Monday, August 22, 2011

The Illustrious History of The Cocktail

The cocktail is America’s gift to the culinary world. The cocktail has endured a long journey from its pure beginnings, through the hardship and compromise of the '20s and '30s speakeasies, to where it stands now. The cocktails of today are a far cry from their original predecessors. But thanks to a resurgence of interest in the great American cocktail of yesteryear and the craft movement, cocktails are making a comeback to their former glory. To get an idea of just how far the cocktail has come, let’s go back to the very beginning.

In 1806, a newspaper called The Balance, and Columbian Repository printed the first definition of the cocktail: “A stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” The most common spirits used in cocktails at that time were rum, brandy or Genever. The use of water was to help dissolve the granulated sugar (or sugar cubes) into the mixture. At that time, ice was not a key ingredient of the cocktail yet, but when it later became more prevalent, ice would be used to dilute the drink through stirring, thus blending the individual components more harmoniously. Around the latter half of the 1800s, people would call for their spirit of choice (now predominately whiskey) to be made “the old fashioned way.” The name stuck.

In the 1920’s, when Prohibition hit, things got a little rough for the cocktail and all those dedicated to maintaining its original purity. The professional bartender left overseas to practice his trade where drinking was still legal. Prohibition made the creation, distribution and consumption of alcohol illegal, so people took to making their own liquor. Needless to say it was less than impressive. It was because of this unsavory homemade booze that people began mixing cocktails in such a way as to drown out the bad taste of these less than palatable spirits. Prohibition killed the cocktail in America.

From that point on, the drinking culture in America shifted from appreciating a hand crafted drink made properly with fresh ingredients, to a culture just looking to get drunk as fast as possible on bad booze masked with sweet additives (juice, sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, etc).

Like the old saying “you can’t keep a good dog down”, quality things always manage to come back around. In the same way that the microbrewery and the craft beer reminded us that beer was meant to be enjoyed for its taste, people are beginning to rethink the way they view the cocktail. When you have a steak, you want it to taste like steak, prepared with ingredients that complement the flavor of the meat, as opposed to flavors that mask it. Cocktails are the same way. Made correctly - with fresh ingredients, quality spirits, and at the hands of a knowledgeable bartender - the flavors of a cocktail complement each other to make something truly exquisite. 320 Main is dedicated to mixing cocktails according to the methods and philosophy which were established by the early American bartender.