Mixing alcoholic drinks, adding spices and fruit to wine and spirits goes back centuries.
Early Cocktails and Origins of the Name
The origins of the word cocktail itself and the identity of who truly invented the modern cocktail is unsure, however, there are a few good stories, some more likely than others.
Classic cocktails we still enjoy today have their roots in the late 1800s in America and Europe, with drinks like the Manhattan and Old-Fashioned emerging from a variety of bartenders guides published in the Victorian era. Cocktails were initially tricky to define with mixologists like Jerry Thomas, who we’ll come to more later, defining them as drinks that include bitters.
In legend, even the name cocktail is linked to the Americas – one popular story of how the name came to be is that many years ago some English sailors were drinking in Mexico when the bartender used a plant stem to stir. The Spanish name for the plant was “Cola de Gallo” which means roosters, or cocks, tail. The story goes that they brought the name back to Britain and it spread through the empire and eventually the world.
Another American/European exchange claims to be the origin of cocktail as a word. This one from the American Revolution. A legendary tavern keeper called Betsy Flanagan is said to have served some French soldiers drinks decorated with tail feathers taken from a neighbour’s rooster. Legend has it that the soldiers then cheerily toasted to both Betsy and the cock’s tail. However, whether or not it is true is up for debate as the story didn’t pop up until the early 20th century.
As always with the history of drinking it is all a tad sketchy, because well when we drink, we forget.
The First Mixologists
There are a few great personalities at the heart of the modern cocktail, and none more so than a pioneering American barman named Jerry Thomas. He lived from 1830 to 1885 and is widely considered as “the father of the American mixology”, having written the first Bartenders guide in 1862 and created many of his own recipes. One of the most famous was called The Blue Blazer, which involved lighting whisky on fire and throwing it between two tumblers in mid-air, sending an arc of flames across the bar.
His guide, often titled simply as How to Mix Drinks, included some of the earliest American mixed drinks and their recipes which had been passed orally until then, and so were often lost to history. Thomas established the mixologist as part-historian and academic – “Professor” Thomas as he was known – and part-creative and artist, with a dramatic flair being essential to success.
In 1859, Thomas brought his drinks guide and showmanship to Britain. He is said to have dropped leaflets advertising his drinks all over London from a hot air balloon and spent thousands on a solid silver set of bar utensils.
Many followed in Thomas’s footsteps, and one famed bartender who was born in Dundee stands out among them. Harry MacElhone (1890 – 1958) was born in Dundee to a Jute Mill owning family before cutting his teeth as a mixologist in Paris cocktail bars, including in 1911 at the famous New York Bar. Harry then served in the Air Force during WW1.
After the war he went to work in London at a bar called Ciro’s, before finally moving back to work in Paris, eventually buying the New York Bar and renaming it Harrys New York Bar – and it’s still owned by the family and operating as Harrys in Paris to this day.
Much like Thomas, he published his own mixology guide called Harry of Ciro’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails. He had his academic side, but he also had the all-important showmanship and theatrical flair. Despite being of short and slight stature, his reputation loomed large as he became famed among both the Parisian drinkers and American ex-pats who called Paris home between the wars.
Harry invented many cocktails, including the French 75, which consisted of, Gin, Champagne, lemon juice and sugar. It was named after a WW1 artillery gun.
As the Nazi occupation of Paris loomed in 1940 he returned to London, having bricked up his booze cellars in Paris and gone to work in the Café de Paris in London, and was in it on the night that it was bombed by the Luftwaffe in March 1941 (Café de Paris had similar longevity to Harry’s Bar in Paris, sadly only closing recently in 2020 due to Covid). He then worked in the Ritz for the rest of the war.
Prohibition, to Men of Mystery
Cocktails in our collective imagination solidified in the last century. First with the American Prohibition and its outlawing of drink and heralding of the roaring twenties. Next with the post-war, jet-setting age of pop-culture which was epitomised by the likes of James Bond – shaken Martini anyone? – and Mad-Men ad execs.
Prohibition in America lasted from 1920 to 1933 and, as it so often seems with the history of American cocktails, was actually a gift to the rest of the world. At the same time as cocktails and mixology developed into an art and science in the Victorian era, so did its arch opposite grow – Temperance, or as members of the anti-drink movement came to be known, Drys (Drinkers and anti-prohibitionists were Wets).
They successfully managed to pass the 18th amendment to the US Constitution and its accompanying law, called the Volstead Act. It was far more draconian than even many Drys wanted – it banned all spirits and wine and made anything with over 0.5% alcohol illegal.
The legends of prohibition followed, rural communities created moonshine stills, gangsters in the east fought in the streets of great cities like Chicago and New York and nightclubs and speakeasy culture flourished more than anyone could have imagined.
Many bartenders and serious mixologists simply left for the greener pastures of London and Paris, a talent drain that benefited Europe and cocktail culture the world over. One example is Harry Craddock (1876 – 1963), English by birth, he moved to America in 1897, working in cities including Cleveland and New York. In the face of Prohibition he moved back to London, working in the Savoy Hotel, and just like our other famous mixologists – he has a book (which is still in print too) – The Savoy Cocktail Book.
Even still, America was still the world’s largest importer of cocktail shakers and bar utensils, and bartenders that chose to stay learned to be resourceful and creative in the face of law enforcement and illegal and dodgy supply.
Post-war to Today
The great depression and then another world war saw the end of prohibition. In the jet age that followed people read about suave metropolitan types, who knew about the best bars, the best drinks, and all in the most exotic places.
This was epitomised by Ian Fleming’s wildly popular character James Bond and his signature shaken, not stirred, Martinis. Other characters who defined drinking in the era, and in turn were also defined by their drinking were the Mad Men advertising execs, known for their glamorous drinking and travelling.
Just like any other art or creative outlet, mixology and cocktails reflect the times we live in. What, where and how we drink says a lot about us to this day. Our drinking culture is a product of fast-paced, everchanging times like in the roaring twenties and swinging sixties – even the Victorian era, which we see as somewhat stuffy but by any standard was transformative with new technologies like photography, travel and industry.
The rapid pace of modern history can be truly exhausting, as we in 2021 surely know – so really, what better way to help us relax than enjoying a great cocktail.
The etymology of name Cocktail – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gMmpXreK3Jw
Harry MacElhone – https://www.diffordsguide.com/encyclopedia/2859/people/harry-macelhone
Prohibition, Ken Burns PBS – https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/video/