I recently blogged about the incredible renaissance of American beer brewing going on right now, but there’s another concoction that’s also enjoying a resurgence of intoxicating creativity and quality – yes, crack – but I’m referring to the cocktail.
While the origins of the word cocktail are murkier than a politician’s soul, some say the first printed use of the word is in The Farmer’s Cabinet on April 28, 1803. Jared Brown of Mixellany argues however, that there was an earlier printed mention. Brown says in 1798 the Morning Post and Gazetteer reported that a London pub owner, on winning a lottery prize erased all his customers’ debts:
A publican, in Downing-street, who had a share of the 20,000l. prize, rubbed out all his scores, in a transport of joy: This was an humble imitation of his neighbour, who, when he drew the highest prize in the State Lottery, not only rubbed out, but actually broke scores with his old customers, and entirely forgot them.
The next week, on 20 March, 1798 the Morning Post and Gazetteer satirically listed the details of seventeen politicians’ pub debts, including the following:
Mr. Pitt, two petit vers of “L’huile de Venus” 0 1 0Ditto, one of “perfeit amour” 0 0 7Ditto, “cock-tail” (vulgarly called ginger) 0 0 0 ¾
William Pitt the Younger was Prime Minister at the time, whose tenure was marked by the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. Implying he was drinking French beverages was akin to calling him a cheese-eating surrender monkey, but also suggests the word cocktail may have been a French loan word.
No doubt people had been drinking cocktails for many, many years prior to their making it into print. A cocktail was originally described as any concoction composed of a spirit (or spirits), water, sugar, and bitters (the ingredients of an Old Fashioned). At the time, bitters were a key constituent that differentiated a cocktail from Slings, Sours, Punches, Flips, Toddies, and a variety of other mixed drinks. The distinction has since largely evaporated.
While America’s experiment with alcohol Prohibition from 1920-1933 was a truly fantastic failure, it did have a couple of serendipitous side effects. In the speakeasies that sprang up to serve illegal, home-brewed alcohol, women were able to socialize with men for the first time. Up until prohibition the only place a woman could publicly enjoy a tipple without social censure was in hotel bars – if she was a guest, as the wild west nature of the saloons were no place for a lady.
This ability for the sexes to mingle in public sexually charged the atmosphere of America, and also had an effect on the drinks served. Partly because it became almost impossible to find quality, unadulterated beer, and partly no doubt, due to the tastes of women, mixing and watering down the likes of rum and gin* became increasingly popular. By the end of prohibition on December 5th 1933, cocktails had become part of the American fabric.
Fast forward to the onset of the late 60’s, and other recreational drugs had become more freely available: weed, acid and coke chief amongst them, and cocktails found it hard to compete with the novelty of that sort of buzz. They fell out of favor, and it wasn’t until the 80’s that cocktails came back into fashion, as popularized by the 1988 Tom Cruise movie Cocktail.
Cocktails: not just for those who are young and gay
Like much of the pop culture of the time however, these were often terribly garish, syrupy, fruity concoctions, lacking in depth and subtlety. What most people equate with a Mai Tai for example, usually has little in common with its origins, which featured multiple rums and “fresh lime juice, given an ineffable twist with a dash of almond-flavored orgeat” (a syrup made from almonds, prepared with sugar and extract of orange flowers). The focus was less on the drinks – as flavorless vodkas came to replace gin, than on the ‘scene’ associated with them.
This started to change around the turn of the millennium. Taking off in the 90’s, there began a real shift from mass production and consumption towards smaller, natural, ‘authentic’ and local goods and services, particularly in food and drink. Traditional cocktails and gin began to make a come-back. One of the leaders of this new wave in cocktail making was an ambitious young New Yorker named Sasha Petraske. Aged 26, he opened a new bar called Milk & Honey in January 2000, situated at 134 Eldridge Street in New York’s Lower East Side; a formerly run-down, shabby neighborhood right on the cusp of being up and coming.
Getting away from the hoi polloi at Milk & Honey
With no signage, a reservation number that changed regularly, seating for less than 25, dim lighting, and most importantly – classic drinks hand-made with lots of love, Milk & Honey was a new type of establishment. It quickly racked up awards and featured on the World’s Best Bars. In the process Milk & Honey single-handedly redefined the term speakeasy from referring to an illegal Prohibition-era bar serving bootlegged or adulterated hooch, to a legal, modern bar with no street signage that served artisanal cocktails in a refined environment.
It was the first modern speakeasy.
Petraske attracted a lot of attention for various controversial measures, such as not taking walk-ins, disallowing standing, and the house rules:
1. No name-dropping, no star fucking.
2. No hooting, hollering, shouting or other loud behaviour.
3. No fighting, play fighting, no talking about fighting.
4. Gentlemen will remove their hats. Hooks are provided.
5. Gentlemen will not introduce themselves to ladies.
Ladies, feel free to start a conversation or ask the bartender to introduce you. If a man you don’t know speaks to you, please lift your chin slightly and ignore him.
6. Do not linger outside the front door.
7. Do not bring anyone unless you would leave that person alone in your home. You are responsible for the behaviour of your guests.
8. Exit the bar briskly and silently. People are trying to sleep across the street. Please make all your travel plans and say all farewells before leaving the bar.
While they appear overly anal to many, these rules were made for specific reason. Petraske’s landlord/friend lives directly above the bar, and he “only agreed to lease the space to Milk and Honey if Petraske would promise to maintain pin drop silence”. Petraske wanted clientele who knew “how to drink and remain polite, to each other and the residents of Eldridge Street.” It didn’t matter how famous you were – or weren’t, you couldn’t bribe your way in. You just needed to be referred by a friend, make a reservation, not be a dick – and you were in.
Petraske’s rules made the atmosphere much more relaxed – like being in a friend’s living room, than if you were being jostled and stood over by other patrons, and meant you could actually converse with your friends without having to shout. Tres civilized and egalitarian.
Milk & Honey’s success and influence caused variations of these rules to be adopted by several of Manhattan’s top speakeasies, such as PDT – short for Please Don’t Tell, accessible via a phone booth in the side of a hot dog joint in the East Village.
Mind your head at Please Don’t Tell
All this would be moot, falling into the realm of lame gimmickry, and Milk & Honey and PDT would have closed long ago – were it not for their serving cocktails that taste like freshly milked angel juice. But they are just two of many bars where mixologists construct elegant concoctions based on the classics, utilize locally-grown and seasonal produce, and make their own infusions, tinctures and bitters.
So enough history. What’s happening right now? Current cocktail trends include an explosion in artisanal and home-made bitters; the rediscovery of rum punches and consequent resurgence of tiki bars; ice sculpted to fit the glass they’re served in (not a gimmick: large, circular ice melts more slowly, keeping your drink cold without watering it down); speakeasies and bars that specialize exclusively in whiskey, tequila, or rum; savory drinks featuring food like bacon; molecular mixology; multiple types of absinthe coming back in a big way; and the rise of pulque, a Mexican fermented beverage made from the juice of the agave or maguey plant.
Today’s mixologists aren’t doing this part-time while they wait for their real life to kick in – they’re lifetime professionals, dedicated to their craft, constantly creating new levels of deliciousness that can be personalized directly to your tastes. (And when you’re spending $13+ for a drink, don’t be afraid to send it back if it’s not to your taste; they would rather you were a satisfied, repeat customer). Modern speakeasies are a great place to take a date, pontificate after dinner, or find out more about the always intriguing history of alcohol in an environment where boorish behavior is left at the door.
Bonus Time: Thirsty? Want to find the best speakeasies and cocktail lounges in New York City – spiritual home of the cocktail? I’ve painstakingly constructed a Google Map that’s taken countless hours of research to personally verify each venue’s worthiness. Enjoy…
*What we know today as gin is the English version of a 16th century Dutch liquor called Genever (which used to outsell gin six to one in the US before Prohibition, and is another vintage spirit that’s making a comeback). Genever began as a type of malt wine infused with juniper berries to mask the flavor, and is where we get the term ’dutch courage’ from.