Though he hasn’t lived in Newport, R.I. since 2008, whenever Luke Schmuecker returns to town, every bartender seems to remember him. They offer him his first GrandMa, or a half-shot of Grand Marnier, the orange-flavored, Cognac-based liqueur, on the house.
Schmuecker first encountered the GrandMa tradition while attending Salve Regina University in the early aughts. Today it is ubiquitous in the Rhode Island town, an immediate show of local hospitality.
“I thought it was weird when I was in college,” he explains. He now lives in California and is a partner in Shacksbury Cider. “Even when I was young I didn’t think of it as a base spirit,” he says. “Like, I knew you could take a shot of whiskey or tequila. But the idea of taking a GrandMa shot is still so weird and random.”
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Grand Marnier, or “GrandMa,” often gathers dust on lower bar shelves across America. Not so in Newport, a tony, East Coast summer destination where GrandMa pours started as a late-night industry shot and have since become the official drink of the entire 25,000-person town.
“Newport has over 80 bars and restaurants; so the workers form a tight little community,” explains Tyler Bernadyn, a longtime resident and bartender at places like Caleb & Broad and Zelda’s. “A [GrandMa] shot is almost like a friendly handshake.”
The most handshakes in town (if not the entire country) are dispensed at Benjamin’s Raw Bar, a tri-level seafood restaurant in downtown Newport, where Grand Marnier bottles line the back bar, shelves, and even ceiling. Open until 1:00 a.m. most nights, Benjamin’s Raw Bar became a popular post-shift hangout for area bartenders after it was purchased by Paul Boardman III and John and Karen DeWittin 2007.
So much so that, in 2009, a longtime Benjamin’s bartender, Christian Schroeder, started a Grand Marnier Club. Today it numbers over 300, all of whom are allowed to permanently store their own bottle of GrandMa at the bar for friends and guests. Membership is currently closed, and there’s a waitlist of over 100. New spaces rarely open.
GrandMa has infiltrated other parts of Benjamin’s menu, too. There’s an “Oh No” Mimosa with Grand Marnier, and a smoked Cornish game hen prepared with a Grand Marnier glaze. You can even supplement your prime rib with Grand Marnier onions for an extra $2.50.
“Benjamin’s made Newport go from a town that simply enjoyed it, to a place that embodies Grand Marnier,” Bernadyn says. A place where Grand Marnier neons light up numerous restaurant windows and backbars. Where men wear Grand Marnier hats and women Grand Marnier swimsuits. Where, when their beloved Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, Grand Marnier was passed around in celebration like popped bottles of Champagne. Says Bernadyn, “It was a pretty big progression”
How did all this come to be?
“I’ve heard the stories of Grand Marnier being the bartenders’ shot of choice going back to the late ‘60s,” says Charlie Holder, a native of Newport who started barbacking at local bars as a 13-year-old in 1983. By age 17, he was bartending at the famed OceanCliff resort where he was finally introduced to Grand Marnier, which was often slugged straight from the bottle. “The bartenders at this time basically did two kinds of shots: Peppermint Schnapps or, for the real men and women, GrandMa.”
Like Holder, who is now the operations manager at Newport’s Midtown Oyster Bar & Surf Club, the other “old salty dog” locals, as Bernadyn calls them, don’t seem to know GrandMa’s exact origins. It’s always just been a thing in Newport, they say.
Bernadyn has been told it goes all the way back to when French sailors were landing in Newport — tired and cold, they’d order a familiar “shine” from their native land to quickly warm up. Although Newport does remain a very French-influenced town — a monument to General Rochambeau is located on the waterfront — that seems unlikely; the key arrival of the French in Newport started in 1780. Grand Marnier wasn’t even created by founder Louis-Alexandre Marnier Lapostolle until 1880.
It might be impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when Grand Marnier blew up in Newport, but the reason why is easier to discern. Because Grand Marnier comes in a dark bottle, Schmuecker says, you can never really tell how much is left. Thus, it became popular among bartenders because it was a bottle their bosses could never really monitor all that closely. (“It was a great way to kinda hide what you’re drinking,” adds Bernadyn.) Even if they did, you could always blame its diminishing liquid levels on the kitchen.
After all, even today, Grand Marnier is used in classical-seeming desserts like crepes and soufflés (or, at Benjamin’s, their Grand Marnier Chocolate Cheesecake and Chocolate Grand Marnier Mousse).
“And it’s just so sweet, which makes it such a weird, impractical shot,” adds Schmuecker. “You’re going to OD on sugar before you get drunk.”
That’s why most locals take half-shots, popularly known as “shorties,” a slang term Bernadyn credits to Holder and a few others veteran bartenders. (Bernadyn claims there’s no need to even ask for “GrandMa,” simply ordering a “shorty” will get you what you want. A shorty runs around $4 to $5.)
These days, Grand Marnier’s parent company, Campari, which acquired Grand Marnier from the family in 2016 for around $750 million, is trying to shy away from the liqueur’s reputation as a shot. It’s introduced higher-end products like Cuvée du Centenaire and the $800 bottle Quintessence.
Campari’s ambition to turn Grand Marnier into a snifter sipper or high-end cocktail ingredient may eventually work in most of the world, but locals say it will never fly in Newport. “There’s no other city where if you walk into a bar and are like, ‘Can I get a GrandMa shot?’ they’d be like, ‘Yeah of course,’” Schmuecker says.
Well, that’s not exactly true. The first Grand Marnier club in America was actually started in Baltimore by a former Newport native, Mike Maraziti. When opening his One-Eyed Mike’s in 2003, he wanted a unique hook and so he launched this members-only GrandMa bottle club. It was an immediate hit among local industry people, eventually growing to 2,500 members and accounting for 20 percent of the bar’s overall sales. Maraziti sold his bar in 2016 and sadly died earlier this year, but the club still remains in existence.
Grand Marnier shots are also a bit of a “thing” in Charleston, S.C., another touristy town with a decent-sized bar and restaurant industry. It was started in the mid-1990s by chefs slugging GrandMa minis, long after Newport was already on the bandwagon. Though, according to some locals, the rise of Fireball has all but made the Grand Marnier tradition disappear in the Holy City.
GrandMa shorties persevere in Newport, though. Right now, with another summer in full swing, seasonal tourists might be visiting the town for the first time this weekend, surprised at what the habitués are pounding.
“People coming in from out of town, they’ll walk into bars and see people ordering GrandMa,” Bernadyn says. “You see them all look around like, ‘What the hell is going on here?’”