How they went from medieval English cider, to experimental sweet drinks, to the varied concoctions we know and love today
When does a drink go from being fancy, to being a cocktail?
The word cocktail is generally taken to mean a drink of three flavours or two or more ingredients, at least one of which is alcoholic – although Merriam-Webster has it as “a usually iced drink of wine or distilled liquor mixed with flavouring ingredients”.
And as the glamorous cocktail craze shows no signs of abating, a little knowledge of the fascinating history wouldn’t go amiss.
On the origins of the cocktail
Many believe that the cocktails originated in the US – French-populated New Orleans, to be exact – from the word coquetel, referring to the eggcup used to measure alcoholic tonics.
There are any number of theories as to where the word comes from, but the drinks themselves were in fact inspired by British punches consumed in public houses in the 1700s. Indeed, the word appeared in a British newspaper in 1798.
According to Myles Cunliffe, Imbibe’s Educator of the Year 2017, cocktails can trace their origins all the way back to a classic drink called a wassail, mead-like cider / apple-based spiced drink from medieval England.
In 1806, it appeared in The Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York: “Cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters ... it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head.”
Note that these ingredients compromise an Old Fashioned – one of the oldest cocktails and still a classic choice.
It wasn’t until Connecticut-born Jeremiah “Jerry” Thomas’s “The Bartender’s Guide (or How to Mix Drinks)“ in 1862, one of the first recipe books, that cocktails began to take the shape of the staples we know and love today.
But the real turning point, says Tristan Stephenson, author of The Curious Bartender books, came around the end of the 19th century, when drinks became single-serve products.
Many of these were based on punch formula (something strong, something long, something sour, something sweet, something spiced/bitter), but some cocktails were modified to contain vermouth or liqueurs.
“Take a drink like the Brandy Crusta,” says Stephenson, “the first cocktail to be modified with liqueurs, first drink to be shaken, first drink to use citrus fruit – that’s a pretty influential cocktail and definitely part of the turning point.”
Prohibition to the Mad Men Fifties
America’s alcohol Prohibition from 1919-1933 at first led to a decline in cocktail culture, as many bartenders moved abroad.
But then, as speakeasies were forced to make do with substandard liquor, people began to mix honey and fruit juices into their drinks to mask the taste.
The decadence of the Roaring Twenties also sparked an increase in experimentation and consumption of cocktails, or “the mixology renaissance” – think Gatsby and a champagne julep.
Cocktails received a reboot from the increase of tourism following the World Wars. Then, more exposure to Pacific island and Polynesian culture led to a flood of rum and the so-called Tiki cocktails.
The Martini and the Manhattan lunches reigned in true Mad Men-style - before the Swinging Sixties and drug culture really took off, and cocktails took a dip.
It was acceptable in the Eighties
After the Seventies were good and done, the cocktail began to rise again, with vodka often replacing the gin in classic cocktails such as the Martini.
Super-sweet, sugar drinks ruled the Eighties – but luckily they were tossed with the Great Cocktail comeback of the Noughties, which paved the way for more citrus-led, brighter and fresher tastes.
In the last 20 years in the UK, the culinary world experienced a significant shift towards the fresh local produce – and cocktails are no exception.
London became the capital of the cocktail world, and the capital’s trends were mirrored by cities globally.
Nowadays, fresh is best
The latest trends, say Cunliffe, all involve focussing on the provenance: ”People want to know where their products come from, whether produces are looking after their workers.”
“Fresh is best – everyone’s realised you have to use best possible produce to produce best possible drinks, from your mint to your spice. The better the produce, the better the enjoyment.”
Service, he says, has changed significantly too. “People have realised that to give people a good night out is no longer just a packet of crisps and a dodgy pint of beer, you have to do everything – environment, drinks, service, food; people want to be looked after now.”
Cocktails have also been influenced by non-alcoholic beverages, and the current interest in health smoothies has a led to a new experimentation with drinks; superfoods such as Matcha powder and Beetroot are now appearing in cocktails.
Finally, as more and more of us are trying to cut back on booze for a healthier lifestyle, menus are beginning to offer a more extensive non-alcoholic ”mocktail” range.
Adrian Smith, The Independent‘s wine and spirit columnist and founder of Sypped, admits that non-alcoholic cocktails haven’t always had the best rep – but that this is no longer the case “since Seedlip came along”.
Seedlip, the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirit, comes in a variety of flavour combinations that “put the ‘mixology back into the cocktail”, as Smith puts it.
“Gone are the off-putting sweetness levels of a sickly Shirley Temple, and in is a surge of creativity that makes you really appreciate what’s in your glass – alcohol or not.”
We’ve partnered with Kahlúa to celebrate National Coffee Week and you could win an overnight stay at the Hoxton Hotel, Holborn, plus cocktails and dinner for two. To be in with a chance of winning, tell us which Kahlúa cocktail you'd most like to try by clicking here*.
*Terms Apply: 18+. Enter before 23.59 on 22 April 2018. Please read full Terms before entering.