There are some cocktails we’d frankly like to see more of, and The Suburban is one of them. It’s a relic that comes to us from the upscale gentlemen’s clubs and hotel bars of late 19th century New York City. And today, it would fit in just as well at the same types of establishments—except for the gentlemen’s clubs. Those are something totally different now.
Unlike many of the other classic cocktails, the origin of The Suburban is fairly well established. Multiple sources confirm that it was created during the 1880s in honor of James R. Keene. In 1852, Keene immigrated to America from England with his family at the age of 14. He quickly proved to be a shrewd investor and by his thirties, had been appointed President of the San Francisco Stock Exchange. But he had his eye on bigger prizes, and moved to New York City in 1876. He continued to invest successfully and involved himself heavily in horse racing and breeding. He proved to have a knack for it, and his thoroughbreds won several significant races in the United States, as well as France and England. He was a pretty big deal at the time.
Apparently he was such a big deal that someone mixed a drink for him that became modestly popular throughout the upper crust of New York society. But when was it created? First, let’s look at why it’s named The Suburban. The Suburban Handicap Thoroughbred Horse Race is the last of three races that completes the New York Handicap Triple. This race series began in 1884, so the cocktail was most likely created after that.
Unfortunately, Keene lost everything to bad investments in the Chicago grain market that same year. If the drink was named after him in the couple of years that followed, it certainly wouldn’t have been to honor him.
But we did mention that Keene was a shrewd investor, right? Within a few years of his financial collapse, Keene completely reversed his fortunes and established himself once again as a major player in the New York finance world, managing funds for William Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan. By 1891, he was back to investing in his true passion—horse racing—and his Castleton Farm in Kentucky eventually grew into one of most important breeding operations in American horse racing history. We also know that the recipe and story of Keene’s honorary cocktail were printed in the bar book of the Manhattan Waldorf-Astoria, which opened in 1893. So the story had to have been somewhat established by that time. We think that the smart money on when The Suburban was actually created would be 1888 or 1889. But that’s just our best guess, and whiskey history is frequently up for debate (which is usually more fun with an excellent cocktail).
We suggest you celebrate the history of this remarkable cocktail by trying one immediately. It’s refreshingly easy to mix at home.