Cocktails became a huge fad in 1920s Europe as America languished in prohibition. For many, they were regarded as undoubtedly ‘America’s chief contribution to the pleasures of civilisation.’
To unravel the origins of the cocktail and individual cocktails requires wading through a bewildering concoction of myth, legend and misinformation. There are as many theories about the origin of the cocktail as there are varieties. However, despite the fact that cocktails have been around for over a century they seemingly rose to prominence in American at the turn of the century but went underground with the introduction of prohibition. Then in the early 1920s cocktails became an essential ingredient in any European fashionable society gathering and Europe went cocktail mad.
Although the origin of the cocktail is not agreed what is known is that the first use of the word in print was in 1803 in an early American paper called the Farmer’s Cabinet and this was followed in 1806 by the editor of the Balance and Colombian Repository in Hudson, New York defining ‘Cocktail’ as a ‘stimulating liquor composed of spirits, sugar, water and bitters.’
There are some interesting theories about how the word came about. Three resonate and are often quoted. First, that it originated in the French quarter of New Orleans by a Frenchman called Peychaud, who operated a drug store, possessed a family formula for a conconction of cognac and bitters and combined in an egg cup known as a coquetier. Other variants were produced and it became misprounced as cocktail. Second, about the beginning of the last century there was friction between the American Army of the Southern states and King Axolotl of Mexico. At peace talks the King asked the American general if he wanted a drink. The King’s daughter Coctel created a drink and it became known as a cocktail. Lastly, when cocktails were first being mixed the blend of wonderful colours was deemed to look like the tail of a cock (rooster) and so was called cocktail.
Whatever the origins, ‘cocktails’ evolved because of several key elements: the availability of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, mixing, carbonated water, ice and curiosity. In the 18th century most taverns served toddies that were warm drinks flavored with sugar and spices. In 1767 the innovation of artificial carbonation influenced drinking habits and fizzy water began to be served with whiskey. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, early refrigeration enabled drinks being served cold and then the easy availability of ice in 1870 transformed cocktail culture. At the same time a booming economy and the growing affluence of the middle and upper classes fuelled the growth of bars, cafes and restaurants and a desire for novelty and the search for something new and original.
By the mid-1800s the word cocktail became part of the American vernacular. In 1862, for example, in The Bartenders Guide by Jerry Thomas there were thirteen cocktail recipes that were described as being ‘a new invention that is being served up at Galas, Sportsmen meetings and other high level social events.’ Cocktail culture blossomed during the heady days of the gay 90s and early 1900s with the rise of the grand eateries or lobster palaces.
In Europe things were somewhat different and prior to the First World War no-one was offered drinks before dinner in smart London houses with the exception of sherry, sherry and soda, sherry and bitters or bock and seltzer. It was Americans abroad that stimulated demand. In fact in early 1910 many Americans overseas started a campaign for cheaper cocktails. Starting in Berlin the campaign swept through Paris and London. The favourites such as the Manhattan, Martini, highballs, golden fizzes and gin rickeys all cost about 25 cents and the demand was for a reduction to 15 or 20 cents. The proprietor of the principal American hotel rendezvous in Berlin said that he was afraid to bring cocktails within the reach of the masses because he was convinced that sooner or later he would be unable to cope with the demand. In London their were similar grumbles as there were several places where a palatable cocktail could be found such as Manager Gustave of the Savoy and Manager Kramer of the Carlton.
What can be deduced was that prior to the First World War cocktail consumption in Europe was slight because of the high cost and was confined to a small niche minority of those in the know. For example, in early 1914 a group of French aviators stationed at Versailles invented, what was regarded as, the first French cocktail called the Pegoud (named after Adolphe Pegoud French aviator) described as a fiery concoction of orange and lemon juice and the ingredients of a Martini. It was observed that all other cocktails were known only at the American bars in Paris and so the cocktail found its way to the Rue Daunou where the majority of the American bars were located. One of these bars was The New York Bar where Harry MacElhone, who became world famous for his cocktails, was the bartender.
The three most popular cocktails were, and perhaps still are, the Bronx, Martini and Manhattan. The Martini is made with ¾ gin and ¼ vermouth and garnished with an olive (for a drier version less vermouth is used). Some claim that it originated in Martinez or San Francisco, California in the 1870s. More likely the drink stems from the fact that Martini is also a brand name of vermouth. Martini and Rossi created Martini Rosso dry vermouth in 1863 and when the drink arrived in the America someone mixed gin with the vermouth and simply called the drink a Martini. The Bronx was invented at the turn of the century by Johnny Solon bartender of the Old Wardorf Bar in New York and named after the Bronx Zoo. It was essentially a perfect martini with orange juice and originally comprised ½ orange juice, 2/3 gin and dash of Italian and French vermouths but became ¼ French v, ¼ Italian v, ½ gin with orange peel and ice. The Manhattan – a mix of ¾ American whisky, ¼ Italian vermouth and bitters – is regarded as one of the greatest cocktails ever created. Popular myth says it originated at the Manhattan club in New York in 1874 where it was invented by Dr Iain Marshall for a banquet hosted by Jennie Jerome (Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston’s mother) in honour of presidential candidate Samuel J. Tidden. It is thought more likely that it was simply invented by a bartender at a bar on Broadway in the 1860s.
After the war there were dramatic changes. As America plunged into Prohibition in early 1920, Europe went into party mode after the bleak war years and suddenly cocktails were in vogue. The bartender became an accepted personality and an icon of the 20s in white mess jacket, manipulating a cocktail shaker with aplomb and suddenly there was a demand for cocktail cabinets, shakers, suitable glasses, ice, cherries and olives.
In London no establishment was considered complete without an American bar and at places like the Ritz, Carlton, Piccadilly and other well-known West End Restaurants, diners arrived early to spend a preliminary half hour chatting over an aperitif. At the American club, ‘Collins’, was declared to be the London champion shaker, ‘Nick’ was highly regarded at the Automobile Club and Harry MacEthone was now the presiding genius at Ciro’s club. Indeed, Harry published one of the first cocktail books Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails in 1919, a book that is still in print today.
It was also observed that women especially favoured the cocktail habit. They tended to prefer the more soft or sweeter variants and the most fashionable were a Pussyfoot (egg white, grenadine, lemon and orange juice) and the Alexandra (crème of cocoa grenadine and cream).
The fad for cocktails was so great that in early 1920, producer Julian Wylie staged a cocktail ballet in his regional touring revue the Passing Show of 1920 that was launched at the Hippodrome Liverpool in March 1920. Marcelle de St Martin created all the costumes for My Lady Liqueur and sixteen American cocktails: Clover Club, Bride, Martini, Sloe Gin, Sherry, Cobbler, Crème de Menthe, Egg flip, Ponsse Café, Stinger, Manhattan, Rattlesnake, Royal Smile, Crème de Cocoa, Champagne Cocktail, Brian Duster and Infuriator.
When the Dolly Sisters returned to New York from London in early 1922 they had somehow brought through customs a portable bar from London, perhaps claiming it was something else since it was well-known they did not drink. It was a tiny bar of regulation mahogany about four feet long with a silver footrail, a towel, a drip trough, and a cut glass dish for cloves and was wheeled about like a tea wagon. With no regard for prohibition, the Dollies shook their cocktail shakers and offered their guests a range of delectable concoctions.
As time passed experimentation continued and new spirits were utilized like Vodka, Caribbean rum and Tequila, new exotic fruit juices were obtained and new cocktails invented.
Cheers! And bottoms up!
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
The New York Times, The Times, The Stage
Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails by Harry MacElhone
The Savoy Cocktail Book
The Twenties/Alan Jenkins