The historical journey of the cocktail begins with the mixing of wine with water and spices, a practice that predates the Roman Empire. Next, the distillation of alcohol was developed in the 2nd Century A.D. and most of the basic liquors we know today were created between the 12th and 19th Centuries. This set the stage for the birth of the true cocktail which was first defined in print as a drink containing spirits, sugar, water, and bitters in an 1806 edition of The Balance.
The origin of the word “cocktail” is not clear. One story says New Orleans apothecary Antoine Peychaud served toddies in an eggcup the French called a coquetier. His American clients could not pronounce coquetier and the word cocktail was born. Another story describes how the character “Betty Flanagan” from James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Spy invented the cocktail in 1778. Supposedly based upon the real Catherine Hustler, Betty was a tavern keeper who served soldiers a drink garnished with a rooster’s tail feather. These soldiers imbibed well into the night calling for more of Betty’s “Cock’s Tails”.
By the Civil War, the cocktail had become a term for drinks made with bitters to differentiate them from drinks such as sours, slings, and punches. Also around this time, a bartender at the Occidental Hotel near Martinez, California created a drink using gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino cherry liquid, and bitters. Shaken until ice cold, the martini was born.
The martini’s popularity grew with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. What began as a temperance movement to control abusive behavior due to alcohol had instead the unintended consequences of empowering organized crime leaders such as Al Capone. Operating speakeasies and brothels, these crime syndicates provided what the public wanted – alcohol. One of the easiest forms of alcohol to produce was gin. Unlike whiskey, gin required no barrel aging and could be used as soon as it was distilled. This basic grain alcohol was often unpleasant because of the inferior ingredients and equipment used in distillation. Therefore, flavoring agents common to gin such as juniper berries were used to cover the taste of this low quality spirit.
With alcohol again legal in 1933, the martini was established as the cocktail of choice. Gin for martinis was popular after Prohibition ended. However, the vodka martini soon became the standard particularly with the rise in popularity of Ian Fleming’s character James Bond. Bond’s cocktail of choice was usually a “vodka martini, medium dry, shaken not stirred.”
Despite the martini’s popularity, the original structure of the cocktail survives. The 1880’s had the “Old Fashioned” which originally followed the “Spirits, Sugar, Water, and Bitters” philosophy though today’s version adds seltzer and fruit garnish. The 1930’s saw the creation of the Margarita. Made with tequila, orange liqueur, and lime juice, the Margarita continues the tradition. Its origins lost to time, the cocktail is a well-established icon that will continue to evolve to meet society’s needs.