The Long Evolution of the Cocktail
From the 19th century’s smashes and slingflips to today’s mocktails, the only constant is refreshment.
By Bee Wilson
July 22, 2021
My favorite thing to drink this summer has been a super refreshing cucumber-mint limeade. I first made it one hot evening when my 12-year-old son and I were getting ready to watch a Euro 2020 soccer match. We squeezed lots of limes, mixed the juice with a bit of sugar syrup and blitzed it together with a whole peeled cucumber until it was a beautiful pale green color. Then we poured it into our prettiest glasses over ice, topped up with soda water and garnished with mint. It hit every spot you want in a summer drink. My son drank his straight up, but I added a shot of tequila to mine to make it into a cocktail.
What, actually, is a cocktail? It’s one of those words you can use hundreds of times in your life without ever asking where it comes from. In 19th-century America, cocktail was far from the only word for mixed alcoholic drinks. Like a sling (a drink made from brandy, rum or other spirits mixed with sugar, water and flavoring) or a toddy (much the same thing but with hot water and sometimes honey instead of sugar), cocktail originally meant a specific kind of mixed drink rather than mixed drinks in general. If history had taken a different course, we might all now speak of drinking drams, cobblers, coolers, smashes, juleps or-my personal favorite-slingflips.
A cocktail was originally a word for a horse that was a mixed breed rather than a thoroughbred.
In racing terms, a cocktail was originally a word for a horse that was a mixed breed rather than a thoroughbred. The idea of a cocktail-as-drink was that the alcohol was mingled with other ingredients, specifically with water, sugar and bitters (the original cocktail was basically a bittered sling). There were whiskey cocktails and gin cocktails and rum cocktails. These were excitingly flavored mixed drinks rather than pure spirit, and they were seen in the early 19th century as something you might drink in the morning, like coffee, to pep yourself up.
By 1917, when Tom Bullock published “The Ideal Bartender,” cocktails had assumed dozens of different forms, from Blue Blazer (flaming whiskey with sugar and lemon peel) to Leaping Frog (apricot brandy, lime and ice). The first Black American to publish a cocktail book, Bullock worked at the St. Louis Country Club and was renowned as the greatest mixologist of his time, versed in “the art of the julep.” He is sometimes credited as one of the inventors of the gimlet (gin and lime juice). It was said that his drinks were so good that no one could fail to finish one.
In more recent times, it seemed as if gimlets and juleps and slings were becoming archaic-like something out of the “Mad Men” era-in contrast to the simplicity of a glass of wine or beer. But with the pandemic, cocktails are back and more exciting than ever. Sri Lankan-British mixologist Ryan Chetiyawardana-the founder of Dandelyan in London, which has been named the world’s best bar-launched an online Master Class series on cocktail making in March 2020 which had a far bigger response than anticipated. Mr. Chetiyawardana, whose latest bar is Silver Lyan in Washington, D.C., suggested to me that the reason cocktail making found new fans over the past year is because “the act of making someone a cocktail feels very hospitable.” By sharing in the act of cocktail making over Zoom, friends and family could feel as if they were actually in the same room, enjoying the same icy-cold drink with the same mix of flavors, getting tipsy in unison.
Modern cocktail making is a lot more open-minded than it used to be. If you look back to some of the cocktail “experts” of the 1940s and 1950s, there were some astonishingly narrow attitudes. It was a widespread view, for instance, that a true martini could never be made by a woman, as Lowell Edmunds recounts in “Martini, Straight Up” (1998). The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Bernard DeVoto published a slim volume in 1948 called “The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto.” He insisted that there were only two cocktails worthy of the name: a slug of whiskey (scotch, bourbon or rye) and a classic martini made with gin and dry vermouth in a ratio of 3.7 to 1. DeVoto was particularly dismissive of anything involving rum or fruit juice, such as a daiquiri. With cocktail lovers like this, who needs enemies?
But a new generation of craft cocktail makers is breaking many of these silly and stuffy old rules. A traditional bartender would insist that you should never mix white and dark spirits, but at Silver Lyan, Mr. Chetiyawardana found he could get exactly the flavors he wanted for a cocktail called Japanese Saddle (inspired by the Japanese gift of cherry trees to the U.S. capital) by mixing a Japanese gin with a French cognac, along with various other flavorings such as citrus, leather bitters and a syrup made from barley and rye.
The only real rules of cocktail making are to mix up the flavors and textures that will make a drink that gives you pleasure. In his book “Good Things to Drink with Mr. Lyan,” Mr. Chetiyawardana says that all cocktails should be adapted to “your own tastes and ingredients.” He gave me a very surprising recipe for a nonalcoholic mocktail he calls “Cupboard Cocktail,” which he concocted from the contents of his cupboard at home. You shake together 150ml of cold white tea, 1 teaspoon of raspberry jam and the tiniest pinch of flaky salt before straining over ice. It sounds weird, but it was fresh and interesting, with a lovely pale mauve color and the fruity sweetness of the jam offsetting the tannins in the tea.
I increasingly find that I prefer to make nonalcoholic cocktails the default, leaving people the option to add their own alcohol-or not-as they wish. One of the problems of serving premixed drinks, as the late food writer Katherine Whitehorn once observed, is that your guests don’t know how much alcohol they are consuming, which can make people hold back compared with drinking wine.
Many of my friends have cut down or cut out alcohol, and it feels more welcoming to offer a big pitcher of a mocktail that everyone can enjoy with a bottle of complementary spirits on the side. I first got this idea from a cookbook called “Honey and Co: Food from the Middle East” by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich. Their recipes for soft mixed drinks are some of the best I have tasted, from lemonade to jasmine and green melon iced tea, but they always suggest a way to spike the drink with a shot or two.
Some might say that a cocktail without alcohol is not worthy of the name. But tastes evolve. To me, a cocktail is really just any convivial mixed drink, like the drinks that Tom Bullock once served in St. Louis in the early 20th century-so good that you want to finish every drop.