On December 27 we’ll be mixing a fruitcake-inspired cocktail, the White Elephant, in honor of National Fruitcake Day. Fruitcakes have long been a subject of wonder around the holidays, and last so long they have got to be the most re-gifted item ever created. So it’s only appropriate that National Fruitcake Day falls in the midst of the holiday season. Our Editorial Board suspects the December 27 date is to encourage actually eating one received as a gift, but we know better than to go down that path.
Considered classically horrible in the modern world, fruitcakes actually date back to ancient Rome. But it was during the 16th century, when sugar from Caribbean colonies became available in Europe, that sugar’s preservative qualities were discovered. This led to an excess of candied fruit and in response an abundance of fruitcake. Happily, though, these colonies produced a lot of rum. That, of course, led to drinks like the Hundred Year Old Cigar and the Daiquiri. And the fruitcakes were sometimes soaked in rum to make them marginally more palatable.
Mail order sales of fruitcake began in 1913 and by 1935 the expression “nutty as a fruitcake” was coined. Over the years its penchant for being the subject of ridicule in humor has only increased.
Some say mass-produced fruitcake is intentionally over-baked to have a long shelf life, but this is like the proverbial chicken-egg problem when it comes to being the most hated cake in the history of baking. Johnny Carson once quipped that, “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”
Fruitcake longevity is the stuff of legend. According to The Indian Express, one baked in 1878 is still kept as an heirloom by a family in Tecumseh, Michigan. In 2017 the New York Times reported that the Antarctic Heritage Trust unearthed a 106-year-old fruitcake in Antarctica that they believe belonged to the intrepid explorer Robert Scott. They report it as smelling “almost edible” but we figure he deliberately left it there.
But it’s not as though fruitcakes can’t be fun. Manitou Springs, Colorado, holds an annual Fruitcake Toss. The record stands at 1,420 feet, achieved by a group of Boeing engineers using a compressed air cannon. Unsurprisingly, they encourage the use of recycled fruitcakes.
The White Elephant Cocktail
The fruitcake is a longstanding participant in the tradition of white elephant gift exchanges. That, of course, allows them to be passed between individuals year after year. The White Elephant cocktail is then clearly appropriate for both its name and its winter-suitable dark flavor profile.
The White Elephant cocktail comes to us from bartender Isaac Shumway, who became well known in San Francisco establishments such as Bourbon and Branch, Heaven’s Dog and Alembic. In 2019 he opened California Gold in San Rafael, across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County.
The White Elephant recipe calls for a small amount of Nocino, a not so common liqueur. Nocino is made from unripe green walnuts steeped in alcohol and then mixed with simple syrup. It apparently emerged in Britain during the days of the Roman Empire. The Romans recorded the local people drinking a strange brew and said they could talk with goblins, elves and goddesses. We can’t vouch for that, but Nocino certainly adds an additional fruitcake-appropriate element to the almond flavor of the Amaretto. If you don’t have it we’d advise simply substituting the dark amaro of your choice.
White Elephant Cocktail
- 1 oz Scotch Whisky Use an ordinary blended Scotch here.
- 1 oz Cognac
- 1 oz Sweet Vermouth
- ¼ oz Amaretto
- ½ tsp Nocino
- Garnish: orange twist, cocktail cherry
- Add all ingredients to your trusty mixing glass.
- Add ice and stir to chill.
- Strain into pre-chilled cocktail glass.
- Garnish with orange twist and cherry.
- Re-gift any fruitcakes you have around.