Nothing sums up the perfect hospitality experience like a cocktail. Whether you are sipping a fragrant and tropical Piña Colada on a warm, sandy beach in Mexico, or you are nursing a rustic, elegant Old Fashioned by the fireplace in an Aspen resort. The perfectly blended flavours and ingredients all combine together to create an unforgettable experience that you won’t soon forget. While many may think that the history of cocktails dates to around the same time people decided to mix one drink with another (I mean that is the basic concept of a cocktail, no?) The history of mixology actually is much more recent and a little more complicated than that. So sit back and relax and let me take you through it!
As I mentioned before, the idea of mixing drinks together has been a concept of the classic bar since there have been different drinks to mix. A couple of examples of the predecessors of cocktails are: Slings Toddies, Fizzes and Julipes. All of these concoctions are mixed drinks that predate the word “cocktail” so what sets them apart?
Well, the term “cocktail” had been bouncing around a lot in the early 1800’s, but it was truly defined by the newspaper The Balance and Columbian Repository who pinned down what we call today as a cocktail; “a stimulating liquor composed of any kind of sugar, water and bitters”. There are three reasons why this definition is significant to mention:
1) while the word “cocktail” is impossible to pin down in its origin, this would be the first time that it appeared in conventional print.
2) The inclusion of bitters (an alcoholic mixer that is characterised by numerous herbs and spices giving the mix a bittersweet and complicated taste) was a new concept among mixed drinks in the USA at the time. Giving a huge distinction to the term “cocktail” and other similar drinks
3) The inclusion of the word “stimulating” is a perfect reference to what most mixologists strive towards in their craft, as the cocktail was distinct in being more than simply a beverage but a way to tell the story that the creator wanted to tell.
It was under this new and powerful definition that the base of the modern cocktail was built.
Now, let’s go through a quick scenario: you are hosting a garden party (look at you, so popular and fancy!) and are currently setting up the bar area but oh wait! The ice isn’t here, what are you going to do?.. Odds are, you either have some in the freezer or can buy some at the convenience store for less than a bottle of juice. However, this wasn’t an option for those in the early 1800’s.
While ice was generally stored from the winter months in designated “ice houses” across the country
. In most of the USA (especially the hotter Southern states) this was a luxury that very few could afford. That was, of course, before the Ice King entered the scene….
Frederick Tudor, aka the Ice King (no I’m not being dramatic, that was how he was known) was an American businessman with one revolutionary idea: Transport a LOT of ice. The core of his business was to carve ice blocks from the frozen lakes and ponds of Massachusetts in the winter. He would then bring it down to the southern states and carribean to where demand was higher and supply was lower. He came under two main problems. The first was transporting the ice without it melting (as it tends to in long, hot journeys). So much was this problem that the Ice King actually lost a small fortune in his first few voyages, this was until he refined his technique of packaging the ice by including sawdust as insulation. From this point he was able to take his ice blocks as far away as India!
With the supply problem fixed, he needed to drum up demand. While ice was indeed used to store food and medicine as well as for various scientific purposes, the quantities needed for this application did not give the kind of profits that justify such a long journey. The King needed to find more customers, his solution? Cocktails. Now cocktails had grown in popularity before ice had, but the two needed to pair so that Tudor could “piggyback” on the success of the former to gain success for the latter.
Tudor’s tactics for marketing ice to cafes and bars was much like those used by less favourable, more elicit “entrepreneurs” that we see today: he would give the first sample for free. Once the customers had been given a taste of an iced drink on a hot summer’s day they would become “hooked” to the stuff. Meaning that the Ice King had gained a customer for life. By the mid 1860’s ice would become a common place in every American and the prime ingredient of most cocktails available at the time and today.
With the inclusion of ice, as well as many other new and exotic ingredients to the beverage scene, Interest and adoration of cocktails had now spread across the USA and was becoming a staple for the American saloon. However the majority of this spread came from popular word of mouth and trial and error, at this point there was no oversight or general guidelines for creating cocktails among bartenders.
Enter the granddaddy of American mixology: Mr Jerry Thomas
Jeremiah “Jerry” Thomas was an American bar tender that pioneered the tradition of cocktails. So much was his influence on the modern American bar that many have given him the moniker of “the father of American mixology”. The beginning (and perhaps most prominent aspect) of his work was his release of “The Bar-Tenders Guide” otherwise known as “How to mix drinks” in 1862. Being the first drink related book published in the USA, The Bar-Tenders Guide was essentially a comprehensive list of drinks that had become popular throughout the 1800’s but had yet to be written down. This book (and its 1876 and 1882 later editions) was immensely popular, becoming a must-have for any big or small name bar. This would begin the longstanding tradition of creating standardized cocktail recipes to be shared among various bars.
From the mid/late 1800’s onwards, cocktail culture in the USA was booming. As ice and other ingredients became more plentiful due to technological breakthroughs, and recipes would develop and expand. Cocktails became a commonplace in every American bar, enjoyed by the rich and middle class alike. It seemed that nothing could stop the party train from running, until the unthinkable happened for the bartenders world…
Prohibition. In the 1919, the US government took the bold (and in hindsight quite foolish) step into criminalizing the transport and sale of all “intoxicating liquors” into and throughout the USA. Needless to say, this decimated the cocktail culture of the USA. With many of America’s greatest bartenders of the time choosing to practice their craft in more favorable countries or to go entirely underground (and thus share their knowledge much less). While times were bleak for cocktails, they were not entirely hopeless. As the old proverb goes: Every dark cloud has a silver lining
As most of you probably know, prohibition didn’t really stop alcohol consumption, it only pushed it underground. With bars becoming hidden “speakeasies” and normal alcohol businesses being replaced by criminal bootleggers. This unique phenomenon birthed its own kind of cocktail culture.
During the years of prohibition, the 2 most widely available forms of alcohol were stolen industrial alcohol and home-brewed grain alcohol (e.g. “moonshine”). As many would imagine these are two pretty awful tasting options, with both being eye watering at best and undrinkable at worst. To mask this taste, many bartenders learned to be creative with mixing their flavours to make drinks to mask the taste of the foul alcohol. In addition, another (relatively) available alcohol was rum, previously not as popular in the USA, the spirit exploded onto the scene as it could be easily smuggled in from the neighbouring carribean. Two examples of modern day cocktails that hold their roots in prohibition’s new availability of rum or the attempts to mask disgusting alternate alcohol are the Mary Pickford and the Bee’s Knees
Thankfully, the USA eventually repealed their decision on prohibition and cocktail culture would return to the USA. For the most part this was a slow process. However through increased exposure to the polynesian and pacific regions during WW2 the US would have it’s breakthrough into “Tiki culture”. Tiki Culture was a culmination of exotic decoration and food/beverage ingredients to create a beautifully exotic experience to its guests. It was this culture that translated into many of the ideal cocktails we see today (such as those that contain ingredients such as pineapple/coconut and are garnished with extravagant decorations)
Today, as the world has become more interconnected, cocktail culture has become widespread across the world, with many adopting the techniques originating from the USA and adapting them to their own culture’s ingredients and style. Through this adoption of styles, the field of mixology has become an elegant and sought-after skill which many aspire towards.
Are you interested in writing the next pages of cocktail history? You can learn more about the complexities and theory of the craft through our Bartending Course.? Who knows where mixology could take you? Contact [email protected] to enroll today!
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