HAPPY HOUR HISTORY: THE UNTOLD HISTORY OF THE COCKTAIL
Who crafted the first-ever cocktail? The truth is we may never know but in this article David Mayne from Happy Hour History, explores the origins of cocktails and the classic serves that continue to shape the drinks and techniques we use today.
ENTER THE COCKTAIL
As David Wondrich famously said, “Cocktails were for drinking, not chronicling.” And while we may not be able to trace the origins and people behind the first cocktail exactly, there are some moments in history that leave some hints. The term cocktail, for example, was first recorded in a written document in 1806. The Balance & Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York mentioned and later defined the cocktail as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters”. It later became known as the Old Fashioned.
But the origins of similar drinks go back further. Punches came into existence in the 1600s, for instance. Colonial Americans and others were imbibing many alcohol-laden mixtures before then, including Juleps, Flips, Sligs, Cobblers and Smashes and my personal favorite, by concept only, the Cock Ale. It dates back to the 17th century and was made with boiled rooster, ale, sherry and herbs. The concoction was said to be good for the humours. There is also some speculation that the name cocktail was derived from it.
ENTER THE COCKTAIL SUPERHEROS
You may have heard the phrase ”history is written by the winners”. I would say history is written by those who have paper nearby and our “History” tends to be biased toward whoever wrote it down first.
In 1862, Jerry Thomas, published The Bartenders Guide: How to Mix Drinks or A Bon Vivant's Companion. Many others were making ‘Cocktails’, but Jerry wrote it all down and codified the history of mixed drinks up to that point.
This was followed in 1869 by the first British book to include cocktail recipes: William Terrington's Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks. Now let’s jump ahead to 1930 when Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book was published. It has rightfully become a bible of sorts, but again it’s because Harry did the hard work writing it down and promoting it that we now embrace it. Other cocktail books were written earlier, including one in 1917 by Tom Bullock, an African American. He was a well-regarded bartender at St. Louis Country Club where he served elite white patrons. Unfortunately for Tom, Prohibition and institutional racism got in the way of his career and he never achieved notoriety.
Our written history is very Eurocentric which begs the question on whether there are missing gems to be found in Asia, Africa and elsewhere? What about all those cultures that were based on oral traditions rather than written records. What have we missed?
Early American distillers employed enslaved black people, and some were master distillers. Don’t you think that they may have taken those spirits back to their meager homes and created mixed drinks, some probably quite good? But it wasn’t written down.
Truth is there are some things we will just never know, but there are plenty of books around the world that are not as well-known as those mentioned above, maybe for good reason, but for those of you interested in vintage cocktail books, you can now access digitized cocktail books.
THE GOLDEN AGE
Thanks to a number of intrepid, late 20th century bartenders who looked to the past, we experienced a cocktail renaissance that brought us to where we are now. We live in a golden age of cocktail creativity, with a solid historical foundation. All kinds of tasty new drinks are possible. Yet there is still a strong desire to imbibe classics like the Old Fashioned, Mint Julip, Manhattan, Side Car and The Moscow Mule.
The reason takes us back to where we started with the first-named cocktail, the Old Fashioned. It’s an American original that has journeyed across both the space and time of the American landscape evolving unique personalities as it went. Looking at you Wisconsin with your brandy, fruit and soda.
The Old Fashioned has become the benchmark of a solid cocktail and a good bartender. The internet is partially to blame. It brought about a more sophisticated consumer who is more demanding about what goes into their cocktail. Within the simplicity of the Old Fashioned’s ingredients there exist numerous opportunities for creativity. Bartender’s happily complied with homemade bitters, fancy ice options, different kinds of sugars, special presentations and all the myriad choices provided by the explosion of high-quality spirits from whiskey to bourbon and beyond.
Another factor of the enduring success of all these classics is that people enjoy listening to stories about them. Sharing those tales adds to the communal enjoyment of them. Not every classic cocktail is balanced to today’s palate, but as our tastes and knowledge continue to evolve so too will our versions of these drinks.
So where do we go from here? I say backward and forwards. History is important but the cultural bias of western history has cut us off from many possible cocktails, spirits and traditions. The stories of nearly forgotten women and people-of-color bartenders and their cocktails may still be out there. As are ideas from other cultures previously neglected. I offer this as a challenge; Look to the past, get inspired by classic cocktails, then trust in your own ideas. Find ways to add a modern spin or do something completely new and amazing. I look forward to trying them. Cheers!
- Cocktails were first named in 1806 but their history goes back further.
- The history of the cocktail is largely dictated by written records.
- Lesser well-known cocktail books are more accessible and available online today.
- Modern cocktails are built on the foundations of the classics with a modern spin.
- Be inspired by classic cocktails and find new ways to improve them.