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Cocktail History - A Journey into the World of Classic Cocktails

Cocktail History cover

Cocktails.  A delicious combination of creativity, history and artistic flair. Whether it’s your Wednesday evening martini, a bubbly birthday celebration or a personalised recipe for your bestie's hen do, there is a classic cocktail for every occasion. From the golden age, prohibition era, and post-prohibition to modern times – with some cocktail inspiration, get ready to discover the rich cocktail history and tradition of cocktails. Who knows, you may even find a new cocktail to tantalise your tastebuds.

From the Past to the Glass: Delving into Cocktail History

What is a cocktail?

A cocktail is the next step up on the ladder of elegance from your spirit and mixer. Whilst you may have perfected your G&T at home, having a few cocktail recipes up your sleeve can mix up the mid-week or make your dinner guests feel like VIPs. A cocktail gives you a blank canvas to experiment with flavours and create something complex and special.

Let’s go back to where it all started

The world of cocktails is steeped in lots of history and tradition. Back in the 1800s, doctors would actually prescribe drinks made with botanicals to help people with medical issues. Crazy, right? This led to the historic day on May 13, 1806 (now known as World Cocktail Day). And get this, a bartender in New York whipped up a drink made of sugar, spirits, water, and bitters for a local newspaper editor. The editor loved it so much that he wrote about it in his column, causing the drink to become really popular. Once the (printed) word was out, the art of mixology was born.

The golden age of cocktails

age of cocktails
Bartenders started popping up, using their creativity and skill to invent new concoctions. The first modern cocktail was invented by Jerry Thomas, an American bartender who wrote an influential book on how to make cocktails called "The Bartender's Guide" in 1862. He shared secrets on how to make classic cocktails, like an Old Fashioned. 

Of course, you can't have cocktails without one key ingredient – ice! And we all have Frederic "Ice King" Tudor to thank for that. He started shipping ice cuts from New England ponds to warmer climates around the world in the early 19th century. Once cocktails aroused the senses, the momentum really picked up. But something around the corner was about to throw a spanner in the works.

The Prohibition Era

Prohibition hit America in the 1920s, banning alcohol for 13 years. Ouch. But the people weren’t having it, and this proved to be a time of great change for cocktails. The rise of speakeasies and the influence of Ada Coleman (more on her later), helped to spread the popularity of cocktails.

Many cocktails were invented during the Prohibition Era with, the Margarita cocktail probably being the most famous. According to legend, it was created by Carlos "Danny" Herrera at his Tijuana bar in 1938 when he ran out of tequila but still wanted to serve something strong enough to keep customers drinking through Prohibition's long dry spell. Another famous Prohibition cocktail is ‘The Sidecar’ – a classic brandy-based cocktail.

Understanding Tiki Cocktail Culture

Tiki Cocktail Culture
The cocktail scene was still finding its feet after Prohibition came to an end. But it was the rise of the Tiki cocktail bar, which started in California and Hawaii, that made everyone shout ‘Aloha’ to cocktails! New Tiki cocktails like the Mai Tai and Zombie became popular, and even inspired their own genre of tropical-themed music called "exotica”. The classic Mojito cocktail also became a favourite among drinkers around this time.

Meet the Queen of Cocktails

Born in 1875 in London, Ada Coleman began her career in the flower shop of Claridge's Hotel before being moved to work in the hotel's bar. In 1903, Ada was promoted to head bartender at the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel, where she remained for 23 years. She’s known for creating custom cocktails to suit the individual tastes of her famous clientele, which included King Edward VII, the Prince of Wales, and Sir Winston Churchill.

Ada was a trailblazer for women in the hospitality industry and a pioneer in the world of mixology. Following her footsteps, in 2016, Pippa Guy, author of 'Let's Get Fizzical' and gin expert became the first female senior bartender to be appointed to the Savoy Hotel's world-renowned American Bar in over 100 years. The Hanky Panky is Pippa Guy’s favourite cocktail. It’s made with gin, sweet vermouth and a dash of Fernet Branca.

The Modern Era

Modern Era
The modern cocktails era spans from about 1850 to the present day. In this time, we've seen a rise in craft cocktails and bartenders putting their own spin on classic cocktails, like the Manhattan and the Whisky Sour, or creating unique inventions for their customers. 

We've also seen new cocktails come onto the scene and become classic crowd-pleasers. The Cosmopolitan, made famous by ‘Sex and the City’, was invented in 1987 by a bartender named Toby Cecchini at the famous Odeon in Manhattan's Tribeca neighbourhood. 

Also in the 1980s, bartending guru Dick Bradsell introduced the Vodka Espresso - now known as the Espresso Martini - at Fred's Club in London based on a cheeky request from a (supposedly!) now famous model. The indulgent blend of vodka, fresh espresso and coffee liqueur has become a super popular cocktail to start the night or after-dinner treat.

Finally, we have Douglas Ankrah, legendary bartender at the Townhouse bar in London, to thank for the sweet, fruity flavours of the Pornstar Martini which he crafted in 2002. Combining passion fruit, passoa, vanilla vodka and prosecco, it's a fun and flavourful choice when cocktail o'clock arrives.

The future of cocktails

Over the last ten years, cocktails have become so popular thanks to new technology, cool techniques, and trends popping up all over the world.

To sum up, from the golden age to modern times, cocktails have become part of our cultural fabric. The global pandemic, much like the Prohibition Era, unleashed our creativity to make cocktails at home. So many more of us are now experimenting with cocktail-making and curating our cocktail cabinets to feature the best spirits, mixers and ingredients.

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