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A Brief History Of Cocktails

So much of what we do with cocktails today comes from our past. To even begin to understand the craft without studying its beginnings is impossible.


Early alcohol wasn’t the glossy, perfected, regulated product we have today. It was pretty gnarly. To make it more palatable, people began mixing it with pretty much anything. Citrus, sugar, water, eggs, herbs or spices. The earliest example of this was Punch, first seen in Europe in 1632. Punch originated with European explorers (colonisers), who returned from India drinking a concoction of alcohol, lemon, sugar, water and spices. (They used water because they didn’t have access to ice back then). 

Originally, Punch was made with a base of wine or brandy, because in Western Europe they had easy access to grapes. However, not long after they returned from India, those curious explorers had worked out a cheap way of making sugar over in the Caribbean. The mass farming of sugar led to the introduction of rum, which became the new popular base for Punch.

Punch was first served just how you’d expect when you hear the word – in a big communal bowl. However, by the 1700’s, people realised they didn’t need to spend all day drinking in order to get drunk, and wanted a more easily-consumable single serving. This change in service-style led people to transition to the Sling – A single-serve drink made up of a spirit, a sweetener and water (We have Slings today, but they’re very different). 

Between the 1760’s and very early 1800’s, 3 things were developed that aided the creation of cocktails: artificially carbonated water, refrigeration, and the commercial availability of ice.

Four words to live by - Spirit, bitters, sugar, water; but in varying forms and ratios. If chefs have their totem of salt, fat, acid and heat, then bartenders have alcohol, sugar, bitters and water.

The Cocktail: 1806

In 1806 there was the first written reference to The Cocktail, which was bitters, sugar, some water (ice was still very expensive), and a spirit of some kind (frequently Genever). By around the 1860’s, everyone was making their own version of The Cocktail, using all kinds of spirits and bitters combinations. Some used eggs. Some used vermouths. Some used milk. A lot of these drinks didn’t really stand the test of time, but some did. Those that did went on to provide the formats for most cocktails we drink today. They’re known as Root Cocktails.

Angostura Bitters: 1824

Bitters are essentially an incredibly intense infusion of a high ABV spirit. They’re traditionally packed full of herbs, spices and citrus. Angostura Bitters was invented in 1824 by a German doctor who claimed it cured stomach ache, and used by an Englishman in his version of The Cocktail as early as 1826. It became the bitters when make an Old-Fashioned. Until recently, it was the only bitter anyone used. Most bartenders 20 years ago couldn’t name another. Angostura themselves only began production of their second flavour, orange, in 2007. Now, there’s hundreds of brands and flavours out there, and a lot of bars make their own. Bitters are great because they are a versatile way to impart strong flavour without changing the ratios and balance of a drink too much.


Pre-Prohibition: Late-1860's – 1920

Pre-Prohibition cocktails were made with legally imported, regulated spirits. Staple classics were born then – the Martini and the Daiquiri – but so were some cocktails that didn’t achieve the same longevity – Like the Tim and Jack (1 tbsp. cocoa powder, 1 tbsp. sugar, dissolved in a bit of hot water, 45ml Cognac, 45ml dark rum. Topped with warm milk). This era is also the time when bartending and cocktails began to go into print, with some of the most famous cocktail books ever written being published in the second half of the 19th century – Jerry Thomas’ Bar-Tenders Guide: How To Mix Drinks is like the bible to bartenders. A feature of pre-Prohibition-era cocktails is that very few of them involve flavoured syrup - most sweetening either comes from plain sugar or vermouths/liqueurs.

You Might Also Like: The Root Cocktails

Prohibition: 1920 – 1933

Prohibition is when the USA made the production, transportation and consumption of alcohol illegal. Obviously, people still smuggled booze from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, but lots of people began making their own spirits. This was called Moonshine, and it wasn't the highest of qualities. Of course, there were no regulations about what should or shouldn’t be in it, and there was a limited amount of it, so if you made it, someone would buy it, no matter what it tasted like. Before Prohibition, whiskey was rapidly becoming the most popular spirit, but, as Moonshine was all being made on the dodge, people didn’t have time to age their spirits like you would whiskey, so gin became increasingly used – hence more cocktails from the time being gin-based.

Prohibition meant that bartenders either left America for Europe, or stayed and worked illegally in speakeasies. The biggest personnel loss behind American bars was arguably Harry Craddock, who claims to have served the last legal cocktail before the act came into effect. Besides being synonymous with The Savoy Cocktail Book, Craddock worked in iconic bars in both England and America. He became known for the White Lady, and was known to bury tins containing them in the walls of his establishments. Thankfully, this was before they contained egg white.

Because the alcohol in speakeasies was mostly Moonshine, bartenders had to get creative with ways to make it taste good. Where pre-Prohibition cocktails used vermouths and liqueurs to add different flavours, these weren’t as easily-replicated illegally. This saw things like flavoured syrups and fruit juices become common place in cocktails. People genuinely swayed away from stiff, bitter drinks and towards sweet, easy-drinking ones so that they could chug them faster to hide the evidence if the speakeasy got raided.

Some simple but great classics to come out of Prohibition are: Bee’s Knee’s, Chicago Fizz, Monkey Gland, Southside.

An exception to this very general rule is the Sidecar. It uses Cointreau as it’s sweetener, but was invented in the 1920’s. The reason for this, is that it was invented in either London or Paris, (Cognac is the base spirit) where alcohol was still totally legal.


Tiki: 1934 – 1960's

There isn’t really a definitive ‘post-prohibition era’ of cocktails. Beer or straight whiskey was the order of the day for most. However, in 1934, Don The Beachcomber’s opened its doors for the first time. Don’s was a small bar in Hollywood packed with knick-knacks from the owner's time travelling the Caribbean. The people of Hollywood, needing a means of escapism from the depression that was still very much looming over America, loved the place and its laid-back vibe. The shift away from sophistication – floral-shirt-clad bartenders, sexual innuendo’s in the drink's names, and tiki-mugs modelled around culturally-significant iconography – was embraced, as people began to relax about drinking in bars again (they were no longer worrying about speakeasies being raided). 

Tiki drinks were equally as easy-going as the bars they were served in, and a world away from the high-end, classy drinks that were popular in the pre-Prohibition era, with Tiki menus containing a lot of fruit (particularly pineapple) juice, cream of coconut and crushed ice. The popular formula for tiki drinks was one sour, two sweet, three strong, four weak – a far cry from Old-Fashioneds and Martini’s.

For a couple of decades from the late 1930’s to the 1960’s, Tiki was a way of life. Gardens throughout the South-Western states held Luaus with faux-waterfalls and tiki-torches where people, who’d never been behind a bar, thought they could easily replicate bar menus, not realising the complexity behind them. Resorts and hotels tried to capitalise on this popularity by rebranding as Tiki. It’s largely this popularity that led to its downfall. It became synonymous with lounging on a beach all day on holiday, sipping juice-heavy drinks to stay cool and hydrated. While Donn was a genius and could make balanced drinks containing 7 or 8 ingredients, resorts weren’t hiring or creating the best bartenders, and often they masked their lack of knowledge by over-sweetening their drinks, or serving them frozen.

As much as this era is often looked back on as tacky, at its core, there was some great bartending going on. The Tiki drinks that hold the most significance today are arguably the Zombie and the Mai Tai. While the Mai Tai gained traction because of its relative simplicity and closeness to a classic, the Zombie contains 9 ingredients, and because its creator managed to keep it balanced, it remains a well-respected classic today.

Tiki dropped off in the 1960’s, but for the 70’s & 80’s, drinks with heavy Tiki influence, like the Sex On The Beach, Blue Lagoon, B-52 and Long Island Ice Tea were what the general population thought of as cocktails. 

Cocktail Resurgence: 1990’s onwards

The Cocktail Resurgence all started with a guy called Dick Bradsell, who moved to London and started working in his first bar in 1980. While he was working as a barback studying under Ray Cook at Zanzibar, Cook told him to check out The Fine Art Of Mixing Drinks by David Embury. Bradsell took what he learned in this book and ran with it. He’d go on to create the Bramble and the Espresso Martini, and work in iconic bars across the city, eventually having Dick’s Bar (1994) named after him – The opening of which is seen as the beginning of the cocktail resurgence.  

Throughout the mid-late 1990’s, a truly iconic cocktail bar seemed to be opening yearly in both NYC and London (as well as around the world). Bartenders were taking things very seriously; They dressed as they had done in speakeasies; They considered every aspect of what was going into their drinks (ice was being taken to the most serious degree); They were partaking in competitions to compare the standards of their creations rather than their ability to spin bottles; They were writing more and more books about the matter. David Wondrich wrote Imbibe in 2007, which is the most comprehensive delve into cocktail history published to date. He unearthed recipes and techniques no one had seen for a century. For example, he discovered that a Clover Club, something people had been making for years, originally had dry vermouth in. That’s the recipe that the bar The Clover Club (NYC), the authority on the matter, now uses.


This resurgence and hark back to traditional, pre-Prohibition ways of dressing and acting has been reflected in the drinks being passed across the bar. Bartenders were unearthing lost classics that were originally created pre-1933, and revitalising them: The Last Word was basically lost to the world until 2004 when Sam Ross, a bartender in Seattle, found an original copy of a cocktail book from 1951 which referenced it as an already 30-year-old drink. He put it on his menu, it went down well, he pushed it in the right circles and in competitions, and now you can get it in any decent bar on Earth. 

Occasionally, components from the original specs no longer existed, or were near-impossible to get hold of, so bartenders leading the movement had to use their expertise to come up with formulas as close to the original as possible. An example of this is the Vesper Martini, which should contain Kina Lillet. In the time since the Vesper was popularised by Ian Fleming in Casino Royale in 1953, Kina Lillet has stopped being produced, so when bartenders came to trying to recreate it, they turned to Lillet Blanc.

That brings us up to today. Obviously, no one knows how many undiscovered old cocktail recipes there are out there - because they’re undiscovered. However, it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to discover anything massively new by looking into the past anymore – that avenue has likely been exhausted. Some bars take a totally different direction when trying to be innovative – they'll look to bring techniques and elements of science to their drink's menu. Molecular bartending, as it’s known, is splitting opinions between bartenders, as it uses techniques such as flavoured foam canisters, cocktails inside edible bubbles, dry ice and liquid nitrogen in a bid to be at the forefront of where some believe the movement is going. The idea isn’t completely new – layered drinks have been about for decades and were considered pretty technical for their time, but molecular bartending still has its naysayers, who argue that it’s all a bit OTT, and isn’t ‘bartending’ anymore. There is however a great middle-ground, where bartenders are turning to chefs for advice on using ingredients traditionally seen in the kitchen, or they’re teaming up to create a degustation menu of food and cocktails that are paired and served together.



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