Cocktails and their origins…Who cares…?!?

Of late, i have been reading. A lot. Partly due to my areas of interest with regards to alcoholic beverages, partly due to it being the early part of the year and having more time on my hands and partly because of the mixellany website and an alarmingly increasing collection of books on the subject. From the brilliant Spirituous Journey (still awaiting Vol.2) to The Complete Distiller (1757), i enjoy reading and enjoy alcohol so the 2 combined is working out real well for me.

Now, not so long ago, someone said to me, when discussing/arguing the history of a certain drink, ‘Who cares…? Can’t we just get on with it and make nice drinks and have a good time?’. A few shots later, the moment had passed and on we went. Now this person has been hugely influential on my career and and as such, i greatly respect their opinion but i find myself inclined to disagree.

During my recent time stuck in these bitters stained pages with bevnaps instead of bookmarks and gomme all over the place, i found myself considering the importance of this sort sort of reading when pontificating about these ‘origins’ stories.

I enjoy and like to keep in mind, a two toned approach to cocktails and their history. It’s important to know these stories, in particular when they’re funny/interesting (the Bronx and Hanky Panky come to mind), they are great to entertain your guests with and can help sell a drink. However, some of these stories, and in fact, most, are extremely confused, mysterious and tenuous myths of origin for many of the great classics, the Martini, the Manhattan, the Bloody Mary. And as these drinks are discussed by enthusiasts and bartenders alike, more and more information comes out which indicates we’re getting somewhere and then, a few months later, we feel we’ve just added fuel to the fire and are no bette off for the breakthrough.

Now returning to my esteemed colleague’s point, who cares? You can make me a Martini or you can’t. Whether you know this information or not, you can still make me the drink, right? Well, quite right. But it is the other side of a drinks origins which then comes to mind. Not where did it become famous, or how did it get named? But rather, how did the idea come into being in the first place?

We can tell people that the Bloody Mary (a drink i have spent a lot of time on!) was created in Harry’s Bar in Paris, or that a Vodka and Tomato juice went all over Mary Warburton. But does it help in understanding the drink? When does a vodka and Tomato juice suddenly turn into a Bloody Mary? Is it when you add salt and pepper? or lemon juice, or Tabasco, L & P, Horeseradish, sherry…? As we have no record of ‘this is the first one and this is how it was made’, we can’t pinpoint the transition. So, more importantly, we must accept the fact that these drinks were, and indeed still are, in a state of flux.

With such a limited arsenal of products in the early days right up to the Golden Age of cocktails in the 20’s, many drinks were made under different names/guises and with differing recipes. To borrow from Phillip Duff, they took on an almost ‘schizophrenic’ quality. Recipes crop up all over the place with very little differences.

In our current climate of highly creative mixology and a second coming for the cocktail, the same is happening. I recall going to one competition and seeing recipes identical to things i’ve seen elsewhere, either in bars or competitions or whatever. The point is that in reading these books and trying to grapple with the names of hundreds of drinks using gin, vermouth and bitters in varying quantities, we get an idea of the bigger picture when it comes to getting creative about drinks.

Bartenders are always playing around with things, tweaking drinks here and there, adding a little of this or that to customise it for their guests. It was no different when the gin daisy suddenly appears as a cosmopolitan in the 1920’s, or then having several bartenders at once ‘create’ the cosmo in the 1970’s.

The point i’m trying to make is that reading around the history of spirits and cocktails is an important task, but should be carried out with some distance between how you make a drink and how it may have been made before.  Try things out from old books, but be wary that the alcohols had different flavour profiles and the people, different tastes. Read old recipe books and histories of alcohol, they’ll help you understand factors that led to say, a flood of Vermouth in New Amsterdam/New York in the 19th Century and why so many drinks of that time include it (this mirrors say, the explosion of St Germain onto the trade).

Playing around with ratios, formulas and splishy splashes of whatever does no harm, and when you do hit on something or a revolutionary flavour combo, you’ll probably go online and find someone’s been there and done that already (see Gary Regan’s Gin Compendium which abounds with stories of him appropriating recipes, adding his bitters, then calling them something else  – excellent reading). But no matter, tell the stories, change the drink, serve the drink, smile, and enjoy that shared moment between you and your guest. ‘It’s bloody good though isn’t it, Sir?’ In years to come, bartenders can trawl through your old drinks pads and recipe books and try to find out how the hell you came up with ‘The Intergalactic Gargleblaster’.


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