The History of Cocktail
Rohan Jelkie takes us back in time with his exploration of the cocktail’s origins
What is your earliest memory of a cocktail? Bloody mary’s on a winter afternoon at the local gymkhana, perhaps? Did you know the bloody mary was created by an American bartender who had to move to Paris because of the Prohibition in the US with vodka made by a Russian fleeing the Bolshevik revolution? Cocktails have a long and colourful history, and many of the drinks we sip on today were created more than 100 years ago. Noted drinks historian and master distiller of Sipsmith gin (an artisanal London gin), Jared Brown, says the cocktail may have originated in the 1200s when the European alchemist Arnaldus de Villa Nova refined the art of distillation and called the liquid obtained through it aqua vitae (water of life). Over the centuries, distillation underwent many further developments. And, as its use spread, the Irish (first) and then the Scots discovered usquebaugh (whisky), the French cognac and armagnac, the Dutch and the English gin, and the Poles and the Russians voda (vodka). These modern spirits formed the base on which cocktails were built.
The cock’s tail
Mixed drinks have been around since the 1500s — mulled wine, sack posset and toddy were being consumed then. But, the term ‘cocktail’ was not coined till later. There are many stories about its origins. One talks of a beautiful girl named Coctel who waited upon the king of Mexico and an American general at a peace treaty signing in the 1800s. One credits the word’s invention to Frenchman Antoine AmédéePeychaud, the creator of Peychaud’s Bitters, who would serve a concoction of the bitters and brandy as a remedy for a bad stomach in an eggcup, called a coquetier in French.
The most popular story is about French soldiers helping Americans fight for independence in the 1770s. A barmaid named Betsy Flanagan served them drinks decorated with brightly-coloured feathers from a rooster — from a cock’s tail.
One of the first recorded appearances of the word cocktail in print was in a New York newspaper called the Balance & Columbian Repository, on May 13, 1806. A cocktail was described as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters — it is vulgarly called a bittered sling.” Drink historians and authors Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller found the word in a 1798 edition of a London newspaper called the Morning Post & Gazetteer. It appears in reference to a politician’s debt at a pub near Downing Street.
America’s golden age
In the early 1800s, sazerac (rye whiskey or cognac with absinthe and bitters) and brandy crusta (cognac, Grand Marnier and Maraschino) were created in New Orleans. In the 1850s, the whiskey sour appeared. Then, the first bottles of vermouth landed on American shores and a cocktail of rye whiskey and vermouth called the Manhattan appeared. Bartender and author of The Joy of Mixology, Gary Regan says the Manhattan was the very first cocktail to use vermouth. “From it were born the martinez and the martini.”
Early American cocktails used mainly cognac, rum or American whiskey. The only white spirit used was gin. Vodka, now the base of many popular cocktails, was not in the picture yet. In 1862, the first ever book on bartending, The Bartender’s Guide by Jerry Thomas, was published. Thomas, popularly known as The Professor, is often called the godfather of the American bartending industry. His book had some of the earliest recipes for homemade bar syrups, bottled cocktails and jello shots. In 1882, Harry ‘The Dean’ Johnson, another important figure in the history of American bartending, published the Bartender’s Manual. It contained the earliest known reference to the classic gin martini, stirred, not shaken.
The 1800s were a golden era for cocktails in the USA. Bartending was among the highest-paying professions. Thomas was one of the most influential people in San Francisco and, reportedly, earned more than the vice president. Bear in mind that bartenders then did not have access to readymade syrups or purees; everything was prepared from scratch. The drinks they created are still drunk today.
Even the ice used in a cocktail was given a lot of attention then. In their two part encyclopaedic discourse on spirits and cocktails, Spirituous Journey: A History of Drink, Brown and Miller tell us that in the 1830s, ice blocks were carved out of frozen lakes in Boston and shipped to America’s southern states and Cuba. This ice would eventually make it all the way to Calcutta, where the British would use it to chill their wines and beers. Tell your local bartender that the next time he behaves miserly with ice.
Crossing the Atlantic
The cocktail industry lost momentum when the Temperance Movement swept the United States in the early 1900s. It led to prohibition in the USA, which outlawed the sale, consumption, production and transportation of alcohol in the US, and lasted from1920 to 1933. Bootlegged alcohol became popular, and many distillers left the big cities to distil in forests or in Canada and then smuggle the alcohol back into the US. This gave rise to a phenomenon called rum running, which referred to the bootleggers trying to evade the excise officers. Many of America’s first NASCAR racers were rum runners during the prohibition.
America’s famous bars were replaced by illegal ones, called speakeasies. While some bartenders found other careers, some migrated to Europe and took jobs in bars in big cities such as London and Paris. Very soon, American drinkers who couldn’t do without their old fashioneds and martinis sought out these bars. Thus, London and Paris got their first ‘American bars’. Bars at glitzy hotels, such as the Savoy, in London, or the Ritz, in Paris, became a mecca of cocktails.
The Bloody Mary
In 1917, a vodka distiller named Vladimir Smirnov, fleeing the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, arrived in France. In 1920, he started producing and selling vodka in western Europe under the French spelling of his name, Smirnoff. A year later, a simple drink consisting of vodka and tomato juice caught the fancy of cocktail drinkers at a Paris bar named Harry’s New York Bar. Very soon, flavourings such as Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco were added to the recipe, and thus was born the bloody mary, arguably the first vodka cocktail ever mixed.
Vodka takes over the world
Prohibition ended in 1933, but the second world war meant times remained tumultuous for the liquor industry in the US. It was only after it that vodka entered America. It had its work cut out to find footing in a country that guzzled copious amounts of beer, whiskey and rum. At the time, rum-based Polynesian Tiki cocktails, such as the mai tai and planter’s punch, were all the rage in North America.
In the 1950s, some young Americans took to drinking vodka mixed with ginger ale, a drink called the Moscow mule. Then, in 1962, a certain British spy announced to movie goers on both sides of the Atlantic that he liked his martinis with vodka, shaken, not stirred, and vodka was the new favourite ingredient in cocktails. More cocktails have been fixed with vodka than any other spirit in the past two decades.
In 1979, a Swedish vodka brand called Absolut entered the US. Seven years later, it launched the world’s first flavoured vodka, Peppar, flavoured with pepper, and followed it with one flavoured with lemon (Citron). In 1990, famous New York bartender Toby Cechinni fixed a drink at his bar (Odeon) consisting of Absolut Citron, Cointreau, cranberry juice and lemon juice. Mixologist Dale Degroff, also known as King cocktail, made the same drink for pop diva Madonna at his bar in New York and added a flambéed orange peel to it. Thus was born the Cosmopolitan.
Quantity over quality
The emergence of bar chains, such as Thank God it’s Friday, in the early 1990s, somewhat corrupted the cocktail. Instead of finely crafted drinks served in sleek glassware, there were quickly put-together mixes served in crude pitchers. Customers got value for money, but the art of mixing drinks was nearly lost.
The past 13 years or so have seen the creation of modern classics, such as the breakfast martini (a gin martini with marmalade), invented by Salvatore Calabrese at the Library Bar in London, and the appearance of artisanal bars, such as the Milk & Honey in New York.
Matthew Pomeroy, the global brand ambassador for Absolut Vodka, says the past 10 years has seen a rebirth of artisanal drinks. “A new focus on freshly-squeezed juices and fresh herbs has elevated the art of bartending to a new level,” he says, “while the internet and reprints of old cocktail books allow modern bartenders to read and research the old classics.”
Cocktails have come a long way since the first time they were mixed. They have helped the food and beverage industry to grow, created employment and, most importantly, have helped people bond. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to sip on my old fashioned while I read The Deans of Drinks, a book about two early 1900 bartenders Harry Johnson and Harry Craddock.
Rohan Jelkie is the senior manager of beverage education and training at Tulleeho!