to take a drink – under any circumstances.”

Coming from Missouri he started with bourbon, and as he said, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”  On his way to London for a series of lectures the ship’s surgeon introduced him to a new drink called a “cock-tail” that employed Scotch whisky and lemon juice.  This is the basis of the Mark Twain cocktail.

In fact, he liked it enough that he intended to keep drinking the whisky cocktail upon his return home.  He wrote a specific request for to his wife:

“Livy my darling, I want you to be sure & remember to have, in the bath-room, when I arrive, a bottle of Scotch whisky, a lemon, some crushed sugar, and a bottle of Angostura bitters. Ever since I have been in London I have taken in a wine glass what is called a cock-tail (made with these ingredients) before breakfast, before dinner and before going to bed.”

So there you have it.  The Mark Twain cocktail is, for all practical purposes, a Whiskey Sour made with Scotch whisky.  It omits the optional egg white.  Some older Mark Twain cocktail recipes call for an entire ounce of simple syrup.  That fit the tastes of the time but is just too much for the world today.  Here’s how we like it.

mark twain cocktail

Mark Twain Cocktail

Mark Twain fell in love with the "cock-tail" when he was introduced to the concept on an ocean liner headed for London. He'd previously favored bourbon, but it was Scotch whisky with lemon, sugar and bitters that caught his attention, and he'd drink them from breakfast until bedtime. The Mark Twain cocktail is named after him, of course, and is pretty much a Whiskey Sour that specifies Scotch as the active ingredient.
5 from 1 vote


  • oz Scotch Whisky Nothing fancy required here, use a basic blended Scotch
  • ¾ oz Fresh lemon juice
  • ½ oz Simple syrup Mr. Twain took them sweet and used a whole ounce, so go that way if you like. We think a half ounce is better balanced.
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters


  • Add all ingredients to your trusty shaker.
  • Add ice and shake until frosty cold.
  • Strain into pre-chilled coupe.
  • Drink.
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