The Cocktails

In The Thin Man (1936), Nora and Charles are organizing their train cabin when she asks him, “Are you packing?” He responds, “Yes, darling. I’m just putting away the liquor” as he takes a drink. I didn’t end up making any cocktails on the trip, but I mixed three beforehand in honor of my voyage: a Manhattan, a Gibson and a Blue Train Special.


There used to be a cocktail bar under the Vista Dome of the California Zephyr (see below). There was also a Cable Car Room (see above), which was billed as “as gay and colorful as San Francisco itself.” My 1950s brochure features pictures of these lovely venues. The travelers are drinking at very cute little retro tables. Fabulous. Alas, now the cocktail bar has been replaced with a snack bar stocked with hotdogs, bas of chips, and mini-pizzas. Not quite the same thing. I knew that I wouldn’t have any civilized drinking options, so I brought my own. My half bottle of champagne was perfect for my trip up the Hudson River, and my small bottle of bourbon served me well for post-dinner drinks as I read in my cabin. I also brought some red wine.

The cocktail bar under the Vista Dome of the California Zephyr. (Picture above = the Cable Car Lounge)

The cocktail bar under the Vista Dome of the California Zephyr.

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The Manhattan is my favorite drink, and it’s what they drink in the party scene in the Depression-era Some Like It Hot (1959). Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar Kane wakes up Jack Lemmon’s “Daphne” in the middle of the night, and they end up mixing drinks in a hot water bottle. (She exclaims, “We have bourbon! We can make Manhattans!” I like a lady with a plan.) Poor Lemmon is crammed in his berth with the very charming and curvy Monroe, and he must remind himself that he is, as he repeats mechanically, “a girl,” and not his skirt-chasing self. Ultimately, he’s forced to pull the train’s emergency break to escape the bevy of buxom, nightie-clad ladies that join the party in Room 7. I think I will pre-mix a few Manhattans for my next train trip and store them in my metal water bottle from Whole Foods, which keeps drinks pretty cold. I doubt this boozy practice would be in line with the values of Whole Foods, but I also doubt that I care. I have to say that was glad to have proper glasses – it makes a big difference not to drink out of a Dixie cup.

A bit about the Gibson. I associate the Gibson with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint’s scene in the dining car ineva marie saint North by Northwest (1959). Obviously, Eva Green and Daniel Craig’s first meeting in Casino Royale (2006) owes much to Grant and Saint’s flirtation in this classic Hitchcock film. Saint’s Eve Kendall is hilariously bold and sassy. She confesses that she bribed the steward four dollars to seat Grant’s Roger Thornhill at her table, and then she hits on him with impunity. He defends himself against her for a time, but it’s useless: you know he’s found wife number three. And all the while, Grant calmly sips his Gibson out of what looks to be a Nick and Nora glass. I thought about this scene when I boarded the Lakeshore Limited as this is their train in the film, and the route is still the same.

My evening bourbon.

My evening bourbon in my roomette on the California Zephyr.

My last pre-voyage cocktail was a Blue Train Special cocktail, which was possibly named after Le Train Bleu, the old luxury train from Calais to Paris and down to the French Riviera (recipe = 0.5 ounces lemon juice, 0.5 ounces Cointreau, 1 ounce gin, I dash blue food coloring; shake and serve with a lemon twist). There’s also the Blue Train cocktail, which is a brandy drink that involves pineapple juice (stir together 1 ounce brandy, ¾ ounce pineapple juice, and 3 tsp. superfine sugar and then add 3 ounces of champagne). I’m not sure if this one is at all connected to the train’s history. It’s not blue – I can tell you that much. Although I love champagne cocktails, the Blue Train cocktail seemed like it would be a bit sweet, and I’m not a huge fan of pineapple. The Blue Train Special is an okay gin drink – it didn’t blow my mind. But Le Train Bleu did have blue sleeping cars, and so does Amtrak, so hey, that’s something.

Going over the icy MIssissippi River in the Vista Dome.

Going over the icy Mississippi River in the Vista Dome.


I do wish that the California Zephyr still had a cocktail bar. It would be a great space to meet up and chat with people, and it would be lovely to sip a drink as one crosses the Mississippi River around 5:30 p.m. (I saw four bald eagles when we crossed. Those are some serious birds – they are not messing around.) I found an old Amtrak matchbook on eBay, and I imagine that a dashing gentleman once used it to light the cigarette of a stylish lady. I also found some vintage blue plastic Amtrak swizzle sticks on eBay. A few years ago, a good friend gave me an old Pan Am cocktail glass and swizzle stick. Like those objects, the Amtrak swizzle sticks seem to harken back to a time when travel was, well, actually fun.

In my research into train cocktails, I also came across the Train Cocktail Bar in Berlin: This place is absurdly gorgeous and glamorous, and I think I need to go there one day.

4 thoughts on “The Cocktails

  1. Just finally getting to this site and am enjoying it greatly.

    The Blue Train I know is identical to your Blue Train Special, but with a splash of creme de violette (or better yet, creme Yvette) for a bit of a floral touch instead of the food coloring. It also makes it more interesting than a standard-issue gin sour, which needs a bit of something extra.

    Here’s the one that master mixologist Chris McMillian made for me at the Renaissance Pere Marquette in New Orleans:

    as far as the name, well, cocktails have fluid names often — as David Wondrich said once, everyone who wrote these things down was by definition drinking at the time.



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