Suffering Bastard cocktail. Shutterstock image. 2019 bfbs digital hub
Food

How The Suffering B***tard Cocktail ‘Helped The British Beat Rommel' In The Desert

The story of a legendary drink that 'turned the tide' against the Nazis

Suffering Bastard cocktail. Shutterstock image. 2019 bfbs digital hub
Warning: This article contains adult language of a coarse nature unsuitable for younger audiences

There is a crudely-named drink known as the Suffering Bastard that is more than just a cocktail.

It’s a drink with a military attitude that was not only created just for British WW2 soldiers in the desert but has also been credited with giving them the boost they needed to beat the Nazis in North Africa.

Imagine the scene … it’s March 1941 and Hitler’s Commander-in-Chief of the Afrika Korps, Erwin Rommel, is driving British lines from Libya back to Egypt with a series of devasting victories after launching his initial desert attack – strengthening Germany’s resolve and demoralising British personnel.

Many of the British officers holed up in Cairo, spent down time in the city’s leading hotspot, Shepheard’s Hotel, where many of the men complained that few drinks could quench their thirst in the hot desert climate.

Cairo. Shutterstock image. 2019. bfbs digital hub
Cairo, Egypt - Shutterstock image 2019

They also complained of the occasional hangover or two, perhaps also exacerbated by the intense heat, and asked the bartender Joe Scialom – who presided over the Long Bar and who was somewhat of a celebrity – what he could create to take the edge off.

His stock of drinks was a little in short supply as the war reached into 1942 but he was an expert mixologist, so set about working his magic to see what he could create with gin, brandy, English ginger ale and a splash of Angostura bitters.

The result was the Suffering Bastard.

It quickly became the stuff of legend – not only by those sufferers who swore by it as a hair-of-the-dog cure for hangovers, but as a thirst-quencher and morale-boosting pick-me-up in the desert atmosphere.

Desert Egypt. Shutterstock image 2019. bfbs digital hub

The New York Times, in a report in 1959, reported that Jo Scialom had concocted “something to quench the boys’ thirst” when liquor was short during the war. The report read: “He combined equal parts gin and brandy with a dash of Angostura bitters, a teaspoon of Rose's lime juice, and English ginger ale.

"He garnished the drink with a sprig of fresh mint, a slice of orange and a cucumber peel. The bartender advised Americans to substitute ginger beer for the ginger ale because the British version of the soft drink is more heavily seasoned with ginger than ours."

Now, unlikely that it is that a cocktail could change any outcomes of a war, with that down to strategy and the brave, unrelenting determination of the British Armed Forces and their allies, but the Suffering Bastard earned a legendary place in mythical folk history as the drink that turned the tide against Rommel’s forces.

Whether or not the Suffering Bastard played a part, Britain’s luck in the desert battle certainly turned.

Rommel at Al Alamein. Shutterstock image, 2019. bfbs digital hub
Rommel in retreat at the Battle of Alamein

General Bernard Montgomery arrived midway through that year to take command of the Eighth Army – which comprised of seven British divisions and four Commonwealth divisions – galvanising his forces to hold Rommel at Alam Halfa before going on the attack.

By October of that year, Montgomery's forces pushed forward harder, this time attacking in the Battle of Alamein.

Now it was the Germans who were suffering.

Rommel was beaten in a decisive victory for the British and allied forces – forcing the Germans to retreat into Tunisia.

Suffering Bastard cocktail. Shutterstock image. 2019 bfbs digital hub

There are other folklore stories surrounding the drink.

One is that of its alternative name, the Suffering Bar Steward, said to be a less coarse moniker for those easily offended, or perhaps just how its name sounded in a slur after a second round.

The recipe has varied at times, with ingredients such as rum, or brandy instead of bourbon, but the essential recipe is this:

  • Bourbon and gin mixed in equal measures with lime juice added to the mix.
  • Dashings of ginger beer, enough to top up the measure
  • A dash of Angostura bitters

Mix as such:

Bourbon, gin, lime juice and bitters mixed in a shaker with ice.

Shake well until smooth and chilled.

Strain into a glass tumbler.

Top up with ginger beer.

Garnish with a sprig of mint.

The drink earned more acclaim following the war after a version of it won a place on the drinks’ menu at the globally-famous cocktail chain Trader Vic’s.

Barman Joe Scialom was briefly imprisoned in Egypt after the war before he was expelled from the country under the socialist reforms of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

He went on to find work with the Hilton hotel group, working in Paris, Cuba, London, New York and other places, eventually earning a position as a consultant for the Hilton’s beverages strategy and going on to retire in Florida.

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Anyone concerned about their own drinking, or who wants to support family and friends who are drinking, can call the confidential National Drinkline. 

Drinkaware strategic partnerships with the Ministry of Defence and other organisations work to reduce harm from alcohol misuse and to promote healthier lifestyles within the Armed Forces.

For help or support, anyone can call the confidential National Drinkline phoneline 0300 1231110 – Mon – Fri 9am – 8pm, weekends 11am – 4pm.