A Brief History of the Cocktail: Meaning, Origin and Popular Culture | Drinks.ng

Introduction to the Cocktail

Simply put, a cocktail is a mixed alcoholic drink. A Cocktail is mixed either as one type of alcohol with juices, as a soft drink and other fruits or as multiple alcoholic drinks with juices or ice tea. Drinking is fashionable and trendy in today’s world. As a result, cocktails and what we’ve come to know as “mocktails” are often confused for each other.

Mocktails are any mixed drinks that don’t contain alcohol. The name “mocktail” is derived from the word “mock” meaning to “imitate or mimic”. Mocktails are imitations of cocktails in the sense that they seem similar to them, but do not have alcohol or any other spirits.

Today, when we refer to a generic alcoholic mixed drink, a cocktail is any beverage that contains two or more ingredients if at least one of those ingredients contains alcohol.There are many theories about the origin of the word “cocktail”, but the strongest claim is that it was derived from the French word “coquetier”, referring to an eggcup-type measure.

A Brief History of the Cocktail: Meaning, Origin and Popular Culture | drinks.ng

Brief History of the Cocktail

A Brief History of the Cocktail: Meaning, Origin and Popular Culture | drinks.ng

Mixed drinks called punch were being made as far back as the 1500s, but the invention of the cocktail itself can be traced to the 1800s. The word “cocktail” was first published in a newspaper in 1806, but the first publication of a bartenders’ guide which included cocktail recipes came in 1862, titled How to Mix Drinks; or, The Bon Vivant’s Companion, by “Professor” Jerry Thomas. The book is still a standard reference work today as the recipes are still used all over the world. Along with recipes for punches, sours, slings, cobblers, shrubs, toddies, flips, and a variety of other mixed drinks are ten recipes for “cocktails”.

The first cocktail party was hosted by Mrs. Julius S. Walsh Jr. of St. Louis, Missouri, in May 1917. She is said to have invited fifty guests to her home at noon on a Sunday. The party apparently lasted an hour, until lunch was served at 1pm. The site of this party still stands today. In 1924, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis bought the mansion and it has served as the local archbishop’s residence since.

United States’ Prohibition lasted from 1919 to1933 and because alcoholic beverages became illegal, cocktails were consumed illegally in establishments known as “speakeasies”. The quality of liquor available during Prohibition was much worse than before and there was a shift from whiskey to gin because it does not require aging, making it easier to produce illicitly. In that period, honey, fruit juices, and other flavourings were used to mask the foul taste of the inferior liquors. Sweet cocktails were easier to drink quickly, which was ideal because the establishment might be raided at any moment.

By the late 1960s and through the 1970s, cocktails became less popular until rising again in the 1980s with vodka often used in place of the original gin in drinks such as the martini. The standard cocktails began to make a comeback in the early 2000s, and by the mid-2000s there was a renaissance of cocktail culture in a style we now call mixology that draws on classic cocktails for inspiration but utilizes novel ingredients and often complex flavours

Traditionally, what we referred to as a cocktail was a mixture of spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. The key ingredient separating cocktails from other drinks in Thomas’ book was the use of bitters. Popular mixed drinks of today which conform to this original meaning of “cocktail” include the Old Fashioned whiskey cocktail and the Manhattan cocktail.

Cocktails have featured in most aspects of our popular culture, if not all. Some cocktails have even come to exist as a result of them. In film and literature most especially, we have a long list of these cocktails including the Vesper Martini, Jack Rose, Whiskey Sour, Scotch Mist, 7&7, May Queen, Rob Roy, Flaming Moe, Singapore Sling, French 75 and so on.

The Cocktail’s Jerry Thomas

A Brief History of the Cocktail: Meaning, Origin and Popular Culture | drinks.ng

Lauded as the father of bartending, Professor Jeremiah “Jerry” Thomas was a native of Westchester, New York. He was given the title “professor” because he established the image of the bartender as a creative profession with peculiar showmanship. He lived a celebrity’s life in his prime in the mid-1800s, bartending and running bars in New York, St. Louis and San Francisco. He also toured the United States and Europe with a traveling bartending show, making signature cocktails like the flaming Blue Blazer.

Recent research has shown that six times more Genever was imported into the United States than gin during that time. Thomas’ biographer David Wondrich reported that recipes made with gin were meant to be made with Genever, since Genever was one of the four main cocktail ingredients and was often mistakenly called gin at the time. Genever gives its cocktails a smoothness and depth and allows classic cocktails such as The Holland House cocktail to be recreated perfectly.

Thomas’ death in 1885 at the age of 55 from a stroke was marked by notable obituaries. The New York Times obituary, one of the most famous of the publications said Thomas was “at one time better known to club men and men about town than any other bartender in this city, and he was very popular among all classes.” Jeremiah P. Thomas was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City.


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