The Screwdriver is one of the simplest cocktails known. Just vodka and orange juice. Nothing more. But in terms of impact on the cocktail world, the Screwdriver punched well above its weight. Not only did it spawn a large number of variants, like the Harvey Wallbanger and Sloe Comfortable Screw (see below). But it was also one of a handful of drinks that introduced and popularized vodka to the cocktail world. Without the Screwdriver, we might never have had the Cosmopolitan, the Espresso Martini or the Vesper Martini.
There is a pretty convincing urban legend surrounding the creation and naming of the Screwdriver. Although it is one that seems extremely difficult to verify or precisely date. But first we have to set the stage.
The origin of the cocktail lies in the US. Due to its native produce and its cultural and trading ties to Western Europe and the Caribbean, some spirits and liqueurs have been there since the beginning. Whiskey, brandy, rum and gin formed the basis for the emergence of the earliest cocktails. Vermouth was a later immigrant. But vodka is native to places like Eastern Europe, Russia, Scandinavia and the Baltic States. Areas with historically less trade with and cultural influence on the US.
Bottom line is that vodka was a late arrival on the scene. It wasn’t noticed at all by the cocktail world until the US became a major player in world affairs following the First World War. Only then did American businesses begin to make inroads into world trade. And significant numbers of Americans began to live and work overseas. As they returned they brought home new (to them) and novel ideas and products which entered the great melting pot of American society.
Vodka was one of them.
The earliest encounters of significant numbers of Americans with vodka occurred during the Interwar period. Perhaps in Europe during Prohibition. But it wasn’t until the alliance with Soviet Russia during WWII that vodka became socially acceptable. While the alliance with Russia didn’t long outlast the fall of Nazi Germany, vodka was more successful.
By the time the James Bond novels were being written in the early 1950’s, vodka was well established. But at the time Bond’s choice of a Vodka Martini marked him out as being part of the new generation. Compared to M. His boss from an older generation who resolutely stuck to whisky or brandy.
So it is in this time of the 1930’s, 40’s or perhaps 50’s that the Screwdriver’s origin myth occurs. There are conflicting accounts as to exactly when. But the where is an oil rig in the Persian Gulf which an American company had been contracted to build.
Given the complex nature of the work they brought in their own workmen from the States rather than recruiting local labour. These men were provided with orange juice as part of their diet. This might have been to provide them with sufficient Vitamin C to ensure they didn’t get scurvy like sailors of old. Or perhaps simply because it was a cheap and palatable local beverage.
Naturally the workmen wanted to make their orange juice a little more “interesting”. But out there in the Persian Gulf all they could get hold of was vodka. So vodka went into their orange juice and needed to be stirred. Naturally they used their screwdrivers to stir them and named their creation after their trusty tools.
But “Screwdriver” also became a euphemism. They really weren’t supposed to be drinking on the job. Had their supervisors heard them talking about “vodka and orange” then they might get suspicious and investigate. But a workman talking about his tools? That wouldn’t draw attention.
They soon realized that vodka had an added advantage. Were they to drink gin, rum or whiskey it could be smelled on their breath. Then they’d be in trouble! But the odourless vodka had no such issue. So long as they remained sober enough to work they could get away with it.
As the urban legend goes, when these workmen returned home they had acquired a taste for these “Screwdrivers”. They started to order them in bars and the rest is history. I’ve no idea if the story is true or not. But it’s believable, and a good enough yarn to have entered cocktail myth.
The Screwdriver is so simple a cocktail it barely deserves the title. It is typically served tall, over ice, and is built in the glass. Highball style. With a proportion of one vodka to two to three orange juice.
However, you do occasionally see some being served shorter and straight up. Neo-Martini style. With a proportion of one vodka to one to one and a half orange juice.
All there really is to say about it is that using freshly squeezed orange juice over cartoned juice makes a lot of difference. Go figure…
This very simple start point has resulted in a number of interesting variants. All are pretty much spirit and liqueur topped up with orange juice. However I have to wonder if some of them were created more for their risque names than how good a drink they were.
A Sloe Screw replaces the vodka with sloe gin. Though some recipes use both sloe gin and vodka.
A Comfortable Screw replaces the vodka with Southern Comfort.
A Sloe Comfortable Screw uses vodka, sloe gin and Southern Comfort topped up with orange juice.
And a Sloe, Comfortable Screw up against a Wall sees vodka, sloe gin, Southern Comfort and Galliano topped up with orange juice.
The “Wall” part comes from the most famous of Screwdriver variants: the Harvey Wallbanger.