I thought it would be appropriate to highlight the alcoholic beverage so distinctly American — the cocktail.
There is some terrific history behind the cocktail. It is, first and foremost, a word coined in America. Although there are many theories as to its etymology, including rooster references and hangover cures, the most commonly accepted definition ironically mirrors the political nature of this national holiday.
The first documented definition came in 1806 and was printed in the May 13th edition of Balance and Columbian Repository, a federalist newspaper in Hudson, N.Y. The editor printed an answer to the question, “What is a cocktail?” He answered, “A cock-tail, then, is a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind — sugar, water, and bitters — it is vulgarly called a bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said, also to be of great use to a Democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else.”
From this vague, albeit humorous anecdotal definition, the concept, art and practice of cocktails remains a nationalistic treasure. The following list includes some of the perennial classics, possible origins and their corresponding original recipes. If you are looking for some inspiration this weekend, try one of these libertarian libations.
Originally called the Martinez in 1862, this institution of American cocktails consisted of four parts sweet red vermouth to one part gin, a dash of bitters and was garnished with a cherry. This drink was allegedly created by “Professor” Jerry Thomas in San Francisco. It is said that he made this cocktail for a gold miner on his way to the town of Martinez, which lay 40 miles to the east. Over the years, the proportions of alcohol have reversed and now the martini is commonly made with gin or vodka, just a dash of dry vermouth and garnished with an olive or a twist. Modern iterations include all manner of fruity liqueurs, frilly garnishes and juices. But for the purist’s martini;
Pour 3 ounces of either gin or vodka over ice in a shaker. Dribble just a touch of dry vermouth (or wave the bottle over the top of the shaker for the REALLY dry version). When it comes to shaking, you have two options from here. The first option is to shake the martini until the stainless steel shaker gets too cold to hang on to without getting frostbite. This will break up the ice and leave shards floating in the martini which will later melt adding a bit of water and mellowing the drink. The second option is for those purists who don’t like to “bruise” the ice. Swirl gently or stir with a bar spoon until chilled. The martini will not be as cold, but will not be as watered down. Whichever method you choose to employ, strain and pour into up glass and garnish with olive or a twist of lemon.
The Mint Julep
The first print of this farmers potation was read in 1803 and described as a “dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning.” Instead of coffee, farmers would use rye whiskey, rum or another available spirit and add mint to be ready to face the long day. Over the years, Bourbon or another American Whiskey has been the primary liquor, with water, sugar and mint added. Made most popular by the Kentucky Derby in 1938, when they first served the Mint Julep in a souvenir glass for 75 cents, the Derby annually sells more than 80,000 drinks over the two-day event.
The original recipe involves muddling five or six mint leaves with ½ oz. simple syrup (or one sugar cube) in the bottom of a glass (tin or metal, if you want to be a purist). Fill halfway with crushed ice and pour 2 oz. bourbon over the top. Top off the cup with crushed ice and garnish with mint sprig.
The Old Fashioned
This whiskey-based cocktail was originally known by the simplest of names — The Whiskey Cocktail. The origins of the term “Old Fashioned” are attributed to the bartender at the Pendennis Club in Louisville. The story goes that a patron asked this bartender to make him a cocktail, but that he didn’t like whiskey. Completely mortified at the idea of not serving a whiskey-based cocktail in the epicenter of bourbon country, the bartender whipped up a combination of sugar, water, bourbon, bitters and garnished it with a lemon. The customer enjoyed it and asked what it was called, to which the reply was an “Old Fashioned.” Although not a popular drink nationwide, any Wisconsinite will know well this now predominantly brandy-based drink. Whether brandy, bourbon, whiskey or scotch, the classic recipe has evolved to a drink less potent, but with many variations.
Typically, an orange slice and cherry are muddled with two sugar cubes in the bottom of a glass. Two ounces of one of the aforementioned spirits are added over ice and then topped with either seltzer, lemon-lime soda, water, sour, or half seltzer/half lemon-lime (“Pres” or “Presbyterian”).
Many say the first real cocktail ever invented in the United States was crafted in 1830 by Antoine Peychaud in New Orleans (also the inventor or Peychaud’s Bitters). The drink originally was named after the imported Sazerac cognac, Sazerac de Forge et Fils and was served by Antoine in an egg cup. Egg Cup in French is “coquetier” which when mispronounced in English, some historians believe may have been the origin of the word cocktail.
The Sazerac cocktail paved the way for the Sazerac Coffee House (apparently coffee house was code for drinking establishment in the late 1800’s). Originally served with cognac or brandy, rye whiskey was often substituted to suit the American palate at the time. Now served at the Sazerac Bar at the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans, this unique libation was declared in 2008 as the official cocktail of New Orleans by the Louisiana House of Representatives.
Make this tasty classic by first chilling an old-fashioned glass for 30 minutes with crushed ice, or in the freezer. Add Herbsaint, absinthe or Pernod and swirl around the inside of the empty glass. Shake one teaspoon sugar, 3 dashes Peynaud’s Bitters, and either rye whiskey or cognac with 4-5 ice cubes. Strain into glass and serve with lemon twist.
Many of the classics have a variety of possible origins. This is so with the Manhattan as well. The convincing story behind this cocktail, though, details that it was first made for Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s mother, at the Manhattan Club in the 1870’s.
Many accounts indicate that she held a banquet in honor of presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden. Although other historians show instances where the Manhattan showed up as one of five “borough cocktails,” it is commonly accepted that Lady Churchill’s event made it famous.
The old-school recipe involves two parts sweet vermouth to one part whiskey (rye, bourbon or Canadian), three dashes of bitters (originally Boker’s which isn’t made any longer-now Angostura is used). It is served over ice or shaken and served straight up with a lemon and a cherry. Modern versions again reverse the proportions and you will find at least two parts whiskey to one part vermouth. Wisconsinites do LOVE their brandy, so that is acceptable, too. Although be warned, if you try to order a brandy Manhattan anywhere else in the country, people will look at you strange and automatically label you as a crazy, brandy-loving Wisconsinite.
(Side note: There is more brandy consumed in the state of Wisconsin than ALL the other states combined).
These stand out to me as some of the ultra-classic cocktails so indicative of the American Spirit (pun intended) and if you get a chance to try one or all, let me know how you liked them.
If you have a favorite cocktail that belongs on this list, chime in and let us know.
[This article originally appeared in OnMilwaukee.com and is re-published with their permission.]