While beer, wine, and mead have been around since ancient times, it took a while longer for people to learn how to distill spirits. Even after learning how to distill spirits, there wasn’t much written or talked about punches/flips/cocktails until much later.
So let’s jump forward to our first era, the 17th through the early 19th century when spirits were commonly mixed into punches and flips. For the record, a punch was a mixture of alcoholic and non-alcoholic ingredients (usually fruit juices). Flips were similar but served warm, and shifted to include eggs (a modern evolution of a flip would be eggnog). The first American cocktail book known to have been published came out in the 1860’s. This began the codification of cocktails as the four components (spirit, sweet, water, bitter). The recipes published in there and ones developed by bartenders in regional bars that spread through word of mouth and traveler requests are the ones that are now known as the pre-prohibition cocktails.
When prohibition came into being in the US, most of the skilled bartenders left for foreign shores to ply their trade. While they were overseas, they did develop some cocktails that survived and were brought back after the dark times were over in the US (such as the Bloody Mary). Meanwhile, here in the US, with only poor quality spirits available, most cocktails that were being developed and gaining in popularity were those that masked the taste of these liquors of questionable origin. Thankfully, at some point America came to its senses about banning alcohol. When this happened, there were other issues going on. Eventually those troubles ceased, which meant a lot of men who were sent overseas came back to the US. As they came back, they brought back not only a Lust for Life, but an enjoyment of tropical flavors.
Of those two sailors who came back, the ones we are most interested in are Donn Beach and Victor Bergernon. They found a culture they appreciated and brought it back here to the US, and started Tiki culture (soon…). While this was going on, the classics were being brought back from pre-Prohibition times. While there were lots of issues during the mid-1900’s, cocktails were not one of them.
As things moved into the 1960’s and 1970’s, there were several disturbing trends that all lined up at the same time. There was a trend for modernization, which included pre-packaged ingredients being healthier than fresh ones, there was an embracing of vodka as a primary spirit, and there was a preference towards sweeter things. So there was a movement to packaged sour mix, bottled juices, and moving to easier to use ingredients (which isn’t always a bad thing). This isn’t to say that no lasting cocktails came from this time, but the overall trends were not positive.
Trends always come and go, and when the 90’s rolled around there was the gaining popularity of big band and swing music. With this, some interest in the classic cocktails returned as well. This led to the rise of the martini bar. Now, most of what they sold were not martinis, but cocktails that were served in a cocktail glass and just called an X Martini (Chocolate Martinis, Espresso Martinis, etc.).
With that, we get to modern times. We were living in a world with a wide array of ingredients that can be ordered online and shipped regardless of the time of year. There are piles of books being released on a regular basis that consist of cocktail recipes. Most cities will have several bars specializing in cocktails. New drinks are still being created and named, especially as some older spirits were being revived.
Here’s hoping that enough bars survive the lockdowns, and we can continue the upward trend we’ve been on for the past 30 years. Over the next couple of weeks, as the weather turns warm, and more places open up, it’s time for a celebration. This means that I’ll finally be writing up the piece on Tiki culture, and after that providing another use for your ice cream maker.