Shaken, Stirred, and Crafted: Unravelling The History of Cocktails
When you raise a glass of carefully crafted cocktail to your lips, you're not merely savouring liquid entertainment. You are in fact sipping, quaffing or swigging a piece history and culture. But, understanding the life-stories of popular cocktails is somewhat like unravelling a riddle. Very often such stories mirror the spirit of innovation that is at the heart of Scottish craft distilling itself. So to place some context on the relationship between both cocktails and distilled spirits, let's crack open the olives as we journey back through the history books of cocktails.
Uisge Beatha: The Scottish God Of Cocktails
While the word cocktail may summon images of The Great Gatsby and the 1920s, the notion of mixology goes back much further. Even if it was simply called making-drinks-taste-better. Everyone from the Egyptians, to the Romans, to the Greeks and the pagan English were mixing all manner of alcoholic creations. Ingredients ranged from herbs, honey, spices to even onions. Anyone for an Onion Pina Colada?
Closer to our home in Galloway, scotch whisky can trace its origins to the art of mixing. While Uisge Beatha could pass as a gaelic god, many people worshipped it for different reasons. Meaning water of life, Uisge Beatha was the early, unaged version of whisky. This raw and ready spirit was commonly made more drinkable by the addition of honey and aromatic plants.
Indeed the development of distillation added a new narrative to the story of cocktails. Whereas mixing was previously limited to various types of wine, beer and mead, spirits began to take off in medieval times. The first written reference to Uisge Beatha is famously from 1494.
The Discovery Of Punch
During the 1600s trading opportunities from further afield became possible. This presented new and exotic flavours to Europe. In particular India had a long history of distilling spirits themselves. When paired with local spices, fruits and sugar, India was the perfect mixing jug for what may be the first cocktail by today's standards: Punch.
Unsurprisingly, punch arrived in Europe to a generous reception and merriment. Rum, being another highly regarded import, became the popular base for this new trend. Often served warm to release the flavours, punch was the treasured tipple of high society and formed the nucleus for many a knees-up.
Punch became popular in America too. Clubs and taverns began to craft their own take on this popular pick-me-up. The balance of sweet, sour and strong spirit tickled the taste buds in all the right ways. Although it would have been the head that was left to deal with the consequences the morning after!
The Revolution Has Begun
The early pioneers of modern punch began creating ever more elaborate renditions for their punters' delight. Often sickly sweet, some would even evolve into actual desserts. Syllabub is a good example. Once a blend of wine or cider, frothed milk, egg white and sugar, it later evolved into a sweet dish of curdled cream.
The Flip was another popular 17th Century American tipple that included eggs. Powered by rum it was also flavoured with spices, sugar, beer and dried pumpkin. Whereas at around the same time in Britain the Negus became commonplace. A similar drink that swapped rum for claret wine.
As we slide into the 18th century we see variations of punch that have more familiar sounding titles. Slings, Cobblers, Toddies and Sangarees (yes the forerunner of Sangria) all appear on the scene. Also Grog - a naval speciality that combined rum, sugar and water with a much needed dose of vitamin c from lime. But while these were hot drinks by and large, ice would change everything.
Ice, Ice Baby!
At the turn of the 19th century something that we take for granted today was a giant leap forward. Ice. In the modern era of first-world refrigeration the biggest dilemma is - what shape of ice cube should one use? However, accessible ice for non-Eskimos is a luxury item that was once inconceivable.
During the 1800's ice for the first time became commercially available in America - hacked as slabs from frozen lakes. 1803 saw the introduction of refrigeration and hey bingo - with a little creativity the bar had been raised for a ready and willing audience.
Ice has the ability to simultaneously chill, dilute and soften the rough edges of a drink. Mixing had up until that point explored the possibilities of warm drinks. But the availability of ice opened new doors of possibilities. When paired with one other pivotal occurrence, the modern era for cocktails had begun.
The Spirit Of Innovation
At around the same time the quality of spirits took a step forward too. In 1826, Scotsman Robert Stein invented continuous distillation, a new design of apparatus for distilling spirits. This new still was further developed by Aeneas Coffey as the Coffey Still, but you may also know it as the column or patent still.
Why was this such a leap forward for Scottish spirit production? The Coffey Still enabled distillers to produce larger quantities of spirit, more reliably and consistently than before. In fact, if it was not for this innovation it is likely that blended whisky would never have come into being. However, this grain spirit was not solely destined for whisky as a great deal was used for gin production too.
From Horse Tails To Cock Tails
Have you ever wondered where the word 'cocktail' itself comes from? It's a curious one. The first written use of the term appears around the turn of the 19th century. In 1798 a mention is made of a ‘cocktail’ in London’s Morning Post and Gazetteer. In 1806, however, the editor of The Balance and Columbian Repository outlined the meaning of the term in reply to a reader’s request:
“Cock-tail, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters. 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.”
As for the origins of the word ‘cocktail’, while there are many different ideas, perhaps the most plausible version in fact relates to horses. An alternative and previous use of the term describes a horse with a docked tail, which would stand up like the tail of a cockerel. The ‘cock tail’ of a horse became associated with a horse that was not a thoroughbred but was of mixed breed. Hence a cocktail drink was not a pure spirit but was mixed, as we have seen, commonly with sugar and bitters.
The Birth Of Bitters
The purpose of bitters began for purely medicinal purposes. These high strength tinctures became a convenient means of extracting and preserving compounds from plants. Whereas such a process was otherwise reliant on heating the ingredients, alcohol opened new methods and increased stability.
It’s unclear when bitters came into use for cocktails. But Pink Gin with Angostura bitters was popular with the British Navy to treat stomach problems. In fact it was a surgeon aboard H.M.S. Hercules, Henry Workshop, who is credited with mixing the first Pink Gin whilst patrolling the Caribbean. Johann Siegert famously began making Angostura around 1824 in Venezuela.
Another notable brand, Peychaud, was created in the early 1830’s by Antoine Amédée Peychaud in New Orleans. In the following years the use of bitters increased in popularity, particularly during the American Gold Rush of 1849. It is the combination of a spirit, bitters and sugar that became the true definition of a cocktail as we know it. A great example is the Old Fashioned (and it’s later variation the Manhattan with the addition of vermouth). When cocktails started to become more elaborate, the Old Fashioned supposedly acquired its name when customers would ask for a cocktail to be made – the old fashioned way.
Cups, Liqueurs And Digestifs
Throughout Europe cocktails were being developed in all manner of local styles throughout the 1800’s. In 1860 Italy, Gaspare Campari created his own bitters blend amongst a backdrop of vermouths and herbal liqueurs. While in France a lengthy tradition of aperitifs and digestifs continued to develop.
The British tradition of ‘cups’ also gained a strong following. As a blend of fruits, herbs and spices topped with something fizzy, the best known cup today was of course invented by James Pimm. With many of these brands remaining essential for cocktails today, it’s easy to see the legacy of mixing that emerged during the 19th century.
The Cocktail Boom
With a wave of economic growth in America, lavish bars, clubs and hotels took the cocktail experience to new theatrical heights. Their popularity spread into Europe too with similarly styled bars opening in London, Paris, Rome and the South of France. The Bucks Club in London became engraved on the history cup of cocktails with its own creation in 1919 – the Buck’s Fizz.
Other famous cocktails also appeared around this time such as the French 75. A blend of gin, lemon juice and champagne that reportedly punched as hard as a Canon de 75 modèle 1897 – a French 75mm field gun. In the US we see the emergence of well loved tipples like Sidecars and Highballs, all of which came about during Prohibition. Which finally brings us into the 1920’s.
Underground Cocktails And Secret Agents
The irony of Prohibition in the US is that it spurred the emergence of underground speakeasies. These splendid clubs, undeterred by the law, were often beautifully and luxuriously decorated and welcomed both male and female drinkers. An era that often comes to mind first when we think of the history of cocktails. Following the end of Prohibition in the 1930’s, cocktails began to take staring roles on the big screen.
Casablanca featured a Champagne Cocktail, famously fixed for Ingrid Bergman by Humphrey Bogart. While in The Seven Year Itch, Whiskey Sours were the choice for breakfast. Later of course it was just three words that would surmise a particular cocktail in the coolest way possible – “shaken, not stirred!”
On the theme of Martinis, in the 1980’s it was white spirits that became hip and trendy, in particular vodka. Whereas cocktails before had revolved around the flavours of the spirits, vodka was at the forefront of a new generation of drinks. Vodka could serve as a neutral tasting base rather than a flavour component in its own right. In fact vodka brands began to market themselves on their lack of flavour - aka purity! Around this time there was a shift away from bartending skill and towards convenience. Which almost sent the traditions of cocktail making to the history vault forever.
The Craft Of The Cocktail
Written by master mixologist Dale DeGroff, The Craft Of The Cocktail and The Essential Cocktail are two books that were at the centre of a resurgence in cocktail making at the turn of this century. Alongside other passionate advocates such as Dick Bradsell, the craft and graft of cocktail creation began to be rediscovered and developed once again.
Reintroducing the use of fresh juices and quality ingredients, cocktail making again became a work of art and flare. As consumers’ tastes have sought both the classics and the extraordinary, cocktails today have grown hand in hand with the traditions and innovations of craft spirits.
We are now in an era where quality reigns over quantity. Taking the time to truly appreciate not just the drink before you, but also the skill, expertise and heritage that stands behind each and every aspect of it. So when you next raise a glass of carefully crafted cocktail to your lips, spare a thought for its long and complex life-story. And the graft that makes high quality spirits easily accessible for everyone who enjoys a tipple.