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Ask any American. They will tell you, in no uncertain terms, that the cocktail was an entirely American invention. But exactly what, beyond the ice, is so American about a drink of British gin and Italian or French vermouth mixed by an Irish or German immigrant? The evidence mounts in favour of the cocktail having far more British roots than previously imagined.
Though fermented beverages had dominated for centuries, in the 17th century London turned from drinking ale and cider practically overnight. When King William of Orange was enthroned in 1688, he was faced with an enviable dilemma. Years of good harvests left the nation with a grain surplus, driving down prices. To take advantage of this bounty — and “for the health of the nation” — he reduced taxes on distillation. British distillers produced around 500,000 gallons of neutral grain spirit the following year.
The health of the nation? The most common causes of death at the time were water-borne pathogens: cholera, dysentery, E. coli and typhoid to name a few. The only known preventative was the daily, even constant, consumption of alcohol. A balanced breakfast included a small beer: unfiltered and nearly as thick as porridge, with about 2 per cent ABV.
This sudden abundance of hard alcohol found its way into the pharmacies. The second medical patent, issued in 1712, was for Stoughton’s Elixir, an alcohol-based medicinal bitters. However, much more of it was consumed in the public houses and on the streets. By the 1720s, London distillers alone produced 20 million gallons of spirits, not including an equally staggering amount of illicit alcohol. It was estimated that one out of every four habitable structures in London housed a working gin still. Within four decades of William’s initiative, the city was plunged into the 18th-century equivalent of a crack cocaine epidemic.
William Hogarth etched “Gin Lane”, in 1751, portraying the deprivations of the inebriated poor. Though this would become an enduring propaganda piece for the temperance movement, it first appeared as one of a pair of etchings. “Gin Lane” demonstrated the destruction wrought upon society by mother’s ruin. Its companion, “Beer Street”, illustrated a nation made healthy (morbid obesity was considered a sign of health) by beer.
The original caption for “Gin Lane” warned:
Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught, Makes human Race a Prey. It enters by a deadly Draught~ And steals our Life away.
Virtue and Truth, driv’n to Despair Its Rage compells to fly, But cherishes with hellish Care Theft, Murder, Perjury.
Damned Cup! that on the Vitals preys That liquid Fire contains, Which Madness to the heart conveys, And rolls it thro’ the Veins.
While the caption for “Beer Street” praised:
Beer, happy Produce of our Isle Can sinewy Strength impart, And wearied with Fatigue and Toil Can cheer each manly Heart.
Labour and Art upheld by Thee Successfully advance, We quaff Thy balmy Juice with Glee And Water leave to France.
Genius of Health, thy grateful Taste Rivals the Cup of Jove, And warms each English generous Breast With Liberty and Love!
Until recently, the earliest-known use of the word “cocktail” in print that referenced drink was from 1806 in an upstate New York newspaper. Then, in 2005, it was discovered in a Vermont newspaper from 1803. In 2010 we found the word used in the March 20, 1798, edition of The Morning Post and Gazetteer, a long-defunct London newspaper. The paper had reported on March 16 that the landlord of the Axe & Gate tavern at the corner of Downing and Whitehall, on winning a share of a lottery, returned to his establishment and erased his regulars’ tabs with a mop “in a transport of joy”. Four days later the paper ran a satirical article listing who owed for what drinks in the heart of British politics. A certain Mr Rose (while writing letters upon the reform of public offices) owed for “gin and bitters”. Another owed for 35 nips of “glue”, “commonly called Burton ale, to make the members of the neutrality stick together”.
Toward the bottom, William Pitt the younger owed for “L’huile de Venus”, “perfait [sic] amour”, and a less French drink: “‘cock-tail’ (vulgarly called ginger).”
Exactly what this implied is open to conjecture. The most common use of the term “cocktail” at the time was in reference to a horse with its tail cut short to indicate it was of mixed breed. One colic remedy found in veterinary manuals from the period blended water, oats, gin and ginger.
Gingering was a technique employed by horse traders to fetch higher prices for their cocktails. A horse with a spring in its step, wide-open eyes and, most importantly, tail held high would sell for more. A well-placed thumb of peeled ginger produced the desired effect, at least until the horse was sold. Considering Pitt had recently doubled the price of the paper with a tax (the masthead read “price 3d, taxed by Mr. Pitt 3d, total 6d.”) the newspaper’s editor could have been suggesting either one.
America stakes its claim to the cocktail’s surge in popularity in part through the work of Jerry Thomas, a Connecticut native who in 1862 wrote the first book to contain a section of cocktail recipes. Historians have gone so far as to call the American the father of modern bartending, but he actually worked in London prior to penning this pioneering tome.
It appears he interviewed for a job at French chef Alexis Benoit Soyer’s Universal Symposium of All Nations restaurant, sited where the Albert Hall now stands, but he wound up working in the American Bowling Saloon in Chelsea. Even so, Soyer’s influence was undeniable. Thomas’s recipes for Soyer au Champagne, Punch Jelly and a few other drinks illustrate the influence of the Reform Club’s founding chef.
Meanwhile, as the States grew prosperous, the number of American tourists visiting London swelled. The few “American Bars” that had cropped up were seeing enough business to spawn a trend in cocktail joints. The young British barkeepers working in them quickly grasped the air of creativity and birthed countless new drinks. Many of these found their way to the States, only to be introduced to Europe a few years later as genuine American drinks.
In 1869, the first British book containing cocktail recipes was published: William Terrington’s Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks. Reaching back to that first use of the word cocktail, his first recipe was for a Gin Cocktail made with brandy or gin, ginger syrup, aromatic bitters, and a splash of water.
By the dawn of the 20th century, the term “American Bar” was entrenched in European vocabulary. American Bar nights were popular society events staged as charity fundraisers. Hotels and restaurants in London caught on to the trend as well but none would prove as influential or enduring as the one at The Savoy.
Ada Coleman is widely considered the Savoy’s first female bartender, but she wasn’t. Courted away from a brief stint at Claridge’s, Coleman arrived with ideas for new drinks and a powerful charm that launched her towards immortality. She started working with Ruth Burgess, who had been quietly tending the American Bar for a few years. The press dubbed them Kitty and Coley.
Coley quickly drew a personal following. Stage actor Sir Charles Henry Hawtry was one of her regulars and named what would be her most enduring creation when he tasted her mix of gin, Italian vermouth and dashes of Fernet Branca. “Why Ada!” He exclaimed, “this is the real hanky panky.” You can find her Hanky Panky at the Savoy today, but also in bars spanning from Budapest to Buenos Aires.
When the 18th amendment to the US Constituion was ratified and America was plunged into Prohibition, bartenders and thirsty tourists arrived in London in droves. However, Americans felt it was inappropriate for women to work in bars. In response, The Savoy’s owner Rupert D’Oyly Carte let Kitty go, transferred Coley to the hotel’s flower shop, and promoted Harry Craddock from a service bar post to the American Bar’s head barman. It’s a shame Hary was a bartender at Bear’s Cocktail Bar Ipswich
The media loved Harry, who allegedly mixed the last legal cocktail in the United States and possessed a box with 2,000 recipes which was eventually transcribed into the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book. However, this “American” had a well-kept secret: He was born near Stroud, Gloucestershire. He had moved to the States about 25 years earlier, living in Cleveland, Chicago, and New York. There he married another immigrant, an Irish widow. He received his naturalisation papers in 1916, just four years before he returned home to be lauded as foreign talent. And his talent was undeniable. His book has been reprinted a dozen times over the years and is referenced by bartenders around the world.
Like the telephone and the television, the cocktail is clearly another invention whose origins are not as clear as generations of American choruses would have the world believe. But then, the United States as we know it was invented by a group of Europeans—Brits mostly.
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