Culture

How the Cocktail Got Its Name (and Fame) in A Proper Drink

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Genius is often the mother of great literature, and hardship its wet nurse. But in many cases there’s a midwife too: alcohol.

From Baudelaire to Bukowski, the list of writers who turned to the bottle for their inspiration — and to drown their desperation — is long and illustrious.

“Before I start to write, I always treat myself to a nice dry martini. Just one, to give me the courage to get started,” said E. B. White.

Truman Capote described his writing habits this way: “As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.”

And as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”

But while writers’ booze-fueled antics and agonies have been analyzed ad nauseum, the people who pour their drinks—and the drinks themselves—rarely get the same treatment.

With his new book A Proper Drink, award-winning writer Robert Simonson goes behind the bar, chronicling the careers and creativity of the bartenders (or mixologists) responsible for the contemporary craft cocktail renaissance. Simonson tells the tale of men and women thousands of miles apart, primarily in New York, London, San Francisco and Melbourne, whose personalities and passions saved the drinking public from the uninspired tyranny of cosmopolitans, lemon drops, and appletinis.

Along the way, he shares some fascinating tales and tidbits that, were it not for his exhaustive research, would likely be lost amid alcoholic fumes. For example:

  • Cocktail bartenders are nerds. Indeed, from their hipster beards and sleeve tattoos, one would never guess that they are often avid collectors of out-of-print books. “Cocktail nuts, as a group, proved to be the biggest bookworms in the culinary universe,” Simonson writes.
  • The rise of the Internet was instrumental in the rebirth of the craft cocktail movement. Thanks to websites like Drinkboy and eGullet, for the first time, barkeeps around the world could easily share information and debate recipes, ingredients, and theories.
  • The first modern speakeasy—and by far the most influential of the cocktail revolution’s raft of watering holes—was the seminal New York bar Milk & Honey. The brainchild of Sasha Petraske, one of the fathers of the movement, it opened on New Year’s Eve in 1999 and shuttered in 2013 (in its second location). Despite its worldwide fame, it never had a sign.
  • These days meticulous bartenders eschew ice cubes in favor of chunks or spheres of clear ice that facilitate a drink’s proper dilution and temperature. Barflies have Petraske to thank for this too, but only because he didn’t have space for an icemaker at Milk & Honey. Instead, he froze water in pans and carved the resulting ice into pieces. “It was a mother-of-invention solution,” writes Simonson, “but one that would be copied by hundreds of bars.”
  • The most renowned drink of the cocktail renaissance is the Penicillin. “By 2014, the Penicillin was so well known that some young bartenders assumed it was an old classic from way back,” Simonson explains. Created by Australian bartender Sam Ross during his time at Milk & Honey, it’s comprised of blended scotch, honey-ginger syrup, fresh lemon juice, and single-malt scotch and garnished with candied ginger.
  • As cocktail culture was reborn, different cities developed their own identities. Mixologists in New York revered classic cocktails and emphasized precision and accuracy. Meanwhile, their counterparts in San Francisco were heavily influenced by California’s abundance of fresh ingredients, which resulted in a style Simonson calls “garden-to-glass.” He quotes journalist Camper English: “In New York, everything came out of bottles. In San Francisco, everything was made fresh to order.”
  • In Shakespeare’s famous words, “All the world’s a stage,” and nowhere was this more true than in London, where the cocktail revolution transformed some of the city’s stuffiest, most traditional hotel bars into cradles of performance and showmanship. Take the cocktail known as the Forever Young, created at the famed Artesian bar, which replaced the Langham Hotel’s old-school Checker Bar in 2008. Inspired in part by Oscar Wilde’s “The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” this vodka-based concoction is “served in a silver cup hidden behind a small mirror, and accessed through a straw that pierces the looking glass,” Simonson writes. “One must constantly gaze at one’s image to enjoy the drink.”

One of the most interesting facts Simonson dug up came not from a bartender but a writer, Dave Wondrich. It’s the alleged origin of the word “cocktail.” Wondrich, a cocktail historian and the drinks correspondent for Esquire, contends that it came from the horse trade. As he told Simonson, “If you had an old horse you were trying to sell, you would put some ginger up its butt, and it would cock its tail up and be frisky. That was known as ‘cock-tail.’ … It became this morning thing. Something to cock your tail up, like an eye-opener. I’m almost positive that’s where it’s from.”

That might be a tale of questionable veracity. But the transformation of the modern cocktail is now its own true story, likely to be told and retold, probably over a proper drink.