Promoting passion in book collecting

A Quick History of Cocktails


The original cocktails were hardly Manhattans or mint juleps! They weren’t even drinks. The original cocktails were horses whose tails had been cropped to indicate that they were mixed breeds. So how did we get from equines to delicious happy hour beverages?

Drinking for (not to) Your Health

In September, 2005, archaeochemist Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania discovered a 5,000-year old Mesopotamian urn on the bank of the Tigris River. The earthenware contained remains of an early cocktail: tartaric acid, apple juice, honey, and barley. A UPenn team has also confirmed that fermented beverages were consumed in China for at least 9,000 years. Indeed, for much of history fermented beverages were the drinks of choice–but not only because people enjoyed a good buzz.

Until relatively recently in history, clean drinking water was often difficult to come by. Water frequently carried pathogens like cholera, typhoid, and E.coli. Dysentery was a common cause of death. Drinking fermented beverages was actually safer than drinking the water. By the seventeenth century, beer was an integral part of the British breakfast. The thick, unfiltered concoction was more like porridge than punch, and it was usually about 2% ABV. But distilled spirits were less common; beer and cider were the drinks of choice.

New Incentive for Producing Distilled Spirits

That preference shifted thanks to King William of Orange. In 1688, when he took the British throne, the country had an incredible surplus of grain. Thus, “for the health of the nation,” William reduced taxes on distillation. The following year, Britain produced about 500,000 gallons of neutral grain spirits. By the 1720’s, distillers in London alone produced around 20 million gallons of spirits–and that doesn’t even include the illegally produced stuff. People enthusiastically consumed spirits in public houses, and in the streets.Meanwhile, alcohol had also found its way into medicine. The second medical patent, filed in 1712 for Stoughton’s Elixir, was for a formula with bitters as its base ingredient. Eventually both reputable doctors and street hawkers would sell “medicine” that was nothing more than booze.


Hogarth’s “Beer Street” and “Gin Lane”

London soon faced epidemics of alcoholism and public drunkenness. Scholars estimate that at least 25% of the habitable buildings in London contained functioning gin stills. In 1751, teetotaling illustrator William Hogarth created a pair of sketches addressing the problem in an unusual way. “Gin Lane,” the first illustration, showed how destructive it was when mothers were ruined with alcohol. And “Beer Street” advocated drinking beer instead of liquor as a way to stay healthy (at the time, morbid obesity was considered an indication of health). The former sketch would be taken up by the temperance movement, while the latter was largely overlooked.

The Word “Cocktail” Gains New Meaning

For years, it was thought that the word “cocktail” was first used to refer to a mixed drink in an upstate New York newspaper in 1806. Since then, an earlier instance was unearthed in an Vermont newspaper from 1803. These examples were used to demonstrate that cocktails were American in origin. But in 2010, researchers stumbled upon an even earlier usage, from defunct London newspaper The Morning Post and Gazeteer on March 20, 1798. It seems that the proprietor of the Axe and Grate tavern won a share of the lottery. “In a transport of joy,” he erased his regulars’ bar tabs on March 16, 1798.

Four days later, the paper ran a satirical article about what the tavern “regulars” had owed money for. But all the “regulars” were figures from British government. William Pitt the Younger owed the tavern for “L’huile de Venus,” “perfait [sic] amour,” and “cock-tail (vulgarly called ginger).”

At the time, a “cock-tail” was a mixed-breed horse with a cropped tail. A contemporary veterinary manual included a colic remedy of water, oats, gin, and ginger. And “gingering” was a common practice for making cock-tails appear more lively and healthy: a thumb of peeled ginger, properly placed, resulted in wider eyes, a more jaunty step, and, most importantly, a higher price for the horse. Which application was the newspaper editor referring to? William Pitt the Younger had just increased taxes on newspapers, essentially doubling their price, so the editor could be evoking either meaning.

A Spurious Claim to the Cocktail

The first book to contain a separate collection of cocktail recipes was “Professor” Jerry Thomas’s How to Mix Drinks; or, The Bon Vivant’s Companion (1862). This book is yet another reason that Americans have tried to claim credit for the cocktail, even sometimes calling Thomas the father of bartending. But even though Thomas was born in New York, he’d learned to tend bar while working in London. It’s clear that Thomas was also heavily influenced by the Reform Club’s founding chef Alexis Benoit Soyer, who worked at the Universal Symposium of All Nations restaurant. Though Thomas never worked for Soyer, he named a cocktail after him and included several recipes that are reminiscent of Soyer’s (and decidedly European or British).

Less than a decade later, William Terrington published Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks (1869). In the intervening years, America’s prosperity had resulted in plenty of American tourists visiting London. So called “American bars” started popping up, and bartenders got creative with their recipes. Many of these drink recipes were exported to the United States, only to be reintroduced years later in Europe as “American” concoctions.

Sips from the Savoy

By this time, cocktails were popular on both sides of the Atlantic. “American” bars had sprung up both at hotels and as independent establishments. They were popular destinations for high society events and fundraisers. None of these establishments was anywhere near as influential as the Savoy. The hotel hired Ruth Burgess to head its American bar, although their next hire, Ada Coleman is often considered the first female bartender at the hotel. The pair were media darlings and were soon dubbed Kitty and Coley.

Coleman soon had a faithful group of regulars and earned a reputation for her creativity behind the bar. To this day, one of her concoctions, the Hanky Panky, remains on the Savoy’s menu and can be found at bars around the world. The mix of gin, Italian bitters, and vermouth got its name from stage actor and Savoy regular Sir Charles Henry Hawty, who took one sip and declared, “Why, Ada! This is real hanky panky!”

Prohibition Fuels a Frenzy

But when the US was plunged into Prohibition, American tourists again flocked to London–and they thought it inappropriate for women to work behind the bar. Coleman was moved to the hotel flower shop, while Burgess was let go. The Savoy promoted Harry Craddock to head of the American bar. The Savoy hailed Craddock as an American ingenue who had supposedly mixed the last legal cocktail in the United States. He’d arrived at the Savoy with about 2,000 recipes, which would later comprise the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book. But this “American” cocktail impresario was actually born in Glouchestershire! He’d moved to the United States and lived in Chicago for years before becoming a naturalized US citizen in 1916. Craddock returned to London and began working at the Savoy only four years later.


Meanwhile the 18th Amendment did little to actually curb consumption of alcohol in the United States. People simply drank bootlegged liquor, which frequently contained impurities. At least 1,000 people died from ingesting illegally produced liquor during Prohibition. Interest in drinking wine also surged. The promised financial benefits of the initiative never materialized, and the “Noble Experiment” was declared a failure. When FDR repealed the law, he celebrated, of course, with a cocktail.

Related Rare Books

The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks

Fine_Art_Mixing_DrinksFirst published in 1948, this newly revised and enlarged edition is accompanied by Nathan Gluck’s illustrations, who was Andy Warhol’s in-house graphic designer, illustrator and studio assistant when Warhol was still a “commercial artist.” Embury’s classic cocktail book was noteworthy for its witty, highly opinionated and conversational tone, as well as its categorization of cocktails into two main types: aromatic and sour. Embury continually stressed the fact that a drink would never be any better than the quality of the cheapest ingredient in it, hence he stressed the need for the highest quality of spirits, liqueurs, cordials, and modifiers (fresh squeezed fruit). Details>>

So Red the Nose or Breath in the Afternoon

So_Red_Nose_Breath_AfternoonSubtitled “Cocktail Recipes by 30 Leading Authors,” this delightful volume contains stories, pictures, essays, verse, limericks, songs, and other outbursts by Arthur Kober, Ogden Nash, Hervey Allen, Rex Stout, Leonard Bacon, Marc Connelly, Philip Wylie, Baron Ireland, Alan Rinehart, Mark Hellinger, Lucius Beebe, Carl Carmer, Soglow, I. Klein, Dr. Seuss, Garner Rea, and many others. Details>>

Prohibition from the Front Porch

Prohibition_Front_PorchA speech given by Mr. Hopkins, Former Professor of Political Economy and Prohibition in the American Temperence University. It seems the Temperence Society was not very happy with the outcome of the election of President Mckinley. They felt that prohibition of the liquor traffic to be the largest moral, financial and political issue of the times.  McKinley’s ‘Front Porch Campaign’ became a legend with McKinley making himself available to the public every day except Sunday, receiving delegations from the front porch of his home. Details>>

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This entry was posted on February 5, 2014 by in History, Wine, Beer, and Cocktails and tagged , , , .
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