A brief history of cocktails

Words by Theodora Sutcliffe

A brief history of cocktails image 1

From early China to laser cocktails via the saloons of the Wild West, mixed drinks have a surprisingly long history. Here's our take on it all.

Mixing drinks

For almost as long as people have been drinking alcohol (and most believe that wine is at least 10,000 years old and beer and mead rather older), they have been mixing their drinks. 3000 years ago the Minoan Cretans were blending a proto-cocktail of beer, mead and wine; in Homer's Iliad, slave-girls prepared concoctions of wine, cheese, honey and raw onions.

Adding a hint of spice was nothing new, either. The Greeks flavoured their wine with everything from honey to seawater; in pagan England, wassail, an aromatic blend based on cider, was served in communal cups and bowls to celebrate the harvest. From beer spiked with intoxicants such as henbane through to wine infused with thyme, it's fair to say that the desire both to increase the mood-altering effects of booze and to improve the taste of an indifferent raw product have been with the human race for millennia.

But the arrival of sugar opened up a new era in producing mixed drinks. By medieval times, the rich were flavouring their ales, their meads and metheglin with the new luxury goods – spices and sugars, brought all the way from the East by land and sea. And it is this combination of spice, sugar and booze that we find in the first cocktails.

Distillation added a new layer of possibilities. Although probably known to the Chinese as early as 1000 BC, the technique reached Europe via the Arabs and then, most probably, the monks, more than two millennia later. In medieval times, both the monks and the aristocracy began to produce their own liqueurs in house (for medicinal reasons, naturally), steeping herbs and spices in home-distilled alcohol, and sweetening to help the medicine go down.

By Shakespeare's time, with palates sweeter, mixing drinks was big news. Sherry, then called 'sack', was the drink du jour, and folk would settle down to watch the bear-baiting with tankards of 'sugar sack' (sweetened sherry) or sack-possets (a blend of ale, sherry, eggs, cream, sugar, mace and nutmeg, served warm).

A taste of India

Probably the world's most enduring cocktail, punch, has its origins in India, of all places. Here folk had been distilling for rather longer than in Europe, and were blessed with local resources such as sugar, citrus fruit and spices. Punch, based on a spirit (originally arrack), sugar, spices, water and citrus fruit, has a heritage in its home country which some suggest stretched back almost 1500 years.

As Europeans began to discover, then colonise India during the 17th century, punch made its way to Europe, where it was adopted and localised rather more rapidly than curries, which had to wait another three centuries or so.

Rum, a new exotic spirit, became the chosen spirit of high society. Rum punches were served hot and warming against the European climate. Enriched with the phenomenally expensive new citrus fruits, they were drunk cool in summer as a refreshing alternative to wine. (Admiral Edward Russell is reported to have held a party for thousands of people and converted his garden fountain into a punch bowl so large that a cabin boy rowed around the drink in a dinghy with a ladle.)

This very social drink took off rapidly, also, in America, where clubs and taverns would concoct their own secret recipes. The Fish House Punch, created by a club named the State in Schuylkill, Philadelphia, gave George Washington a most monstrous hangover.

With 'punch', the balance of sweet, sour and spirit which is at the heart of many of the most popular cocktails had arrived, although the flavouring element, spice, remained key.

Taverns and pioneers

The drinks writer David Wondrich has described the cocktail as America's first culinary tradition, and mixed drinks thrived in the democratic world of its 18th century taverns.

These drinks, many of which were served warm, most often featured a flavour profile that majored on sweetness, perhaps with some spice – a taste that to today's palates is more dessert than drink. In fact, some drinks, like syllabub, would evolve into desserts.

The flip, for example, which appeared in American taverns around 1690, was beer sweetened with sugar, molasses or dried pumpkin, empowered by rum and enriched with eggs and spices. Intriguingly, it was heated in its tankard with a red-hot piece of iron from which it took its name. In Britain, the Negus, a combination of claret and sugar, arrived at around the same time: it takes its name from the eponymous colonel, who died in 1732.

Some popular drinks that made their appearance during the 1700s were Sherry Cobblers (sherry with sugar – and possibly a twist of lemon or a liqueur), Slings (a spirit – generally rum - with sugar and water, served hot or room temperature), Toddies (sweetened, heated, watered, spiced spirits), and Sangarees (like the Spanish Sangria from which they were derived, generally spiced and sweetened wine). [see Cocktail Families.]

In the Southern US, folk would start their day with a mint-flavoured whisky, clearly a prototype of the mint julep: the British blend of rum, sugar and water known as 'grog' made its first known print appearance in 1718.


Around the turn of the nineteenth century, just as the word 'cocktail' was making its print debut, four significant developments occurred. In 1767, artificial carbonation was achieved; by 1800 ice was for sale in America (in the form of slabs hacked from frozen lakes); in 1803 refrigeration arrived on the scene; and in 1826 Robert Stein invented continuous distillation, marking the way for Aeneas Coffey to develop his still so that good quality spirits could reliably be mass-produced.

While it is probably no coincidence that bartending began to flourish as a profession in the decades after decent quality spirits arrived, probably the most important element in the development of the modern cocktail was the availability of ice. As anyone who has consumed a room temperature cocktail can confirm, ice is absolutely critical to a contemporary drink. It doesn't just chill the blend, but dilutes it, melds flavours and smoothes rough edges in a way that water alone cannot.

Spirits were lighter, easier to transport and less perishable than beer, so it was these, rather than softer alcohols, that fuelled the development of the American West. Like the British, working Americans drank all day, every day (booze was a useful antibacterial agent in days of bad water). And the quality of the early American spirits must have amply repaid disguising with whatever came to hand.

By the 1820s, saloons were featuring their own in-house speciality drinks, giving them quirky titles such as Sweet Ruination, or even naming them for celebrities of the time.

When Captain Marryatt visited America during the 1830s, the Mint Julep had attained its classical form: a blend of spirit, sugar and mint laboriously hand-made with hand-crushed ice in two separate glasses and served absolutely frosted.

The development of bitters was also very significant. This packaged the flavours of spices, which had previously been infused into a drink by warming, or using hot water, into a form that was soluble cold. And the craze for bitters led to cocktails with a flavour profile much more recognisable than the original callow blends of sugar and alcohol, or sugar, alcohol and water. In fact, the earliest known definition of the cocktail as a 'bittered sling' makes reference to this balance of bitter and sweet.

The Creole immigrant and apothecary Antoine Peychaud created his bitters in New Orleans during the 1830s. The Sazerac, which is made with his bitters and almost certainly descends from a drink he created, hit the scene most likely thanks to Sewell Taylor during the 1850s, and is probably the earliest known example of a producer using a cocktail to market their spirit. (Angostura bitters, another enduring brand, were created in 1824.) Joseph Santina, who opened the Jewel of the South on Gravier Street, New Orleans, in 1852, invented the Crusta, most likely during the 1850s.

But it appears that it was the Gold Rush of 1849 that really drove development of the cocktail. California miners would down a 'Gin Cocktail' for breakfast, slamming it back for a quick sugar and alcohol hit, as one might chug a strong and sweet espresso to get one going in the morning.

News from elsewhere

Food history has a relatively lengthy heritage, yet cocktail history is something very new, and there is room for much research into the mixed drinks tradition in countries outside the US.

James Pimm, the man who lent his name to Pimm's No. 1 Cup, was not the only English restaurateur during the first half of the nineteenth century to have created his own blends of fruits, herbs and spices, topped it with some fizz, and served it to his guests as a 'cup'.

In fact, the British tradition of mixed drinks was strong enough by 1863 for H. Porter to write an entire book on 'Cups and Their Customs', and cups, some topped with luxurious ingredients such as champagne, seemed to have spread as far as Russia. By 1869, William Terrington's Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks included mixed drinks based on ale, spirits and spices, as well as bittered sherry or Madeira.

The British Navy brought the world a number of medicinal blends, noticeably the pink gin, a blend of gin and angostura that was supposed to ward off upset tummies. Naval types benefited from the classic combination of citrus, sugar, spirit and water as the daily rum ration was diluted with limes to ward off scurvy, then sugared for palatability. And England is one of several countries which claims ownership of the classic Collins cocktail, attributing it to a John Collins of Limmer's Hotel in Conduit Street.

The French, with their lengthy tradition of aperitifs and digestifs, were combining liqueurs certainly during the 1850s, and probably earlier. Pousse-café seems to have been a general term for a mixture of liqueurs and/or spirits served after dinner, and most probably originated in France. (Although the term pousse-café today describes a layered drink, that was not originally the case.)

The Italians, too, had a long tradition of making aromatised wines (vermouths) and liqueurs. Gaspare Campari invented his namesake bitters blend around 1860, and soon it was being combined with vermouth into a Milano-Torino (or Torino-Milano, depending where you came from), and topped with soda for an Americano.

The Australians, who had a number of their own Gold Rushes in the middle of the century, invented some truly terrifying macho concoctions.

The first celebrity bartenders

But it was an American, Jerry Thomas, born in 1830 and dead before his last book came out, who revolutionised the bartending profession when he published the first known bartender's guide in 1862. A character whose career stretched from Gold Rush San Francisco to New York via London and New Orleans, and encompassed stints as a showman, gold miner and sailor, Thomas' book, How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant's Companion, brought a new professionalism to the industry.

His book featured a range of different styles of drinks – the cocktail was then a subset of mixed drinks, rather than the general catchall term for mixed drinks it has become. Besides Cups, Sangarees, Flips and Pousse-Cafés, there were Cobblers, Crustas, Cocktails, Fixes, Toddies, Sours, Slings, Smashes and even a section of Temperance Drinks. He also includes a recipe for the Martinez, which most consider the original ancestor of the Martini.

Arguably the first ever flair bartender, Thomas' pièce de résistance was the Blue Blazer, with which, according to his biographer Herbert Asbury, he once toured Europe, showing off his bartending skills with a set of solid silver bar tools. This spectacular drink, which only a handful of people can actually make, is based on whiskey and boiling water, flambéed, and poured in a stream of roaring blue flame between two silver cups.

A rival, Harry Johnson, would continue the work. The practical tips on bar management and good business practice in Johnson's book seem very much sharper when one reads Thomas' complaint in print that someone named Johnson had taken over a lapsed lease on a thriving venue.

The great saloons of the gilded age

Thomas, who reportedly started his career at the El Dorado in San Francisco in 1849 (and certainly jumped ship there as a sailor during that year), and worked in Virginia City, Nevada, as well as the Rockies, was very much a creature of the wild west saloon.

But these saloons weren't all the swing-door and sawdust emporia seen in Westerns. Some, like the El Dorado, were elaborate, fantastical places, decked out in expensive art, antiques, opulent fabrics and mirrors. They offered everything from gambling to live music to ladies of the night (some, just like in the westerns, had a brothel upstairs) – essentially, anything that could most easily separate a tired and emotional miner from his bag of gold dust.

Over the second half of the nineteenth century, the US surfed a wave of phenomenal wealth, transformed by gold booms, oil booms and the coming of the railroad. The new rich sought places to mingle and spend their money, so grand hotels and clubs sprang up to accommodate them, places like the Astor House, the Hoffman House, the Manhattan Club, the Jockey Club and the Metropolitan Hotel. Their décor, from the gilt to the murals to the elaborate bars, owed much to the saloons of the west.

American bartenders, and their skill at combining drinks, managing orders and sliding completed mixes down the bar, were famous: even when the theatrical method of mixing drinks by throwing gave way to the more efficient shaker, their shaking attracted awe-struck comments from overseas visitors.

The Manhattan is a product of this period, most likely created at some point during the 1870s (although, sadly, the story which attributes it to a banquet attended by Winston Churchill's mother in 1874 is not correct: others credit it, less excitingly, to a man named Black). During this era, too, one finds luxurious drinks like the champagne cocktail becoming popular, while bourbon distiller James E. Pepper brought the Old-Fashioned cocktail from the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky, to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.

Towards the end of the century, American-style grand hotels and clubs, complete with American bars, began to open in London, Paris, Rome and summer resorts such as the South of France. American bartenders arrived to run many of their bars, although the bar at London's Savoy was staffed for some time by a British woman, Ada Coleman.

The Bronx cocktail, probably created by either a Joseph S. Sormani who owned a restaurant called the Bronx or by Johnnie Solon, bartender at the Manhattan hotel, was a product of this era. Its innovation? Whereas previously drinks had tended to look for orange flavour in bitters or curaçao, The Bronx used fresh orange juice.

In the USA, cocktails were so established that Heublein (an ancestor of Diageo), was producing bottled Club Cocktails – among them Martinis and Manhattans – and selling them by the case as early as 1907.

Even the First World War did not dent the thirst for cocktails. With gallows humour, someone named the French 75 cocktail for a large artillery gun used in the trenches of the war. The Sidecar, too is a product of this era and, like the Buck's Fizz, a creation of Pat MacGarry, head bartender of Buck's Club in London.

Prohibition and Cuba

Yet clouds were gathering. The combination of a spirits-based drinking culture where men often worked away from home for months at a time with America's puritan heritage was not generating pretty results. Dives like those where – according to Herbert Asbury – bartender Gallus Mag kept pickled ears behind the bar, or punters were entertained by 45-minute long headbutting sessions, damaged the image of the drinks industry, and alcohol undoubtedly caused huge harm to individuals and the families they supported.

Saloons offered free lunches, which could lure in the unsuspecting worker to spend his wages on booze rather than feeding the family and functioned as a mecca for violence and prostitution. All the kinds of tales which were being told about absinthe in France at the time were attached to spirits by the campaigning Women's Christian Temperance Union, and in an attempt to cure the nation's drink problem, American senators signed the Volstead Act, prohibiting recreational consumption of alcohol.

In 1919, America embarked on 'the noble experiment', and those distilleries which could not switch over to production of 'medicinal' alcohols shut down. Most skilled bartenders left the country – Harry Craddock came to the Savoy bar this way – and many headed to Cuba, to which luxuriously outfitted ferries would transport American citizens for weekends of drinking and debauchery.

At the beginning of the century, Cuba had given the world the Daiquiri, the iconic blend of rum, sugar and citrus which reached America via Admiral Lucius W. Johnson around 1909. Although a combination which had probably existed, like the Brazilian caipirinha, since time immemorial, it was almost certainly named, codified and brought to a wider public by an American mining engineer, Jennings Cox. (It was originally served tall, over cracked ice.) The Mojito adds mint and (later in its evolution) soda to the classic sour trinity and may in fact predate the daiquiri. At the original Floridita, bartender Constante Ribailagua Vert would later create the Hemingway Daiquiri for the heavy-drinking writer.

Trained by some of the best the US had to offer, Cuban bartenders took their craft so seriously that by 1924 they had set up the Club de Cantineros (Barmen's Association).

Feds and speakeasies

Those who chose not to ship out of the USA altogether and set up residence in Europe turned for booze and entertainment to the wonderful world of the speakeasy, beautifully designed venues which combined, bar restaurant and club in one. Although firmly illegal – and often shut down – these places drew women as well as men, unlike the old saloons which had been, but for the odd hooker, all male spaces.

These underground venues were often decorated more luxuriously by far than their legal predecessors, and featured elaborate systems to conceal all signs of boozing within seconds of the alarm being raised. The Stork Club offered silver leather, torch singers and chanteuses; Jack and Charlie's Puncheon Club (later the 21 Club) had a secret wine cellar concealed behind a wall, located under the house next door and opened only by inserting a skewer into a tiny hole in the bricks.

The Prohibition era, however, was not kind to cocktails. It made economic sense to smuggle in good quality Scotch, yet Capone and his ilk were not really interested in bootlegging volumes of vermouth or bitters. Long, fully stocked back bars would take time to clear away if a venue was raided. So most decent places served drinks by the bottle.

Although the better speakeasies used smuggled spirits, there was plenty of toxic home-made hooch around. 'Bathtub gin', so called because flavourings could be mixed with raw spirit in a bath, had a raw taste that benefited from covering with fruits, juices or cream. The taste of alcohol, which had been central to mixed drinks, understandably receded from centre stage and drinks such as the Alexander, which was possibly created for the birthday party of a Phoebe Snow, began their ascent.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, cocktails embarked on their long and distinguished career on the silver screen. Humphrey Bogart fixed Ingrid Bergman a Champagne Cocktail in Casablanca; Marilyn Monroe's husband breakfasted on Whiskey Sours in The Seven Year Itch; William Powell explained to a bartender how to shake in The Thin Man; and, of course, James Bond would request his martini 'Shaken, not stirred'.

Cocktails performed a helpful cinematic function (of giving the characters something to do with their hands while they talked), but this did not diminish their impact. In a world mired in first Depression then world war, they became synonymous with glamour.

The Tiki thing

In 1934 Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, a Louisiana native who had made some money bootlegging rum during Prohibition, opened a bar called Don's Beachcomber in Hollywood, decorated it in a tropical vein and began to offer up rum based cocktails. Fairly soon after, Victor 'Trader Vic' Bergeron transformed his restaurant Hinky Dinks into a very similar style.

Between them, the two were the founding fathers of Tiki, the wonderfully escapist style of eating, drinking and carousing that invented a Polynesian way of life and translated it (eventually) to every city in the United States. The cocktails served in the Trader's venues, in Donn Beach's, and, later, in huge venues such as the Mai Kai were based on rum, liqueurs and (generally) tropical fruits, often packing a lethal alcoholic punch that was advertised in the name. Though Donn Beach and Trader Vic argue over who created the Mai Tai, the most famous tiki drink of all, most attribute it to Bergeron: the Zombie undeniably belongs to Donn Beach.

Tiki bars reached peak popularity during the 50s and 60s, the era of the Cold War, Vietnam and the A-bomb, when their escapism, and the friendly pictures it created of a world outside America, were ever more important. Other loosely tropical drinks such as the Piña Colada and the Margarita are also products of the 1950s.

When properly made, with fine rums, good liqueurs and fresh ingredients, the great tiki drinks and tropical drinks are fantastic. But when tiki goes bad it goes very, very bad, and when tiki meets premixes it is horrid.

Soda guns and premixes

After the Depression, Europe had segued, with barely a pause, into the largest war the world has so far known: America joined in 1941. Distilleries from Finland to London were turned over to the production of industrial alcohol for use in the war effort, leaving a long-term deficit of aged spirits such as bourbon, Scotch and cognac.

It is therefore no coincidence that vodka's rise to global recognition, courtesy of Heublein's Jack Martin, began after World War II with the Moscow Mule. In cocktails, vodka tastes of almost nothing. The Moscow Mule was designed to sell ginger beer and Smirnoff, which it did perfectly. It also launched a generation of mixed drinks in which the taste of alcohol was not the dominant flavour, not a flavouring element, but something to be actively avoided: in the 1990s, Absolut would pull a similar trick with the Sea Breeze.

The wartime and post-war period saw the birth of convenience foods: highly processed ingredients such as powdered mash potato or jello mixes that were easy to store, quick to prepare and, apparently, the modern way forwards. In 1937 an enterprising American invented the first cocktail premix, a powder that could deliver the sought-after balance of sweet and sour without the need to painstakingly juice fresh citrus and balance it with sugar. Soda guns arrived, and the syrup dispensers were duly stocked not only with cola, soda and lemonade but with tonic, ginger ale and even "fruit juices". Finally, ice making machines arrived, that could produce lots of ice extremely quickly but in very small cubes. These tiny, fast-melting things replaced the chunkier cubes and slabs of ice from earlier days, leaving drinks watery.

In America, faced with these trends, the vast majority of bar owners opted for mechanical solutions to the bartending skills deficit. Rather than train their staff to make a balanced, fresh drink, they chose to teach them to produce a chemically balanced, mediocre drink, using premixes. The standard of drink-making dropped hugely, and drinks such as the grenadine-infused Tequila Sunrise, the Harvey Wallbanger and the Blue Lagoon did little to further the cause of good bartending. In London, by the early 1980s cocktails were so prevalent and so badly made that Del Boy, an icon of working class aspiration and bad taste, chose the Piña Colada as his drink of choice.

By the mid-1980s, the Long Island Iced Tea - a bunch of white spirits with a cola top, most likely created in the 1970s, although multiple theories abound – was taking America by storm. Low bartender skilling levels and consumer expectations which seem to have extended not much further than getting wasted meant that the balance and precision of a well-made drink was a vanishing art.

The cocktail revival begins

Yet, independently and simultaneously, in London and New York, Dale DeGroff and Dick Bradsell were reinventing the craft of bartending, and bringing cocktails to a wider audience, DeGroff at New York's Rainbow Room, Bradsell at the Atlantic Bar.

DeGroff took the Cosmopolitan recipe (probably descended from a drink of the 1930s), and made it his own; Bradsell created drinks such as the Bramble, the Russian Spring Punch and the Wibble. They returned to basics, using fresh fruit and freshly squeezed juices, just as the first bartenders had.

The new-style fruit 'martinis' appeared on the scene. Drinks such as the Watermelon Martini provided a new kind of balance for a drink, one based on subtle but carefully balanced fruit. And fresh fruit 'Marinis' were the flavour of the 90s.

Between them, Bradsell and DeGroff trained a huge number of influential bartenders, who picked up on their enthusiasm and skills base and ran with it. Liquor companies rose to the challenge, providing ever more exotic flavouring ingredients as bartenders experimented with ingredients from cardamom to rose petals. Some bartenders also began a slow and studied return to the classics, and others experimented with vigour.

A global world

The internet has transformed global society, and bartenders are very much a part of that transition. To discover what peers or leaders in other countries are doing, they need only to go on the internet: bartenders in less restrictive alcohol regimes than the United States can also track down almost any product they want online.

Research into the origins of older drinks is becoming much easier. Material such as old newspapers that would, ten years ago, have been available only on microfilm in a library in a single country, are now online and digitally searchable. More and more rare books are being posted on the net.

And new ideas can be shared and communicated. Audrey Saunders' research into the best treatment of ice for different drinks travelled across the Atlantic in seconds.

Many of the world's best bartenders, in fact, do stints in one or more of the world's great cities before returning home to start their own business, spreading expertise from city to city around the world. They are helped by supportive spirits companies, who are once again flinging bags of cash at cocktail creators.

Progressive & molecular mixology

One of the most interesting current trends in bartending is the loosely aligned group of people who are sometimes called molecular mixologists, sometimes bar chefs. They use techniques derived from cookery, from science and from molecular chefs such as Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal to play with the taste and texture of their drinks.

These folk have broken down a Manhattan into a jelly with a chilled foam, reversed a Mai Tai into citrus topped with a butane-flamed "meringue", transformed a dirty Martini into what looks like an olive, served a mojito in an atomiser, warmed pine wood with lasers to extract its scented oils, dyed tomato juice yellow, set into a yolk then served it in an oyster shell, and much, much more.

It's too early to tell how many of these techniques or drinks will last the distance, and how many will go the way of nouvelle cuisine, yet some of these cocktails are truly phenomenal. But Jerry Thomas, the showman who created the Blue Blazer, would get the point.

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