COCKTAILS. Ever since America invented the cocktail, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it has evolved: from sweet to dry; hot to icy; stirred to shaken—a morning eye-opener to a conclusion to the day's activities.
Originally the name of a few specific drinks, the word "cocktail" soon became the generic name for almost any mixed drink. No one knows exactly why drinks came to be called cocktails, but there are many theories. In taverns, a cock is a tap; the dregs from the tap were called its tail, so some say the name signified the last dregs of a tavern tap. Others tell of a beautiful Revolutionary era barmaid who decorated drinks with cock's feathers and called them cocktails. The word might have originated with a medicinal chicken soup–like drink the English made from a cock boiled with ale, sack (wine from the Canary Islands), dates, and raisins. Thought to cure consumption, it was called cock-water or cock-ale. Another possibility is that since people generally started their day with a drink, the cocktail was named after the cock's wakeup call. Breakfast drinking was common, even among children, for centuries in Europe and continued in America from colonial times until the early mid-nineteenth century when the temperance movement gained strength. Beer soup was especially popular.
The most prosaic, and likely, theory is based on the fact that mixed, or nonthoroughbred, horses were called cocktails because their tails were clipped and stuck up like roosters' tails. Over time, the word "cocktail" came to stand for any mixture: mixed drinks, food mixtures such as fruit cocktails, and pharmaceutical combinations.
The first known definition of a cocktail appeared in an 1806 Hudson, New York, publication called the Balance and Columbian Repository. It defined a cocktail as "a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters." By the late twentieth century, a typical dictionary definition changed the meaning of the word to "any of various short mixed drinks, consisting typically of gin, whiskey, rum, vodka or brandy, with different admixtures, as vermouth, fruit juices or flavorings, sometimes sweetened."
The definition changed because drinks changed. A late-nineteenth-century martini was made with equal parts gin and sweet vermouth, plus sugar syrup and orange bitters. A late-twentieth-century martini was made with vodka, not gin, and a few drops of dry, not sweet, vermouth, and no bitters and sugar syrup.
The First Mixed Drinks
Originally, spirits were taken for medicinal purposes. Called aqua vitae, or the water of life, they were thought to improve health and promote longevity. Monks and apothecaries made potions from spirits mixed with herbs, spices, and fruits. They prescribed them for the pox and the plague, and even rubbed them on stiff joints. By the seventeenth century, Europeans were drinking the concoctions for pleasure as well as for pain relief.
When settlers came to North America, they brought a taste for spirited drinks with them. They made punch with rum, tea, sugar, water, and lemon juice. They drank flips made with beer, rum, molasses or sugar, and eggs or cream, all mixed together and heated with a red-hot poker. Possets combined hot milk and spirits. Slings were made of gin or other spirits, water, sugar, and lemon and served either hot or cold.
In 1862 preeminent bartender Jerry Thomas published How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon-Vivant's Companion, America's first mixed drink primer. Thomas wrote, "The 'Cocktail' is a modern invention, and is generally used on fishing and other sporting parties, although some patients [author's italics] insist that it is good in the morning as a tonic." He called just nine of his two hundred–plus recipes "cocktails," but within a few years the term became ubiquitous.
The Party Begins
The Gilded Age was the golden era of the cocktail. At the turn of the twentieth century, affluent Americans frequented elegant hotels, bars, and restaurants; champagne cocktails were among their favorite drinks.
Talented bartenders knew how to make hundreds of cocktails—from the Adonis to the Zaza—and came up with new ones at will. They created and named drinks for regular patrons, news events, cities, and celebrities, and mixed them with great flair. Jerry Thomas was famous for his "Blue Blazer," a mixture of whiskey and boiling water, which he set ablaze and tossed back and forth between two silver-plated mugs. He said it looked like a "stream of liquid fire."
Cocktail shakers were invented in the late 1860s, and since ice was more available than it had been previously, the proper way to ice a drink became important. Drink manuals specified that some drinks be shaken, others mixed in a glass and stirred with a fork rather than a spoon.
In London, hotels and restaurants opened American bars and served American cocktails. They even hired American bartenders, especially after Prohibition went into effect in the United States in 1920.
America's party did not end with Prohibition—in fact, some might argue that drinking intensified during this era, with drunkenness becoming more common-place—but it did go underground, and the cocktail changed. Bartenders disguised the harsh taste of bootleg liquor by adding cream to drinks. Gin became the spirit of choice because it was easy to make faux gin by mixing juniper oil into alcohol. It was more difficult to replicate the taste of whiskey. Many people opted to drink in the privacy of their own homes, and cocktail sets—tray, shaker, and glasses—became popular wedding presents.
After Prohibition, which was repealed in 1933, most of the creamy cocktails disappeared, and trendsetters began ordering their martinis dry. However, in the 1933 "Repeal Edition" of the Cocktail Book, a dry martini was two-thirds gin, one-third French vermouth, and two dashes of bitters.
Just the Basics
During World War II, the cocktail repertoire shrank. People turned to basic drinks such as highballs, martinis, and Manhattans. In the 1950s Americans frequented cocktail lounges, threw cocktail parties, and women wore cocktail dresses. They ate bite-sized cocktail snacks and carried on brief, snappy cocktail-party conversations. Bartenders were not expected to know how to make hundreds of drinks, but they were expected to make ever-drier martinis.
Vodka, so little known in America that it was once sold as "white whiskey," began its rise in popularity. Gradually, it took the place of gin in the standard martini and eventually became the best-selling spirit in America.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, trendy young people drank white wine or smoked marijuana instead of drinking spirits. Cocktails were for old folks. Sales of brown liquors, such as whiskey, plummeted. However, cocktails began showing signs of life during the 1980s. The martini became hip again, and bartenders created dozens of variations on the theme. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, new cocktails—cosmopolitans, chocolate martinis, black icebergs—signal the beginning of yet another era in the evolution of the cocktail.
See also Cocktail Party ; Fads in Food ; Spirits ; Symbol, Food as ; Table Talk ; Whiskey (Whisky).
Brown, John Hull. Early American Beverages. Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle, 1966.
Craddock, Harry. The Savoy Cocktail Book. London: Constable, 1933.
Crockett, Albert Stevens. Old Waldorf Bar Days. New York: Aventine Press, 1931.
Dias Blue, Anthony. The Complete Book of Mixed Drinks. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Forbes, R. J. Short History of the Art of Distillation: from the Beginnings Up to the Death of Cellier Blumenthal. Leiden, Holland: Brill, 1948.
Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Connecticut: Archon Books, 1971. Reprint of 1796 edition.
Grimes, William. Straight Up or on the Rocks: A Cultural History of American Drink. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
Lanza, Joseph. The Cocktail: The Influence of Spirits on the American Psyche. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Lender, Mark Edward, and James Kirby Martin. Drinking in America: A History. New York: Free Press; London: Macmillan, 1987.
Mariani, John F. The Dictionary of American Food and Drink. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1983.
Markham, Gervase. The English Housewife, edited by Michael R. Best. Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1986. Reprint of the 1615 edition.
Mr. Boston Official Bartender's Guide. New York: Warner Books, 1988.
Paget, R. L. The Cocktail Book: A Sideboard Manual for Gentlemen. Boston: Page, 1913.
Paget, R. L. The Cocktail Book: A Sideboard Manual for Gentlemen. Repeal edition. Boston: Page, 1933.
Quinzio, Jeri. "In Favor of Flavor." The Massachusetts Beverage Price Journal (August 1995): 4–8.
Quinzio, Jeri. "Toasting Vodka's Success." The Massachusetts Beverage Price Journal (August 1996): 7–8.
Thomas, Jerry. How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon-Vivant's Companion. New York: Dick and Fitzgerald, 1862.
Trader Vic. Bartender's Guide. New York: Halcyon House, 1948.
A Drink by Any Other Name
The names of cocktails are often as inventive as the recipes. Here are a few intriguing examples.
- Cocktails named for animals: Bird, Chanticleer, Goat's Delight, Hop Frog, Hop Toad, Grasshopper, Prairie Hen, Mississippi Mule, Rattlesnake, Sherry Chicken, Yellow Parrot.
- Cocktails named for people: Bobby Burns, Charlie Lindbergh, Gene Tunney, Jack Kearns, Mamie Taylor, Mary Pickford, Phoebe Snow, Rhett Butler Slush, Rob Roy, Rudolph Nureyev, Tom and Jerry, Tom Collins, Will Rogers.
- Cocktails named for places: Big Apple, Brazil, Bronx, Brooklyn, Champs Elysées, Chicago, Cuba Libre, Fifth Avenue, Havana, Hawaiian, Manhattan, Martha's Vineyard, Richmond, Ward Eight.
- Cocktails named for occupations: Bishop, Chorus Lady, Commodore, Crook, Diplomat, Doctor G., Grenadier, Huntsman, Judge, Journalist, Kentucky Colonel, Merry Widow, President, Presidente Seco.
- Old school cocktails: Annapolis Fizz, Columbia, Cornell, Eton Blazer, Harvard, Old Etonian, Oxford Grad, Princeton, Yale.
- Royal cocktails: Count Stroganoff, Duchess, Duke, King Cole, Prince Edward, Prince's Smile, Queen, Queen Charlotte, Queen Elizabeth.
- Cocktail contradictions: Church Parade, Presbyterian, Prohibition, Puritan, Reform.
COCKTAIL PARTY. The cocktail party is a social gathering, held early in the evening, usually for a period of about two hours, typically from 5:00 to 7:00 P.M.or 6:00 to 8:00 P.M. It may take place in the home, in a food-service setting such as the private room of a restaurant or hotel, or in a business such as an art gallery or bookstore. Cocktails, wine, and soft drinks are served, though contemporary cocktail parties may in fact offer wine and soft drinks exclusively and skip the cocktails. In any case, beverages are accompanied by finger foods, which are meant to delight the palate, stave off hunger until dinnertime, and complement the cocktails.
Depending on variables such as the host's budget and degree of formality desired, the cocktail party may be catered or prepared at home, drinks may be mixed and served by a bartender, or the host may act as bartender. Servers may be employed to pass around hors d'oeuvres or the host may simply pass them around or arrange them on a buffet.
Certain physical and social behaviors on the part of the guests characterize cocktail parties. Normally, guests are not seated, but remain standing. Drinks in hand, they mill about, socializing to the strains of music, typically an instrumental arrangement, solo piano, or vocal jazz, played at a volume that encourages conversation. Rather than allowing participants to engage in deep and lengthy discourse, the social aim of the cocktail party is for guests to participate in small talk. At purely social cocktail parties, friends catch up or become reacquainted; new friends are introduced. At business-related cocktail parties, new contacts are made, business cards exchanged, and connections renewed.
History of the Cocktail Party
The cocktail party is a modern invention, conceived in the 1920s. Before World War I, most home entertaining was quite formal: people hosted teas, dinners, and balls. After 1918 informal entertaining became much more accepted.
In 1920 when the Eighteenth Amendment put Prohibition into effect, public consumption of liquor was driven underground into the speakeasy, and brought for the first time into the home. Before that, Americans may have served wine at dinner, but the consumption of hard liquor was generally confined to the tavern; and women, for the most part, did not drink alcohol at all. Speakeasies, in an attempt to compete for business, created fanciful cocktails, heretofore unknown in the United States, and even welcomed women. Those Americans who made their own spirits at home ("bathtub gin") adapted these new cocktail recipes for home use. A boom in the manufacture and sales of bar accessories ensued, including cocktail glasses and shakers.
A simultaneous explosion in the importation of fancy canned foods, such as olives, anchovies, and smoked oysters, encouraged people to serve hors d'oeuvres incorporating these comestibles along with their cocktails. Friends came to call before dinner, as was the habit, and the cocktail party was born. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, American zeal for the cocktail party only increased, encouraged by idealized depictions of cocktail parties in motion pictures.
With the post–World War II economic boom, cocktail parties became institutionalized as an appealing way to entertain friends at home. In addition, it became a form of business entertaining brought into the home. The man of the house (typically the sole wage-earner) would invite his employer and his wife, along with friends, coworkers, and other acquaintances; the woman of the house would act as hostess. Women wore "cocktail dresses," the knee-length sleeveless sheaths that are still in fashion.
The popularity of the cocktail party waned in the 1960s, with the rise of the counterculture. It began to see a renaissance in the mid-1980s, though at that time it was taken out of the home. Cocktail parties became popular forums for celebrating art gallery openings, book publications, product launches, and other commercial ventures. The 1990s saw a resurgence of cocktail parties given in the home, fueled partly by young adults who found the kitsch value of cocktail culture appealing.
Although the cocktail party is a purely American institution, it has been exported around the world, adopted by many other cultures. In France, for instance, the cocktail party is known as le cocktail.
Hors d'oeuvres may be hot or cold, passed around, or placed on tables. Traditionally, cocktail party foods have tended toward the salty and fatty, encouraging the consumption of cocktails. At contemporary cocktail parties, traditional hors d'oeuvres from other cultures frequently appear—from Caribbean cod fritters to sushi. So do ingredients and techniques from other cultures used in new ways—for instance, tuna tartare canapés or mini-pizzas. Hors d'oeuvres tend to be more or less elaborate depending on whether the party is given at a business or a home, and whether they are prepared at home or catered.
Traditional cold hors d'oeuvres include boiled shrimp with cocktail sauce, smoked salmon, caviar, and olive canapés. Cold hors d'oeuvres incorporating vegetables, such as endive leaves filled with herbed goat cheese, have become popular.
Meatballs, rumaki (skewered chicken livers wrapped in bacon), shrimp toast, and hors d'oeuvres made with puff pastry are traditional hot cocktail party hors d'oeuvres, but today anything from Italian rice dumplings to mini "burgers" made of seared foie gras might be served. Skewered, grilled foods have become popular, including Thai satés.
Classically, the beverages served were cocktails in the strict sense of the word, that is to say a spirit combined with bitters (or a bitter element such as vermouth), and perhaps sugar and/or water (sometimes in the form of ice). Examples of this would be martinis, Manhattans, Old-Fashioneds, Rob Roys, and champagne cocktails. Contemporary cocktail party beverages would be cocktails, especially cosmopolitans and martinis, liquor served straight-up or on the rocks, wine, champagne, and sparkling mineral water. Beer is generally avoided.
In the 1920s little single-subject recipe books began to appear, featuring recipes for cocktails and/or finger foods, many, but not all of them, published by liquor companies. These books grew in popularity with the cocktail party itself, culminating in a large number of titles published in the 1950s. Their publication died down until the mid-1980s, when a few titles appeared; by the mid-1990s they had reemerged as a significant subgenre of cookbooks.
See also Cocktails ; Fads in Food ; Spirits ; Symbol, Food as ; Table Talk ; Whiskey (Whisky).
Brenner, Leslie. The Art of the Cocktail Party. New York: Plume, 1994.
Editors of Esquire. Esquire's Handbook for Hosts. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1949.
Grimes, William. Straight Up or on the Rocks: A Cultural History of American Drink. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
cock·tail / ˈkäkˌtāl/ • n. 1. an alcoholic drink consisting of a spirit or several spirits mixed with other ingredients, such as fruit juice, lemonade, or cream: [as adj.] cocktail parties. ∎ a mixture of substances or factors, esp. when dangerous or unpleasant in its effects: a cocktail of drugs that inhibits replication of HIV. 2. a dish consisting of small pieces of seafood or fruits, typically served cold at the beginning of a meal as an hors d'oeuvre: a shrimp cocktail.
Cocktail ★★½ 1988 (R)
A smug young man finds fame and fortune as a proficient, flashy bartender, charming the ladies with his bottle and glass juggling act. Slick, superficial film boasts a busy soundtrack and serviceable exchanges between male leads Cruise and Brown. There's less chemistry between Cruise and love interest Shue. Filmed in a hightech rock video style. 103m/C VHS, DVD . Tom Cruise, Bryan Brown, Elisabeth Shue, Lisa Banes, Laurence Luckinbill, Kelly Lynch, Gina Gershon, Ron Dean, Paul Benedict; D: Roger Donaldson; W: Heywood Gould; C: Dean Semler; M: J. Peter Robinson. Golden Raspberries '88: Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay.