Cocktails: A Most Brief History

We at the Speaking Easy Podcast are so thrilled that the gents of Productive Gents have asked us to collaborate with them on some Gents’ Tips related to cocktails and home entertaining. It’s a great partnership for us because, at a very base level, a handy home bartender is about an informed, effective approach to hosting and mixing drinks, and that’s essentially what Productive Gents is all about. We look forward to sharing recipes, tips, and tricks that we’ve picked up through a lot of trial and error (especially the error). We’re not professional bartenders; we’re hobbyists, hosts, and cocktail enthusiasts — and hopefully you will be too.

So, what is a cocktail? According to the International Bartenders Association, a “cocktail” is any beverage that contains three or more ingredients, if at least two of them contain alcohol. Yes, there are great mixed drinks that are not technically ‘cocktails,’but we (and many others) tend to loop all mixed drinks into the cocktail category (for instance, a two ingredient drink that’s more mixer than spirits would more correctly be referred to as a ‘highball’). So where does the term “cocktail” come from?

Interesting theories about the origin of the name abound, but cocktail historian and author of Imbibe! Dave Wondrich has one that is perhaps a bit unsettling:

“…I actually know where “cocktail” came from, pretty solidly. It’s in the book. Ginger was used in the horse trade to make a horse stick its tail up. They’d put it in its ass. If you had an old horse you were trying to sell, you would put some ginger up its butt, and it would cock its tail up and be frisky. That was known as “cock-tail.” It comes from that. It became this morning thing. Something to cock your tail up, like an eye-opener. I’m almost positive that’s where it’s from.”

While we do not suggest doing anything similar to yourself (or your horse), we do think that cocktails as we know them today are much more palatable. We hope you agree.

Less established than the origin of the term is what the first cocktail may have been. Again, while many theories abound, two things do appear to be clear: 1) cocktails were morning drinks (because water wasn’t always safe to drink), and 2) cocktails more than likely came out of the practice of medicine, where, even as early as the ancient Egyptians, fermenting mixtures were infused with herbs and spices to form concoctions to heal ailments. We still believe in the healing power of cocktails, but more for their psychological powers of relaxation and merriment than any actual medical benefits.

In the United States, cocktails were a big part of tavern life even as far back at the 1850s, and got its first great publication in 1862 with “Professor” Jerry Thomas and his seminal Bar-Tender’s Guide (alternately titled How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion). That book would be the first time that anyone really wrote down what had largely been an oral tradition, passed down through apprenticeship as bartending became a profession. Until Prohibition became law on January 17, 1920 (a dark day, indeed), the cocktail was king in the United States. Of course, during Prohibition, many speakeasies and private clubs still operated with liquor on the low and cocktails kept flowin’.

However, after Prohibition and World War II had passed, cocktail culture began a decline — both in terms of popularity and in terms of quality. By the 1980s (often considered the low point in cocktail culture), overly sweet, pre-made cocktail mixes in plastic bottles became fixtures behind most bars, and a lot of the traditional methods for making cocktails were pushed aside for convenience.

But cocktails would rise again and really made their comeback in the mid-2000s, reaching a tipping point with Dave Wondrich’s 2007 publication of Imbibe!. Now, you can barely go 15 feet in most major cities without seeing terms like “craft” and “small batch” and “artisanal” cocktails all over the nightlife scene.

Today, cocktails have made a big comeback. Part of the inspiration for the Speaking Easy Podcast was the fact that we’re cocktail fans who brought a D.I.Y. attitude to these lovely mixtures and are trying them out at home. We view it as “craft cocktails going home.” Even as the New York Times decries the “death of the cocktail party,” we, and many others, see that this “domestic art” of mixing drinks and hosting will follow people’s pallets from the bar to their living rooms.

We look forward to sharing our experiences — the successful drinks, the not-so-successful drinks, and the sheer and utter disasters. But just like a good party, this is a conversation, and one we’re so happy the guys at Productive Gents have struck it up. We’ll do our best to present you with some ideas, but look forward to hearing and seeing yours as well. We’re looking forward to toasting with you “to being a better drinker.”

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