When I moved to New York City after college in the early 2000s, my friends and I still drank like we were matriculating. Meaning: We went to any place that sold a lot of alcohol for a little money. At the time, no spot was better at that than Brother Jimmy’s, a pseudo-Southern BBQ bar on the Upper East Side that offered Trash Can Punch, a literal Rubbermaid garbage can filled with two-and-a-half gallons of some sickly sweet mash of grain alcohol and who knew what else, and dozens of several-foot-long community straws stabbed into it, for a mere $75.
“The modus operandi here is simple: to drink and eat as much as humanly possible,” read a 2004 Citysearch review.
Indeed, Trash Can Punch was absolutely disgusting, but it got the job done — if “the job” was drinking until you got to a point that all that mattered was eating pizza while slumped in a nearby alley. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was growing up in the heyday of what I have now come to term Maximum Cocktails.
What Are Maximum Cocktails?
What do I define as Maximum Cocktails? Any drink whose goal is to get a lot of alcohol into your system as quickly as possible, preferably on the cheap, without you noticing.
These aren’t merely “large format,” as is the parlance for the premium punches, pre-batched group, and Cocktail Explosions offered by today’s higher-end bars — those can be enjoyable too, but they lack the transgressiveness necessary to be a Maximum Cocktail.
“[A] Cocktail Explosion is a complete cocktail,” explained The NoMad Bar’s beverage director Leo Robitschek at the time of its creation in 2014. “There are aromatic components and it’s garnished just like an individual cocktail. ”
Maximum Cocktails, on the other hand, often employ Everclear or another grain alcohol. They sometimes combine numerous different types of spirits, including ones that are not usually meant to play with each other, like rum, gin, brandy, and white wine, as seen in Trader Vic’s Scorpion Bowl, an ur-Maximum Cocktail first unveiled in 1946. They rarely employ fresh ingredients but instead sour mix, canned or bottled juices, and a lot of hotel ice machine-quality cubes.
If you stumble across a Maximum Cocktail at a bar, they will often have rules for the minimum number of people necessary to be allowed to order them (eight was the number for Trash Can Punch) or the maximum amount a single person can consume (usually just one or two). Sometimes, these Maximum Cocktails even offer pithy warnings (“Not for wimps” read the caveat emptor on the five-spirit Texas Tea also offered at Brother Jimmy’s) that are surely not legally binding.
To be clear, Maximum Cocktails are not merely punches.
Cocktail historian David Wondrich, in his seminal 2010 book “Punch,” traces the beginning of punches back to British sailors in India during the early 1600s. Running low on beer and wine, they tried to blend a batch of rum or arrack (or whatever local spirit they could find) along with citrus juice, sugar, and maybe tea and spices. These may have been a certain form of Maximum Cocktail, but what they would eventually inspire — Planter’s Punch, Fish House Punch, and the like —wouldn’t be. In fact, as Wondrich notes in the book’s opening paragraph:
“[B]y ‘Punch,’ I don’t mean the stuff sluiced around at fraternity mixers — several 1.75-liter handles of whatever hooch is the cheapest, diluted with a random array of sodas and ersatz juices and ladled elegantly forth from a plastic trash can.”
However, that is exactly what I mean.
Like punch, you can probably guess that Maximum Cocktails began as more amateur creations originating in, well, any places where broke, bored, and hard-up young men were forced to live together or gather. You weren’t throwing a jungle juice onto the menu at a supper club in 1950s America. In fact, that concoction would begin in the literal jungle of World War II’s South West Pacific theater as American G.I.s, lacking in commercial booze, started throwing together anything on hand that might ferment.
“It was made in a number of ways and of a variety of ingredients, and in quality it ranged from golden-green fermented brew with a strength of about twenty-five proof to a pale distillate of four times that potency,” claimed a 1945 report of the phenomenon in the The New Yorker.
Writer Malcolm E. Anderson, in a quite frankly racist piece, thought jungle juice showed American “ingenuity” at its finest, among these servicemen stuck in such a dry region compared to their compadres fighting in Italy where good wine was always available, or Belgium and Germany where beer could be hoisted, or even further north toward Japan where sake could be procured.
“It is not surprising, therefore,” wrote Anderson, “that men marooned on such an uncongenial island … and occasionally with quite a bit of time on their hands should begin to experiment with recipes of their own for the manufacture of stimulants.”
Many of these soldiers were from the American South, and thus were familiar with distilling moonshine. The simplest jungle juice was made by drilling holes in a coconut and inserting raisins and sugar — it would be fermented and boozy within a week and produce an “appalling hangover,” a prerequisite for pretty much all Maximum Cocktails to follow.
Other forms of jungle juice would include corn meal, sugar, and yeast fermented in an empty gas drum and then distilled via fire (“made you feel as if the top of your head had suddenly been jerked up several inches” and made drinkers “run completely amok after a few belts”), and another made from dried peaches mixed with raisins and swamp water then aged in discarded wooden barrels.
(It’s no coincidence that “Swamp Water” would become another breed of Maximum Cocktail served at places like Brother Jimmy’s — “64 ounces of pure hell” read the menu description of the vodka and melon liqueur drink in 2003.)
“It is hard to imagine G.I.s who have experienced the rapturous exhilaration produced by (jungle) juice becoming excited over anything as insipid as 3.2 (percent ABV),” wrote Anderson, toward the end of his piece, at the news that beer was just then getting imported to the Pacific. Discharged and living in the states by then, he suspected he would never again taste jungle juice.
And maybe he never did, but in a post-war America, jungle juice and its Maximum Cocktail brethren began to invade the country’s growing frat house scene.
From Hairy Buffalo to Fish Bowls
The scion of a prosperous real estate family in New York, James Goldman acted as social director for his fraternity while attending Duke University in the early 1980s. Back then the frat boys favored something called Hairy Buffalo punch. Taking an entire bottle of Everclear mixed with an entire can of Hawaiian Punch, they’d find the frat brother with the hairiest leg, have him plunge it into the serving vessel (whether an Igloo cooler, a bathtub, or a garbage bag–lined trash can), and then stir up the mixture.
Around this same time, the Des Moines Tribune, in a piece detailing how to make the perfect party punch, noted you should only add Everclear, which was just then becoming ubiquitous across the country, if you wanted to “bring your party to an unseemly end.”
By 1987, Goldman was living in Manhattan, having eschewed law school to instead run a spot called Bear Bar on the Upper West Side. It would offer foosball and other college-type party games, which made him recall his preferred drink from those days as well. He wondered if he could somehow add it to the menu.
“But you can’t put a guy’s hairy leg in a trash can in a New York City bar,” he recalls. “Though I still loved the idea.”
He also loved the idea one of his bar managers had. That man had attended Ithaca College where, instead of Hairy Buffalo punch, frat boys pounded beer out of literal fish bowls. Why not make a smaller Maximum Cocktail that could be served in that unusual vessel? Goldman quickly whipped up a drink that included vodka, lemonade, and blue curaçao for color, and added numerous straws and plastic shark garnishes, their jaws covered in Grenadine to look like blood.
The Shark Bite, served in a fish bowl, was an instant hit among the Upper East Side’s post-college crowd, especially when Goldman shifted the idea to Brother Jimmy’s, which he opened in 1989.
“One day I got a call from [Anchor] Hocking glass. They said, ‘What are you using all these fish bowls for?’” recalls Goldman. Brother Jimmy’s was selling 150 to 200 Shark Bites a night. “They told me I was buying more than Petco.”
By 1992, Brother Jimmy’s had opened a second location in Chicago, then two more in Manhattan. The copycats would soon follow across the country. Why sell drinks piecemeal to 20-somethings hellbent on getting drunk when you could just sell them Maximum Cocktails?
Just as cartographers intentionally added fake towns to their maps in order to catch plagiarizers, Goldman had inadvertently labeled his Fish Bowls as being 60 — not 64 — ounces on Brother Jimmy’s menu. Thus, it was quite easy to find places that had ripped him off. These included small spots like Lulu’s Bait Shack in Atlanta (a Lulu’s location in Ft. Lauderdale currently advertises its “world famous Fish Bowls — 84 oz!”), to the national chain Applebee’s, which currently hawks the gummy shark-garnished Shark Bowl.
“We sued a couple operators, sent cease and desists,” says Goldman. “But it was impossible to control.”
As were Maximum Cocktails, which were taking over the country.
LIT and AMF
Of course, a Maximum Cocktail need not be an oversized communal drink.
By the 1980s and 1990s, a Maximum Cocktail had also become a single-serving libation meant to pack a lot of servings into one glass. The creation of the Long Island Iced Tea is much debated — a place in Long Island, Tennessee inexplicably still tries to claim it — but it is generally credited these days to Robert “Rosebud” Butt of the Oak Beach Inn in Long Island, New York circa 1972.
“The chief characteristic of this export is guaranteed drunkenness, something it has in common with the bridge-and-tunnel crowd that might invade New York City on any given weekend,” writes Alicia Kennedy.
Still, it would remain mostly a provincial cocktail, stuck on Long Island until the mid-1980s or so. By then, The New York Times was reporting on the “potent” new drink sweeping the nation, popular for its intoxicating powers while not tasting like booze. Its often cheap price meant it had also started to become a hit in suburbia and around college campuses.
“[S]ome bartenders and restaurant managers are expressing concern that the drink is so powerful they have to keep an eye on clients and at times cut them off,” wrote Phyllis Bernstein.
Indeed, in college, I, too, favored this mix of every single clear, cheap liquor in the well (vodka, gin, tequila, white rum) plus triple sec and a splash of Coke. I could get an entire pint glass of “LIT” for a mere $5. Three of those, plus tip, would run me less than a $20 bill, all I could afford to spend on a big night out in 1999.
It’s no surprise the viral success of the Long Island Iced Tea would soon inspire other “kitchen sink” Maximum Cocktails, like the Long Beach Iced Tea (cranberry juice instead of Coke), the Tokyo Iced Tea (swap in Midori), the Grateful Dead (Chambord instead of triple sec), and the Adios Motherf*cker, the only variant to nearly enter the cocktail canon itself.
The AMF, as it would come to be known and ordered in polite company, opted for blue Curaçao instead of triple sec and Sprite instead of Coke. Bright blue in color, it quickly gained favor on the West Coast, especially in the countless beach bars in California, which would limit customers to one or two per night.
“It tastes like shit,” a college student from the Los Angeles area once told me. “And I’ve often wondered if the name is a passive aggressive insult toward tourists.”
Adios, Maximum Cocktail
In today’s wintry boozing climate, the Maximum Cocktail has all but been canceled.
Last year, in an article titled “11 Supposedly Fun Things We’ll Never Do the Same Way Again,” The New York Times included “plunging a handful of straws into a giant party cocktail,” noting that they’re “backwash buckets. … If these drinks ever come back, share them only with close roommates.”
Though not your frat brothers because I, likewise, probably don’t need to tell you that Greek life is increasingly under scrutiny these days. Working with colleges, many states like Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland, have even banned Everclear, hoping to combat binge drinking and rape culture.
“The Everclear embargo … is targeted at students who consume the drink at college parties, in a large-scale fruit punch prepared for group consumption known as ‘jungle juice’” explained The Daily Beast in 2014.
Even Brother Jimmy’s eventually classed-up its Trash Can Punch, swapping out the Everclear and replacing the Rubbermaids with giant glass jars. And 2012’s “Brother Jimmy’s BBQ: More Than 100 Recipes for Pork, Beef, Chicken, & the Essential Southern Sides” would even offer a recipe: an entire bottle of white rum, a full 46-ounce can of Hawaiian Punch, 3 cups of Lemon-X brand sour mix, 1 quart of orange juice, with floaters of Myers’s rum, Captain Morgan rum, and Malibu coconut rum.
Maximum Cocktails become a lot less interesting when there’s a formalized recipe (and no one sticking a hirsute appendage in them).
Tastes are changing anyhow, and today’s youthful drinkers seem more interested in fruity beers and hard seltzer than Maximum Cocktails. Soon, they may be mainly talked about by old-timers recalling their salad days of drinking; they’re already being honored in things like 903 Brewers’ Trash Can Punch Gose, a beer released last summer. (It checks in at a hardly Maximum 6.2 percent ABV.)
“We love taking different flavors from our teenage years,” 903 founder/brewer Jeremy Roberts tells me. It sells out within a day every time it’s offered and currently has nearly 2,600 check-ins on Untappd. “At first our customers bought it mainly for just the name, but after they took their first sip they were hooked.”
When I spoke to Goldman in mid-March, he was up in the Inwood neighborhood, on the northwestern tip of Manhattan. It was in the late-afternoon and he was preparing a new cocktail menu for his latest restaurant, The Hudson, a 1,000-seat indoor/outdoor spot on the waterfront pier stretching into the Hudson River. It was once a major party spot known as La Marina, whose constant noise had rankled locals; when Goldman took over the venue in 2019, he made it more family-friendly.
Goldman, now 59 years old, in fact, thought it was funny we were talking about Trash Can Punches and Fish Bowls from his past, while he sampled the more refined cocktails The Hudson would soon be offering once restrictions were lifted. As we chatted, he noted he was sipping on a cocktail that employed a strange, sweet potato liqueur, and he was enjoying it.
“The whole world of chugging and overconsumption changed over the past 15 years,” says Goldman. “We’re drinking a lot less, but drinking a lot better.”