My First Cocktail

February 26, 2012

No, this isn’t going to be about a story about how as a youth I was a habitual beer drinker until one night at the bar a wizened old geezer leaned over, handing me a Martini and said ‘Try a real drink, Sonny’.

No, this is about my first ‘real’ cocktails, which I tried last week. That is to say, my experiments with the drink, also known in its infancy as the Bittered Sling, which became known as ‘Cocktail’.

The name has come to mean many other things, usually (but not always) being a mix of some kind of alcohol and something else.

Cocktails weren’t the first mixed drinks, of course. Their predecessors included punches, fixes, highballs, sours, bucks, fizzes, collinses, rickeys, toddies, slings, juleps, smashes, and daisies. All very popular in their day. Most of these drinks were different permutations or embellishments of a simple formula: Spirits, water, sugar, and sometimes citrus.

Compare this to the first ever definition of ‘cocktail’:

Cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called bittered sling

The definition was given to explain the use of the word in an earlier newspaper article about a Democratic electioneer plying voters with various drinks, including ‘cock-tail’.

Like previous popular mixed drinks, the cocktail was spirits, sugar and water, and the special new ingredient was bitters. Bitters had been around for a long time already. They were basically one-size-fits-all medicinal potions. Tasting vile on their own they had also been mixed with other drinks, including, naturally, liquor. But it was their addition in small quantities to the basic ‘sling’ that saw the real birth of  the cocktail.

I particularly like the definition supplied by the 19th century celebrity bartender Jerry Thomas. In his 1862 book ‘How to Mix Drinks: The Bon-Vivant’s Companion’  (free download), the first ever collection of recipes for mixed drinks, he includes a few recipes for the new ‘cocktail’, commenting thus:

Jerry Thomas making his signature drink the Blue Blazer

The ‘Cocktail’ is a modern invention, and is generally used on fishing and other sporting parties, although some patients insist that it is good in the morning as a tonic.

I laughed when I first heard the Chinese word for ‘cocktail’. ‘Jiweijiu’ literally means ‘chicken tail wine’. No, I thought, ‘cocktail’ doesn’t literally mean a cock’s tail. Or does it? I scurried off to Google and discovered that this is one of the most often occurring and most controversial questions in the burgeoning field of cocktail archaeology. Whatever the original etymology was, it was quickly lost, and people were soon inventing spurious explanations of the term. One book collects over 40 stories. Two of the more common and ridiculous are that a patriotic revolutionary barmaid plucked the feathers from redcoats’ caps and displayed them in her bar, and  that ‘Xochitl’ an Aztec princess, served them to her bloodthirsty father. Here are the two I like the most:

Cocktail Etymology #1: In old New Orleans Atoine Peychaud, a creole who had fled the Haitian Slave Revolt, started serving from his apocathery shots of brandy in French ‘coquetier’  egg cups. The name of the popular drink became corrupted to ‘cocktail’ by English speakers. This story is now largely discredited but endures thanks to its connections with the rich cocktail history of New Orleans, where the official drink is the Sazerac, one of only two ‘cocktails’ still being served which adhere to the original formula of spirit, sugar, water and bitters. It doesn’t hurt that Peychaud’s own bitters are still being sold today.

Cocktail Etymology #2: In the 19th century draught horses had their tails cut short to stop them getting caught up in the harnesses. This made them stick up like cock-tails. These horses were not thoroughbreds of course, and the sporting fraternity of the day began calling mix-breeds on the track ‘cock-tails’. The term then began being used for the new popular ‘mix-breed’ drink the bittered sling. Not as interesting as Peychaud’s story, but I like this one the most.

Back to the recipes. So it’s spirits, sugar, water and bitters. What spirits? Well the usual ones back then were whiskey, gin and brandy. The whiskey was generally rye (but later Bourbon), the gin was the Dutch Genever, and the brandy was Cognac. Other spirits work well too, apparently. The sugar can be gum syrup, simple syrup, lump sugar or powdered sugar. About 1/2 tsp to 1 tsp with an equal amount of water does the trick. For the bitters, a brand called Broker’s was the choice of the day, but anything like Angostura or Peychaud’s works well.

David Wondrich, author of ‘Imbibe’, a great history of Jerry Thomas, the cocktail and its predecessors, outlines how the cocktail evolved into ‘fancy’ and ‘improved’ versions (and then many later permutations). The use of the terminology varied incredibly, but Wondrich orders and simplifies it by calling a ‘Fancy Cocktail’ one with a dash of orange curaçao (such as Grand Marnier) and an ‘Improved Cocktail’ one with both a dash of maraschino liqueur and a dash of absinthe.

I decided to try both the plain and fancy version of the ‘cocktail’ with rye whiskey, genever and cognac. Sadly, I don’t yet have the ingredients for the improved version.  The Cocktail (Plain and Fancy)2 oz spirits1 tsp simple syrup2 dashes bitters1 dash orange curaçao (for the fancy version)lemon twist  Stir well with ice in a shaker or mixing glass. Strain into a cocktail glass. Rub lemon peel around the rim of the glass, twist over the drink, and drop it in. I made up some syrup on the spot by dissolving powdered sugar in an equal part of hot water and measuring it out. I used Grand Marnier for the  curaçao (available in Taiwan as is the alternative, Marie Brizzard Orange Curaçao, or even Cointreau or Triple Sec), measuring a little more than 1/4 tsp for my ‘dash’.

The Brandy CocktailI made this with Courvoisier VSOP Cognac (cheap, as far as cognacs go, plentiful in Taiwan, and delicious in a mixed drink), and Peychaud’s bitters. I thought I wasn’t going to like this much, as I didn’t much enjoy sipping the Courvosier straight, and have never been a huge cognac fan. Wrong! This was delicious, smooth, well-rounded, eminently sippable, and quite possibly my favourite of the three cocktails. I really recommend it for an elegant smooth drink.The ‘Fancy’ was probably even better. There was only the faintest hint of the curaçao, but it definitely added a citrus tinge.  As I was making my cocktail, there was a localised power cut, and I had to finish mixing by torch-light (to any American readers, a ‘torch’ is a ‘flashlight’, I didn’t brandish a piece of burning timber as I stirred my drink). Distracted, I went and shook the first drink instead of stirring. This is very clear in the photo of the drink on the left. Shaking adds tiny flecks of ice, and aerates the liquid. This causes the white foam. It’s preferable in some drinks, and generally essential in ones containing citrus or egg. But stirring is better for creating a ‘silkier’ texture. My mistake was a perfect test of this theorem for me, and I have to agree with it.  Power being out, I couldn’t watch a DVD or surf the net, so I was forced to browse a cocktail book by candle light, and then mix up my next cocktail.

The Whiskey Cocktail

I used Angostura Bitters this time and the Rittenhouse Bonded Rye that I had bought in New Zealand. It is sadly not available in Taiwan (nor is any other rye whiskey), but good Bourbon is a standard alternative. This was my first real taste of this spirit aside from a little sip, and I loved it. As expected, it made for a very different drink. The rye is much stronger and heavier, with a great spicy taste that dances around the mouth for a good while after sipping. Delicious and quite possibly my favourite of the three cocktails.  I’ve never drunk rye before, and haven’t even tried Bourbon for years. I can see myself getting into it. (OK, admission, it’s now been a week since I made these cocktails, and my bottle of Rittenhouse is getting close to the halfway mark. I just had the terrible realisation that if it’s all gone soon it may be many many months until I can replace it. Shock, horror.) The ‘Fancy’ was great too, but this time I preferred the more straight up variety.

Gin Cocktail

I used the Dutch Bokma Oude Genever, the ‘Holland Gin’ common in the US at the time the cocktail was born, which, as mentioned in a previous post, is not really gin as we know it today at all. It tastes malty, earthy and, er, whiskey-ey. And then there’s the juniper gin taste. Perhaps a whiskey drinker’s gin, or in my case a gin for a gin drinker who’s becoming interested in whiskey. The complex, fascinating taste of this spirit made it quite possibly my favourite of the three cocktails. Again the fancy version was also great. I think I liked them equally.

The Old Fashioned

After the ‘fancy’ and improved’ versions, the cocktail evolved further, being dressed up with various liqueurs, syrups and fruits. What was an old-timer to do but ask for a cocktail mixed the ‘old-fashioned’ way. And thus was born one of the only two surviving drinks to adhere to the original cocktail formula – the ‘Old Fashioned’.

Seeing as I was doing the ‘old-fashioned’ cocktails, I saw it only fit that I should try an Old Fashioned cocktail. Bourbon is standard in the Old Fashioned most places these days, but I understand that Rye is making a big comeback, and that’s the way I tried it: with a minimalist take on the muddling and garnishing of fruit.

2 oz bourbon (or rye) whiskey

1 sugar cube

1/2 tsp water

2 dashes Angostura Bitters

1 large piece of citrus rind (lemon for rye, orange for bourbon)

Place the sugar cube in an Old Fashioned glass, and saturate with bitters and water. Muddle to dissolve the sugar. Muddle in a large piece of citrus rind (1 inch by 2 with pith removed is good). Add whiskey and one to three ice cubes (depending on size). Stir gently. Remove old rind and garnish with a fresh piece if you want to get really fancy.

I didn’t have sugar cubes handy, so made do with powdered sugar, which I’m sure is fine. That Rittenhouse Rye sure is good. I made this drink four or five times over the last week to make sure that I was doing it properly. By the taste of it, I was making it right each time.

This guy, Chris Macmillian, is a very knowledgeable bartender and spirits historian. I love his series of YouTube videos. Here’s how he makes his Old Fashioned:

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6 Responses to “My First Cocktail”

  1. Ben Says:

    The old fashioned is my favourite evening drink at the moment, for making at home at least. Made with bourbon it is mellow yet bright. I take a bit of a shortcut however in that I use orange bitters since I never seem to have real oranges at home and I think the drink would be less interesting without a dash of orange flavour.

    One thing I enjoy about it is that it takes just a little bit of work to prepare, in dissolving the sugar. It makes it a little bit of a ritual.

    One great discovery in getting into old fashioneds is how good bourbon is. I hadn’t really drunk bourbon since varsity days (Jim Beam + Coke) and still carried some aversion to it due to one too many binges. I started with Maker’s Mark, which is a beautiful whisky. Currently I have some Knob Creek in my cabinet, which is a bit spicier and fuller bodied. I highly recommend you get yourself a good bourbon (Woodford Reserve is another highly commended bourbon). Myself, I’ll get round to getting some Rittenhouse soon enough (for Manhattens mostly).

  2. theboolion Says:

    I’m very much the same Ben. Jim Beam and cokes and a bad binge or two put me off Bourbon (and even other whisk(e)ys) for ages. I had a great Manhatten in a bar the other day, though (still no Vemouth at home) and I’m loving that Rittenhouse. Maker’s Mark has aready been singled out as one of my next liquor purchases, and my first Bourbon. I’ve heard good things, and it’s available in Taiwan. It doesn’t hurt that the bottle looks nice.

    Definitley get that Rittenhouse. They didn’t have it at Moore Wilson’s, but it’s at Regional. There may be two strengths, but you want the 50% “Bonded” one. ‘Bottled in Bond’ means it follows a statutory regulation that the spirit comes from a single distillery and a single year and bottled at 100 proof. The word ‘bonded’ means it ahs been stored for at elats 4 years in a federal-bonded wharehouse under governemtn supervision.


  3. […] weeks ago, I wrote about the basic old-style cocktail and the ‘fancy’ cocktail. There is a third in the series of ‘genuine’ 19th century ‘cocktails’ (in […]


  4. […] not something extra fancy like a Mai Tai. It’s basically just a fancy Old Fashioned. A Rye Cocktail with Peychaud’s as the bitters and a dash of […]


  5. […] mentioned in an earlier post how the Old-Fashioned is really the oldest surviving ‘cocktail’ in the true sense of […]


  6. […] the ‘Cocktail‘ (in the official sense of the word – spirit, bitters, sugar and water), there was the […]


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