The Cocktail Creator

The annual Tales of the Cocktail mixology celebration in New Orleans wrapped up last weekend, making this an opportune time to remember the origins of the spiritous libation, the cocktail.

Unlike the myriad combinations of terroir, grape variety and technology that form the winemaker's toolkit, a cocktail creator has a fairly limited set of variables on which to draw: a handful of spirits with, marketing hype aside, often only subtle differences between brands; a relatively small number of fruit additions and a pretty set formula of balancing sweet, sour and alcohol. Given the restrictions, it's astonishing mixologists over the years have given us so many stunning creations.

"Professor" Jerry Thomas, the Father of American Mixology (Photo: The British Library)

"Professor" Jerry Thomas, the Father of American Mixology (Photo: The British Library)

In its early days (by which I mean before 1862, when "Professor" Jerry Thomas revolutionized and standardized the cocktail), a cocktail had four simple ingredients: a spirit, sugar, bitters and water. Jerry Thomas was the first mixologist, the first scientist of the cocktail and the first author of a compendium of cocktail recipes. When Thomas published his influential cocktail guide, it was  the first time anyone had formally laid out and standardized a group of cocktail recipes.

Thomas includes an acidic component in many of his drinks. I imagine many punches contained a sour element - a fruit juice (especially lemon juice) or a vinegar-based "shrub" - before Thomas put his book together, but he was the one who codified and standardized our approach to cocktails. With the publication of his pioneering Bar-Tender's Guide (also called "How to Mix Drinks" or "The Bon-Vivant's Companion"), Thomas not only wrote the first cocktail book in the United States, but created an entire profession. He was an unstoppable showman who wore flashy clothes, sported flashy jewelry and created flashy drinks (like his famous "Blue Blazer," the flaming drink shown in the etching). Before Thomas wrote his book, cocktail lore was an oral tradition without any standardization. With the Bar-Tender's Guide, drinkers finally had recipes for making smashes, flips, daisies and all the other drinks that were the rage of the day. 

Thomas lived in a vibrant, and rather anarchic, cocktail culture that was nearly decimated by the anti-alcohol movement that led in 1919 to the passage of the laws that introduced "Prohibition" to the United States. The laws that made it illegal to sell most alcohol in the country were a complete failure in eradicating alcohol from the marketplace. Instead, they drove it underground and made a huge percentage of Americans lawbreakers as well as consumers of poorly made (and too often lethal) spirits.

Make it another Old Fashioned

When alcoholic beverages were once again legal to sell in the United States, the world had changed. To mask the poor quality and off flavors of spirits like "bathtub gin" that were made during Prohibition, consumers had taken to adding all sorts of flavoring agents to their drinks. Fruit juice, high amounts of sugar and all manner of liqueurs became commonplace. Once Prohibition was repealed in 1934 and quality spirits once again became available, many consumers longed for the days of cocktails like those Professor Jerry Thomas had made - simpler concoctions of a spirit, something sweet, a bitter and a bit of water. They avoided those new-fangled creations and instead ordered an "old fashioned" cocktail, and thus the drink we today call the Old Fashioned was re-born. Here's a classic recipe:

The Recipe

  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 3 dashes of Angostura bitters
  • 60 ml (2 oz) Bourbon
  • A splash of water

Add the sugar, bitters and water into a rocks glass, and stir until sugar is nearly dissolved. Fill the glass with large ice cubes, add the bourbon, and gently stir to combine the flavors. Express the oil of an orange peel over the glass, then drop in. As the ice slowly melts it will add just the right amount of additional water to the drink (so don't drink it too slowly!)

A return to sanity

Harry Craddock behind The American Bar at London's Savoy Hotel

Harry Craddock behind The American Bar at London's Savoy Hotel

When alcoholic beverages were once again legal to sell in the United States, the world had changed. In particular, the cocktail world had changed as many of the country's most interesting bartenders, without legal work opportunities during Prohibition, left the U.S. for Europe. One of the most illustrious of these refugees was Harry Craddock, who had been born in the U.K. and came to the United States to make his fortune. He was lionized in New York until Prohibition, at which time he returned to London in 1920 and joined the staff of the famous American Bar at the Savoy Hotel. The American Bar remains a shrine for us cocktail lovers, and Harry's journal, Craddock's Savoy Cocktail Book, is one of the classics of mixology - it was published in 1930 and remains an essential reference today nearly 90 years later.

The book is both a chronicle of the classics of mixology when Harry Craddock started in the business and a number of cocktails he invented. My favorite of Craddock's many inventions is called "The Corpse Reviver," presumably a good drink to have when you have a hangover. Harry was circumspect though - having more than two will guarantee the "corpse will be un-revived" he said. One note on the classic recipe - Harry called for Kina Lillet in his recipe, a wine-based aperitif that contained a bit of quinine and is no longer available. Modern Lillet is an orange-scented white wine-based drink, and it lacks the bitter edge of quinine in the original. Fortunately, there is a replacement that is almost identical to the original Kina Lillet (which is also used in the classic James Bond version of a martini called The Vesper). The replacement is an Italian aperitif called Cocchi Americano and it's widely available in the U.S. and Europe. So, here is Harry's wonderful creation, The Corpse Reviver #2 (he came up with three versions, of which this is the best)

The Corpse Reviver #2

  • 30ml (1 oz) fresh lemon juice
  • 30ml (1 oz) Plymouth Gin
  • 30ml (1 oz) Cointreau
  • 30ml (1 oz) Cocchi Americano

Shake all four ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass; garnish with a single Maresca cherry in the bottom of the glass (the Luxardo brand of cherries is life-changing)

Whether you opt for an Old Fashioned or it's ever so graceful cousin, The Manhattan, or another of the classic "old fashioned" cocktails like the Sazerac or the Sidecar, or give a salute to Harry with a Corpse Reviver #2, Cheers!