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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Hey Ho, it's Cocktail200!

Are you all set to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the cocktail, defined?

Cocktail200 medallion

Too bad. So sorry to hear that. You missed it. Well, not the whole year, but if you did not look heavenward as you drained your glass on Saturday, you missed the moment. You see, on May 13th 1806, the cocktail got its first explanation in a New York newspaper. Oh, the word had appeared before, back into the 18th century, usually as a description of a type of horse, and even once in 1803 as a drink, but this use was in a narrative penned by a young callow good-for-nothing reprobate (probably an ancestor of Alex) – exactly the sort that did enjoy cocktails in those days – and he just mentioned it in passing. Unless you too were a miscreant of the period, you’d never know what the hell he was talking about. Again, on May 6th 1806, the Editor of Hudson, New York’s newspaper, the Balance & Columbian Repository, mentioned our fledgling cocktail obliquely in a snarky aside regarding a local politician:

“….a certain candidate has placed in his account of Loss and Gain, the following items: –


720 rum-grogs
17 brandy (ditto)
32 gin-slings
411 glasses bitters
25 (ditto) cock-tail
My Election.



Well. One week later (it being a weekly newspaper) the Balance ran this exchange:

To the Editor of the Balance.

I observe in your paper… the account of a democratic candidate…under the head of Loss, 25 (ditto) cock-tail. Will you be so obliging as to inform me what is meant by this species of refreshment?”

To which our fearless editor replied:

“ Cock-tail… is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters –it is vulgarly called a bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else.”

No reference to the name of the poor Democrat was ever recorded, or is to this day known.

But there you have it; an etymologist’s wet dream: a new word meaning, defined in print. As I say, cocktails were quite bad form in those days, not only because they were consumed in the morning to stave off the effects of the night before, but also because they contained bitters.

“And what is wrong with bitters?” You might be so unwise to ask me. Well, in 1806, the cocktail was new. No cocktail glasses, no cocktail napkins, no cocktail lounges, no cocktail bitters. Putting bitters in your drink in 1806 was akin to stumbling to your medicine cabinet, grabbing the convenient bottle of Paragoric and dumping it into your hangover drink. Bad show, old chap, bad show indeed.

200 years later to the day, simultaneous celebrations for the now rather more gentrified drink form were held around the world: London, New York, Las Vegas, Sydney (Germany, Holland, Austria and Switzerland)… I attended the Las Vegas event, (at The Museum of the American Cocktail) which was simulcast with the New York one (at a bar with a satellite exhibit – a bar named, oddly, the Balance.) I gave a little speech, conducted tours and interviews, and drank. And ate. And drank. There’ll be more on that later. And drank.

At the event, the first annual The American Cocktail Awards™ (the Olives) were presented by the USBG (the United States Bartenders’ Guild) for the best drink. A little number named the “Wet Spot” won.


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