Ever wondered about the History of Alcohol? The ancient Greeks had a cocktail hour in the late afternoon or evening, complete with hors d’oeuvres.
A recent joke has it that a man strolled into a crowded bar, examined the array of aperitifs, liquors, cordials, and mixers on the shelves, glanced up and down the bar at the rickeys, fizzes, gimlets, tonics, sours, and slings the patrons held in hand, then leaned forward and told the bartender: “I’ve got a tough one for you: ever heard of a whiskey?”
Hardly the funniest joke in the world, but it does make a point. Walk into any American bar today and you’ll find dozens of different kinds of spirits lining the shelves. You’ll also notice that very few of the patrons are imbibing their favored spirit straight from the bottle. To Americans, the mixed drink may seem quite a universal, time-worn tradition-but the fact is, the cocktail as such is an American invention, and a fairly recent one at that.
In America, the word “cocktail” may mean either a mixed drink, as opposed to straight spirits, or any alcoholic beverage sipped before lunch or dinner. In the second sense, the cocktail has been with us for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks had a cocktail hour in the late afternoon or evening, complete with hors d’oeuvres. An Athenian gentleman would drop by a neighbor’s house during the “happy hour” with a goatskin of wine, and expect to be treated to an outlay of appetizers-the Greeks called them “provocatives to drinking”, that might include caviar, oysters, nuts, olives, shrimp, and pate. Compare that spread to today’s bar-fare of peanuts, cheese, and crackers and you’ll agree that in some ways we haven’t come very far in the last 2,500 years.
The cocktail in the sense of a mixed drink is a much more recent invention. In the past, not only wine and beer but hard liquor, too, was usually drunk straight, or at most diluted with water. As for tomato juice, tonic water, ginger ale, club soda, orange juice, and other mixers, few of these had yet made the trip from the grocery store to the barroom as recently as 200 years ago.
Alcohol itself, of course, has been with us since well before recorded history began. Alcohol still ranks as the oldest and most widely used drug on earth. Primitive man probably discovered the first alcoholic drinks by accident, since any sugar-containing mishmash left exposed to warm air will eventually ferment. Studies of alcohol use among various preliterate societies suggest that alcohol was used by prehistoric man primarily in conjunction with war, religious worship, and various rites of passage-births, marriages, funerals, and feasts.
The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, dating around 1750 B.C., set down regulations for drinking houses. Egyptian doctors frequently prescribed alcohol as a medicine. By studying the remains of the Egyptian and Babylonian cultures, we can conclude that alcoholism has been a problem for well over 4,000 years.
The Chinese have been distilling an alcoholic beverage from rice since at least 800 B.c., and the Arabs have swilled alcohol from palm sap for many, many centuries. The earliest alcoholic beverage in the West was wine, brewed either from grapes or honey. Mead, a sweet wine made from honey, was widely enjoyed in Poland as recently as the nineteenth century.
The Greeks made their wine from grapes, but usually drank it diluted with water. Thus, the wine Athenians quaffed during their cocktail hour was probably less than 8 percent alcohol, a weak beverage by modern standards. In fact, most of the wine the Greeks and Romans enjoyed would probably taste rather crude to the modern palate. After all, we live in an age when an avid oenologist paid over $14,000 for a single bottle of 1806 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild!
Hard liquor is a newer arrival in the West. Around the year 300, the Irish brewed up usquebaugh from oat and barley beer. Tenth-century Italians began distilling brandy from wine, and sixteenth-century Scots first made whiskey from malted barley. The first cognac was distilled by the French around 1750. But it wasn’t until Louis Pasteur’s research in the 1850’s into the action of yeasts and molds that Western man developed the controlled fermentation that makes for a consistently good alcoholic product.
Over the years, there were probably scattered incidents of man mixing hard liquor with a sweet beverage, but the cocktail did not become a popular drink until early in the nineteenth century. The origin of the word cocktail is uncertain. One claim maintains that it comes from a French drink served in New Orleans in the 1800’s, called a coquetier, named for the tiny egg-cup in which the drink was usually served to women.
There are, however, dozens of other theories. According to some, the first cocktail in this country was served in a tavern in Elmsford, New York, where cockfights were often held. The story has it that Betsy Flanagan, a barmaid, decorated the bar with the tail feathers of some of the deceased combatants, and inserted one in a mixed drink when an inebriate requested “one of those cocktails.” Another story tells us that as a publicity stunt, the proprietor of the tavern regularly inserted the tail feathers of fighting cocks in his mixed drinks, the feathers to be used as swizzle sticks.
Still another claim traces the name of the beverage to England, where in the Yorkshire dialect the word “cocktail” referred to foam spilling over a glass of ale. By the way, another word for beer froth was “barm,” which gave us the term “barmy” (in America, “balmy”) for tipsy or feeble-minded.
Washington Irving maintained that the cocktail was a Dutch drink popular in New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century.
An etymologist with a sense of humor proposed that the word came to us from Mexico, taken from the inventor of the drink, a daughter of King Axolotl VIII whose name was Xochitl or Coctel!
In any case, the first mention of the cocktail in print appeared in an 1809 issue of the Hudson, New York, Balance, which described the concoction as a “stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”
Speaking of bitters, angostura, the most popular modern variety, have been with us since 1824, when a German doctor living in Venezuela prepared them as a tonic for his ailing wife. He reportedly learned the recipe from sailors, who frequently added bitters to rum as a cure for seasickness. When angostura bitters became part of the Manhattan cocktail, their place behind the bar was established forevermore.
The cocktail party is thought to have originated as an outgrowth of the aperitif hour before dinner. As the “hour” gradually lengthened, a buffet of some kind became necessary to allay the appetites of the imbibers. Psychologists attribute the popularity of the cocktail party, and the before-dinner cocktail itself, to their function as a separation between the working day and the evening relaxation. In recent years, many other countries have followed the American example and have adopted both the cocktail hour and the cocktail party.
In the United States, a well-stocked cocktail bar must include dozens of different spirits to provide for the varying tastes of American drinkers. But as a rule, tipplers in most other countries prefer a beverage produced from a native product-in effect, the “national drink” of that nation. For instance vodka, an unaged spirit obtained from potatoes or grain and filtered through vegetable charcoal, is the overwhelming favorite in Poland and the Soviet Union, where the raw materials are plentiful. Vodka, by the way, has recently replaced bourbon as the most popular liquor in America.
Bourbon, America’s contribution to the whiskey world, accounted for about one-fourth of all distilled spirits consumed in this country during the 1960’s. But that figure has now decreased to about 15 percent, while vodka consumption has doubled over the same period. Vodka drinking now accounts for about 20 percent of the total American alcohol intake. Consumption of scotch whiskey, meanwhile, has held steady at about 12 percent.
Named after the county in Kentucky which may have been its birthplace, bourbon is distilled from a mash that by law must contain at least 51 percent corn. But Jack Daniel’s whiskey, which many people consider bourbon, is technically a sour mash whiskey, or a Tennessee whiskey, and not a bourbon at all. Jack Daniel’s, produced for over a century in the small Tennessee town of Lynchburg, is filtered through ten feet of sugar maple charcoal to remove some of the harsh esters. The Federal government decided that this filtering process changed the whiskey’s character so much that the drink could not be called bourbon.
Whiskey is usually distilled from the fermented mash of grain usually oats, barley, rye, or corn. Whiskey is produced primarily in Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and the United States. Rum is obtained from fermented sugar cane or molasses, and produced primarily in the Caribbean.
Brandy is distilled from wine or the fermented mash of fruit-grapes, cherries, apples, plums, apricots, peaches, blackberries, or whatever. Tequila is distilled from the sap of an agave plant indigenous to Mexico, not from the mescal cactus, as so many people believe. Flavored spirits like gin, aquavit, and absinthe are produced by redistilling alcohol with a flavoring agent. Juniper is used to flavor gin; caraway seeds to flavor aquavit.
In the Orient, millet and rice are most commonly used for distilling spirits. “Ng ka py” is how you order a shot in Peking. It’s made from millet, with various aromatics added. Sake, a beverage made from rice, is the favorite in Japan.
Spirits differ greatly in alcoholic content. Most wines contain from 8 to 12 percent alcohol, with certain aperitif and dessert wines, like vermouth and sherry, as high as 18 percent. The strength of beer ranges from a weak 2 percent brew produced in Scandinavia to about 8 percent. Four or 5 percent is the average in the United States. Most hard liquors contain from 40 to 50 percent alcohol, with cognac as high as 70 percent. Cordials and liqueurs contain from 25 to 40 percent alcohol.
The strongest spirits that can be produced are raw rum and certain vodkas, which contain up to 97 percent alcohol. Polish White Spirit Vodka is the strongest liquor sold commercially, packing a wallop of 80 percent alcohol.