The #Cocktail Renaissance – my June Column for @AlbertaatNoon

The origins of the cocktail are believed to have evolved after King William of Orange lowered taxes on distillation in 1688. There was a grain surplus that year in England and before long one in four buildings in London had a still for making gin.

Alcohol at the time was about the safest thing to drink as most of the leading causes of death were caused by drinking water.

By the 1730’s gin had become a problem for many – especially for the poor. For others it was drank in moderation with the addition of fruit juices and known as punch. This mixing of punch bowls in 1730’s England is now believed to be the first mixology bar tending.

This post will look at the history of cocktails and why – after years of focus on wine knowledge and a growing trend for craft brewing – popular culture has turned into a cocktail culture once again.

Spring “shrub” at The River Cafe Calgary – photo – Karen Anderson

Back in Time

The Americans have a romance with the idea of the cocktail being one of their inventions – just like apple pie. They were the first country to publish a cocktail recipe book. It was written by “professor’ Gerry Thomas in 1862. The British followed with the – The Savoy Cocktail Book – in 1930. It was written by Harry Craddock, who worked in The American Bar at London’s Savoy and his book is still in print today.

Another reason for early mixology’s bowls of punch is that while gin was cheap, easy and widely available in the 18th century, the quality was poor, it often tasted bad and drinkers were looking for ways to disguise the flavour of bad booze. Bad tasting alcohol seems to be the primary reason that one of the first cocktails of the early 1900’s was invented.

Through the years
That cocktail is the Old-fashioned and it dates back to the early 1900s with 2 ounces bourbon, 1 splash club soda, 4 dashes bitters, 1 teaspoon sugar and ice. Bitters and sugar were added to help the drink go down.

The Singapore Sling of the 1920’s was 2 ounces gin, 1 teaspoon grenadine, ⅓ ounce fresh lime juice, club soda or water, ice and a garnish of lemon and a cherry. It added more sugar and fruit juice – again in an attempt to hide the flavour of the alcohol. Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933, gin was “bathtub”, bars were speakeasies and everything had to be hidden.

The 30s saw the invention of the Bloody Mary to help drinkers start their day. It’s still mainly served as a brunch item in the U.S. (they never caught on to our Canadian adaptation the Bloody Caesar which is enjoyed any time of day by Canadians).

The 40s saw the Daquiri flourish as rum from Cuba and the Carribean was imported during war time rationing of spirits from Europe. Daquiris have a simple ratio of 2:1 light rum to lime juice with a dash of simple syrup.

Gin martinis were popular in the roaring twenty due to that spirits availability but it wasn’t until the 50s when vodka was imported from Russia that James Bond’s drink of choice became popular. We’ve been watching him drink those since the 60’s – shaken not stirred. It’s a simple ratio of 3 parts vodka and 1 part vermouth. Bond liked his with a twist of lemon. I like mine with a toothpick full of jalapeño stuffed olives.

The Mai Tai of the 60s saw fruit juice was added to drinks to hide poor quality booze. Think about M.A.S.H. characters Hawkeye and Trapper John sucking back gin martinis from their still and having personal leave to drink Mai Tai’s in Hanoy. Self – medicating at its finest.

The 70s saw the birth of the “jet set” and more exotic liqueurs being added to cocktails. The Harvey Wallbanger with its 1 1/2 ounces vodka, 4 ounces orange juice, 1/2 ounces Galliano and garnish of orange epitomized this with its flare of Italian elegance in the Galliano. The drink itself brought some really bad joke punch lines in tandem with drinks like The Screwdriver. Don’t ask…

The whole world followed the jet set in our access to exotic ingredients and drinks we associate with vacations. Vacations and tropical places or the sophistication of a European vacation helped expose us to other cultures cocktails.

The 80’s brought some really bad music and some really good music. One really lousy song – that could get stuck in your brain for days – and which had a huge influence on cocktail culture was “If you like pina coladas”. The 80s were famously excessive and though both the song and the drink were over the top saccharin the drink achieved its purpose – you could drink to EXCESS without really noticing how much alcohol was in the drinks you were pounding back. Tom Cruise and his infamously bad movie “Cocktail” emphasized the era’s quantity over quality theme.

The late 90s brought Sex and the City and four women who loved to drink Cosmopolitans. Suddenly EVERYONE was drinking cosmopolitans – 2 ounce vodka, 1/2 ounce triple sec, 3/4 ounce cranberry juice, 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice.

From 2008 until this year popular culture has been taken with a program that glamourized real life 1950s drinking culture. Take a look at the video below to see how much the fictional people in the program drank then.

The show ends with the eventual demise of the main character due to his drinking and so if you are into the cocktails of Don and Peggy Draper – The Old-Fashioned and The Gimlit. Hopefully the show does not become allegorical.

Bartenders I know tell me that there really are a lot of guests asking for “that Don Draper drink”. It is a phenomenon, but while the Mad Men TV show has sparked a rekindled an interest in cocktails, cocktails never really went totally away. Beyond the popular TV show there are several substantial reason cocktails are likely to stay in vogue now.

Back to the future

Alberta has a chapter of the Canadian Professional Bartender’s Associaton and I talked to President Christina Mah to get an idea of some of the reasons cocktails are here to stay. She shared the following:

Cocktails have become culinary.
Many chefs are bartenders now. They have well-trained palates and think of cocktails as pairings with food courses to make the dining experience exceptional. Just like with food, local ingredients for drinks are becoming valued by chefs and bartenders alike. Bitters – traditionally something made in far-off exotic locales – are now being made right her in Alberta.

Bartenders have become Mixologists.
They have professional associations, skill building workshops, competitions and are working certification of their standards of practice.

Booze has become refined and elegant with matching high-end prices. Gone are the artificial ingredients of Peggy Draper’s Gimlet. We are seeing a trend back to transparency and nature. We are in an age of hand-crafted analog beers, wines and now cocktails.

The next post will provide a short story and recipe for a seasonal cocktail from Chrisina Mah – especially for Alberta at Noon listeners. I’ll also mention a few other places around Alberta where visitors and residents alike can savour a cocktail or two – without needing to make it on your own.

cheers, K.

Gnome Come Home - photo - Karen Anderson
Gnome Come Home – photo – Karen Anderson

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