I love that cocktails spark conversations.
Where did the name cocktail come from? My boyfriend recently asked me that question as we were making plans to visit Milk & Honey, the speakeasy-inspired cocktail bar and members club, which has locations in London and New York.
I didn’t know the answer to that question, but thought a simple Google search would produce one easily enough.
I thought wrong.
It turns out there are a number of theories as to where the name cocktail came from. (In 1806, the editor of The Balance and Columbian Repository defined a cocktail as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits and any kind, sugar, water and bitters.”)
Some say that the word originated in the 1800s when a tavern keeper north of New York City served mixed alcohol drinks garnished with feathers from a cock’s tail. Another reference to the tail feather of a rooster has been published in a British publication, Bartender, which says in 1936 English soldiers in Mexico were served drinks stirred with a Cola de Gallo (cock’s tail). Other references include horse tails. The word could have stemmed from a horse breeder’s term for a mixed breed—cock-tails.
Another thought is that the word cocktail came from cock tailings, what was found at the bottom of a cask of ale. The cock tailings from spirits would be mixed together and then sold at a lower price.
Among the more interesting explanations of how cocktail came about is in George Bishop’s “The Booze Reader: A Soggy Saga of Man in His Cups,” which says that the word comes from the term cock-tail used in the mid 1800s to describe a woman who was “of easy virtue desirable but impure…and applied to the newly acquired American habit of bastardizing good British Gin with foreign matter, including ice.”
Well, at the Milk & Honey in London, some of the cocktails did come with ice—large cubes so as to not dilute the drinks—(no feathers though) and were mixed with great detail.
The cocktail has been around for a long time and bars like Milk & Honey are paying homage to the classics, but with a twist. The El Diablo, for example, used fresh ginger and soda as opposed to ginger ale. Other “restorative” drinks on the menu included a Prescription Julep (cognac, rye, sugar, mint), an Aviation No. 1 (calvados, cassis, absinthe, lime) and a Moscow Mule (vodka, ginger, lime, sugar, soda).
The downstairs bar had a speakeasy vibe—small booths and tables, dark wood and leather furniture, candle light, embossed metal detailing around the bar and 1920s-style music playing in the background. It could have been a scene out of “Boardwalk Empire” with waiters and bartenders dressed in pinstriped collared shirts and suspenders.
As the trend of reinventing or revisiting classic cocktails of the past continues, bars like Milk & Honey are taking a fresh approach—literally. The quality of ingredients used to mix with the alcohol is just as important as the quality of the spirit itself. Milk & Honey makes fresh mixers daily and says it doesn’t use any juice or extract they didn’t make themselves.
The quality is noticeably reflected in the cocktails.
What’s new? New styles, new watering holes, new apps, new electronics, new cars…the list can go on and on. There’s no question that today’s consumer is obsessed with all things new—and when he or she does find that shiny, new thing that no one else has yet discovered they make it known. Do you like this jacket? It’s new. Did you see this app? It’s new. Have you been to (enter bar or restaurant name here)? It’s new. You get the idea.
But lately there’s also been an obsession with what’s old. I’ve never been a history buff myself, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have an appreciation for the events that have helped shape the modern world.
In the spirits world, there’s been a newfound love for what’s old, where a return to the classic cocktail and iconic brands that date back more than a century are becoming what’s new again.
With speakeasy-type bars in demand and consumers tuning into shows like “Mad Men,” classic cocktails are getting a second look. Mixologists are bringing the sexy back to drinks like Moscow Mule, Negroni, Old Fashioned or Rusty Nail with a spin that brings these cocktails to another level.
What’s helped fuel this trend, in addition to pop culture, is the investment iconic brands are making to teach consumers about their history and the cocktails made with them.
Campari, an aperitif that dates back to 1860, is used to make the Negroni: one part Campari, one part gin and one part sweet vermouth. Last year, a contest in New York City asked bartenders to come up with their own version of the Negroni causing a spike in menu placements for the drink around the city. History lesson: Campari originally got its rich red color extracted from a cochineal beetle native to South America.
Bacardi, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, is widely recognized for the Mojito: 1.5 ounces of Bacardi, 12 fresh spearmint leaves, half a lime, 7 ounces of club soda and 2 tablespoons of simple syrup. This cocktail, which dates back to 1862, was originally called the Draque, invented by Richard Drake, a pirate on board the ship of Spanish explorer Francis Drake.
Today, the Mojito recipe is often altered and made with a variety of fruit flavors and flavored Bacardi rums to get a customized version of the classic. History lesson: Bacardi got its bat symbol because bats were found in the rafters of the original distillery.
Glenfiddich celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. In honor of its anniversary, the brand is promoting cocktails that create a modern take on the historic brand. The Pioneering Spirit: 1.5 parts Glenfiddich 12 Year Old, 2 parts pear juice, one-half part agave nectar, 1 part lemon juice. History lesson: Founder William Grant and his nine children built the first Glenfiddich distillery by hand over the course of a year.
While these cocktails, and the brands that help make them, aren’t necessarily “new,” they are classic—and that’s one thing that never gets old.