PRE- HISTORY

In 700 B.C., when guests at the funeral of King Midas of Phrygia (in what is modern Turkey) were served a mixture of wine, mead - fermented honey-water - and barley beer, the mixed drink was already ancient. Since the dawn of history, people have been taking one liquid and another liquid and asking themselves "what happens if I mix this with this?"

Some of their early experiments sound odd to the modern ear. In Homer's Iliad, for instance, we find his epic heroes at one point drinking Pramnian wine mixed with grated goat cheese and barley meal. Hardly our idea of a cocktail, although stranger things have been labeled as such (the Cement Mixer, anyone?). In general, though, it's safe to say that the bulk of ancient drinking was far more conservative: strong wine and water, beer or mead straight - salt-of-the-earth stuff like that. The spread of distilling in the late Middle Ages added new drive to the art of mixology. Distilled spirits were strong and fiery, and (since long aging in oak was a thing of the future) pretty raw. Various ways of cooling their heat were tried - flavoring them with pungent herbs and heavily sweetening them, mixing them with wine, with beer, with water, or even filtering them.

The first true triumph of the art of taming them didn't occur until the early seventeenth century, in India. "Punch," which is supposedly derived from "panch," the Farsi and Hindi words for "five," is traditionally made with five elements [liquor, sugar of some sort, citrus juice, tea (or other spice) and water]. We don't know if it was a native Indian drink or, as the evidence suggests is far more likely, one that sailors and merchants associated with the English East India Company put together themselves from Indian ingredients (as early as the 1570s, the Elizabethan writer George Gascoyne had observed his countrymen drinking their wine mixed with sugar, spices and lemon juice; the substitution of local firewater cut with H2O in place of the unavailable wine would've been a natural one).

In any case, by the end of the seventeenth century a Bowl of Punch was one of the most popular tipples in England and its colonies. Usually, this was served hot, the English climate being the English climate. But punch is versatile; when necessary, boiling water was replaced with ice (when that then-precious commodity was available) or at least cool water. Now, the alert student of mixology will note that aside from being made by the bowl instead of by the glass, this punch stuff resembles a modern cocktail, like the Daiquiri, the Margarita or the Cosmopolitan. Indeed, in the hands of James Ashley, who kept a famous Punch-house on Ludgate Hill in London from 1731 until his death in 1776, it was even closer to those drinks than you might imagine, since he sold it in quantities as small as a single cup. Ashley, by the way, was the world's first celebrity mixologist.

By the first decades of the nineteenth century, the best punchmakers - not just Englishmen at this point, but English women as well, and men and women from Scotland, Ireland, Paris (a particular hotbed of Punch innovation), Germany and, of course, the former British colonies across the Atlantic - had picked up a host of tricks with which to improve (or "improve") the simple beverage of the East India Company: supplementing the sugar with flavored syrups or liqueurs, smoothing things out by adding emulsifiers such as gum Arabic, maidenhair fern, egg whites or milk (which was generally allowed to curdle, with the solids being strained out), replacing the water with tea or wine or even champagne, deploying carefully-calibrated combinations of base spirits, so on and so forth. Indeed, it would be no large exaggeration to say that all the building blocks of mixology as we understand it now were basically in place by 1800.

 

PUNCH TODAY

David Wondrich quotes a popular 18th century song in his recent book, Punch:

You may talk of brisk Claret, sing praises of Sherry
Speak well of old Hock, Mum, Cider, and Perry
But you must drink Punch if you want to be Merry

Now I don't personally know what a "hock" or "mum" tastes like but I can tell you from experience that a bowl of punch is delicious and leads to general merriment. The popularity of punch is on the upswing everywhere. The reasons for this are myriad. One: once you have all your ingredients together it's pretty easy to assemble. Two: It's an adaptable template that curious bartenders can experiment on. Three: it tastes really, really good. But there is another compelling reason for a bartender to think of including a punch, (or several), at their bar.

Picture this scenario: It's Friday night, 11pm, it's wall-to-wall people and you're slammed. In through the door comes a party of eight. They make their way to the bar, look at the drink list, and order two Manhattans, (one up, one on the rocks), a dirty Martini, a Gin Martini with a twist, a Margarita, A Sidecar, and a couple vodka sodas. But one of them doesn't like their Martini as dirty as you made it, so by the time you're done with the other drinks you're making that one over. And then another person drank their vodka soda really quickly and wants another by the time you finished remaking that Martini. And the tickets are piling up in the service well and people are starting to wave their hands around in the air and you don't have any more clean highballs and you want to sink through the floor and end up somewhere far, far away.

Or: It's Friday night, 11pm, it's wall-to-wall people and you're slammed. In through the door comes a party of eight. They make their way to the bar, look at the drink list, and order a bowl of Spread Eagle Punch. Out comes the punch bowl, in goes the ice and the punch you've prepared pre- shift, and away go eight happy people that will take quite a bit of time to make their way through the bowl, saving you time, eort, and glassware woes. Punch is a fantastically social beverage that through its communal nature brings the company drinking it into closer bonds of conviviality over the course of its draining. It can be made at the beginning of the shift and doled out in portions for a small as a party of two to a party as large as the punch bowl will allow. Below are two classic recipes from David Wondrich's fascinating and useful book, Punch. Try one out at your bar and see if you might not get a few people singing the Punch song.

Hot Whiskey Punch, (Irish and Scottish)

Peel a lemon, trying to get as little as possible of the white pith. In a heatproof bowl, pot or jug, muddle the peel of the lemon in 2 ounces of sugar. Set a quart and a half of water to boil. Add about 8 ounces of the boiling water to the sugar and stir well. This should warm up the bowl and dissolve the sugar. Add a 750 ml bottle of whiskey, either Jameson for Irish Punch or Glenlivet for Scottish Punch, then add the rest of the water, tasting as you go to make sure that it does not become too diluted. The Punch should be kept warm for service; a Crockpot or a heatproof bowl on a hot plate should do the trick. Yield: 9 cups

Brandy Punch

Peel 4 lemons, trying to get as little as possible of the white pith. Muddle the peels in one cup of fine grained raw sugar, such as Florida Crystals. After the lemon oil has been extracted by the sugar, (this process generally takes half an hour to an hour) muddle again and remove the skins. Add 8 ounces of lemon juice and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add one quart Martell VS and two quarts cool water. Grate some fresh nutmeg on top. Yield: 9 cups

 

THE RISE OF THE COCKTAIL 1800-1885

In the four decades or so after the Revolutionary War, Americans went on a national bender of spectacular proportions. By one estimate, per capita consumption was three times what it is today. Free from the continual coming and going between England and the other colonies, they also began drinking differently. Sure, plenty of punch was still consumed, particularly in the cities where the ingredients were easier to get. But suddenly it was rubbing elbows in the barrooms with a profusion of oddly named compounds that few Englishmen would recognize: Anti- Fogmatics, Gum-Ticklers, Phlegm-Cutters, Egg Noggs, Flips, Juleps, Toddies, Slings and, destined to become mightiest of them all, Cocktails.

The written record of the American cocktail begins with a humorous item in the April 28, 1803 issue of the Farmer's Cabinet, a newspaper published in Amherst, New Hampshire, which includes the line "Drank a glass of cocktail - excellent for the head." Three years later, a wellworn quotation from the Hudson, New York, Balance, and Columbian Repository gives us the first definition of what this compound actually is: "a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters - it is vulgarly called bittered sling" ("Sling" was a popular American drink calling for nothing more than liquor and water, sometimes with a little sugar). In other words, take an Old-Fashioned, leave out the garnish and the fruit, let the ice melt and there you go (why do you think they call it an Old-Fashioned, anyway?).

We're not sure precisely where this useful beverage was invented, but it's highly significant that in the early eighteenth century something very much like it was in common use in Britain as a hangover-cure (it was being so advertised in London newspapers in 1710), and even more significant that a passing mention of a drink called "cocktail" appears in a 1798 London newspaper, although with no description of what precisely it might be. But in its perfected form, the Cocktail was most assuredly American, and most likely a product of the triangular area between New York City, Albany and Boston. That, at least, is where all the earliest references turn up.

As for the name cocktail, there are at least half a dozen theories out there attempting to explain it, some patently ridiculous and not one with any firm documentary evidence to back it up. The ones that do the least damage to common sense are that it's either something to "cock your tail up" in the morning or that it comes from the world of horse racing (if you liked racing, you probably liked mixed drinks as well). At the time, a mixed-breed horse was known as a "cock-tail" horse; if you took a Gin Sling - one kind of drink - and splashed some bitters into it - another kind of drink (bitters were often drunk straight at the time) - what are you going to call it? Exactly.

At any rate, the cocktail's first role appears to have been medicinal. It was a morning dram, taken to settle the stomach and soothe the nerves after a night of hearty tippling. Slowly, its therapeutic functions began to yield to more purely recreational ones and, at the same time, it gained its most important ingredient: ice. The ice industry was perfected in America (large blocks of the stuff were cut from ponds in the winter and stored in insulated bunkers through the summer), and ice was cheaper there than anywhere else in the world. In London, Paris and Rome, it was a luxury; in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, a staple. By the 1850s, in America it was universally used in mixed drinks.

Of course, the Cocktail was only one of the new "American Sensations" that revolutionized the mixologist's art in the first half of the nineteenth century. There was also the Mint Julep or - to give it its true mixological name - the Mint Sling ("julep" was a medical term for a medicine administered in syrup; Americans humorously applied it to a Sling spiced with mint and taken recreationally). The star drink of the 1810s and 1820s, in the 1830s it was supplanted by the Sherry Cobbler (a light and refreshing drink that relied on the use of lots of ice for its effect) and in the 1840s by the Smash, which was nothing more than a short Julep heavily iced.

Throughout the period, punch maintained its popularity, but in an abbreviated form: rather than by the bowl, American barkeepers learned to make it by the glass. In the winter, hot Sling or Toddy (the two were essentially indistinguishable) ruled the bar, particularly in the form of Apple Toddy, which was made by whisking roasted apple into a plain Toddy.

At the same time, American bartenders such as New Yorkers Orsamus Willard of the City Hotel, Shed Sterling of the Astor House and Cato Alexander - along with William Pitcher of the Tremont House in Boston, George Vennigerholtz of the Mansion House in Natchez and a vast number of others whose names were not even recorded by history - were laying the groundwork for the way bartenders have approached their job ever since: developing barware, figuring out techniques, learning how to handle ice, and doing it all faster, better and more dramatically than ever before.

This new way of doing something very old did not escape the world's attention: in the first part of the nineteenth century, the United States played host to scores of European travelers seeking to take the measure of the new nation. Many of them wrote books about their experiences, and one of the obligatory topics touched on was the American way of drinking. Before long, the curiosity these drinks inspired prompted the first experiments with American bars in Europe. London had one or two as early as the 1840s, although they did not last. The ones in Paris took longer to open, but were more stable when they did: the Cosmopolitan bar on Rue Scribe, for example, opened in 1865 and lasted for a good decade or more.

Up until this point, the only source we have to tell us what American mixologists (a term that was invented as a joke in 1856 and rapidly caught on, in the absence of a better term, as a way of describing a bartender who was superior at mixing drinks) were up to are newspaper articles, novels and the accounts of travelers. In 1862, however, the New York trade publisher Dick & Fitzgerald issued the first book entirely devoted to practical instruction in mixing drinks. The Bon Vivant's Companion, by Jeremiah P. "Jerry" Thomas (1830- 1885), marked the maturity of the American way of mixing drinks. (Although the first American bartender's guide, it was not the first book devoted entirely to the art of mixing drinks; that honor belongs to the 1827 Oxford Night Caps, published by one Richard Cook in Oxford, England, supposedly for the use of the students of the university there.)

The 236 recipes Thomas included in The Bon Vivant's Companion are divided into numerous classes, including Punches, Sours, Fixes (a fancy Sour), Juleps, Toddies, Slings and a number of others. This was a real innovation, the first attempt to construct a genealogy for the mixed drink. More innovation was to be found in the 13-drink section devoted to "Cocktails & Crustas" (a Crusta is simply "an improvement on the 'Cocktail,'" as the Professor says).

Compared to the 79 different Punches, this is a mere handful of recipes, but they're enough to show that the simple cocktail was well along in that process of mutation which all culinary traditions undergo on these shores. It wasn't just the integration of ice into the drink's very essence. It wasn't just the replacement of plain old sugar with fancy new gum syrup (a thick simple syrup with gum Arabic added to it for smoothness), or the addition of a little (fancy, imported) liqueur or the flourish of squeezing a strip of lemon peel over the top. The ice excepted, those don't really change the nature of the drink that much: it's still a drink where the base liquor dominates the taste, with the other things - bitters, liqueur, lemon oil - working as accents and blending/smoothing agents. But other, stranger ingredients were finding their way into the drink.

Consider Thomas' "Japanese Cocktail" (it was most likely so named to commemorate the first Japanese mission to the United States, which reached American shores in 1860). Instead of sugar to sweeten its brandy and bitters, it calls for "orgeat," a French syrup made with almonds and orange-flower water. Suddenly, the drink doesn't taste like brandy anymore - all the ingredients blend together creating something entirely new. It's not just the ingredients that are changing, either.

Rather than calling for his drink to be poured back and forth from glass to glass to mix the liquids (as was customary) and then served in one of them, Thomas calls for some of his Cocktails to be mixed in one glass and strained into another, so that the ice will still cool it, but without diluting it more than what's required to round off the liquor's edge. And progress doesn't stop there. To be really fancy, you can always moisten the "edge of the glass...with lemon." Still not fancy enough? Simply take that lemon-moistened edge and dip it in powdered sugar - and, while you're at it, throw in the spiral-cut peel of a half lemon and a splash of the juice. You've just made a Crusta. "Then smile," as the Professor says.

The second edition of the Professor's book, in 1876, included an Appendix with "all the latest inventions in beverages, obtained through the courtesy of some of the most celebrated caterers to the tastes of an appreciative public in our first-class bars and wine-rooms." Among these inventions are the so-called Daisies - brandy, whiskey, gin or rum - which blur the difference between cocktail and punch, seeing as they consist of liquor, lemon juice, gum syrup and "orange cordial" (i.e., liqueur), like a punch, and yet they're shaken with ice and strained into a cocktail glass like a cocktail, with a splash of seltzer to top them off and bring them back into the punch camp. Odd, but delicious.

There are also formulae for "improved" cocktails in brandy, whiskey and gin, featuring the novel addition of a dash of absinthe to the usual liquor, sweetener, bitters and dash of liqueur. Thomas' second edition also marks the debut of the Fizz, a concoction not unlike the Daisy (with more gum and no cordial) but served in a taller glass with a lot more seltzer. The Fizz, particularly when made with gin, would become America's morning-after drink of choice until the Bloody Mary stepped in to assume that role some 80 years later.

By the time the third edition of Thomas' book appeared, in 1887, the Professor himself had been dead for two years and the Cocktail had undergone even more change, amounting to a creative revolution. Instead of simple, generic names - "Brandy Cocktail," "Gin Cocktail," Whiskey Cocktail," etc. - it was taking strange forms whose names told the consumer nothing about what was in them.

There was already the Japanese Cocktail in the 1862 edition of Thomas' book; now, to join it, one finds the "Martinez Cocktail," the "Manhattan Cocktail," the "Morning Glory Cocktail," the "Saratoga Cocktail" - you get the picture. Among these, you'll no doubt recognize the Manhattan. The Morning Glory and the Saratoga have fallen out of the picture. Which leaves the Martinez, or - as it soon became known - the Martini.

A recurring theme in the history of mixology is the difficulty of nailing down exact origins for cocktails, and these two - the most famous drinks in the Cocktail Pantheon - are no exception. It's clear that they both rose to popularity right around 1880, but beyond that one cannot go without walking on some precarious ground indeed.

Whatever the precise details of their origin, the Manhattan and the Martini both seem to have bubbled under for a few years before breaking out into popularity and common knowledge in the mid-1880s, when one finds, for instance, the "solitary, discontented and rocky specimen" of the New York bachelor walking into a swank Broadway restaurant at breakfast time and addressing the waiter with considerable irritation: "Stand still, can't you? You make a man's head swim bobbing around so. What I want is a Manhattan cocktail with absinthe, frozen [i.e., with shaved ice in the glass]."The cocktail might've come a long way since 1803 - or 1710, for that matter - but it was still, to some folks anyway, a hangover cure.