Ever Wondered Where Cocktails Come From? Here’s a Brief History

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Cocktails. Whether you like them on a sun-dappled terrace or behind a second door hidden behind a tunnel that leads from a fake bookshelf, the world has been all about them for the past few years.

Have you ever wondered when the first cocktail was crafted, or whose idea it was to first serve their spirits mixed rather than neat? You might think that cocktails are as old as booze itself, but that’s most definitely not the case.

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Though said to be inspired by British punch (large mixes of spirits and spices popular in the country back in the 18th Century) the cocktail as we know it traces its lineage back to New York City. That’s where newspaper ‘The Balance, and Columbian Repository’ first defined a cocktail as  “a stimulating liquor composed of any kind of sugar, water and bitters”. 

Recognise the recipe? It looks an awful lot like what we know today as, appropriately, an Old Fashioned. That was in 1806. Though you’ll find references to cocktails in British publications, this is generally agreed upon as the first instance of the word ‘cocktail’ in a way similar to what we know today.

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The bitters are important, by the way. While the 1806 definition is often regarded as the first true mention of the cocktail, the ‘big bang’ is general ly thought of as being the publication of The Bartender’s Guide (or How to Mix Drinks), in 1862, by American bartender Jerry “Professor” Thomas. Though only around ten of the book’s two hundred recipes were for real cocktails, it was the bitters that distinguished them for the various punches, juleps and smashes found elsewhere in the tome.

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Jerry “Professor” Thomas mixing his signature Blue Blazer

Thomas not only brought the recipes to the art of cocktail making, but also an element of performance. He was well known for his Blue Blazer, a concoction that he lit on fire and passed between to glasses before serving to create an arc of flame. It’s arguable that these theatrics are just as influential in the creation of modern cocktail culture and its popularity today.

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What followed the publication of the book is what is sometimes known as the “Golden Age” of the cocktail. Lasting from the 1860’s to the start of prohibition, this is the period in which the martini and Manhatten trace their origins. It was also during this time that Jennings Cox created the daiquiri in Cuba.

Then, of course, America lost its mind and banned alcohol. Prohibition affected cocktail consumption in ways both obvious and not. You might expect that forcing the enjoyment of alcohol underground resulted in poorer quality alcohol. You may, however, be more surprised to learn that this same situation led to a prevalence of gin over whisky, because it does not require ageing and is easier to produce illegally. And, needless to say, this period is what produced the first actual speakeasies.

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Since prohibition cocktails have taken over the world, and they’ve become such a cultural touchstone that its hard to believe they are only a couple of centuries old. But next time you’re dropping some coin in one of your city’s hottest cocktail bar, you might want to have a think about the history of what you’re drinking.

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