Why The Millionaire Isn't Just One Cocktail

There are few left who can remember first-hand the Prohibition era — a time in American history when the intended purpose resulted in just the opposite effect. Most of the best boozy beverages, those that we now regard as classics, were invented at a time when alcohol was illegal. Perhaps this is why drinks like the Millionaire represent more than just a cocktail — they represent a cultural movement.

The first recorded recipe for the Millionaire, found in Harry Craddock's 1930 book "The Savoy Cocktail Book," calls for dark rum, apricot brandy, and sloe gin, according to Spruce Eats. Sloe gin is, in essence, an infused gin (via Settler Spirits). It is made when the sloe berry is steeped in regular gin and sugar, resulting in a red-colored, sweet beverage, which is often classified as a liqueur.

However, the recipe that has endured as the go-to Millionaire is a bourbon-based sour that relies on Grand Marnier, lemon juice, grenadine and egg white (Liquor). According to Punch, there are up to five drinks bearing the Millionaire name, and their variations are distinct. How does a cocktail with the same name vary even down to its boozy base? It all comes down to the time in which it was created.

Prohibition encouraged creative cocktails

While alcohol was illegal during Prohibition — from January 1920 until December 1933 — bars, while clandestine, did not go away. In fact, in many cases, they experienced a rise in sales, as PBS notes. Bootlegging and basement brews surged, as did the invention of new cocktails and combinations of ingredients. The Millionaire was a representation of the times, when moonshiners and some creative bar owners were made richer. Where one speakeasy made it with bourbon, another made it with rum. And everyone wanted a sip, from gangsters to police. The illegal sale and manufacturing of alcohol made running a speakeasy a risky game — and maybe cocktails that much sweeter.

Today, in the era of craft cocktails, craft beers, and home mixologists creating their own concoctions, we can freely do what people once risked their lives for (per Distilled History). If you want to create a drink that tastes like a million bucks, choose your liquor base — like rum, gin, or bourbon. Next, add some sweet liqueur — sloe gin, Grand Marnier, brandy, or even absinthe. And finish with lemon and a frothy egg white on top. Or don't. Like we said, the Millionaire is a cocktail with one name but a million ways to make it.