The Cocktail: The Noble But Not Always Sobering Art of Mixology
by Marjorie Dorfman

When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading.    
– Henny Youngman

Where did the cocktail get its name? Do you ever wonder? No? Well read on anyway; as you will at the very least be diverted by the interesting historical and amusing material found herein. (Cheer up. If you aren’t having any fun, you can always go mix yourself a drink.)

If you are like most people, you’ve probably sipped Martinis and nursed a few Margaritas and Bloody Marys during the cocktail loungey moments in your lifetime. To make matters worse, you’ve probably done so without giving even a thought to the rich history and varied cultures that have rendered the cocktail into such an inspiration to stylish drinkers world wide. The cinema has always glamorized our debaucheries in its own subtle way. James Bond elevated the mystique of the Martini just as Paul Henried romanticized smoking when he lit those two cigarettes in the tropical moonlight and handed one to Bette Davis in Now, Voyageur. Much of James Bond’s ability to woo women stems from his cultural connection to the Vodka Martini, which is shaken and not stirred. (Part of it also comes from his being behind the wheel of his classy and speedy Astin Martin, but let’s not get picky.) It is interesting to note, however, that Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, connects his character with the drink, but never with the effects of its excess.

But where did the word cocktail come from? No one really knows. Its true origin is shrouded in the mystery of fable and urban myths and may never come to light. Many tales abound, but one of the best known occurs in 1779 when Betsy Flanagan, whose husband was killed in The American Revolution, opened an inn near Yorktown that was frequented by American and French soldiers. An English chicken farmer lived nearby, prompting Betsy to promise her customers she would serve them a feast of roasted chicken. Her guests mocked her until one evening she presented them with a lavish meal of chicken, stolen from her English neighbor. When the meal was over, Betsy moved her guests to the bar, where she served drinks decorated with the tail-feathers from the chickens amid calls for "more cocktails".

Whatever the truth, it is most likely that cocktails are an American tradition. Some argue that residents of Central or South America discovered them centuries ago, while others claim that they originated in Elizabethan England. It is certain, however, that the Prohibition Era in America was a tremendous catalyst in their growth and popularity. Mixed drinks disguised the poor taste of the low-grade illegal spirits being produced in the hills and basements of the United States. Cocktails became all the rage in the 1920s. They then traveled (hopefully sober) across the Atlantic to Great Britain. Ironically, the drinks that were made popular by the gangsters and hoodlums of America became the toasts of the "Bright Young Things" in England during the Roaring Twenties. One can only wonder how crusty old Al "Scarface" Capone would have fared among the Anglican elite! (He probably could have held his own unless Elliot Ness was invited to the same cocktail party!)

The study of the cocktail is inter-connected with the liquor from which its is mixed. One can not isolate the Margarita from tequila just as one would not consider separating icebergs from the sinking of the Titanic. Perhaps the truth about the Margarita’s beginnings will always be a bit clouded both by the misty passage of time and the deterioration of not so sober memory. The most popular claim originates in 1948. A Dallas socialite named Margarita Sames hosted a poolside Christmas party at her vacation home in Acapulco, Mexico. As a lark, she got behind the bar to see what concoctions she could invent and serve her party guests. She mixed three parts tequila with one part Cointreau and one part lime. Her guests loved it and after they recovered, the drink quickly traveled through the elite society of Dallas and on to Hollywood under the name of the lady who created it.

There is also the story of a showgirl named Marjorie King who had an allergy to alcohol and for some reason could only drink tequila. In 1938, while visiting the Rancho Del Gloria Bar in Rosarita Beach, Mexico, she asked one of the bartenders to mix her a cocktail rather than just taking a shot. The bartender, Danny Herrera, poured tequila over shaved ice and then added lemon and triple sec. He translated Marjorie’s name into Spanish and thus the name, Margarita. I like this version best, but of course it has nothing to do with the fact that my name is Marjorie also. Who knows, darling? In all the cocktail bars of the world all of the drinkers are asking the same question as they sip their custom made concoctions: Who cares?

Regardless of its history, the Margarita has developed into one of the most popular cocktails of all time. There are many different versions with fruit; such as strawberry, peach and watermelon. And let’s not forget the beautiful Blue Margarita made with blue caracao. It can be served frozen or on the rocks (just like most vegetables). Some types require the lining of the rim of the glass with salt, others with sugar or nothing at all. It is not only popular in bars and restaurants, but also in the home. The mysterious drink always seems to have a new version waiting somewhere in the wings. Still, a margarita is nothing without its classic ingredient, tequila.

Tequila was initially a ritual beverage produced by religious authorities long before the Spanish came to Mexico in the l6th century. At that time, they started fermenting agave plants and in 1656 the town of Tequila was founded. (They could not elect a sheriff or write a charter because no one was ever sober enough to do so.) During the 18th century, Jose Cuervo became the first man to commercialize tequila with legal rights from the Spanish government. Tequila is produced by the Blue Agave plant (century plant), and, according to Mexican law, must always contain a minimum of 51% Blue Agave. There is a 100% Agave tequila made, but the government must inspect it before it is shipped. Most Blue Agave plants that are used for tequila are produced in the state of Jalisco. Mexican law doesn’t require aging, but Gold Tequila usually is aged in white oak casks for about 3 years and Tequila Anejo for at least one year. There are 3 basic kinds: Gold Tequila, Tequila Anejo and White Tequila.

The Bloody Mary is a truly classic cocktail with its own blend of history, fable and truth. It hails from Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, a watering hole for American and English expatriates in the 1920s. Bartender, Ferdinand "Pete" Petiot, first mixed it. When he returned to his hometown, New York City, in the 1930s, he introduced The Red Snapper as America’s first Bloody Mary. It was made with gin, as vodka was just emerging as a new spirit to American palates. The name may be attributed to Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry VIII. In her brief five-year tenure as Queen, she managed to kill off most of her Protestant adversaries and became affectionately known as "Bloody Mary" to her nearest and dearest. Another account tells of a patron who said the drink reminded him of a girl named Mary he knew at the Bucket of Blood Club in Chicago. (I wonder if Bela Lugosi ever hung out there? With a name like Bucket of Blood, how could the club possibly hope to discourage a vampire clientele?)

Petiot’s tomato and vodka tonic spread quickly through the New York bar scene. Many patrons swore it even cured hangovers. In time, the drink changed a bit; bartenders added Worchester Sauce, Tabasco sauce, horseradish, celery, salt, pepper and even clam juice. Purists object to garnishing Bloody Marys, while more flexible souls top them with a stalk of celery or a sprig of rosemary. Many restaurants have bloody mary bars where so many ingenious garnishes are displayed that decorating a drink seems to have been elevated to both an art form and a separate course of the meal itself!

The legends behind the Martini have varying recipes and names, none of which exactly fit the drink that exists today. A modern day dry Martini consists of gin and a varying amount of dry white Vermouth depending on taste. It can be garnished with an olive, a twist or a cocktail onion. The most detailed history starts with a drink called "The Martinez", which was created around 1862. It required four parts red sweet vermouth to one part Gin garnished with a cherry. The first one was made with aromatic bitters and Old Tom Gin, which was very sweet by today’s standards. The transformation into the Martini as we know it happened gradually over many years. First, the Old Tom Gin was replaced with London Dry Gin. Orange Bitters supplanted the aromatic variety. Soon the red Vermouth was replaced with the barest breath of white dry Vermouth and the proportions of the drink eventually became equal parts. The Dry Martini became the final stage of evolution, olive included (but no tail).

A more recent theory is probably more reliable. In 1911 at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York, head barman, Martini di Arma di Taggia, mixed London Gin, Noilly Prat Vermouth and orange bitters. He then chilled the drink on ice and strained it into a glass that was also chilled. The regulars at the hotel loved the drink and often requested variations. Thus, the olive as a garnish and God knows what else, was born. The quest for the perfect Martini will never die and its popularity indeed seems to increase with each new generation. Long live James Bond!

Long before the Martini there was its major ingredient, gin, which dates back to the 17th century in the Netherlands. It was created by a Dutch chemist, Dr. Sylvus, in the mid 1600s. His intention was to invent a medicine that would cleanse the blood from kidney disorders. He called it Jenever, meaning juniper, in French, because he utilized neutral grain spirits flavored with Juniper. In 1698, when William III and Mary I ruled England, gin was mass-produced, sold at affordable prices and became a commodity that competed with French markets. It was William III’s personal intention to hurt the French government because of their threats against his native country, Holland.

Unlike other spirits, gin doesn’t have a qualification measure by age. Most gin is sold at 80 to 90% proof. It is distilled from grain and primarily flavored with juniper berries. It is usually colorless, although some brands may be golden due to their aging process in barrels. There are five different kinds: dry gin, London Dry, golden, Old Tom and flavored. Dry gin is the most popular, and uses a collection of flavorings known as botanicals, which are either suspended in the tower above the still in order to absorb their flavor or added directly to the neutral spirit before being redistilled.

All in all, cocktails are like that old saying, "So many men, so little time." There is neither time nor space for honorable (or otherwise) mention to all, but some include: Cool, Bay and Sea breezes, Zombies, High balls, Low balls (or is that baseball?), Salty Dogs, Rusty Nails, Manhattans, Brandy Alexander and the rest of his family, Grasshoppers, Juleps and Harvey what’s his name. The Zombie lingers with only the thought of what its excesses might render upon the drinker. I would consider a Martini if James Bond would join me, but I think, at least for now, I’ll stay away from the living dead. I don’t care for cemeteries, feel the dead should have the courtesy to remain as such, and do my best to avoid farmhouses at night and guns!

Classic Bloody Mary, Houston

3 ounces vodka, chilled
4 ounces tomato juice, chilled
1 ounce lemon juice
Four splashes of Worcestershire sauce
Two, three dashes of Tabasco sauce
2 lemon twists for garnish

In a tall, ice-cold glass, add vodka, tomato juice, lemon juice, Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces. Roll back and forth to blend. Transfer to martini glass; garnish with lemon twists. Then go find Paul Henried and Bette Davis and sit down and have a drink.

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2003