America has for the past 10 years been emerging from the “Dark Ages” of drinking by turning toward the methods of the past. However, there’s still one central idea that keeps many leaders of the so-called “Cocktail Renaissance” from becoming truly enlightened tipplers.
For nearly 85 years, from the onset of Prohibition until about 10 years ago, Americans’ mixed drink habits were downright barbaric, particularly when compared with centuries of pre-Prohibition drinking traditions. The drinks of these “Dark Ages” were mostly bad recipes, poorly made with inferior ingredients. They were terrible drinks like the Harvey Wallbanger, the Tequila Sunrise, or the Adios “MF.”
But something happened with mixed drinks just as it has with craft beer. Americans stopped drinking crap.
Bars stopped using sweet and sour mix, or Rose’s Lime Juice, and started using freshly squeezed lemon and lime juice. Drinkers started demanding better quality spirits in their drinks. Dedicated bar-tenders stopped free pouring and started using jiggers to actually measure these (much better) ingredients in drinks. Bar tools got better and so did (thankfully) the ice used in making high-quality mixed drinks.
But none of these things were new ideas. They were old ingredients and old tools. They were the old ways. It’s just that the old ways stopped being used once the Volstead Act was passed and for 14 years drinking went underground, all the good bar-tenders got other jobs, and good ingredients were nowhere to be found. For some reason, it took 85 years to get back to the old ways.
Aiding this renaissance has been an interest among bar-tenders and drinkers alike in tasting the old drink recipes, and in dusting off old books of drink recipes written more than a 100 years ago from names that are now becoming well-known (at least in obsessive, historical drinking circles) like Jerry Thomas, George Kaeppler and William Boothby.
Yes, it seems that when it comes to the current state of mixed drinks in America, everything old is new again.
Well, that is … except for … One. Big. Thing.
The word “cocktail” is NOT a synonym for “mixed drinks.” Or, at least it wasn’t before Prohibition. And this is actually really important.
“Cocktail,” the word, has a great history. It’s use in alcoholic drinking has its own interesting history. And most importantly, in the drinking world it was originally used — and used for more than 100 years to refer only to certain types of mixed drinks — specifically, for those drinks containing four ingredients: alcohol, water, sugar (or other sweetener), and bitters. It was a new type of drink that came into fashion likely sometime in the latter part of the 18th Century. It was an American invention.
Understanding this history, and how cocktails as a “category” developed over time is key to understanding American bar traditions and methods. Yet so many leaders of the mixed drink historical revival over the past 10 years have continued to perpetuate the misuse of the word “cocktail” as a synonym for all mixed drinks, because they are either oblivious to the true meaning of the word, or they ignore this fact.
Yet turning a blind eye to the true meaning of the word “cocktail” is to turn a blind eye on an important part of American and world drinking history, and makes it impossible to obtain a true understanding of historical drink-making methods that can help make someone a better bar-tender.
Misusing the word “cocktail” to mean all mixed drinks screams ignorance of “cocktail history.”
Yet we have a Museum of the American Cocktail, a national convention called Tales of the Cocktail, a pioneering revivalist nicknamed King Cocktail, a revivalist author nicknamed Dr. Cocktail, and countless numbers of alcohol industry writers misusing (some willfully) the word “cocktail.”
This kind of perpetuated ignorance could be understandable 10 years ago when the renaissance in American drinking was nascent. But by 2015, it just smacks of laziness or denial.
No one should consider themselves a true historian of American drinking or bar history if he or she continues to misuse the word “cocktail.”