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by Peter Barradine May 12, 2021 4 min read

A Brief History of Cocktails

We at SplitsDrinks love a celebration, and what a smashing one this one is! In this week’s blog we are celebrating World Cocktail Day! On the 13th May 1806 the very first published definition of the word cocktail appeared in The Balance and Columbian Repository, defining the “cock-tail” as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters”.

Principally the cocktail remains true to the form as mentioned above, for example the Old Fashioned is made up of these main elements, bourbon, ice, sugar syrup and bitters. The cocktail has gone through many changes, development and styles throughout history. The true origins are about as clear as a White Russian but here is a rough guide to how the cocktail came into fruition.

We have a history of mixing elements with drinks since we started consuming them, with notes on beer and mead being mixed 3,000 years ago. The Greeks were fans of mixing honey with wine and in pagan Britain they created a blend based on cider, mixed in bowls and served in cups to celebrate harvests.

One of the most enduring cocktails is the punch, this finds its formulation in India. The people of India have been distilling for a very long time and have an abundance of sugar, spices, herbs and citrus fruit. Difford's Guide suggests that “punches were served hot and warming against the European climate. Enriched with the phenomenally expensive new citrus fruits, they were drunk cool in summer as a refreshing alternative to wine.” As India became colonised punch found its way back to Europe where it was developed and localised to the Westen palate.

Apparently during a party hosted for 1000 people by Admiral Edward Russell he converted his garden fountain into a punch bowl. It was so large that a cabin boy rowed around the drink in a dinghy with a ladle. Sounds like quite a party!

The person that truly revolutionised the cocktail was bartender Jerry Thomas when he published the first bartenders guide called How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant's Companion. The book contained cocktails, flips, sours, cobblers, slings and even included a Martinez, the precursor to the Martini. This book introduced a new professionalism to the industry paving a way of cocktail creation for bartenders.

After this period the US had a financial boom and with this prosperity launched a new wave of people eating out and enjoying restaurants and bars. With American bartenders leading the way when it came to combining and mixing drinks, developing some of the most well known drinks such as the Manhattan, Sidecar and the French 75.

In 1919 the American cocktail revolution came to an end due to prohibition. This pushed a lot of the leading bartenders of the time to move away from the US, for example Harry Craddock moved to the Savoy, plus many others moved to Cuba. What was the US's loss was the rest of the world's gain and access to different spirits and liqueurs from around the world pushed cocktail development even more, leading to daiquiris and mojitos and further down the line tiki cocktails like the Mai Tai.

The way the cocktail developed in the 60s,70s and 80s can be seen as questionable. Supercall states “The 1980s was an interesting time for cocktails, to put it kindly. Some bartenders have claimed that the decade, which was filled with neon cocktails made with pre-made mixes in a rudimentary style, nearly “killed” cocktails forever. And yet, these colorful, fun and flippant drinks have lived on and even started to make a comeback in recent years - albeit upgraded with fresh ingredients and reasonable ratios.”

As we move on to more recent times we can see that these cocktails such as Tequila Sunrise and Pina Colada improved massively as stated in the Supercall quote. These cocktails have become well balanced with great fruity flavours and quality spirits. They also led the way for the use of fresh fruit flavours in cocktails.

The 90s cocktail revolution was spearheaded by two bartenders, Dale DeGroff at New York's Rainbow Room and Bradsell at the Atlantic Bar London. “DeGroff took the Cosmopolitan recipe (probably descended from a drink of the 1930s), and made it his own; Bradsell created drinks such as the Bramble, the Russian Spring Punch and the Wibble. They returned to basics, using fresh fruit and freshly squeezed juices, just as the first bartenders had.” States Difford’s Guide.

These two bartenders not only pushed the standards of cocktail making but influenced and trained many others leading to a ‘cocktail revolution’. Inspiring many of the cocktails we enjoy today.

To explore the world of cocktails (although I am sure you already have) we have a fantastic selection of pre-made cocktails. If you want to turn your hand at making some cocktails we have a great range of spirits and liqueurs as well as a cocktail recipe guide to help you along your way!

If you would like a personalised cocktail or have something specific in mind, just drop us an email or message us through social media and we will be happy to help!


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