Combustible Edison

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If you are familiar with the band Combustible Edison, then you know this drink.


There are not a lot of good drinks which revolve around the use of fire.  The Combustible Edison may be one of the few exceptions, depending on your palate.  It is definitely a cocktail aimed at cocktail-lovers, and is a rather strange concoction.  A mixture of lemon juice and Campari are mixed, shook to chill, strained into a cocktail glass, and then topped up with flaming brandy.  And while the drink itself might turn a few heads, especially at the time during which it is being made, the history of the drink is far more interesting in this case.

I first learned, being newer to the cocktail scene than those good old veterans like Brother Cleve, of the Combustible Edison from Cleve himself.  Not necessarily something I felt I would try from description alone, since it came off as a novelty drink, the history of it was fascinating, especially hearing it firsthand from a venerated cocktail historian and forefather of the craft cocktail movement in Boston.  When told by Cleve, the story is an interesting interpretation of the intersections between various egos, marketing, aesthetics and the rise of a new cocktail movement.

According to Cleve, the Combustible Edison is tied intrinsically with music, seeing as how the cocktail was created and named after the band of the same name.  Thought up by the Millionaire, who was the guitarist and composer and founder of the band, the recipe was first on the back cover of the band’s first album “I, Swinger,” which was released in 1994.  The cocktail was actually a success, and was used at many venues where the band was playing; the most particular spaces in which this occurred were the cities revolving around both “cocktail culture” and “thrift store culture,” which included New York, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle.

The first album actually sold fairly well considering the specialty nature of the band.  At 175,000 units, the album gathered the attention of the Campari marketing representatives, who, at the time were advertising in many of these cities where the new cocktail culture was developing.  Cleve remarks that because of interests in marketing, Campari struck a deal with Combustible Edison, where they would provide swag at various shows in hopes to bring more awareness to the brand.  In return, the band members were expected to drink the spirit onstage.  He points out this was not necessarily a big commitment, since the majority of band members already drank it onstage, and Cleve himself used to keep a bottle on top of his keyboard.

Paul Harrington, also known currently as “the Alchemist,” had started to write his column on drinks in Wired Magazine around the same time that Combustible Edison was coming into the spotlight.  The band’s drink was covered in one of these issues; similarly, the spread of cocktail culture was becoming more dominant, since Cleve first established his relationship with Ted Haigh and Beachbum Berry around the same time.  It seems interesting that cocktail culture, at least through the framework that Cleve presents it, is an assemblage built around music and other forms of sensory experience outside of taste.  While changes in consumption habits are truly present and prevalent for helping the cocktail movement to reach the full force it has right now, as well as changes to preference structures among middle and upper economic classes, sensorial phenomena still play an important role in determining the rise and fall of specific movements that are ingrained specifically with politics of aesthetics and distinction making.  In other words, music or other arts are a way to inform the consumption habits (through explicit or not so explicit marketing).

Outside of the cocktail, Combustible Edison is somewhat famous in the history and development of internet phenomena.  The band performed, if not the first, one of the first live simulcasts online in the mid-90s.  The simulcast was presented by Apple and Wired jointly, and was a broadcast of their show at Bimbo’s in San Francisco.  Cleve can’t recollect the exact date, and I’ve been hard pressed to find this date, but he believes it is around either 1995 or 1996, which would coincide with the start of simulcast phenomena online.

For those of you interested in finding some Combustible Edison to listen to, there are a few videos on YouTube of fantastic works (Cleve’s channel is here).  They classify themselves as “easy listening.”  Combustible Edison, as a band, was inspired by early instrumental recordings from the late 1950s through the 1960s.   Cleve writes that among their influences were film soundtracks from the same period, especially Blaxploitation soundtracks and library music of the late 60s.  The works on their first album was inspirited by several films and thematic elements, including Fellini, Spy vs. Spy, and other selections which were rearranged and adjusted to a new style.

The last album Combustible Edison did was in 1998; over the years, they changed how they engaged with music in order to demonstrate through their music what they thought their inspirations would do contemporaneously.  Cleve notes that in the end, they drew more heavily upon synthesizers and that their aim, throughout all their efforts, were to modernize and present the music of what they conceived as a “lost.”  Because of the relative popularity of their music, other lounge music bands started appearing and popping up in record stores, and varied quite widely from fairly good to piss poor in quality: mostly, it depended upon, from how I understand it, the engagement that the listener has with music to distinguish good or bad qualities of the song, which requires a specific body of knowledge, much like distinguishing what is good or bad cuisine.

The drink doesn’t have to be made with a flaming brandy pour, and can be made without, in which case it is known as the Edisonian. In which case, the temperature is a bit more along the lines of a contemporary chilled cocktail; however, there is something interesting and enticing about the drink when consumed at the strange intermediate temperature which it has.  It seems to be a sort of liminal cocktail, between both the popular and trite, but framed in a form where it has an interesting end result, especially in terms of flavor.

Combustible Edison:

1 ounce Campari
1 ounce lemon juice
2 ounces Brandy, heated

Combine the Campari and lemon juice in a shaker tin, shake with ice, and strain into a cocktail coupe.  After heating the brandy, ignite it and pour the flaming brandy into the cocktail glass.  Serve.