What Exactly is a Cocktail?

What Exactly is a Cocktail?

The cocktail, unlike the bar in your newly gentrified urban neighborhood, is nothing new. Like most things that exist today, there is a historical precedent that predates all of the fancy incarnations that you currently find on drink menus around the world. Let's delve into the origins and evolution of this oft misunderstood American classic.

For about 200 years, Americans have been guzzling individualized alcoholic drinks in parlors and homes since the 19th century. The key word here is individualized, as drinks before were communal (gross). See, punch predates cocktails by centuries and drinking was a communal affair where customization wasn't an option. Everyone drank out of the same bowl and if you didn't like it, you were just sh*t outt luck. Punch, stems from the Sanskrit word pañc, meaning five, for the five ingredients that it originally contained (water, sugar, alcohol, citrus and tea or spices). Early European settlers left their respective homelands to craft their own identity in a land where they thought anything was possible, forge a new path and order customized drinks at bars. True story. When they arrived onto the shores on the United States, they sought to maintain some semblance of the traditions of the motherland while, at the same time, defining new ones that would quickly become apart of the newly formed American culture. 

During the 18th Century, bartenders around the United States found novel ways to miniaturize punch and one of the of the ways they did it, was by creating the cocktail among a litany of other potations. Now, I won't go into great detail of the origins of the word "cocktail", but it originated around 1803, being called a bittered sling, and it took the country by storm. Seemingly overnight, people could go to their favorite watering hole, order a drink and have it their way, subsequently paving the way for over a two decades worth of Burger King ads in the 90s and 2000s. This miniaturization led to many advancements in bartending such as, simple syrup, the use of bitters, and the drinking straw. Over time, these improvements set the foundation of what we currently know as craft bartending or mixology.

Although the definition is a bit loose, a cocktail is an alcoholic concoction that contains bitters as an ingredient. Used like medicine and sold as remedies for all sorts of common ailments (i.e. stomach issues, malaise, women's problems?), adding bitters to your drink would be equivalent to adding cough syrup to your drink today. Yeah, sure people do it but unless you have a "Lil" in front of your name, it's definitely looked down upon. This meant that cocktails weren't the classy beverages as we know them today, but instead seen as only being drank by the "sporting type" (gamblers, criminals and other members of low society). Over time, however, public perception of the cocktail changed and the drink found its way into mainstream America, even flourishing greatly in the lavish hotel bars of the mid to late 18th century.

The cocktail over the past two centuries has undergone a litany of iterations, from classics like the Martinez and Brooklyn to modern classics like the Oaxaca Old Fashioned and Paper Plane. Many of the best modern creations are just re-imagined renditions of what came before so if you're looking for inspiration, pick up a cocktail book. I recommend Imbibe by David Wondrich, which serves as a an in-depth history of the American cocktail, told mainly through the history of Jerry Thomas, arguably the most influential bartender who ever lived. Even though the exact definitions of the cocktail have changed and them so have the tastes of its imbibers, it remains to be an indelible part of drinking culture in the United States and all over the world.

*This post was edited on March 14, 2018

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