My latest article for DrinkMe Magazine just rolled off the presses, but if you can’t pick up a copy, here’s the piece I wrote, accompanied by some great photos by my dear friend Liza.
Click the image to link to the article on the DrinkMe site, or read it less prettily formatted below.
While we may assume that the fancy infusions and quirky conglomerations on offer in craft cocktail bars are something new, it’s a tradition that goes back as far as formal fermentation. Even in the Iliad, Homer wrote of epic heroes drinking wine mixed with goat cheese and ground barley, which might make a Long Island Iced Tea not seem so bad.
The current craze for carefully-constructed cocktails with fresh and exotic ingredients has its roots in a number of historical trends, so don’t be alarmed if a man wearing arm garters offers to make you a drink involving eight ingredients that takes six minutes to prepare; it’s all been done before.
Nearing the end of the Middle Ages, the technology for distilling wine and beer into stronger spirits was carried around the world by explorers, and mixological innovation grew exponentially to combat the fierce assault of raw spirits on the palates of peoples unaccustomed to the burn. Despite commonly-held assumptions, cocktail lovers owe far more to those foul-mouthed sailors than to any mustachioed, vest-clad dandy saloon keeper. It began with their discovering the effects of barrel-aging while transporting booze on ships, where time in oak would calm the fiery spirits and impart vanillin, oils and other flavorings.
The mariners’ importance extended through the early-1600s with what some argue to be the greatest drinking innovation since the advent of distillation: the creation of punch. The salty seamen of the East India Trading Company prepared punches by combining their strong brandy with citrus (to combat the effects of scurvy), sugar and spices being transporting in the ship’s hold, and water that may not have been safely potable without the sterilizing effects of alcohol. It was a highly efficient and delicious system for fighting back the cold, while keeping one’s teeth from falling out and [insert disentary joke here, something about the poop deck].
British colonialism offered more punchy wisdom, like the rhyming recipe for Barbadian Rum Punch “One of Sour,Two of Sweet, Three of Strong, Four of Weak,” in this case meaning one part lime juice, two parts sugar, three parts rum, and four parts water. Garnished with fresh-ground nutmeg, that recipe holds up well even today, if the water is frozen and you add a dash or two of bitters.
In fact, it was the bitters that differentiated the cocktail from all previous punches and myriad mixed drinks, and which distinguished it as a uniquely American invention. Created by steeping medicinal herbs in alcohol to extract and preserve their healing properties in an easily-administered liquid, bitters were first sold for their purported curative value, but the patient’s resulting robustness probably had naught to do with anything vegetal in the mix.
Prior to the 19th century, drinks had not evolved very far beyond the original punch recipes, but once the Revolutionary War was resolved (we won!), and daily life started to settle down, great things started happening on the American cocktail scene. The first cocktails were hangover cures, blending those healthsome bitters with a little hair of the dog and a spoonful of sugar, but eventually cocktails made the transition from morning medicine to evening indulgence. One of the most renowned instances of this development occurred in New Orleans around 1850, when Aaron Bird, seeing the long lines for an elixir being made made by his local pharmacist, Antoine Peychaud, opened the Sazerac Bar and began using Peychaud’s Bitters in his signature cocktail.
1862 saw the publication of the first cocktail manual, The Bon Vivant’s Companion by “Professor” Jerry Thomas, which provided recipes for hundreds of drinks and detailed a number of innovations in the American cocktail craft, like stirring and straining, using gomme syrup, and fancy garnishes on many drinks, even specifying “berries in season” to “dress the top” of many of his punch recipes.
Americans continued in unfettered creativity with spirituous beverages up until the darkest years in American history (1920-1933). Prohibition forced most every skilled bartender who had not taken up another profession to expatriate to Europe and ply his trade. Even with the repeal of the Volstead Act, most never returned. The prevailing tastes devolved over more than a decade of contraband hooch as new cocktails were designed to hide the flavors of bathtub gin, and whiskey was rare because it required years of barrel aging, raising the likelihood of being busted.
The post-prohibition palate still wanted the strong, simple drinks to which it was accustomed, but after World War II, veterans who had been stationed in the South Pacific brought back a love of Polynesian drinks and launched a craze that consumed American pop culture through the end of the 1950s. Tiki featured fresh produce and culinary fusion in innovative drink design, which all factor heavily in the craft cocktail resurgence we are seeing now, but unfortunately, not much of value happened in between.
In the 1960s, vodka went from zero-to-sixty faster than an Aston Martin, thanks largely to the James Bond films; everything was served on the rocks in the seventies; and sweet, simple shots dominated the eighties. At some point in the nineties we began to renounce the sins of our fathers, and as the new millennium dawned, a generation of drinkers discovered classic cocktails.
Many contemporary cocktailians pay homage to Dale DeGroff, who was among the first to develop what he calls the “gourmet approach to recreating the great classic cocktails.” Around the same time, the seeds of California Cuisine blossomed into the New American culinary approach, with a focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients, and experimentation that stemmed from a reverence for classical French technique, pioneered by chefs like Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck.
This trend has been mirrored in the contemporary craft cocktail craze, rejecting sour mix for fresh-squeezed citrus, and jars of maraschinos have been tossed out in favor of fresh cherries marinated in brandy behind the bar. As often as possible, ingredients are made in-house and some purists won’t even serve a Cosmo because they refuse to carry bottled juice. Bar-tops are dominated by bowls of fresh fruits and herbs, hand-labeled apothecary bottles, and towering pillar juicers; cocktail menus change weekly or daily to make the most of what is available at the farmers market. Higher regard is being paid to all ingredients, and great debates rage over the optimal techniques and ingredients for individual drinks.
This trend can be traced most directly to bars in coastal American cities like New York and San Francisco but there are also distinct influences from Europe, where the development of cocktails was never interrupted by Prohibition. It is of little surprise that most every new concoction is a twist on a classic and its roots can likely be followed back to the Savoy Cocktail Book, printed in London in 1930, written by Harry Craddock, an American expat bartender.
The more specific developments, however, are harder to track. Contemporary trends no longer follow the distinctly linear paths they once did, and the driving forces in the beverage industry have become decentralized and multi-directional. With the rise of a DIY ethic in the arts and the ease of online information sharing, the necessary knowledge has been disseminated for modern mixologists to home-brew sodas and tinctures, infuse their own liqueurs , pickle garnishes, and even barrel-age a batch of Negronis, and no such gimmick has gone unexplored.
Just as culinary progress has spawned the recent molecular gastronomy movement, there have been parallels in the cocktail world. Molecular mixology brings science behind the bar to transmogrify traditional ingredients into jarring sensory experiences, such as drinks topped with Campari foam shot from a whipped cream canister, crystallized Chartreuse scattered as a garnish, grenadine suspended as a gellified sphere, or whole drinks being frozen with liquid nitrogen.
The story of the well-crafted cocktail embodies everything we honor about the American spirit, and its resurgence unsurprisingly hearkens back to simpler times.The historical influences of the movement are evident now, with a number of new bars designed in the fashion of saloons and speakeasies, with both punch and Tiki trending again, and as many top bartenders openly model their recipes (not to mention their facial hair) on the nineteenth century styles of the early mixologists.