EP 039: 221B BAKER STREET – Historycal: Words that Shaped the World
I should start by saying that there’s a decided lack of sober evidence for a great deal of what we’re going to talk about today – which is unsurprising. I don’t want to make assumptions about your drinking habits, but I can confidently assert that nobody of my acquaintance has ever taken detailed notes on a napkin after being presented with their third margarita. So it’s unsurprising that the origins of the humble cocktail are slightly blurry.
I’m going to break your heart in a few ways today, so let’s get that over first. If you’re a big fan of a strawberry daiquiri, or if you like Pina Colada (and getting caught in the rain), I’m sorry to say that you aren’t really drinking a cocktail. Strictly speaking, a cocktail needs to be made up of spirits, water, sugar, and bitters. The sugary watery can take whatever form you so choose – so orange juice counts, unless you’re talking to a doctor. The part that’s really non-negotiable is the bitters. A drink consisting of spirits and a mixer is a highball, and one made of a spirit and a liqueur is a duo. A spirit, a liqueur and a mixer is a trio. All of these are just as much fun to say as ‘cocktail,’ but I make no guarantees as to what you’ll get it you try it out in a bar.
Bitters, those sneaky things that make a cocktail a cocktail, are an aromatic infusion, usually with an incredibly high alcohol content, but often marketed as non-alcoholic, because you use so little. They can be loosely traced all the way back to the Ancient Egyptians, who infused and preserved herbs in jars of wine. Frankly, I’m not sure I want to know which priest got halfway through mummifying a corpse and decided to add a bit of the liquid apparatus to a glass of his favourite refreshment, but there we are. The practice continued into the Middle Ages, during which time the concentration of bitters became even stronger, as distilling techniques became more refined. Bitters were largely used as stomach tonics, in the days where medicine was decidedly less regulated and more fun.
Where cocktails actually originated is hard to say. Popular culture tends to see them as a very American drink, and there’s no doubt that they were more popular in the United States than elsewhere for a very long time. Why we call a cocktail a cocktail is under some dispute, probably because whoever did it first was more than a little trollied. The first time the word appeared – not in relation to a horse, more on that later – was in 1798, in The Morning Post and Gazetteer. The first time it cropped up in specific reference to the delicious and brightly coloured drink with a straw and an umbrella that we all know and love was in 1803, in The Farmer’s Cabinet. (As a sidebar, I’m not entirely sure they had paper umbrellas in 1803. Now is the time to be alive). But in case you’ve never wondered this whilst seeing how many Bloody Mary’s you can drink before you have to call Mother, I feel compelled to point out that there is nothing obvious in the name ‘cocktail’ that suggests it belongs to anything in any way ingestible.
Circling back to the horse. The two prevailing theories for why cocktails are called cocktails both include a horse, and in neither version does the horse come off the better man.
The etymologist Anatoly Liberman theorized that the word came from a practice that was rampant in the 1700 and 1800’s, of docking the tails of racehorses that were not purebred. These became known as cocktailed horses, and later just cocktails. Spiced up pink drinks, likewise, were considered an acceptable alcoholic means of getting from here to there, so to speak, but diluted, impure and, as he puts it, “raised above their station.”
If the horses in this version took Umbridge, one hardly likes to think what the next batch might do. The Cocktail Historian David Wondrich – and yes, apparently that is real profession – reckons that the term cocktail is a reference to gingering. In many show horses, particularly breeds such as Arabians and American Saddlebreds, carrying the tail in a jaunty and perked up fashion is considered a highly desirable trait. Equally at auctions, tail carriage was – and, in some cases, still is – considered a sign of good breeding, superior energy, and general high spirits. (Pun not intended, but still enjoyable).
Unfortunately, unless you are the Horse Whisperer, there’s no real way of explaining to a horse that might be feeling a little off his oats that you need him to carry his tail at a 90 degree angle until further notice. Even more unfortunately, unscrupulous breeders and owners took to using ginger as a kind of suppository, which caused the horses to carry their tails at this characteristically cheery angle whilst undoubtedly feeling quite the opposite. The practice, sadly, continues, although it is highly illegal and extremely cruel. David Wondrich speculates that cocktails – which, in their early days, often did contain pieces of ginger – might have been considered to have a similarly pepping effect. It is certainly true that, for a long time, a gin cocktail was considered a perfectly acceptable addition to the morning bill of fare.
One of the developments that allowed cocktails to really take off was the Frozen Water Trade. Unoriginally named, but quite revolutionary in every other respect, this was, quite literally, the process of harvesting, transporting and selling ice from places it occurred naturally year round, to those where it didn’t. In our days of ice machines, household freezers and walk in beer fridges, it’s hard to imagine a time before a drink couldn’t be enjoyed at the frosty temperature Dionysus intended, but it wasn’t always that way. Before refrigeration, there was no real way of making ice, short of waiting for a rough winter, bunging some water outside, and catching it before it melted. Frederic Tudor – Boston’s Ice King – was the first person to manage the transportation of ice on a massive scale. A reporter from the Boston Gazette got so excited that he wrote: “No joke. A vessel has cleared at the Custom House for Martinique with a cargo of ice. We hope this will not prove a slippery speculation.”
It transformed the food industry, allowing anything that required cold storage to be transported to far-off places for the first time, without needing to be pickled, dried or otherwise cured first. It also allowed for chilled drinks on a mass scale for the first time in history, and one of the first cocktails to burst onto the scene was the mint julip.
By the time the Frozen Water Trade collapsed in the wake of refrigeration systems, cocktails had become so popular that nobody was about to give them up without a fight.
Which was lucky, because in 1920, the United States government picked one. Prohibition was one of the biggest government-led social experiments in the last century, and certainly one of the least successful. As Bill Bryson puts it,
There’d never been a more advantageous time to be a criminal in America than during the 13 years of Prohibition. At a stroke, the American government closed down the fifth largest industry in the United States – alcohol production – and just handed it to criminals – a pretty remarkable thing to do.
Of course, most hardened tipplers didn’t stop drinking, they just did it illegally. Speakeasies became one of the central pillars of American culture during this time, and cocktails were one of their central features. One reason for this was that underground bars and nightclubs were frequently raided at – from the patron’s perspective – the drop of a hat, and a cocktail is far easier for the faint hearted to polish off quickly. But the primary reason was that the sheer volume of sugar, bitters and other inventive additives managed to hide the taste of inferior, and often homemade, spirits. Many cocktails now included gin instead of whisky, because gin doesn’t need to mature, and was therefore easier to make illegally. Wine and beer were also less readily available, and often more expensive, but cocktails made up of foul tasting liquor smothered in fun, sugary flavours were all the rage.
When prohibition came to an end in 1933, people flocked back to their fancy aged wines and triple distilled whiskies, and the cocktail went into a period of relatively brief obscurity. But it emerged with a flourish in the nineties, and by the noughties had acquired the far classier umbrella name ‘Mixology.’
Please don’t ask what happened to the horses to come up with that term. Quite frankly, I don’t want to know.