Last fall, I visited a new restaurant and lounge in London called Hix. It specializes in revivals and adaptations of early-19th-century British libations, including a rum shrub of the sort one might have sipped during the reign of King George III. (Shrubs typically involved fresh fruits preserved in vinegar, then mixed with spirits.) I thought it was uncommonly delicious, and immediately felt traitorous for thinking so. The early Brits were famous for guzzling sweetened gin in large and harmful quantities, not for producing mixed drinks of sophistication or quality. The Americans were supposedly the ones who did that.
The drink catechism has long held that cocktails as we know them were created by “Professor” Jerry Thomas, a pioneering and flamboyant American bartender who published the first bar manual in 1862. David Wondrich, the author of Imbibe!, the most comprehensive account of Thomas’s work, did much to secure this reputation. His book advanced the notion, now commonly repeated, that cocktails are a reflection of our native genius, as American as apple pie and baseball.
“And it turns out that’s precisely true,” Wondrich told me recently. “Because they made apple pies in Europe before we did. And they played rounders before we did. Whenever you look into any of these things and poke at the beginning, you’re suddenly earlier.”
While researching Imbibe!, Wondrich had been intrigued by Thomas’s frequent mentions of punch—spirits mixed with citrus juice and other flavorings. Wondrich suspected that such drinks represented a British precursor to the modern American cocktail. He investigated for his next book, Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl, due out this fall, and his suspicions were confirmed. “As far as I can tell,” he said, “the British pretty much invented mixology with spirits when they came up with punch.”
In particular, Wondrich now singles out James Ashley, who ran a famous punch house in London from 1731 to 1776, as “the world’s first celebrity mixologist.” Ashley refined the idea of mixed drinks with spirits, even serving his concoctions in smaller, individually mixed cups rather than big bowls. Wondrich found further accounts, from around the same time, of other barmen in England serving up proto-cocktails like sweetened gin mixed with bitters.
Hix is attracting considerable attention for its revival of these drinks, which accompany its oddly trendy adaptations of ancient English fare, like pollack fingers on mushy peas. Nick Strangeway, a noted London compounder of cocktails, was given a mandate to serve up something in period and authentic, and not to coddle the taste buds of Hix’s customers. Among the drinks he revived was the Lamb’s Wool, which dates to the 1640s and involves heated beer and fruit purees. “I didn’t think anyone would buy it,” he told me. “People don’t like it when you mess with their beer.” He was wrong, and it’s now among the more popular drinks. I didn’t order a Lamb’s Wool, but very much enjoyed his shrub, made with citrus-infused rum and scalded milk served over ice. I also liked a drink called Robert Burns’s Hunting Flask, made with warmed whiskey infused with currants, ginger, and citrus. These were rich and complicated drinks, and I think they could prove popular on this side of the Atlantic. Bowls of delicious punch have already made inroads into bars like Death & Co in New York and Rickhouse in San Francisco. Perhaps we’ll see a wave of neo-colonial taverns staffed by toothless barmaids in mobcaps, ladling drink out of firkins. Or, possibly, not.
Wondrich insists that history doesn’t need to be rewritten, merely revised: cocktails may have been invented in Britain, but they were roundly reimagined and reinvented in the United States. Americans brought to the bar a wider array of liquors and other ingredients, and started doing fine things with ice when it became commonly available. The Martini and the Manhattan came about when Americans had the freakish idea of mixing wine and spirits. And Jerry Thomas remains best known for the Blue Blazer, a Scotch drink he lit on fire and poured back and forth, still aflame, between two tankards. “Folk music became rock and roll here, and drink became more vulgar and more democratic at the same time,” Wondrich told me. “Jerry Thomas’s mixology was far more brash, and with far more showmanship. It all has European roots, but the Europeans just didn’t do it with that same kind of big-balled swagger.”
Which, now that I think about it, would make an excellent name for a 21st-century punch house.