Stirred, shaken, neat, on the rocks, straight up, with a kick, or dirty. However you order them, everyone (save for maybe some Mormons and recovering alcoholics) loves a good cocktail. They have inspired world leaders, famous artists and poets, the title for a cheesy 1988 Tom Cruise film, socialite parties, a genre of above-the-knee dresses, business executives and bar tenders’ creativity. The cocktail has infused itself into our popular, historical and literary culture, often becoming as iconic as the famous men and women who drank them.
Can you imagine Churchill without a Martini in hand or a book by Hemmingway that didn’t describe copious cocktail variations? But, have you ever wondered where and when your favorite 5 o’clock drink came from? Was a Manhattan truly invented in Manhattan? Where do Mojitos really come from? Who was Tom Collins anyway? Is a Mai Tai really Hawaiian? From the classic Martini to the lesser known Singapore Sling, here is a list of 10 classic cocktails and the often-controversial stories behind them.
Read away and the next time you are downing your drink at your favorite watering hole or politely sipping your drink at a fancy cocktail party, you can impress your friends with your knowledge of where that delightful (or not so delightful) mixture of alcohols really originated.
1. The Mojito
The drink of sailors? Traditionally made using white rum, sugar or sugar cane juice, lime, carbonated water and mint muddled together, many believe the Mojito is quite possibly world’s first cocktail. Although the image of hardened sailors drinking rum mixed with mint, lime and sugar may not match your vision of straight-from-the-bottle gulping pirates, the Mojito has been enjoyed as early as the 16th century.
One story traces the origins of the Mojito back to 16th century Cuba, where the drink was called the “El Draque” in honor of explorer and sailor Sir Francis Drake. Legend has it the drink was first created as a means of covering up the often harsh taste of tafia/aguardiente, a primitive form of rum. The drink improved greatly during the 19th century with the introduction of copper stills that led to the modern (and much better tasting) form of rum. The contemporary name for the drink probably comes from a Cuban sauce called mojo, which is made from garlic, olive oil and citrus juice. Perhaps in reference to lime as a main ingredient, the drink became known as a cocktail with “a little mojo” or, in Spanish, a “Mojito.” While the Mojito may be one of the world’s first cocktails, it certainly has not waned in popularity over the years. In fact, the drink first invented to make bad rum tolerable is now a widely popular cocktail around the world and is an especially popular and refreshing summer drink.
2. The Singapore Sling
A classic cocktail often appearing in various forms on drink menus around the world, the Singapore Sling was appropriately first concocted in Singapore. While the exact year this cocktail was created is open to some debate, most agree that the cocktail was first created by a Hainanese-Chinese bartender named Mr. Ngiam Tong Boon at the Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar in Singapore. It is believed the bartender first mixed up the cocktail sometime between 1910 and 1915.
The cocktail, which is made from a mixture of gin, cherry brandy and Benedictine in equal parts with a dash of bitters and Cointreau and finished off with pineapple and lime juice and grenadine, was modified in the middle of the 20th century by the original creator’s nephew. The newer recipe has been used since and is the base for the modern Singapore Sling. In the Raffles Hotel Museum, visitors can view the safe where Mr. Ngiam locked away all of his secret cocktail recipe books.
Included is also a hastily written recipe for the Singapore Sling, which was jotted down in 1936 by a visitor who asked the bartender for the recipe. Today, the drink is served on all Singapore Airlines flights and is mentioned in many popular culture movies and books, including Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which lead character Raoul Duke talks about drinking “Singapore Slings with mescal on the side.” You can also still order an original Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar, where icons like Rudyard Kipling and others would once sip this famous, fruity cocktail.
3. The Sidecar
A classic cocktail dating back about 100 years, the Sidecar mixes equal parts brandy or Cognac, Cointreau and lemon juice. The origin of the Sidecar is largely debated, but popular wisdom is that the drink was probably first created in Paris sometime during or just following WWI. In the 1948 book by David A. Embury, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, the author credits the invention of the drink to an American Army captain in Paris during WWI.
Supposedly the drink was named after the motorcycle sidecar “in which the good captain was driven to and from the little bistro where the drink was born and christened.” Harry’s Bar in Paris is the “little bistro” in which the author is referring to and is often credited as the birthplace of this sweet yet tangy cocktail. Supposedly the mixture of ingredients was first blended when the American captain asked for pre-dinner cocktail that would help ease the chill he had caught outside. The French bartender was faced with a dilemma. He knew brandy would be the best liqueur to take off the chill, but he also refused to serve the traditional after dinner drink alone as a pre-dinner cocktail. The result was the bartender mixing brandy with the orange flavored Cointreau and adding fresh lemon juice to make an appropriate pre-dinner cocktail, and Voila – the Sidecar was born.
This cocktail was especially popular in England and France, where ex-pats like Hemmingway would sip Sidecars at the bar. Although you may have an eyebrow raised if you are under 70 and ordering this drink today, the Sidecar is regaining popularity and making a resurgence on contemporary bar menus.
4. The Pisco Sour
Another cocktail on the list with a controversial history is the Pisco Sour. A drink made from Pisco (a regional brandy from South America), lemon juice, bitters and egg whites, many debate whether the national origin of this drink is Peruvian or Chilean.
Pisco itself dates back to the 16th century. The liqueur distilled from grapes by Spanish colonialists in South America in an attempt to make an inexpensive version of Spanish brandy. In Peru, the creation of the Pisco Sour is attributed to American expatriate Victor “Gringo” Morris at the Morris Bar in Lima, who blended up the drink as a variation of a whiskey sour. The drink immediately became so popular that other major hotels began serving it in their bars also, quickly popularizing the cocktail with a international crowd.
In Chile, it is believed the birth of the Pisco Sour can be attributed to the English steward of a sailing ship, which was stopped at the then Peruvian and now Chilean port city of Iquique in 1872. It was the steward, who by mixing the regional liqueur with limes grown in the area, created the first Pisco Sour. Whatever the origins of the famous drink, the Pisco Sour is the iconic cocktail of both Peru and Chile. In fact, both countries celebrate the famous cocktail with National Pisco Sour Days (Peru’s in the first Saturday of February and Chile’s is celebrated May 15th) and there are many variations of the original cocktail found around the world today.
5. White Russian
Not named for the country of its origin, but rather for the vodka used in the recipe, White Russians have recently made a booming resurgence in part due to the cult movie classic The Big Lebowiski. The movie’s main character, The Dude, drinks a steady stream of White Russians throughout the film. The use of the word Russian in the name of this drink was mostly due to the fact that when it was first invented sometime in the 1930s, prior to the huge vodka marketing campaign of the 1950s, when vodka was a little known liquor in the United States usually directly associated with its nation of origin, Russia.
The White Russian did not get its current recipe (the drink combines equal parts cream, vodka and Kahula) or moniker until the 1960s. In 1961, the Diner’s Club Drink Book, gave a recipe for a “Black Russian” without cream, implying that the same cocktail with cream would therefore be named a White Russian. Today White Russians have inspired a drinking game among college students, who try to keep up with The Dude in their consumption of the cocktail while watching The Big Lebowski.
The drink is also the favorite drink of lightweights and lushes, as White Russians effectively obfuscate the hefty dose of alcohol in them that they go down the hatch with ease. That’s great for those who rarely drink or for those who drink a little too much (i.e. The Dude, who gets most of his daily nutrition from these creamy little cocktails).
5. The Manhattan
Often called the “King of Cocktails” or the “Drinking Man’s Cocktail,” The Manhattan is a very potent drink and one of the legendary six classic cocktails included in David Embury’s famous book, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. The Manhattan is a cocktail made with a mixture of whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters and garnished most often with a maraschino cherry.
Regularly regarded as one of the best cocktails ever created, the Manhattan has a long and debated history. The cocktail was supposedly first invented at the Manhattan Club in New York City in the early 1870s. Legend has it that the drink was invented for a banquet hosted by Lady Randolph Churchill (Winston Churchill’s mother) in honor of presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden. The success of the banquet quickly made the cocktail fashionable in New York City’s powerful circles and prompted many people to request the drink by referring to the name of the club where it originated, calling it “the Manhattan cocktail.”
However, like with almost every cocktail on this list, there is great debate as to the truth behind this account of the Manhattan. In fact, some claim that while the drink may have first been mixed at the Manhattan Club, Lady Churchill had nothing to do with the banquet honoring Samuel Tilden and, in fact, was in England at the time giving birth to her soon-to-be famous son. Another legend says that a bartender with the last name Black invented the Manhattan at a bar on Broadway in New York City sometime in the 1860s. Whatever the true story, this cocktail does indeed bear the name of the island from which it came.
6. The Mai Tai
The fruity, tropical Mai Tai is another cocktail with conflicting stories of origin. The drink, which is made of a mixture of white and gold rum, pineapple juice, orange and/or lime juice, is of American origin despite its Polynesian name. The favored history, however, is that the drink was first created by Victor Buergon, better known as “Trader Vic” who invented the cocktail at the Polynesian-style restaurant in Oakland, California that bore his name.
Supposedly, Buergon created the first Mai Tai in honor of some friends who were visiting from Tahiti in 1944. After mixing rum with just the right combination of fruit juices and orange flavored liqueur, he served the new cocktail to his friends who cried out, “Maitai roa!” (which literally means “very good”), and the cocktail was born. However, like most popular cocktails, the Mai Tai’s history is not without controversy.
Trader Vic’s amicable rival, founding father of tiki restaurants, bars and clubs Donn Beach (of Don the Beachcomber restaurants), also claims to have created in the first Mai Tai in 1933 at his newly opened restaurant in Hollywood. Donn Beach (the founder legally changed his name after the success of his tiki restaurant chain) is known as the originator of Polynesian style restaurants that became a popular culture craze following WWII. While both men claim to be the original creator of this drink, the Mai Tai’s huge popularity can be mostly owed to both men, who sold the drinks in their wildly popular restaurant chains and forever associated the fruity drink with Hawaii – despite its California origins.
7. Tom Collins
There are a few different legends surrounding the name of the famous and classic Tom Collins cocktail. While many assume the drink was named after a real person, there is much debate whether there ever really was a Tom Collins and whether he lent to his name to this cocktail of gin, lemon and lime juice and soda water. One popular account says the cocktail was named after not a Tom, but a John Collins who was a headwaiter at a London Hotel in the early 19th century. The cocktail’s name was changed to a Tom Collins when Old Tom brand gin (a sweetened gin rarely used today) was substituted for the drier gin in the original recipe.
Another story, which is the most probable of the various legends, involves a hoax that took over New York City in 1874. The prank went something like this: A friend would run into you on the street and, with great concern, tell you he just overheard someone named Tom Collins at a bar down the street saying hateful and libelous things about you. You race to that bar to confront the bounder, where you would be told that Tom Collins had just left for a bar several blocks away. When you get there, Collins would already have decamped for another joint across town. As you chase all over the city, your friends convulse with laughter. The prank gained such notoriety, that even local newspapers started reporting the hoax. In 1874, the Steubenville Daily Herald reported that the hoax caused “frantic young men to rush wildly through the streets of the city on Saturday hunting for the libelous Tom Collins.” These young men were often directed to find legendary Tom Collins at a local bar.
So how did the hoax turn into the name of a drink? According to Wall Street Journal columnist and cocktail historian Eric Felten, “It doesn’t take much to imagine how Tom Collins came to be a drink. How many times does someone have to barge into a saloon demanding a Tom Collins before the bartender takes the opportunity to offer him a cocktail so-named?” In any event, this popular cocktail has become a fixture in cocktail culture, inspiring the name of a glass (a Collins glass) as well as a pre-mixed and popular Collins Mix.
9. Bloody Mary
Like every other cocktail on this list, the history behind the Bloody Mary is also a bit cloudy. One popular legend says that the original Bloody Mary, which was then made using equal parts tomato juice and vodka and used as a hangover cure, was invented by comedian, songwriter and movie producer George Jessel (aka the “Toastmaster General of the United States”). Jessel claimed he created the drink one morning in Palm Beach during the 1950s, when he mixed tomato juice and vodka as a way to recover from an entire night spent drinking. Jessel even appeared in Smirnoff vodka ads in the 1950s declaring, “I, George Jessel invented the Bloody Mary.” However, as aptly put by Wall Street Journal columnist and cocktail historian Eric Felten, “Given Jessel’s knack for self-promotion, many doubted his claim,” which made skeptics to search for the true origin of the drink and opened the door for a legend involving the head bartender at the St. Regis Hotel in New York named Fernand “Peter” Petriot.
Starting in the 1940s, Petriot was supposedly serving up Blood Marys under the alias of “Red Snappers” at the hotel’s King Cole Bar. After the popular tomato juice based cocktail became popular in the 1950s, Petriot would claim that he actually first invented the cocktail while working at Harry’s Bar in Paris during the 1920s (also supposed birthplace of the Sidecar). However, in reality, the Bloody Mary popular today is in fact a combination of the two men’s creations. Petriot himself admitted that “George Jessel said he created it, but it was really nothing but vodka and tomato juice when I took it over.” While Petriot did inadvertently give credit for the original drink to Jessel, he also specified that it was he who added salt, pepper, cayenne and Worcestershire sauce to the concoction, creating the modern Bloody Mary.
10. The Martini
And, last, but certainly not least, on this list of cocktails is the Martini. The most well-known of cocktails, Western culture has created quite the lore and mythology surrounding the drink. The three-martini lunch became a popular phrase coined for expensive, long lunches taken by business executives. In fact, the Martini has become more of a class of drinks than one drink in particular – with variations like Appletinis, Vodka martinis and others becoming popular over the years.
The famous and powerful people who have favored the simple, yet potent, original – Winston Churchill, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald to name a few – have only added to the lore of this popular classic cocktail. The first Martini – or Martini-like drink – was poured sometime between 1862 and 1871 and was called a Martinez, a name to honor the humble town of Martinez, California, where it was purportedly first dreamed up by bartender Julio Richelieu, proprietor of the eponymous Julio Richelieu Saloon. That similar (but sweeter) version of the cocktail consisted of sweet vermouth, gin, bitters and was garnished with a maraschino cherry. This version (which was essentially a gin Manhattan) eventually gave way to the more contemporary drier version that includes gin, vermouth and bitters and was supposedly first made popular when John D. Rockefeller started downing them at the turn of the 20th century.
Although the origins of the first Martinez date back to the 1860s, the modern Martini first rose in popularity starting in 1900s. During prohibition, the Martini became the drink of choice (or no choice in many cases) in speakeasies across the country due to the quick accessibility and production of gin. In fact, it was often a gin Martini or no drink at all for customers hiding out in their secret watering holes. The modern Vodka Martini, which James Bond stalwarts will surely order shaken not stirred, was not created until much later and many Martini purists still claim the idea of a Martini made with vodka is preposterous. A steadfast and iconic cocktail, however, the classic Martini is here to stay, whether made with vodka or gin, dirty or not, with varying amounts of vermouth, neat, or over ice.
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