In the course of my legal training I was told that you should always start your contract or pleadings by naming the parties (see: About), setting out the recitals and then defining your terms. As seven years of legal training is hard to leave behind (the fact that all my correspondence, even emails to my mother, are still in my training firm’s house style is testament to that) this post is an attempt to define some key cocktail concepts.
Let’s start with cocktail itself. The origins of the word are, as you might expect, shrouded in a haze of uncertainty and contention, with early references surfacing in London in 1798 and the USA in 1803. Back in May 1806, however, The Balance and Columbian Repository, an estimable (I assume – I didn’t subscribe) weekly newspaper from Hudson, New York, published the earliest known definition of a cocktail in answer to a reader’s query:
Cocktail, then is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters it is vulgarly called a bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head.
What qualified the editor of The Balance to make this defining statement is unclear, but there must have been some basis for it as the definition still holds true for some of the classic, and not coincidentally earliest-known cocktails, such as the Old Fashioned (whiskey, sugar, bitters and water), the Sazerac (whiskey, absinthe, sugar and bitters) and the Mint Julep (whiskey, mint, sugar and bitters).
The common modern definition is just any alcoholic drink consisting of a spirit or two mixed with other ingredients and is perhaps as all-encompassing as could be imagined. In keeping with the era of their resurgence (the 1980s) modern cocktails have since became more and more garish in colour, content and decoration, and more and more lewd in their nomenclature.
Turning to each of the constituent parts then, liquor means any distilled spirit, but for the purposes of this post shall mean whiskey to me.
American whiskey (distinguishable by its use of an ‘e’) is to all intents and purposes either bourbon or rye. Bourbon is made from distilled corn and originally hailing from Bourbon County, Kentucky. Bourbon now has a strictly controlled legal definition (it must be made from at least 51% corn mash), but as the most famous American whiskeys are all bourbons, is often used to refer to any American whiskey. Despite this it is important to distinguish it from rye whiskey (at least 51% rye mash) and Canadian whisky (made in Canada and nearly always a blend of different grains).
Bourbon can now be made anywhere in the United States, but the historical link to the south remains, with the main brands, Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s all hailing from Kentucky and Tennessee.
Rye whiskey was traditionally distilled in the northeast – Pennsylvania and Maryland in particular, but was badly affected by prohibition. As a result, few rye-only brands survive but many of the bourbon brands (eg Bulleit, Jim Beam and Four Roses) make an equivalent rye.
Throughout this site I will refer to whiskey when I mean bourbon or rye. Tradition or a more educated palate may suggest that one or other is preferred in any given drink, but I maintain that it is broadly a matter of personal taste.
Assuming water and sugar are known to most readers, the final crucial ingredient required for any classic cocktail is bitters.
A bitters is a highly-concentrated alcoholic concoction flavoured with herbs, spices and botanical extracts. The high concentration of often dangerous extracts gives these substances a highly bitter or bittersweet taste which was found to add an intriguing kill or cure kick to early cocktails. Most bitters have an interesting history and many were originally invented as miracle cure alls or medicinal tonics. In fact people still swear today that a drop of bitters in a glass of water is an admirable stomach-settler.
No bar is complete without at least a bottle of Angostura Bitters, the market leader, and any cocktail bar worth its salt will have a fascinating collection of apothecarial bottles stashed away on the back bar. Some even come with droppers, pipettes or rudimentary atomisers attached to bring a suitably Jekyll & Hyde look to your drinking establishment.