The Story Behind The Test Pilot
If God wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings, and maybe a cocktail for some extra confidence. And what better drink to help prepare for liftoff other than the Test Pilot? This aviation-themed tiki classic blends a battalion of spirits and liqueurs with a bit of lime juice for zing. It’s boozy with a capital B, and boasts a spicy vanilla medley on the nose supported by an anise undertone courtesy of Pernod Pastis.
The Test Pilot was created by tiki legend Donn Beach at his since-shuttered California restaurant and bar Don the Beachcomber in the 1930s. One early iteration calls for grape juice and honey, but both of those ingredients have been omitted in modern specs (Beach was known to tweak his recipes over time). Trader Vic’s 1972 adaptation from his book “Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide” subs lemon juice for lime and strips the recipe of Pernod and bitters, making for a sweeter, high-acid alternative.
In the ‘30s and ‘40s, jet engine technology was booming and commercial aviation was becoming increasingly common. This revolution inspired the advent of many themed cocktails from the Air Mail to Beach’s Q.B. Cooler and Vic’s PB2Y Gremlin, which is named after both the PB2Y Coronado bomber plane and the mythical gremlins that were blamed for mechanical problems on aircrafts during World War II. Beach himself even took a hiatus from bartending to join the U.S. Air Force before returning to start a new tiki enterprise dubbed the Polynesian Village, having already handed the reigns of all Don the Beachcomber locations to his ex-wife Sunny Sund. In 1958, the Test Pilot got another makeover at the Luau, Steve Crane’s Beverly Hills tiki bar. That riff, known as the Jet Pilot, skips the Cointreau, but adds grapefruit juice and cinnamon syrup to the mix.
Our Test Pilot recipe below is near-identical to Beach’s 1941 recipe, as documented by fellow tiki icon Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. The drink employs a bunch of crushed ice, so we toned the lime juice down a bit to let the spirits shine and allow natural dilution to offset the high alcohol content. Since absinthe was illegal when the cocktail was created, Pernod Pastis is the anise liquor of choice here, but feel free to swap in actual absinthe. On that note, the six drops of Pernod may seem inconsequential, but its flavor is so potent that overdoing it by just a little can hijack the drink’s flavor profile.