Saturnalia begins December 17, so in honor of this longstanding pagan funfest we’ll be mixing the Saturn cocktail. After all, we drink to all iterations of the holiday season, whether you’re into Hanukkah, Festivus, Christmas or Kwanzaa. So we might as well throw in Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival and holiday in honor of the god Saturn.
The Saturn cocktail is a bit newer than ancient Rome, probably just because they didn’t have gin handy in those days. But the Romans certainly knew how to have a good time, and their celebrations are the source of many things we now associate with Christmas, such as wreaths, candles, feasting and gift giving. Hanukkah celebrants going out for movies and Chinese Food on Christmas day developed later.
Saturnalia began as a single-day pagan celebration of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and time, but soon expanded to a week-long festival starting December 17. The Julian calendar, which the Romans used at the time, had winter solstice on December 25, the finale of the event. The current calendar runs from December 17 to 23. That let’s you roll right into Festivus, for which we recommend the Feats of Strength cocktail.
Saturnalia was a big event in Rome, the most popular of the year. Work and business came to a halt, schools were closed, exercise regimens were suspended, and normal patterns of life were put on hold. The first day would include a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum, followed by a public banquet.
But it didn’t end there. Everyone continued the festivities and the usual rules were thrown out the door. Gambling was allowed. Families of means did their own sacrifices of a suckling pig. Roles were reversed, and slaves were treated to a banquet, sometimes served by their masters. Slaves were even allowed to disrespect their masters without fear of punishment. The usual togas were set aside for more colorful garb. It was like cats and dogs living together.
December 19 was the day of gift giving. But because gifts of value would indicate social status and would be outside the spirit of the whole event most gifts were small trinkets or gag gifts. On the latter we have no archaeological evidence of ancient rubber chickens or whoopee cushions. Those of great wealth would sometimes pass a gratuity to their poorer brethren to help them buy gifts for others.
The Saturn Cocktail
When you turn to the Tiki dimension your mind usually conjures rum as you find in a Mai Tai, the Zombie or a Queen’s Park Swizzle. The Saturn cocktail recipe ignores rum and reminds us that gin is also a spirit employed in Tiki. Think Singapore Sling for another example.
In 1928 José Galsim arrived in the U.S. aboard the Japanese passenger liner ShinyōMaru when it landed in San Francisco. He was on the crew roster, from the Philippines, and ended up staying in the U.S. He began tending bar as he’d learned aboard ship, his name evolved to Joseph “Popo” Galsini, and he ended up working to much renown over several decades in California Tiki bars.
Popo entered the Saturn cocktail in the 1967 annual International Bartender’s Association World Championship. He won. First entitled the X-15 after the experimental rocket plane of the time, it was renamed when an X-15 crashed and killed the pilot. Saturn presumably comes from the rocket that launched the moon missions.
The Saturn cocktail was largely lost to time until Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the Yoda of all things Tiki, was perusing a thrift shop. There he spotted a Bartender’s Guild commemorative glass with the Saturn cocktail recipe on it. He copied the recipe, of course, and published it later in his book Beachbum Berry Remixed. Popo Galsini has been a legendary and mysterious character ever since.
While the Saturn is often served over crushed ice, the original recipe calls for doing it as a blended drink. This is also one where the garnish is critical to achieve the festive air of any good Tiki drink. It must be a long lemon twist pinned around a cherry to resemble the planet Saturn. This is a case in which the proper garnish is critical.
- Shaker or blender
- Collins or Highball Glass
- Add all ingredients except garnish to blender and spin until smooth.
- Alternatively, place in your trusty shaker and shake until frosty cold.
- Dump into tall glass.
- Build garnish. There are two ways. Either wrap a long, thin strip of lemon loosely around a cherry and pin with a toothpick or take a thin lemon slice, remove the fruit and pin the ring around the cherry with a toothpick.