Classic Cocktails


– John Pulos

The “Cocktail.”  Just the name still brings a snicker at the local bistro.  Be assured though, that if you consume spirits, you have consumed a libation known as a “cocktail.”   Although it is not known who, when, or where the term “cocktail” was first used, it probably was not from a late 18th Century bartender using the tail feathers from her neighbor’s rooster to decorate a drink, as legend would have it.

The term “cocktail” first appeared in print in 1803 in a New Hampshire newspaper called the Farmer’s Cabinet. The term is thought to have derived from “Cock’s Ale” meaning a concoction of liquor.  The expression quickly morphed into “Cock’s Tale” which referred to the many stories being told by the new “bartenders” about the serving of their new concoctions.  The term “cocktail” was soon to follow.  By 1806, the first published definition of “cocktail” appears in the Balance and Columbia Depository – “The cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”  Bitters began serving much the same role as spices serve with food – they add depth and complexity to the finished product.   The first printed cocktail recipe can be traced to 1831 with a concoction of gin, rum or brandy which was mixed with two parts of water and flavored with sugar and nutmeg.   In 1862, Jerry Thomas published the first Bar-Tenders Guide.  He distinguished “cocktails” from other mixed drinks as those that contained bitters.

Cocktails flourished until The Volstead Act of 1920, which ushered in the Prohibition intended by the Eighteenth Amendment.  The production, sale, and serving of alcohol were banned in the United States.  Alcohol and cocktails were forced “underground” during the next 13 years.   A huge illegal alcohol industry, run by organized crime, flourished during Prohibition.  This was the time of the famed “speakeasies.”  They were bars, restaurants, and clubs where bartenders would mix alcohol with other ingredients like juices and creams to hide the alcohol from police.  The poor quality of the illegal alcohol produced during this period also required these juices and creams to cover the taste of the raw spirit.  The Prohibition period drove America’s top bar tenders and many tourists to England, where the consumption of alcohol and cocktails flourished.  Perhaps the most famous bar in London during this period was the “American Bar” at The Savoy Hotel where Harry Craddock became the head barman.  Harry was actually born in England and had become a naturalized citizen 25 years before his return to London.  His bartending skills had been developed in the states and when he returned to London with box of 2000 cocktail recipes, his fame as an “American” bartender at the Savoy’s American Bar grew to legendary status.   His 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book is still referenced by bartenders all over the world.

The iconic Manhattan Cocktail probablyoriginated at the Manhattan Club in New York City in the early 1870s.   Legend has it that it was invited by Dr. Iain Marshall for a banquet in honor of presidential candidate and New York governor, Samuel J. Tilden. The success of the banquet made the drink fashionable, later prompting several people to request the drink by referring to the name of the club where it originated—”the Manhattan cocktail.”

It was earlier noted that the first cocktail recipe can be traced to 1831 where a concoction of gin, rum, or brandy was mixed with water and sugar.   When these ingredients were used to mix a cocktail in the 1860’s along with fruit juices, the cocktail was referred to as “old fashioned” – as having come from years before.  The first use of the name “Old Fashioned” for a Bourbon whiskey cocktail was said to have been at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky in 1881.   The recipe was said to have been invented by a bartender at that club in honor of Colonel James E. Pepper, a prominent bourbon distiller, who brought it to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar in New York City.

The mystery of the Martini is just that – a mystery.  Today, the modern Martini is the simplest of all classic cocktails.   Gin (or vodka), a splash of dry vermouth and an olive or lemon twist are all that is used.  According to cocktail history, or mis-history, the original martini was something different.  One of the earliest stories dates back to the 1870’s where a bartender at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco made a special cocktail for a miner who wanted to trade it for a gold nugget.  The miner was returning home to Martinez, California – thus the name.  The drink had bitters, a cherry liquor, vermouth, and gin.  Then there was an Italian Immigrant bartender named Martini di Arma di Taggia who claims to have invented the drink at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City just before the start of World War I.  His martini contained gin, vermouth (in equal parts) and orange bitters.  The stories go on.  For whatever reason, as time went by, less and less vermouth was used in this classic cocktail.

Our final classic cocktail is the Sidecar.  Its origins are also cloaked in cocktail mythology.  The best story (although probably not the real story) is that the Sidecar was first poured at the famed Harry’s New York Bar in 1920’s Paris.  An army captain who frequented the bar had a sidecar on his motorcycle.  The cocktail was supposedly poured for him.  The Ritz Hotel in Paris also claims origin of the drink.  The earliest recipe for the drink can be found in the 1922, “Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails.  Those across the channel claim that the Buck’s Club in London originated the cocktail.   Others insist the Sidecar was first poured in New Orleans in the 19th Century.  Many early bartenders called the leftover liquor from a cocktail that is often poured in a shot glass, the sidecar.  What has been consistent in all these sidecar origin stories are the ingredients in the cocktail.  Cognac, Cointreau and lemon juice are included in most recipes of the Sidecar.

In the past 15 years (or so), the resurgence of inventing and consuming cocktails has been called “The Cocktail Revolution.”  What this “revolution” has done is brought back the four classic cocktails that we will feature in our seminar to the forefront of cocktail consumption.  Try one today.

Book an Experience