Probably most of us have had at least a few Harvey Wallbangers over the years. My first was served out of a huge plastic trash can at a frat party in Geneva, NY back in the early 1980′s. My most recent was at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail® in New Orleans where it was served at one of the many parties. But, few of us know the true story behind this variation on a Screwdriver. Fellow writer Robert Simonson penned the following article a few years ago and uncovered the fascinating man behind the myth. So, make yourself a H.W. and spend a few minutes with a legend.
Searching for Harvey Wallbanger by Robert Simonson
The Harvey Wallbanger has one of the most memorable names in cocktail history. And one of the worst reputations.
A mix of vodka, orange juice and Galliano, it was one of the preeminent drinks of the 1970s, a decade recognized by drink historians as the Death Valley of cocktail eras—a time of sloppy, foolish drinks made with sour mix and other risible shortcuts to flavor, and christened with foolish monikers like Mudslide and Freddie Fudpucker.
Not that Harvey Wallbanger is one of those. It’s actually got one of the best—and most unforgettable—handles in the annals of mixed drinks. This may be why it’s survived long enough to be reappraised. Shortly after Galliano reconfigured its recipe a couple of years ago, returning the Italian liqueur to its original formula, mixologists began to sneak the drink back on respectable lists.
This is all good news for Donato “Duke” Antone, the largely forgotten bartender who, according to longstanding legend, is the creator of the Wallbanger, as well as a number other two-ingredient wonders of the time, like the Rusty Nail and White Russian. Antone, the oft-repeated story goes, ran Duke’s “Blackwatch” Bar on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood in the 1950s. The few biographical facts that pop up again and again tell us that he was the brother-in-law of one-term New York State Senator Carlo Lanzillotti, and that he managed featherweight boxer Willie Pep, a childhood friend. He died In 1992 at the age of 75, according to an obit in the Hartford Courant. At the time he was the retired headmaster of the Bartending School of Mixology in Hartford. The Courant notice repeated the claims that he invented the Wallbanger, Rusty Nail, as well as the Flaming Caesar and many other drinks.
So, did he? As much as we hate to doubt a WWII vet and “the recipient of two silver stars, two bronze stars, two Purple Hearts and a Croix de Guerre” (the Courant), the bartending profession has a long history of credit-grabbing. The provenance of almost every famous cocktail is clouded by the claims and counterclaims of various barmen. Even Jerry Thomas, the father of modern mixology, wasn’t above a fib or two.
Certainly, all the drinks associated with Donato display the same, ham-fisted modus operandi. Take a potent, straightforward base spirit (vodka, whiskey), throw in a taste-profile-dominating liqueur (Galliano, Drambuie, Amaretto, Kahlua), maybe some juice or cream, and presto: new drink! But few figures in bartending history can lay their hand to so many famous drinks, so one doubts Donato invented all of them. So this article will concentrate on clearing away as much fog as possible from the most frequent cited of his children.
According to folklore, Donato invented the Harvey Wallbanger in 1952. It is said he named it after a Manhattan Beach surfer and regular named Tom Harvey—a man about whom we can find nothing. But the cocktail didn’t become popular until the early 1970s. This sudden reversal of fortunes coincides with the arrival of George Bednar, who in 1966 became marketing director of McKesson Imports Co., an importing company that handled Galliano. Previously, the liqueur had a staid ad campaign that featured the line “Fond of things Italiano? Try a sip of Galliano.” Bednar somehow found the Wallbanger and hoisted it up the barroom flagpole. The original ads pushed the drink as a replacement at brunch for the Bloody Mary. Round about late 1969, a rather pained-looking, sandal-wearing mascot named Harvey Wallbanger appeared. His line: “Harvey Wallbanger is the name and I can be made!”
And, boy, did the world make him! Soon, reports were cropping up of bowls of Wallbangers being consumed at Hamptons parties and on Amtrak trains. Harvey Wallbanger cakes were sold. A Puli named after the drink won dog shows. By 1976, Holland House was putting out a Wallbanger dry mix and pre-blended bottles of the cocktail were sold. Riding this wave, Galliano became the number one most imported liqueur during Me Decade, exporting 500,000 cases a year to the U.S. (You’d think the Galliano people—the liqueur is now owned by Lucas Bols—would be interested in the origins of their most famous drink. But the company, while curious, had little or no information to offer about the Wallbanger or Donato.)
Antone, however, is difficult to find during this heyday. He’s not quoted or mentioned in articles or advertisements. The California ABC office can find no listing for a bar called Duke’s “Blackwatch” Bar on Sunset. (To be fair, their computer records are not complete.) Neither do L.A. guides or newspapers from the time mention it. Given that the drink rose to fame with the arrival of Bednar, one can’t help but suspect that good old Harvey was the invention of the Galliano marketing department, and that Antone had nothing to do with it.
The flaw in that theory lies in the Courant obit, which indicates that Antone himself never denied creating the drink. So what came first, the Blackwatch or the Bednar?
I dug up a number of answers in the back pages of the Hartford Courant, which printed a few stories on Antone over the years. It even ran a photo or two, provided pictorial evidence that a short, balding man with thick, black-framed glasses named Donato “Duke” Antone did indeed breathe air. A 1966 Courant article about Antone’s bartending school, located on Farmington Avenue, tells us that he was born in Brooklyn in a Italian-Jewish neighborhood, ran liquor for bootleggers as a youngster, had his first legal bartending job at a place called Diamond Jim Brady’s, and was he was “a likable, fast-talking Runyoneseque character.”
Turns out, there’s a good reason you can’t find evidence of Antone and the Blackwatch Bar in Los Angeles during the 1950s and ’60s. It’s because the man was living in Hartford that entire time. The 1966 Courant piece says he founded his school in 1949 “after he found, when working in Las Vegas, that it was difficult to find good bartenders,” and that it “took him 14 years to perfect the school’s curriculum.” Those would be the years when he was supposed mixing up Harvey Wallbangers for beach bums.
The 1966 story identifies Antone as the author of some new drinks—including the Italian Fascination, which “has won prizes” and “contains Galliano, Kahlua, triple sec and sweet cream”—but the Wallbanger is not mentioned as one of them. However, in a subsequent 1970 Courant story (about how Antone taught his trade to his 12-year-old son!), Antone gets full credit for the Wallbanger. Of course, by that time, the drink was gaining fame and popularity. So what happened between those two date lines?
This sentence in a 1977 Courant piece, in which Antone is “retired,” might hold the key: “Antone…has not limited himself to mixing drinks. Rather, he has been active in all aspects of the liquor industry ranging from restaurant design to marketing.”
“Marketing”! OK, theory time. Could it be that George Bednar, newly hired at McKesson in 1966 and looking for a way to boost Galliano sales, read about Antone’s Galliano-heavy Italian Fascination cocktail, and then traveled up to Hartford to see if the bartender, for a fee, could come up a few more cocktails featuring the liqueur? (Around this time, Antone also invented Freddie Fudpucker, basically a Harvey Wallbanger with tequila.) The tale of the Blackwatch Bar, phantom surfer Tom Harvey, and the sudden appearance of the Wallbanger cartoon figure—that could all well be examples of Bednar and Antone’s marketing acumen. One can see how the two men might have bonded. Antone was a boxing man, and Bednar played football for Notre Dame and the St. Louis Cardinals in the mid-’60s. Booze and sports. They were made for each other.
Noted cocktail historian David Wondrich—who, as it turns out, has been doing his own digging in the Wallbanger—pointed out the Harvey surfer character had been designed by commercial artist name Bill Young, at Galliano and McKesson’s behest. The cartoon figure hit the U.S. like a lava flow in late 1969, “pop art posters, bumper stickers, buttons, crew shirts, mugs and the whole bit,” according to an Oct. 30, 1969, San Antonio Light article uncovered by Wondrich.
“I wonder what the execs at McKesson thought in 1969,” mused Wondrich, “when Bill Young showed them the dopey little cartoon surfer he had come up with, complete with a dopey name, ‘Harvey Wallbanger,’ and an equally dopey slogan, ‘I can be made.’ I doubt they realized what they were in for. With Young’s Harvey to blaze the way, Antone’s simple—even dopey—drink would go on to be the first drink created by a consultant to actually take the nation by storm.”
By 1981, Duke had opened a new academy, Antone’s School of Mixology, and was full-on boasting that he was the genesis of “the Harvey Wallbanger, the Rusty Nail, the White Russian and the Kamakazi, as well as the Freddie Fudpucker.” The reporter of that account, sticking in the word “claims” a couple of times, seemed disinclined to believe him.
Do I believe him? Well, I never had much faith in the story of the Harvey Wallbanger’s creation. (A surfer at Manhattan beach going all the way to Sunset Boulevard for a drink? A Italian-American who gives his bar a Scottish name?) But I do believe Antone had something to do with creating the cocktail. To paraphrase the cartoon Harvey, “cocktail history is the game, and I can be made up.”
Robert Simonson writes about spirits, cocktails and wine for such publications as The New York Times, Imbibe, Edible Brooklyn and Manhattan, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and GQ. He holds an advanced certificate from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, and another from the Beverage Alcohol Resource. He was nominated for 2012 Spirited Award for Best Cocktail Writing. Follow him on Twitter: @RobertOSimonson