Gin by Lesley Jacobs Solmonson

Gin by Lesley Jacobs Solmonson

Author:Lesley Jacobs Solmonson
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Reaktion Books

Mixed Drinks and the Cocktail

In the early years of the Republic, America borrowed the British tradition of the punch bowl, the contents of which were frequently drunk with friends over a few languid hours. The mixed drink was born of this communal punch – spirits, sugar, water, citrus and spice – whose abundance of liquid, as well as the inherent time needed to consume it, did not jibe with the image of industriousness that Americans in this era hoped to present. By the late 1700s, bartenders had taken note and were offering efficient single-serving presentations of punch.

In an almost biblical manner, the bowl of Gin Punch begat a variety of punch-based drinks. The Gin Fix, the Gin Sour, the Gin Daisy and the Gin Fizz were all maddeningly similar but slightly different. What they had in common, however, were elements of the Gin Punch – gin plus sugar, water and citrus. All of these were classified as ‘short drinks’ – shaken with ice and strained into a small glass. Quick to consume, reasonably priced and infinitely tasty, they offered the average American an easy excuse for a quick tipple during the stressful work day.

Along with the punch, other key mainstays of the drinking culture were the Toddy and the Sling. Toddies, usually drunk hot, and slings, usually drunk cold, were elegant in their simplicity, requiring only spirit, water, sugar and perhaps a bit of nutmeg. They were often prescribed as healthgiving tonics, using whatever tipple – genever, whiskey or rum – was preferred.

The Cocktail – not the generic catch-all term for today’s mixed drinks, but the specifically named drink of yore – is to all intents a Sling with bitters added. It was born as a convenient, practical way to self-medicate, since doctors were not always easily accessible. Like the British Navy, Americans used bitters as a cure-all. Gold Rushers could make their own from herbs and bark or acquire it from the local snake oil salesman; more civilized folk could purchase it bottled from the corner mercantile. However, ascertaining when this alchemical transformation of adding bitters to spirit first occurred is akin to the chicken and the egg conundrum.

Despite its dodgy birth date, the ‘Cocktail’ was first defined in printed English on 13 May 1806. The editor of the Balance and Columbian Repository newspaper, replying to a query about the use of the word ‘Cocktail’ in an article, defined it as such: ‘Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters. It is vulgarly called bittered sling.’

In its youth, the Cocktail was considered a ‘morning’ drink, implying that there was something to overcome from the night before. As such, it acquired a somewhat unsavoury reputation and was considered the domain of the risqué sporting set. Referring to gamblers, hustlers and the loose women they courted, this term was less complimentary than it might sound. Of course, as with everything new, the Cocktail soon found a home among more ‘respectable’ folks, who simply could not overlook the fact that the drink was infinitely satisfying.


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