Happy Birthday, Dear Cocktail

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Photo by deep ellum (21)/Flickr CC


Some things are so ubiquitous that we forget they have an origin, like soup, pants and fizzy water. Yet everything that we know--sans nature itself, which we owe to a higher power--is the product of some person or persons' imagination. Even the cocktail itself has a birth date. For us, that's May 6, 1806.

In all fairness, that's not when the cocktail was born. That's one of the earliest mentions of the cocktail in print in The Balance & Columbian Repository, a now defunct paper from Hudson, New York. Who created it and the exact date of said creation is the product of much speculation and may forever elude us. (The name itself, "cocktail", is also a mystery and I would point you elsewhere for more information about the debate.)

After all, nobody knew on that fateful day that the cocktail would damn near rival the apple pie for the title of most widely known American culinary invention.

The mention of the cocktail in The Balance is followed one week later with a definition, and a little political commentary, when the editor responds to a reader's question asking what a cocktail is:

As I make it a point, never to publish anything (under my editorial head) but which I can explain, I shall not hesitate to gratify the curiosity of my inquisitive correspondent: Cock-tail, then 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.

What does this simple four-ingredient combo have to do with the Apple Martini or a Blue Motorcycle? Not much, but this singular definition gave way to a category that expanded into a catch-all phrase for any mixed drink. Yet stalwarts like the Manhattan and Old Fashioned continue to stay true to their origins.

So, take a moment to enjoy this fine example of American ingenuity during World Cocktail Week, which stretches from the anniversary of its first mention, May 6th, to the statement of its definition on May 13th. (Come on, you know you have a birthday week, too.) The Museum of the American cocktail has a listing of events. If you can't make it to one of the many events, fix yourself the quintessential cocktail--ye Old Fashioned (the old fashioned way).

Here's my recipe:

    • 2 oz. Rye Whiskey
    • ¼ - ½ oz. Simple Syrup (equal parts water and sugar)
    • Two dashes Aromatic Bitters
    • 2" Lemon Peel

Muddle gently lemon, syrup and bitters at the bottom of a rocks glass. Add ice cubes and stir until cooled.

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Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He sits on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail. More

Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He travels throughout the country and around the world in search of great drinks, and the stories behind them. Derek's methodical approach to cocktails was profiled in the Wall Street Journal's "A Master of Mixological Science" and his martini lauded as the best in America by GQ. He's been in numerous media outlets featuring his approach to better drinking, including CNN, The Rachel Maddow Show and FOX. Derek is a founding member of the D.C. Craft Bartender's Guild and on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail.
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