Recent Times: The Rise of the Cocktail

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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It was in the 19th century that mixtures of distilled and other alcohols, or cocktails, became fashionable before-dinner drinks in Europe and the Americas. This development led to a mind-numbing explosion of inventiveness: bartenders’ manuals now list hundreds of different named cocktails. The origins of the preeminent cocktail, the martini (gin and vermouth), are disputed; it may have been invented several times in different places. The gin and tonic comes from British India, where gin helped make antimalarial quinine water more palatable. In the United States, one of the first famous mixed drinks was the sazerac of New Orleans (brandy and bitters), while Winston Churchill’s mother is said to have incited the creation of the manhattan (whiskey, vermouth, bitters) at a New York club. Prohibition and harsh “bathtub gin” slowed further progress from 1920 to 1934. In the 1950s, mixologists discovered the value of vodka as a largely flavorless alcohol, and the appeal of sweet-tart fruit juices and sweet liqueurs. Over the next few decades they concocted such broadly popular drinks as the mai tai, piña colada, screwdriver, daiquiri, margarita, and tequila sunrise. In the 1970s, vodka dethroned whiskey as America’s best-selling spirit.