How the heck did a word that implies “rooster butt” come to bear such a complex symbolic weight, wielding connotations of everything from luxury to self-destruction; refreshment to addiction; the nonchalance of lounge culture to the internalized dissonance and tension that goes along with performing our social identity? The Cocktail is truly a linguistic and cultural chameleon.
Cocktails are an American institution. They are ubiquitous in American pop culture in books (consider The Great Gatsby and the glorified debauchery of the roaring 20s), music (a simple Wikipedia search of “songs about alcohol” yields over 200 pages of entries), and movies and TV (think of the James Bond mantra: “Shaken… Not stirred”).
Over the past two centuries, the cocktail has gone from being a simplistic concoction of a base spirit, sugar, bitters, and tonic, to being a true art form practiced by a competitive retinue of barmen and barwomen whose set of skills and specificity of tools are more akin to those of a surgeon than a barkeep. Smoking guns, soldering irons, ice picks, and more and more complex and alien devices are now standard fare at the neighborhood watering hole.
So how did we get to this point? What are the checkpoints along the Cocktail’s journey from clever turn of phrase to holistic lifestyle choice? Over the next few Mise En Place posts, let’s get really down and dirty with this king of the beverage world, examine the underpinnings of the Cocktail, in popular culture and in practice, and seek to understand its ever-presence in modern food and drink culture. And at the end, let’s raise a glass to the men and women who have delineated an entire culture devoted to the manipulation of hooch.
With that in mind, let’s start by going back to the turn of the 19th century when the Cocktail makes its first forays onto the American food scene.
The Cocktail’s First Distillations — America’s 19th Century Bar Scene
People have been drinking alcohol from the moment they discovered that when one consumes fermented, distilled, or otherwise brewed goods, one suddenly becomes wittier, more attractive, more intelligent, and more entertaining…
The Cocktail, however, is something that transcends and redefines the millennia-old infatuation that humankind has had for fermented beverages. Uniquely American, decidedly symbolic, undeniably creative and flexible, the cocktail finds its roots in the nascent American landscape around the beginning of the 19th century.
In an entry in The Farmer’s Cabinet (a monthly journal publication), dated April 28, 1803 a “glass of cocktail” is referred to for the first time, as the author asserts that the cocktail is “excellent for the head.” Is this because the author of the journal entry was suffering from a hangover and chose to self-medicate à la “hair of the dog that bit you?” That’s my guess, but one cannot say for certain.
The entry in The Farmer’s Cabinet, though notable for the coinage of the term, isn’t useful for much else. So by 1803, while the Cocktail may have existed in lounges and public houses in America, the term was not widely applied or well known. It is not until 1806 that the Cocktail is described as the alcoholic mixed beverage we know today.
In 1806, in The Balance and Columbian Repository, a New York newspaper, a letter is written to the editor posing the question directly: “What is a cocktail?”
The editor of The Balance, Harry Croswell basically invents the “Old Fashioned Cocktail” in his response.
In addition to providing the basic framework to one of the most iconic alcoholic beverages of all time, Croswell takes the opportunity to connect the Cocktail to the inner workings of American politics:
Cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, in as much as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. 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 any thing else.
Aaaaand… mic drop. Croswell’s statement is not only the first real description of a Cocktail to the American public, but it illustrates the symbolic resonance that cocktail culture has on disparate facets of society, most notably, politics. (Check out this list of 14 Politically themed cocktails to see the relevance that alcohol still brings to bear on American political life).
The connection between Cocktails and politics does not end with the 19th century. (I guess it’s not surprising that a controlled substance would have some sort of relationship with the state). In fact, it is this relationship between alcohol and politics that really brings the Cocktail into its first hey day, ironically during the Prohibition era.
During Prohibition, as alcohol was pushed underground and to the extremities of society, there was a creativity evidenced in America’s drinking culture. This creativity was interwoven through all aspects of drinking culture, from the venues in which people imbibed, to the ways that people acquired their spirits, to the formulation of the cocktails themselves.
During the 1920’s America’s cocktail scene really began to come in to its own. It is perhaps the most definitive time for cocktail culture other than the one in which we currently find ourselves. Prohibition necessitated innovation in innumerable ways, and those innovations will be the focus of Mise En Place’s next post.
In the meantime, why not try to recreate some of the first cocktails ever to hold the lauded appellation in America! (Here is a list of 10 Retro Cocktails from 1700–1950 just in case you need inspiration!) Send the photos of your creations to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will include them in the next post!
In good food,
 The Balance and Columbian Repository, May 13, 1806, No. 19, Vol. V, page 146