Find your recipes and restaurants here

From Martinis to Mimosas: A Short history of cocktails and the true art of bartending

A beautifully written piece about the Renaissance of cocktails.

by: (image: iStock) | 01 Oct 2017

The Art of Mixology. Like any culinary art, its beginnings were crude.

Cocktails date as far back as the late 1700s, where lovers of fermented grape and grain would often combine distilled spirits and perfumes with ales and wines in order to fortify them. Monks and apothecaries would blend different distilled spirits to create these perfumes and prescribed their ‘medicinal properties’ to the ill, not to mention, it was safer to drink than water!

Once the Americas started to become colonised and Colombus began planting sugar cane throughout the West Indies, powerful and wealthy European nations began colonising strategic islands to plant this new cash crop which grew like a weed in the equatorial climate.

To create alcohol, sugars and carbohydrates of any sort to be fermented with yeast and what better than pure sugar cane juice that would yield much more alcohol than grapes or grains! Many European countries began taking their distilling knowledge from their homelands to the Caribbean in what became an incredibly lucrative enterprise, shipping neat distilled spirits from the Caribbean back to Europe in wooden, mostly oak barrels.

ALSO READ: 6 Myths about whisky that seriously need to be broken

These journeys took months and mariners being mariners, would either get paid with or stole precious spirits from their cargo.
This spirit was not even remotely drinkable on its own so these sailors began combining it with their daily rations of water and digestive herbal ‘bitters’ which was affectionately named ‘Grog’ or a bittered Sling.

The New World

As the world turned, new prospects of the New World began to emerge and many of these mariners and buccaneers began to settle in the city now known as New Orleans. As a result, saloons and taverns began opening up throughout New Orleans to cater for the new and burgeoning influx of settling pirates and merchant sailors, rich with bounty from years of labour.

Many wealthy Europeans, especially of the French contingent, began buying up estates to grow, amongst many things, cotton and sugar cane and they too needed to be catered for and entertained in a manner befitting the ladies and gentlemen of the finest class. These were to become the grand gentlemen’s and country clubs of the era.

The area quickly gentrified from a port town into a bustling city. Many of the initial mariners felt they too deserved the ‘Lifestyle of a Gentleman’ and being business savvy themselves, took to profiting greatly from the industrial and economic revolution sweeping throughout the America.

As mariner and Creole met, they exchanged the idea of ‘Grogs and Slings’ but no crude liquor would ever be found anywhere near a Gentlemen’s club of good standing so only the finest spirits would be used, combined with bitters, drinking water and the most sought after luxuries of all…sugar and ice.

ALSO READ: Gin for beginners: all you need to know about this popular spirit

These began to prove popular amongst these clubs’ patrons and soon servants were taught how to fashion the best Grogs and Slings by these patrons and soon the art of the cocktail was born.

The argument of who created it first is still widely debated by the Americans as well as the British. Who was first we will never know.

The Golden Age of bartending

Fast forward to what was known as the Golden Age of bartending: 1900 to 1940.

Bartenders were soon highly sought after assets when wanting to build a public house of good repute. Cocktails were often what drove customers to respective saloons and clubs and a bartender that could create a famous signature cocktail became darlings in the eyes of the public and media.

But soon came Prohibition…

The American public was now no longer legally allowed to drink or manufacture alcohol for any other purpose besides medicine.
Many great bartenders who were lifetime tradesmen could not find any employment just before the first World War and so, out of desperation, conscripted and died in the trenches.

Those who managed to escape the draft found solace in thirsty nations such as Cuba and England where ‘American drinks’ were all the rage and famous bartenders such as English born Harry Craddock, soon found fans with open arms in hotels with ‘American Bars’ such as the Savoy in London which is still open today.

The World enters a second World war and the Great Depression sent many unemployed bartenders to battle with very few coming back.

The cocktail bars that survived quickly got back into the swing of things but needed something new, fresh and different and enter Vodka.

Until the 1950s, vodka was seldom drunk outside of the CCCR and her Eastern blocks. A drink of the Bolsheviks. But thanks to a famous Smirnoff cocktail, the Moscow Mule, young Americans who weren’t prone to the ‘Fuddy Duddy’ flavours of cognac, Bourbon and Scotch, had found a vice they were happy with and bartenders absolutely loved the spirit as it had no demanding flavour and it gave them more creative room when combining flavours.

Soon glamorous movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra were seen drinking vodka cocktails and everybody wanted a piece. The Rat Pack famously drank cocktails ferociously after their performances such as Harry Craddock’s White Lady, Martinis, Old Fashioneds and so on.

Enter the Psychedelic era.

This was when escapism was at its peak, not to mention the invention of the TV dinner. Bar managers began saying, “Well, girls like pretty coloured cocktails and we want our bars filled with pretty girls. They seem to also like cocktails in martini glasses so we’ll name things like *blank* tini! Brilliant!”

This required no dexterity from a bartender to combine different coloured liqueurs to make colours that were psychedelic in nature, no matter how they tasted, they just needed to be blue, green and purple with crude names to get youngsters titillated and offend the ‘squares’.

Many premixes began to surface of these popular drinks. Home-made ingredients were too expensive and too much hard work. Bar owners opted for convenience over taste and because vodka was now unstoppable, full flavoured liquor was not needed. Food technology progressed and people were enjoying the simplicity of opening a container with a pre-prepared, consistent product that didn’t need expensive staff to prepare and serve.

The 80s saw a decade of excess where cocktails needed to be bigger and stronger with more vibrant colours. This was also the boom of Flair bartending and bartenders preferred drinks that could be incorporated with their flair routines, dropping stirred cocktails such as the Martini for shaken drinks. Cocktails were viewed as drinks gulped by College students and were made cheaply to cater for their small budgets and not a luxury item at all.

And just when days were darkest…

Enter Dick Bradsell, a young London bartender fascinated by classic cocktails and techniques and in one spring in 1994 he created the Bramble. A simple cocktail on crushed ice containing London Dry Gin, Fresh lemon juice, a dash of sugar and Crème de Cassis (Black currant liqueur). This type of drink wasn’t seen in a trendy bar for over 30 years, let alone one of the highest selling cocktails in London! Overnight he became a household name in the bar community and everybody wanted to know his secret.

Soon… out of the woodwork, emerged Dale de Groff, the man heralded as the inventor of the Cosmopolitan, simply because he placed his version of a curacao sweetened Cape Cod cocktail in front of Madonna one night at his career long roost at the Rainbow Room in New York. Once the cocktail landed in the hit TV show Sex and the City, the Cosmopolitan was the most consumed cocktail in the world.

As the internet had managed to get into almost every household in the Western world, more maestro bartenders began to emerge from their slumber: Salvatore Calabrese and Peter Dorelli, stalwarts of the Savoy Hotel in London, Gary Regan, a 3rd generation publican and drinks writer for the New York times, Esquire and Playboy spread the word of ‘Zen Bartending’ and the honour of being a great host, just to name a few.
Young bartenders began to exchange ideas with these masters who had seen it all and wanted to make more of their ‘menial, unintelligent student ‘jobs, which they loved so dearly.  More bars opened and wanted new, fresh ideas with ‘celebrity’ bartenders to aid their businesses.

Consumers were now demanding more and more adventurous flavours and big city centres were awash with great bars and bartenders from every corner of the globe.

The culinary world gave a helping hand in teaching bartenders new techniques which, when combined with classic bartending techniques, created drinks incorporating flavours once unheard of in cocktails such as meats, fats, airs, foams, ‘caviars’ and so on.

An international best practice is slowly being created around the world with regard to the Classic cocktails of colonial America and Europe. Bartenders are being recognised for their own style and imagination, taking an eating and drinking experience to a sensory paradise incorporating science, psychology, playfulness and charm at a level never seen before whilst never forgetting the brilliance of those men and women from the Golden Era.

The renaissance is here and there’s no going back.


3 Essential things that go into making a great vodka martini

Possibly the most iconic and classic cocktail. You may as well know how to make it. I had the pleasure of meeting UK bartender, Gareth Evans who was in SA recently to promote a vodka brand that he is currently working with.


Read more on: cocktails  |  mixology  |  drinks

NEXT ON FOOD24X publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.