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What’s a Cocktail?

I was playing cards with a group of girlfriends one night and one of them asked me, ‘so what exactly is a cocktail?’

It made me realize that while I know quite a bit about vintage glassware and barware, I’ve come to acquire some knowledge about cocktails as well.  Much of this knowledge has been gained from the bevy of talented and well-educated bartenders I have come to know as a result of my collecting.

By definition, a cocktail must have the following four ingredients: a spirit (liquor of any kind), sugar, water and bitters.  Of course other ingredients, including a variety of spices, citrus and egg parts, can be added to the basic four and still be classified as a cocktail today.

While mixed spirits date back to Mesopotamian times and were used for both social and medicinal purposes in the 17thand 18th centuries in Europe, the first use of the word “cocktail” appeared here in the U.S. in 1803 in the Farmer’s Cabinet. As a result, the cocktail can claim its roots truly in America, which not only invented the drink but also helped to popularize it.  In the early 1900s, cocktails were composed mostly of brandy, gin or whiskey and a little sugar, and were typically made in very large quantities.  Punches were, in fact, quite popular.  By the mid-19th century, a bartender named Jerry Thomas began making individual cocktails, often adding ice and fruit juices to his drinks.  Thomas wrote the “Bon Vivant’s Guide” or “How to Mix Drinks” in 1862.  He is widely recognized as the father of the American cocktail as a result of this publication which became, and still is, the go-to-guide for making classic cocktails.  The golden age of the cocktail flourished until Prohibition, which banned the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol here in the U.S.  As a result of the 18th Amendment, many of our finest bartenders went abroad to cities such as London and Paris, helping to popularize the cocktail worldwide but taking their skilled craft with them.

Throughout most of the latter half of the 20th century, the cocktail culture in the U.S. changed drastically from the time of the golden age.  Cocktails which were once made with fresh ingredients and typically followed the “Rules of Three” (3 ingredients, 3 ounces, 3 sips) were replaced with artificial sweeteners and served in larger portions.  Glassware, which was once small, highly decorated and quite refined, became large and chunky to accommodate the greater-sized drink.  Luckily, in this new 21st century, today’s bartenders are drawing upon the classic cocktails of the golden era to create new and well-balanced drinks.  Taste, scale and the beauty of the cocktail have returned, resulting in the popularity of classic cocktails once again.

Check out my book Capitol Cocktails which explores the cocktail culture of DC and talks about its unique history. And of course, it includes recipes that you can try at home!