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We have seen how spirits are made and what constitutes a cocktail, but perhaps you are now wondering how all this happened. When was the cocktail invented and how did mixed drinks become the primary method of imbibing liquor? How did America go from inventing the cocktail to Prohibition in just over 100 years? Thanks to the hard work of cocktail historians like Dave Wondrich, Ted Haigh, Robert Hess and Jeff Berry, we now have a full picture of the 200-plus year history of cocktail culture in America and abroad, the first half of which is recounted—very briefly—in the paragraphs that follow.

1st Celebrity Bartender, 1st Book of Cocktail Recipes

Most of what we know today about cocktails comes from the written record—the recipe books and newspaper accounts that have survived since the first documented use of the word “cocktail” in an 1803 New Hampshire newspaper. (Cocktails are a purely American invention, though they were later developed and perfected all over the world.) What exactly this cocktail consisted of is not mentioned, but the form was well-established as spirits, sugar, water and bitters by 1830 and by the birth of Jerry “Professor” Thomas, America’s first celebrity bartender.

Thomas worked all over the States, coming to prominence in gold rush San Francisco and following that with stints in St. Louis, Chicago, New Orleans, Denver and New York. Though his showmanship and mixological prowess were well documented in his own time, the Professor is most important because of what he documented: The Bon-Vivant’s Companion, believed to be the first book of cocktail recipes ever published. Though it contained only ten formulas, it laid the groundwork for the legions of barmen who would come after Thomas, and provides an interesting window onto the earliest forms of the cocktail.

It is important to remember, also, that before the railroads, ice was a precious wintertime commodity, so all mixed drinks were served at room temperature until the mid-1800s when ice became a more readily available luxury. Cocktails, iced or not, remained the bellwether of drinking throughout the nineteenth century, gradually morphing into iced, “fancy” drinks, further compounded with the introduction of vermouth to the landscape toward the end of the century.

New Century, New Cocktail Scene

Prior to the turn of the century, it must be understood that saloons were rough places, full of miners or sporting types—men who lived hard and played hard; these were certainly not the ornate, well-lit Victorian gin palaces of England. But by the time the twentieth century dawned, American bars had grown into fine, respectable establishments, lavishly decorated and staffed by well-trained, serious bartenders. At this point, the cocktail was a well-established American institution and it seemed that cocktail culture had finally come into its own…

…until the Anti-Saloon League began to collect steam. Temperance had been a hot topic in America at least as long as the cocktail had been, fueled by the conviction that all of society’s ills could be rectified if only the populace were sober; liquor was the source of all crime and mortal turpitude, and a complete ban on alcohol was the only solution. Temperance activists found their perfect complement in the women of the suffrage movement, and together they championed the Volstead Act, which was ratified and enacted into law as the 18th Amendment on January 16, 1920. The amendment prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes.” Prohibition had begun. (Six months later the 19th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing women the right to vote.)

Prohibition & The Birth of Speakeasies

Though Prohibition did have the immediate effect of reducing public drunkenness and the consumption of alcohol, the long-term effects would prove to be less radical than temperance supporters had hoped. Existing stores of spirits proved to be so expensive that the average worker could not afford them in 1920, but within a short period of time rum runners and moonshiners had America drinking again. Bathtub gin, mountain dew, white lightning—illegal distillation became a hobby so ubiquitous that my grandfather grew up across the street from a bathtub gin operation in downtown Los Angeles. And rum runners, using souped-up cars, outran the FBI to transport hooch illegally imported from Jamaica, Cuba and Canada, among others. (And, incidentally, gave birth to the sport that would become NASCAR.)

But where did Americans drink these illegal spirits, fearing prosecution for breaking the law? Rich Americans made trips to the fashionable bars of tropical Havana, or traveled to Europe to experience the famous cocktails from Harry’s New York Bar in Paris or the Savoy Hotel in London. For Americans who could not afford to jet off to Cuba for the evening, they imbibed at the new, co-ed social hub of the Roaring Twenties: the speakeasy.

Free at Last!

Illegal, underground bars serving questionable liquor in even more questionable cocktails, speakeasies were open to men and women alike—a circumstance not permitted at most bars before Prohibition. Though temperance reformers had great hopes for the future of America under Prohibition, the government could not keep up with the volume of illegal producers, importers and proprietors that flourished under the increasingly unpopular amendment, especially with their hands full trying to catch the mobsters growing rich via the illegal liquor trade. The country cried “uncle!” on December 5th, 1933 and passed the 21st Amendment, reversing Prohibition while America suffered under the growing burden of the Great Depression.

In the next installment, I’ll cover the lasting effects of Prohibition on drinking in America and the cocktail renaissance that emerged from the rubble of Prohibition, the Depression and World War II.

Editor’s Note: Thirsty for more cocktail stories? Check out the archives from Marleigh’s column here!

Posted by on October 25th, 2010

Marleigh Riggins Miller is writer, photographer and publisher of SLOSHED! Begun in early 2005, the focus of SLOSHED! is on cocktails—good, bad and indifferent—with a definite bias toward the classics, homemade ingredients and entertaining. Marleigh is BarSmarts Certified and is a member of the Cocktails & Spirits Online Writers Group. When not writing or shooting photos for SLOSHED!, she works as a graphic designer and design instructor, gardens and favors cold Belgian-style ales.

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