If I had a nickel for every time I was asked “what’s with all the Grand Marnier?,” I’d be comfortably retired by now. The spirit’s presence in Newport is obviously apparent and it’s history in the city by the sea dates back multiple generations. For those of you unfamiliar with the product, Grand Marnier is an orange-flavored French liqueur. Comprised of Cognac brandy, Haitian orange rinds and sugar, this cordial has become a staple in the Newport community and is a favorite shot amongst bartenders and locals alike. So how did a French spirit that was considered an after dinner libation or used in kitchens for desserts become such a fixture in a small New England city? That is something that I decided to investigate for this week’s editorial.
Although there is no clear cut answer as to how Grand Marnier’s rise to prominence and popularity in Newport originated, there are plenty of urban legends and personal anecdotes that help paint a picture of possibility. Perhaps the most rewarding experience while researching information for this article was the opportunity to talk with a handful of local bar legends about this topic and hear nostalgic stories about their past with good old ‘Grand Ma.’
When you think of Grand Marnier, you think of Benjamin’s. The two are synonymous with one another like Peanut Butter is to Jelly. The Grand Marnier bottles that aline the downstairs bar are impossible to ignore, nor is the ridiculous amount consumed by patrons who frequent the popular downtown restaurant. The Grand Marnier Club was founded in 2009 by bartender Christian Schroeder, who wanted a place where other hospitality workers could go to get a shot from their own bottle. Many bars had subsequently starting pulling Grand Marnier off their shelves because it kept disappearing which is still a mystery to this day. Ironically enough, one theory suggests that Grand Marnier became popular in Newport amongst bartenders because it was a bottle that no one would ever check and if they did, you could blame it’s absence on the kitchen. Grand Marnier is popular in dessert cooking, including cakes, crepes and soufflés. Harvey’s Bristol Cream used to be a popular shot amongst New England bartenders as well because local restaurants would serve a shot of sherry with their chowder, making it easy to cover your bases.
The Grand Marnier club has grown from what was once just 20 bottles into what is now over 300. Each year, Benjamin’s hold 3 parties for club members where the first floor is closed to the public, complimentary food is served and Grand Marnier gear is raffled off by the liquor representatives. It’s a great membership to boast if you have one, as space is limited and the wait list is longer than you’d imagine. The club grew rapidly and every once in a while, a special exception was made for someone to join after the list had been closed off. One of those exceptions was Charlie Holder back when the club first started off.
Charlie is the General Manager at Midtown Oyster Bar and a local legend in Newport hospitality. He grew up in the industry and made a name for himself bartending and eventually running the bar at the Atlantic Beach Club. If you know Charlie, you know that he enjoys a shorty or two. Although he will not take credit for starting the tradition of the spirit in his native Newport, it would be imprudent to say that he did not have anything to do with it’s popularity and growth in the bartending community. While working at Oceancliff in the mid 1980’s, Charlie was introduced to the liqueur by the bartenders he was working for as a young bar-back. He recalls that one night, there was a pretty strong hurricane whipping around and the bartenders gave him the task of going outside and retrieving a bottle of Grand Marnier and a case of Heineken from the patio bar, for inventory purposes of course. Since then, Charlie has served as an unofficial ambassador for the spirit and has contributed immensely to the popularity of the product in the local community.
In the mid 1990’s, when things were not quite as rigid and a bit more lassiez-faire, bartenders and servers would bounce around from their bar to another mid-shift, grab a quick shot and say hello. While on shift, bartenders needed a small taste to take the edge off or make time go by much easier. Full shots of ‘Grand Ma’ weren’t necessary because of it’s sweetness and strength but a half shot is just right. Alas, the shorty was born. Bartenders like Frankie, PJ and Dave “Thrillah” Miller down at The Landing along with Charlie and the Atlantic Beach Club crew helped coin the phrase “shorty,” or half shot of Grand Marnier. A shorty is a right of passage these days in Newport and a notion of friendship and hospitality amongst bartenders.
Grand Marnier has spread to other communities as well. One-Eyed Mike’s in Baltimore Maryland is the original and presumably first Grand Marnier club in the world. Mike Maraziti, the owner of the bar, is a Middletown native which is not a random correlation. Killington, Vermont is now a popular place to belly up to the bar and order a shorty, primarily thanks to Kevin Olaynack who lives in Killington seasonally and has worked at the Landing since the early 1990’s when he was introduced to Grand Ma. Naples, Florida has a large following of Grand Marnier fans, thanks to the likes of Tony Raiano, Brian “Coop” Cooper Jr., Jason Holder and of course Charlie Holder, who brought their enthusiasm for the spirit down to Southwest Florida when they lived and worked in that community. If someone has bartended in Newport for a long period of time, they’ve brought their affinity for Grand Ma somewhere else, that’s a guarantee.
Whether you enjoy Grand Marnier or not, it’s impossible to ignore it’s place in Newport bar tradition. In 2011, I was working at The Pier and the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup. No sooner did that last buzzer sound, there were 8 bottles of Grand Marnier strategically placed on the bar. It was one of my first experiences with the sauce and the next morning, I vowed it to be my last. Here we are five years later and I had two shorties this morning while finishing my research for this article. Cheers!
Tyler Bernadyn is a local hospitality professional, bartending at Midtown Oyster Bar Wednesday through Sunday nights on the Burgee Bar and at Caleb&Broad on Monday nights for their award winning $10 entree dinner special.
Tyler is a graduate of Providence College and a true Rhode Islander, born and bred.
Email him at TylerBernadyn@gmail.com and follow him on Instagram at @tylerbernadyn.