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History of gin cocktails

Words by Simon Difford

The development of cocktail culture and so, by default gin based cocktails, were much aided by three developments: artificial carbonation of water (1767), commercially traded ice (1800) and refrigeration (1803). The rest is history...

Seltzer water had long been available, but back then, the term referred to effervescent mineral water obtained from the natural springs near the village of Niederseltsers in southwest Germany. Artificial carbonation was first introduced in 1767 by an Englishman, Joseph Priestley. Then Johann Jacob Schweppe, a watchmaker and amateur scientist, developed his process to manufacture carbonated mineral water and founded the Schweppes Company in Geneva in 1783 before moving to London's Drury Lane seven years later. On the other side of the Atlantic, in 1807, Benjamin Silliman, a Yale University chemistry professor, started bottling his brand of 'seltzer water'.

Today's soda water, or club soda if you prefer, is also artificially carbonated but usually contains other additives, including sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride, sodium phosphate, sodium citrate, and sometimes light flavouring.

By 1800 ice was for sale in America in the form of slabs hacked from frozen lakes. Ice harvesting became big business in America, mainly due to New Englanders Nathaniel Wyeth and Frederic Tudor, the latter eventually becoming known as the 'Ice King'. Tudor developed better insulation products which allowed him to ship ice even to the tropics and then store it in purpose-built ice houses. Wyeth devised a method of quickly and cheaply cutting uniform blocks of ice thus making handling, storage and transportation more efficient.

In 1803, Thomas Moor of Maryland, USA patented his refrigeration process which was later developed and introduced chiefly for the benefit of brewers as it regularised the fermentation process regardless of the season. John Gorrie (1802-1855), who studied tropical diseases while a physician at two hospitals in Florida, used iced cooling rooms to aid his patient's recovery, leading him to experiment with making artificial ice. On 6th May 1851, Gorrie was granted a Patent for his ice machine.

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1806 - The word 'cocktail' is defined

The first known written reference to a cocktail appeared in London's Morning Post & Gazetteer on 16th March 1798 in a report on how a publican in Downing Street had erased his customers' tabs after winning a lottery. The next week, on the 20th March, the same publication satirically listed the details of 17 politicians' pub debts, including this reference to the prime minister: "Mr Pitt, two petit vers of 'L'huile de Venus', Ditto, one of 'perfeit amour', Ditto, 'cock-tail' (vulgarly called ginger)."

Research by Jared Brown & Anistatia Miller, who also unearthed the reference, suggests that 'cock-tail' (vulgarly called ginger) was a simple mix of gin and ginger syrup.

The first written definition of what a 'cocktail' appeared on 6th May 1806 in a New York newspaper, 'The Balance, and Columbian Repository'. In the previous edition, a politician who had just lost a local election presented a tongue-in-cheek account of his fruitless pursuit of victory. Under a list of 'loses,' he includes "25 do. cock-tail".

In the following edition, a response followed a reader's query for a definition of cock-tail, "Cock tail, then is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters it is vulgarly called a bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else."

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1826 - Pink gin

In 1826, an English ship's surgeon, Henry Workshop and his captain, Jack Bristow, mixed the first Pink Gin cocktail on board on H.M.S. Hercules while patrolling the Caribbean.

1850s - US Saloons

America's Wild West saloons weren't all the swing-door and sawdust emporia portrayed in Westerns. Some, like the El Dorado, in San Francisco were elaborate places decked out with expensive art, antiques, opulent fabrics and mirrors. They offered everything from gambling to live music to prostitutes (some, just like in the westerns, had a brothel upstairs) - essentially, anything that could convince a prospector to part with his bag of gold dust.

Over the second half of the nineteenth century, the US enjoyed phenomenal wealth, transformed by gold booms, oil booms and the coming of the railroad. The newly rich sought places to socialise 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 elaborate décor, gilt murals and even the bars owed much to the saloons of the west.

It was in these saloons that American bartenders started combining different drinks to create some of the first cocktails - many featuring imported jenever and gin.

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1840 or 1860 - Pimm's launched

Pimm's, the quintessential gin-based English summer cooler is usually accredited to James Pimm, who in 1823-4 began trading as a shellfish-monger in London's Lombard Street. He later moved to nearby number 3 Poultry, also in the City of London, where he established Pimm's Oyster Warehouse. It is here, in 1840, that he is said to have first served this drink. However, Pimm's No.1 Cup could have been created by his successor Samuel Morey.

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1862 - Jerry Thomas

An American, Jerry Thomas (1830-1885) is credited for creating the modern day bartending profession and for publishing the first known bartender's guide in 1862. He was a raconteur and his career stretched from the Occidental hotel in 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 bar industry and 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. Gin features in 16 of these recipes but most notably in the Gin Cocktail.

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1867 (sometime after) - Gimlet cocktail created

In 1747, James Lind, a Scottish surgeon, discovered that consumption of citrus fruits helped prevent scurvy, one of the most common illnesses on board ship. In 1867, the Merchant Shipping Act made it mandatory for all British ships to carry rations of lime juice for the crew.

Lauchlin Rose, the owner of a shipyard in Leith, Scotland, had been importing limes from the West Indies to sell the juice to the Navy. He recognised the need to solve the problem keeping citrus juice fresh for months on board ship and in 1867 he patented a process for preserving fruit juice without alcohol and so created the world's first concentrated fruit drink. To give his product wider appeal he sweetened the mixture, packaged it in an attractive bottle and named it 'Rose's Lime Cordial'.

Once the benefits of drinking lime juice became more broadly known, British sailors consumed so much of the stuff, often mixed with their daily ration of rum and water ('grog'), that they became affectionately known as 'Limeys'. Naval officers mixed Rose's lime cordial with gin to make Gimlet cocktails.

1868 - The cocktail crosses the Atlantic

During the latter half of the 19th 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 these bars, although the bar at London's Savoy (which opened in the late 1890s) was staffed for some time by a British woman, Ada Coleman.

The first such American bar in London opened in 1868 close to the bank of England followed by the Criterion in London's Piccadilly Circus in 1874. However, the most famous European cocktail bar, Harry's American Bar in Paris did not open until 1911.

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1874 - Tom Collins

In England, the gin-based Tom Collins is traditionally credited to John Collins, a bartender who worked at Limmer's Hotel, Conduit Street, London. However, others say that the Tom Collins originated in New York, and takes its name from the Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874. An alternative story attributes the drink to a Collins who work at a New York tavern called the Whitehouse. Read the full story outlining which origin is more plausible on our Collins page.

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1884 - Martinez/Dry Martini

The best-known gin cocktail, the Martini and its origins are a topic that can raise temperatures among drinks aficionados and, as so often, no one really knows. Today the drink is a blend of dry gin or vodka with a hint of dry vermouth. Yet it seems to have evolved from the Manhattan via the Martinez, a sweeter style of drink. Indeed, the first known recipe for a Martinez appears in O.H. Byron's 1884 'The Modern Bartender' where it is listed as a variation to the Manhattan.

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1888 - Ramos Gin Fizz Cocktail

The gin-based Ramos Gin Fizz cocktail was the secret recipe of Henry C. Ramos, who opened his Imperial Cabinet Bar in New Orleans in 1888. Read more about Henry, the myths about how the drink was made and how his previously secret recipe was publicised on our Ramos Gin Fizz page.

1909 - Clover Club Cocktail

The Clover Club is one of the best-known gin cocktails but little is known about its true origin. In his 1931 Old Waldorf Bar Days,, Albert Stevens Crockett credits the creation of this cocktail to the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, Philadelphia. The earliest known recipe appears in the 1909 Drinks - How to Mix and Serve, by Paul E. Lowe in which Lowe omits the lemon juice but this is thought to be a mistake.

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1911 - Singapore Sling

This famous gin based cocktail was created sometime between 1911 and 1915 by Chinese-born Ngiam Tong Boon at the Long Bar in Raffles Hotel, Singapore. Thanks to interviews with Boon's relatives we believe our Singapore Sling page is one of the most complete stories of the best-known sling.

1912 - Pink Lady Cocktail

The classic gin based Pink Lady cocktail is named after a successful 1912 stage play and is basically a Gin Sour sweetened with pomegranate syrup.

1914-1918 - World War I

By early 1915 The Great War was rightly causing much concern in England as the Anglo-French forces, bogged down in Flanders, had failed to beat the Germans by Christmas 1914. There was also a demoralising shortage of shells and the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, outrageously sought to deflect the scandal by blaming production shortcomings on workers drinking too much rather than a shortage of raw materials. With this in mind he instigated an amendment to the Defence of the Realm Act (known by the acronym DORA) mandating the obligatory maturation of whisky (and other aged spirits) for at least three years before the sale. Up to that time, expensive periods of aging had only been applied to deluxe blends and straight malts, the majority of whisky comprised of inexpensive grain whisky with minimal age.

Gin, being a rectified spirit requiring no maturation, was unaffected by the new law and immediately benefited (as did the quality of whisky in the long term). The Great War also caused British licensing laws to be restricted to ensure munitions workers were fit and ready for an early start. As a result, and despite recent reforms, many British publicans still call last orders at 11pm and 10:30pm on Sundays.

Although a human tragedy, The First World War did not dent the thirst for cocktails or gin.

1919 - French 75 Cocktail

The French 75 cocktail was named after the 75mm Howitzer field gun used by the French army during the First World War. Its origin is often credited to Harry's American Bar, Paris but like other drinks in the first (1919) edition of Harry's own book, The ABC of Mixing Drinks, he credits the drink to Macgarry of Buck's Club, London, England.

However, the drink, originally simply called '75 Cocktail,' is thought to have been created by Henry Tépé of Henry's Bar at 11 Rue Volney, Paris (now Hôtel Volney Opéra). Henry's drink travelled 2 minutes' walk around the corner to Harry's Bar at 5 Rue Daunou where Harry MacElhone made the drink his own (perhaps Macgarry of Buck's Club made further changes).

To see an original 75mm French cartridge shell and sip on one of the best versions of this cocktail, head to Bar Hemingway in Paris, just around the corner from both where Harry's Bar is and Henry's Bar was.

1919 - Negroni Cocktail

The Negroni cocktail was created in 1919 by Fosco Scarselli at Caffè Cassoni, Florence, Italy. This drink takes its name from Count Camillo Negroni who is said to have asked for an Americano "with a bit more kick".

1920(ish) - The Last Word

At its simplest an equal parts mix of gin, maraschino, Chartreuse and lime juice, The Last Word is credited to the Detroit Athletic Club, Detroit where it is said to have been introduced by entertainer Frank Fogarty.

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1920-1933 - USA Prohibition

The combination of a spirits-based drinking culture where men often worked away from home for months at a time did not please the campaigning Women's Christian Temperance Union. 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. In an attempt to cure the nation's growing drink problem, American senators signed the Volstead Act, prohibiting recreational consumption of any beverage stronger than 0.5% alcohol by volume.

In 1919, America embarked on 'the noble experiment', and those distilleries which could not switch 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.

Many of those who chose to stay in the US 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 haunts.

These underground venues were often decorated far more luxuriously than their legal predecessors, and featured elaborate systems to conceal all signs of boozing within seconds of the alarm being raised.

Prohibition was not kind to cocktails. It made economic sense to smuggle in good quality gin, 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 places served drinks by the bottle.

Although the better speakeasies used smuggled spirits, there was plenty of toxic home-made hooch around. As well as illicit stills, industrial alcohol such as antifreeze was denatured to remove poisons from the ethyl alcohol. If the purification process was not handled by a skilled chemist the results could be deadly and this is where the phrase 'to die for' originates.

This is the period when 'Bathtub gin', made by mixing 'purified' industrial alcohol with juniper oil and glycerine originated. The term could be due to old bathtubs being used for the mixing process or some say because the vessels it was made in were usually so tall that the only tap they would fit under was that of the bathtub. Whichever, the end result at best had a raw taste, which benefited from masking with fruit juice or cream. The taste of alcohol, which had been central to mixed drinks, understandably receded from centre stage and drinks such as the Alexander began their ascent.

Perversely, Prohibition proved to be good news for British distillers as thirsty American's were prepared to pay dearly for English gin which they recognised as being a premium product, the 'Real McCoy'. English distillers sent regular shipments to islands in the West Indies and Canada, the favoured routes for the smugglers.

When Prohibition was finally repealed on 5 December 1933, demand for London dry gin was many times what it had been at the beginning of Prohibition. Post Prohibition it boomed. In a world mired in first depression then world war, gin and cocktails became synonymous with glamour.

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1923 - White Lady Cocktail

In 1919, Harry MacElhone created his first White Lady cocktail whilst working at Ciro's Club, London, England. This consists of triple sec, white crème de menthe and lemon juice. He went on to create his second, rather better, and famous White Lady version with gin in 1923. By this time he was the owner of the equally famous Harry's New York Bar in Paris, France.

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1930 - Savoy Cocktail Book

Having moved to England during Prohibition, Harry Craddock set up behind the stick at the American Bar at London's Savoy Hotel, quickly becoming the UK's most famous bartender. In 1930, the hotel published the regarded Savoy Cocktail Book with some 750 recipes compiled by Craddock with illustrations by Gilbert Rumbold. The book has been republished several times since 1952, 1965, 1985, 1996, and 1999, latterly with additional text and cocktails by Peter Dorelli.

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1933 - Red Lion Cocktail

A red lion was already an established icon for Booth's Gin and appeared prominently on the label. When the company opened its new distillery in 1959 it was naturally named the Red Lion Distillery. The Red Lion gin-based cocktail is said to have been created for the Chicago World Fair in 1933. However, it won the British Empire Cocktail Competition that year and was actually created by Arthur Albert Tarling for Booth's Gin and named after the brand's Red Lion Distillery in London.

1939-1945 - World War II

After the Depression, Europe slipped with barely a pause, into World War II: America joined in 1941 (but has been rather more punctual where wars are concerned since).

In Britain, spirits were not officially rationed but in reality, were practically unobtainable unless via the black market. Those purchased through legitimate channels were subject to excise duties that had been doubled and even if you could procure gin, mixers were an even rarer commodity. The English did not fight the war on G&Ts.

Hardly any of London's distilleries escaped damage during the heavy bombing of the blitz and there are stories of incendiary bombs falling into vats of gin but failing to explode. Plymouth was a major Naval base and consequently regularly the target of German bombing raids. Although the distillery was hit it only suffered minor damage and production continued throughout the war.

The Tanqueray distillery was almost completely destroyed during the great air raid of 1941 and only one of the stills, known as "Old Tom," survived. It is still used today at Diageo's Cameronbridge Distillery in Scotland.

After the war, gin availability recovered much quicker than that of Scotch whisky and consequently, sales quickly soared to levels far above pre-war heights.

During the war, frivolities such as cocktails were hardly appropriate - even if the ingredients to make them were available. Britain's post-war austerity saw food rationing continue till 1953 and cocktails not properly revived until well into the 1990s. Conditions were better in the USA where the gin cocktail was kept alive in the form of the Dry Martini.

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1980s - The Bramble Cocktail

The gin-based Bramble Cocktail was created by Dick Bradsell and to quote the cocktail guru himself from CLASS magazine April 2001, "I created this drink whilst working at Fred's Club back in the mid-80s or thereabouts."

1990s - A new cocktail boom begins

Cocktails benefitted from a buoyant economy but in 1989 a major change in Britain's pubs and bars also helped provide the conditions for a cocktail boom. Margaret Thatcher's government introduced a piece of legislation known as the 'Beer Orders' which effectively broke the brewer's stranglehold over Britain's pubs, encouraging entrepreneurs to move in. With them came new ideas, 'gastro pubs' and crucially something occupying the ground between a pub and club, communally dubbed 'style bars'.

One such entrepreneur was Oliver Peyton and in 1994 he restored what was a splendid art deco ballroom near London's Piccadilly Circus and opened the Atlantic Bar & Grill. This very stylish place immediately became London's foremost lounge bar and it was here, in the bar named after him, that cocktail guru Dick Bradsell shook up London's socialite's expectations of just what a cocktail was. Thanks to Dick, and the many others he inspired, London found itself leading cocktail culture, so attracting talented bartenders from around the world like Manchester United attracts footballers.

In August 1997, I played my own small part in helping develop Britain's cocktail culture when I launched CLASS magazine with specialist writers, including Dick. Vodka and gin cocktails dominate the magazine's early editions.

Later that same year Jonathan Downey opened the first of his Match Bars, which would go on to greatly influence the standard of bartending in London and beyond.

While Dick was introducing new styles of cocktail such as the fresh fruit 'Martini' in London, Dale DeGroff was working his magic in New York's Rainbow Rooms - both helping drive the popularity of the Cosmopolitan (try a gin-based London Cosmopolitan) and introducing Manhattanites to forgotten vintage cocktails. The back-to-basics classic cocktail movement developed on both sides of the Atlantic as old cocktails books were dusted off and recipes from the 1930s rediscovered. This movement grew in momentum in the early Noughties leading to events such as The Museum of the American Cocktail displaying its first exhibition in November 2004 at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas.

Of course gin features in lots of cocktails - especially vintage ones. Vodka simply did not feature on the shelves of cocktail bartenders before the 1950s - gin was the spirit of choice hence the more modern-day bartenders look back, the more they look to gin and now also jenever.

1996 - The Breakfast Martini

Salvatore Calabrese can justly claim to have influenced the bartending industry in many ways, but perhaps most importantly, he is the man who reintroduced jam and marmalade as a cocktail ingredient. His gin-based Breakfast Martini was the first notable cocktail to use such a preserve since Harry Craddock included the Marmalade Cocktail in his 1930 The Savoy Cocktail Book.

2004 - Gin Gin Mule

Perhaps the best-known gin based cocktail to emerge from America in recent decades is Audrey Saunders' Gin Gin Mule.

2008 - Gin Basil Smash

Created in July 2008 by Jörg Meyer at Bar Le Lion, Hamburg, Germany, Jörg originally called his new creation Gin Pesto but what is now one of the most globally popular new gin-based cocktails quickly became better-known as the Gin Basil Smash.

Next contemporary classic?

What will prove the most enduring gin cocktail from recent years? There are plenty of gin-based contenders in what some call the "Renaissance classics".

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