Of all the strange cul-de-sacs of European aristocracy, one of the most bizarre is Ferdinand Maximilian Josef, an Austrian prince whom Napoleon III installed as Emperor of Mexico in 1860s, and who was overthrown and killed three years later.
Born into the House of Hapsburg, Maximilian was the son of Princess Sophie and Archduke Franz Karl. Karl, the shallow end of an already-inbred gene pool, has been charitably characterized as “an amiably dim fellow whose main interest in life was consuming bowls of dumplings drenched in gravy.” But his issue were keen indeed. Maximilian’s older brother, Franz Joseph was the star of the family, pushing his dumpling-loving father out of the way to become the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, and ruling with a strong hand for almost 68 years. Maximilian was not to be totally left out, however. He was appointed Viceroy of the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, two regions of Italy that had come under Austro-Hungarian control. Then things got weird.
In 1861 Mexico defaulted on its debt following a civil war. Then, as now, sovereign debt defaults were a big deal. But back then, they didn’t mess around with ratings agencies and tweaks to monetary policy. Spain, France, and Britain all readied plans to invade, and rushed their fleets to the waters off Veracruz. France took the lead as the repo man, and landed troops to seize the country by force. The invading French troops suffered an initial defeat at the Battle of Puebla on, you guessed it, Cinco de Mayo. But reinforcements soon arrived, and France foreclosed on Mexico.
Rather than rule it directly, Napoleon III offered the crown to Maximilian, who accepted and became Emperor Maximiliano I of Mexico. It was seen as an untenable position based on the political instability of the country, and Maximilian was dubbed “the Archdupe.” Indeed, he didn’t last long. The United States had been a bit preoccupied during the early 1860s, but, once it focused on this direct European intrusion into its sphere of influence, pace Monroe, it began a program of covert funding for Mexican rebels. Maximiliano was overthrown, and executed by firing squad, an event famously captured by Manet.
To celebrate this obscure pageant of historical trivia, I was inspired to create an FP original cocktail that could somehow stir together these disparate historical themes into a delicious libation.
The Maximilian Affair
1 oz. mezcal (sugg. Los Amantes)
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. Nardini Rabarbaro
Stir furiously with ice; strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
A variation on a Negroni, certainly. Both the Campari and the rabarbaro are associated with Lombardy and the Veneto, regions once administered by Viceroy Maximilian. Rabarbaro is a unique amaro made from Chinese rhubarb, with an earthy, almost mineral quality that plays well with the char of the mezcal. If you can’t find Nardini, another brand available in the States is Zucca. In a pinch, you can substitute another amaro, e.g. Ciocaro, or sweet vermouth with an extra dash of bitters. The mezcal, of course, speaks to Maximilian’s ill-fated adventures in Mexico, as does the dash of molé bitters.
The drink has a smoky, bitter sophistication evocative of the strange and unique history of good old Maximiliano and his clan. As you’re drinking it, one last anecdote. At his execution, the Emperor paid the firing squad a sum of gold to not shoot him in the face, so that his mother could view his body. They took his money. Then they shot him in the face anyway. Afterwards, his body eventually made its way back to Austria, and was buried in the Hapsburg imperial crypt in Vienna.