While we're living in a new golden age of cocktails, it wasn't that long ago when cocktails had joke names and were lurid, liqueur-rich concoctions carelessly thrown together by bartenders that didn't care. Welcome to the Dark Ages of Mixology, 1967-1988, the era when the Harvey Wallbanger was born, when Old Fashioneds were blended and when shooters were considered the epitome of good taste.
Drinks historians Dave Wondrich and Jeff Berry were the perfect panellists for this humorous session at Tales of the Cocktail that sought to explore exactly why the drinks from this era were so damn bad, and to rationalise the cultural changes that bartending went through. "We got tired of using our historical research powers for good," said Dave. "Now we've turned to evil."
Together, they catalogued the perfect storm that drove standards - and expectations - down, kickstarting things off by following the instructions from a 1970s cocktail book for a blended Martini. Nice.
The '30s were the heyday of blended drinks. Don the Beachcomber personified the approach to creating carefully measured blended drinks. He was incredibly precise about how much ice to use, and the length of blend, and his drinks were a careful balancing act of aeration, dilution and texture. But by the 1960s, larger blenders than the 'top-down' blenders used by Don had begun to emerge. Careful measurement became a thing of the past, bartenders would carelessly dump large quantities of ice in, and convenience ruled: you could even find Side Cars, Whisky Sours and other classic cocktails blended. Sometimes they'd come with a top of whipped cream and chocolate shavings. "Things are turning to shit by this point," says Dave.
In 1962, a writer on the San Francisco Chronicle summed up a radical revisionist theory about Jerry Thomas, on the 100th anniversary of the publication of his book on cocktails, writing that "Jerry Thomas knew nothing about the pleasures of alcohol..." that he had a "very odd idea that good spirits needed to be 'gussied up'". This was another nail in the coffin for carefully crafted cocktails and a move towards stronger cocktails where it was all about the spirit. In part, this was a denial of the pleasure derived from drinking: why go through the rigmarole of stirring or straining when you could just dump everything on ice?
The job of a bartender was seen as an increasingly transient role, something you did if you were out of work from something else, and certainly not something regarded as professional. One journalist in New York Magazine, writing in 1977, reported how bartenders were typically too lazy to chill their glassware and how one proudly made all his Collins with no sugar to discourage repeat orders. Laziness and arrogance were bartenders' stock in trade, wrote Haywood Gould. This was the era of 'DIY Martinis' - where bars boasted that there 'no extra charge' even though they were making the customer mix their own drink. Craft ethic? Don't make me laugh.
The '70s and '80s saw fruity flavours triumph over herbal; light rum over dark; the soda gun was introduced, as was the opportunity to dilute the mix in the search for a better margin. Sour mix emerged, schnapps was introduced as an ill-defined category, and rather than the tried and tested evolution of cocktails as they were refined from bar to bar, corporate brand owners now began to conceive radical new ways to sell their products, approving recipes that a decade prior would have been laughed out of the bar, like the Green Chartreuse vehicle, Swamp Water.
This was the era of a child-like, even infantile, regression that was really the antithesis of mixology, resulting in dessert-style sweet, sweet drinks. The result: everyone became less pre-disposed to the taste of hard liquor - that was what your parents drank, man. And anyway, everyone was doing other drugs anyway so pass the Quaaludes and let alcohol lighten up. Here's a taster of the innovation du jour...
* Velvet Peanut - mmm, now you could 'drink' your peanut butter
* Strawberry Patch - a 'breath of summer', gushed one menu
* A new generation of rudely named 'sex'-related joke names, from Sex on the Beach to A Slow Comfortable Screw - except the joke didn't seem to get old
* Long Island ice tea - a little bit of everything from the speed rail
* Shooters emerge - one bar in Maryland boasts 170 lurid-coloured, punnily named combos
As late as the 1970s certain New York bars banned women, but as those rules were relaxed, so the nature of bars changed, continuing a suite of changes begun during Prohibition. From being largely all-male environments, where at one extreme you might find a urinal built into the bar, a new generation of female friendly 'fern bars' emerged - lush with greenery, decorated with Tiffany lamps, TGI Friday's epitomised the new look, and bars became places to socialise in, to meet the opposite sex. But drinking and the quality of drinks became subverted to this rationale even if more women began to work in bars, it was all about meeting people.
Happily, these very factors combined to ensure that a later backlash against all these values would open the door for the new craft ethic we're enjoying today. But given we're already seeing a gentle backlash against serious bartending with more 'fun' drinks service, maybe it's time for the return of fern bars? Oh God...