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A Brief History of the Cocktail Featuring Famous Cocktails

With the current mixology trends all the rage across the drinking public, one may wonder how did we discover the cocktail? Was it an accident – or could it have been intentional…? By the very nature of consuming alcohol, we may never know the true history of the cocktail, but from what we know, here is the brief history of the cocktail.


In a Word, Cocktail and the Origin of that Word


The theory behind the history of the actual word is as interesting as the history of the cocktail itself: If a horse was not a thoroughbred, it was custom to dock its tail, which led to the name “cocktailed horses” and eventually to “cocktails.” By extension, a person who was not a “purebred” and who tried to rise above his station in life was considered diluted – or watered down – sound familiar? Just add water to pure alcohol, and you have a cocktail. This is one of several theories explaining the name.


A Brief History of the Cocktail


While the definition of cocktail as an alcoholic beverage first appeared in a Hudson, New York newspaper in 1806, Merriam-Webster currently defines the cocktail as “a usually iced drink of wine or distilled liquor mixed with flavoring ingredients.” While the origin of the cocktail lies in a foggy haze, appropriately so, there is a little light shed on the first cocktails. The first bartenders’ guide including cocktail recipes was published in 1862: How to Mix Drinks by Professor Jerry Thomas.
Three of the famous cocktails from early cocktail history are the Old Fashioned, the Sazerac, and the Manhattan, each detailed below along with their own history:


Old Fashioned Cocktail


A whiskey cocktail served on the rocks (poured over ice), the Old Fashioned is made by muddling, or mashing, sugar with bitters and water and then adding whiskey, or sometimes brandy, garnished with an orange slice or zest and a cocktail cherry. Served in an old fashioned glass, or a rocks glass, which predates the cocktail, the Old Fashioned is one of the six basic drinks listed in David A. Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. The Pendennis Club, a gentlemen’s club founded in 1881 in Louisville, Kentucky, makes claim to the bartender who invented the cocktail in honor of Colonel James E. Pepper, a bourbon distiller who brought the cocktail to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar in New York City – that’s one of many origin stories behind the Old Fashioned.


Sazerac Cocktail


A local New Orleans variation of a cognac or whiskey cocktail, the Sazerac is a combination of cognac or rye whiskey, absinthe, bitters, and sugar. Sometimes bourbon substitutes for the rye whiskey and Herbsaint for the absinthe. A Sazerac cocktail is made by swirling the absinthe in one old fashioned glass while stirring the remaining ingredients with ice in the second glass and then straining into the first glass. Claimed by some to be the oldest American cocktail, the Sazerac pre-dates the Civil War in New Orleans.


Manhattan Cocktail


Either served on the rocks in a lowball glass or strained into a cocktail glass, the Manhattan is a cocktail made with whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters. Garnished with a cocktail cherry, the whiskey-based Manhattan is one of five cocktails named for a New York City borough. Originated at the Manhattan Club in New York City in the mid 1870s, the Manhattan was invented by Dr. Iain Marshall for a banquet in honor of presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden, hosted by Jennie Jerome, also known as Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston Churchill.

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