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The History and Origins of the Traditional Cocktail

The traditional cocktails, how did this preference of alcoholic drinks come to be? Where did the name originate? These are just a couple of the questions which one might pose to themselves as they sit at the bar, numbingly looking off into space. It is a drink that so many have been enjoying for a countless amount of years. So, really, how did the cocktail really begin?

In the U.S., the very first time the word cocktail was utilized was in 1828, in an old publication. In the UK, they used the word “cock-tail” and they have also been using the word ever since 1798. Is England the birth country of the cocktail? This probably doesn’t even matter because people have been misusing the word cocktail for as long as it has been in existence.The title is essentially the figurehead word for alcoholic drinks in general and it is usually at the very top of a bar menu. They could either be titled as punches, highballs, sours or fizzes.

The reality of the cocktails origins is absolutely fascinating, its beginnings are tucked away in fables and in mysticism. Some believe that the word had spawned from New Orleans, being developed from the French word “coquetel”, which had been an eggcup used to serve drinks. There even has been some stories that have described as being decorated from an actual cock’s tail and it was served as an honour to all of the soldiers of the Revolutionary War. Mexico Even came into the picture, regarding the drinks which had stirred in “cola de gallo”

The fancy and refined cocktails of today trace their origins back to the ancient world, where mankind first discovered the wonders of the alcoholic beverage. Here, we will take a trip back though history to look at the earliest forms of the cocktail. From the necessity for a drink that could provide nourishment without fear of poisoning to a beverage that gave countrymen a way to bond through hardship, the genesis of the beverages that gave rise to the modern cocktail is a fascinating journey through ancient civilizations and a testament to mankind’s love of alcohol.

It is unclear exactly when humans stumbled upon the fermentation process that produces drinkable alcohol. Vessels containing remnants of alcohol have been found from periods that pre-date the written word, in the Palaeolithic era before 10000 B.C. Typically, the remnants found in these vessels contain an alcoholic beverage that is essentially a mead, fermented honey flavoured with berries and other ingredients that sweetened the drink. These mixed drinks were crude, unfiltered and varied tremendously from batch to batch.

Many point to the ancient Egyptians at 4000 B.C. as the people that truly began mass production of alcoholic beverages for consumption and religious ceremonies, but the Chinese in approximately 6900 B.C. began to mix rice with fruit and honey to produce an alcoholic beverage that was enjoyed by the noble and lay. This drink when produced with the finest ingredients and filtered, was the domain of the elite. The commoner was not excluded from imbibing, but did so with cheap, low quality ingredients that were not filtered out from the final product. Even so, drinking the alcoholic beverage was a necessity for survival, with water typically being unsanitary as bacteria was not known.

While the Chinese beat the ancient Egyptians to the title of the first mixologists, the Egyptians, starting at about 4500 B.C. can certainly lay claim to being the first civilization to truly employ the mixed drink in all facets of society. Egyptians made their alcoholic beverages from grains, honey, grapes, berries, spices and other ingredients that made drinking a pleasurable pastime, not just a sanitary necessity. The drinks were mixed with water, fruit and other sweets that truly can be considered the first cocktails. The specific combination of alcohol and the mixer depended on the social status of the individual enjoying the beverage, as the elite could afford fruit, while a commoner would have only a few spices to add to his drink. The finest mixed drinks were offered to the Egyptian pantheon of gods, whom were believed to enjoy or demand alcoholic beverages from their worshipers.

The Egyptians laid the foundation for the traditional cocktail, but the Greeks took the cocktail to the next level. In about 450 B.C., the Greeks made alcoholic drinks from grapes, honey, spices, salt water, various fruits, and flavourings, such as plant extracts. It was common practice to leave the ingredients in the mixture to fully give flavour and body to the drink, where they were strained out immediately before consumption. The Greeks also established purity laws that made it a criminal offense, often punishable by death, to produce and serve poor quality or dubiously cut alcohol.

The Anglo-Saxons of 400 to 1400 A.D. made alcohol from honey, wheat, barley, rice, spices, plant extracts and even meat. The wealthy elite established drinking halls in their villages, where noblemen could keep a hold on the commoners by encouraging them to partake in their fermented creations. The drinking halls were of critical importance to society and it was also the place where the “barkeep” or “bartender,” in modern parlance, was established as a profession. The barkeep developed a repertoire of mixed concoctions for patrons and introduced filtration as a habitual practice. During this period, it was discovered that egg whites could be used to clear fermented beverages and give the drink a silky body.

In the period from 1400 to 1800 A.D., the distillation of fermented liquids was discovered and developed. The French discovered fermented grapes could be distilled to make brandy, the Dutch used juniper berries to flavour distilled grain to create gin, and the eastern Europeans cleanly distilled fermented starches out to make crystal-clear vodka. The English particularly favoured Gin mixed with quinine, a compound extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree, and relied upon it during colonial conquests as an anti-malarial and fever-reducing drink. In North America, rum made from sugar cane in European Caribbean colonies was commonly mixed with beer or mead.

The age of the modern cocktail began in 1803, when mixed drinks of liquor, sugar, water and bitters were dubbed “cocktails.” When Connecticut native Jerry Thomas published a book in 1862 detailing recipes for mixed drinks, including the timeless “Old Fashioned,” “Manhattan,” and “Sazerac,” the art of creating cocktails became an American pastime. Bartenders made names for their establishments and for themselves with the creation of ingenious mixes. Many of these creations live on in today’s bar, where patrons can dip back to ancient civilizations’ pursuit of the perfect drink that sated human thirst or to the recent creations that inspire even more creativity.

Modern cocktails are the product of mankind’s ancient love for the alcoholic beverage. The ancient origins of the mixed drink provides a fascinating insight into human society that constantly pursues new concoctions to be drank while bonding with friends and family. Born out of necessity, revered through its wondrous flavour and effects on the human spirit, and taken to new heights though entrepreneurs, the cocktail is a testament to human ingenuity.

Photo source Didriks

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