Gin martini, mint julep, manhattan, old-fashioned, sidecar – these classic cocktail favorites are nothing new in the world of libations. In fact, they’ve been around since Prohibition, standing the test of time, exemplifying a certain class of drinks that focuses on the spirit in a simple and honest way. While many modern drinks have been invented since then, incorporating exotic ingredients and high-tech machinery into the mixology, there has been a revival of classic cocktails in the last few years. But, how did this quality culture of cocktails begin, where did it go and why is it coming back?
According to Derek Brown of the classic cocktail bar The Passenger in Washington, D.C., cocktails are an American invention.
“There were many mixed drinks before, and these drinks such as Juleps, cups and punches have a very old pedigree, long before the United States,” Brown explains. “But, the technical definition of a cocktail is first found in 1806 in a New York paper and it states that a cocktail is made of spirituous liquor of any kind, sugar, water and bitters. We exported that to the entire world and, in that way, a cocktail is as American as baseball or apple pie.”
That was during a time when Americans were making punches hot and in large quantities. The drinks were essentially composed of brandy, gin or whiskey and a bit of sugar. However, it was Jerry Thomas, often considered the “father of American mixology,” who started making individual drinks. He also introduced the notion of adding fruit and ice, helping to define a modern cocktail era. Thomas was the leader of what is thought of as the real golden age of bartending. This was between the 1850s and Prohibition, which is when Thomas wrote the first bartending guide titled “Bon Vivant’s Guide” or “How To Mix Drinks,” published in 1862.In the late 1800s and early 1900s, cocktail culture in America was really booming and beginning to expand. Bartenders began turning to famous cocktail venues all over the world for inspiration and knowledge. However, in 1920, congress introduced the Volstead Act, marking the beginning of Prohibition and forcing American cocktail culture to go underground.