No one has taken the Harvey Wallbanger seriously since 1979, and honestly, it’s hard to say that they ever had
Let’s tally its absurdities: It’s got a ridiculous name backed by a ludicrous origin story that it’s inspired by a drunk surfer named Harvey who would bang into walls. Its popularity was fueled by an advertising campaign that is universally hailed as “successful,” but to look at those advertisements is to wonder on what combination of drugs one would have to be soaring to find these ads compelling; a typical example involves our eponymous surfer looking like an overworked potato, catching a wave under the words “Harvey Wallbanger’s the name, and I can be made!” Furthermore, pretty much every recipe you’ll find calls for you to “float” a liqueur that doesn’t float. It’s like they’re not even trying.
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So why pay any attention to the Harvey Wallbanger at all? Two reasons. For one, it was one of the most popular drinks in America for a decade and that’s worth something, even if the bartenders in the decade in question would sooner mix three random liqueurs together than do something like juice a fresh lemon. The second is that despite appearances, there’s greatness in the Harvey Wallbanger somewhere. All we need to do is coax it out.
A Harvey Wallbanger is vodka, orange juice, and an Italian herbal liqueur called Galliano, and as best we can tell, was invented by Donato “Duke” Antone in or around 1952. Antone claimed to be working in Los Angeles at the time (where he met the apocryphal surfer Harvey, the one with the clumsy alcoholism), but might actually have been living in Las Vegas. Or possibly Connecticut. Even for drink historians, it gets murky. Antone’s relationship to the truth was less robust than one might hope, and considering that he also claimed to have invented the Rusty Nail, Kamikaze, and White Russian (no, no, and no)—and that in 1955 was sentenced to six years in federal prison for his role in a heroin ring—it’s difficult to take his claims at face value.
What we know is that a robust advertising campaign by Galliano’s import company turned the 1970s into the decade of Harvey Wallbangers. It achieved ubiquity. People drank them by the punchbowl. They sold ready-to-drink versions in cans. There were Harvey Wallbanger cake mixes. Galliano closed out the ‘70s as the most popular imported liqueur of the decade, mostly on the back of Harvey Wallbangers. If you worked at an American bar between 1971 and 2009, you already know how to make one. The drink is essentially a Screwdriver with a spike of liqueur that has some 30 botanicals but tastes distinctly of vanilla. The vanilla bit would prove important: When sales started to slow, Galliano changed their recipe to be more vanilla forward and lower proof, presumably in a doomed effort to recoup losses but instead slowly turning the Harvey Wallbanger—already an unserious drink—into a parody of itself.
In 2010, Galliano decided to go back to their roots, and re-released their product with the original recipe and at the original proof, what we now know as Galliano l’Autentico. So circling back after all these years, now with the classic Galliano, is a Harvey Wallbanger worth making? Almost. Forget the float that doesn’t float and add some desperately needed lemon juice, and the Harvey Wallbanger’s decade-long dominance of the disco era starts to make a bit more sense. At its best, the drink tastes like the platonic ideal of a Screwdriver, a boozy orange juice with just enough complexity to avoid feeling like you’ve spiked your kid’s breakfast, and a perfect example of taking a silly thing a little seriously just so you can enjoy it unseriously again.
1.5 oz. vodka
0.5 oz. Galliano
3 oz. orange juice
0.25 oz. lemon juice
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker, and shake on ice briefly, three to five seconds. Alternatively, you could just build it in the glass you intend to drink it from—it’ll be less cold, and slightly less compelling, but still delicious. If shaken, strain into a tall glass with ice, and garnish with an orange slice and/or a cocktail cherry.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Vodka, or other Spirit: I liked this with a soft gin like Plymouth or Hendrick’s, and tequila and orange juice has a kind of atavistic charm (Tequila Sunrises, anyone?), but for me, this is and will always be a vodka drink. If you use fresh orange juice, the charm here is the way the Galliano and oranges interact. Any other spirit will just get in the way of that.
As for what brand of vodka to use, I happily report that it doesn’t matter. Use whatever brand you like the most.
Galliano: This is a subtle amount of Galliano, one that spices the oranges while lingering in the background. I was on the fence about this: Personally, I liked this one best, but lifting the measurement just a touch to 0.75 oz. was also good. I’d say start with the original recipe and add to taste.
Orange Juice: More than 50 percent of the liquid in the glass is orange juice; If you’re not using oranges that were juiced today, I recommend either making something else, or go down and make the alternative recipe at bottom. Fresh O.J. is absolutely crucial for this drink, and the biggest differentiator between a good Harvey Wallbanger and a bad one.
Lemon Juice: Like most orange juice drinks, it suffers from a lack of acidity. Lemon is here to fix that problem. Lime works too, just make sure you use one of the two, the drink yearns for it.
Other recipe: The above is the best compromise, to me, between the spirit of the original drink (a prettied-up Screwdriver) and the principles of quality that make drinks taste good. I’ll say that I still taste the vodka a bit too much (the main problem with Screwdrivers), but this is the drink as it was conceived. If I were inventing this today, though, I’d depart a bit more radically from it, namely by using oranges as an accent mark rather than the majority of the drink itself:
Modified Harvey Wallbanger
1.5 oz. gin
0.75 oz. Galliano
0.75 oz. lemon juice
0.5 oz. simple or cinnamon syrup
1 oz. orange juice
1 orange peel, about thumb-sized
Top with soda
Add the liquid ingredients (except the soda water) into a cocktail shaker. Throw the orange peel in the shaker with the liquid and add ice. Shake everything together for six to eight seconds and strain over fresh ice in a tall glass. Top with soda, and stir briefly to integrate, and garnish with an orange peel and a cocktail cherry.
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