I usually tell my students that before about 1910, American drink writers never called a drink a cocktail just because it was served ‘up’ in a goblet, or contained a minimum of three ingredients. I also point out that no pre-prohibition American author of drinks ever titled their book a ‘cocktail book.’ That would have seemed like a work on Italian cuisine, in general, being called a Lasagna Book.
It therefore came as a shock to me when I first became aware of a book from 1905 called the Gorham Cocktail Book!
I could not believe that the grasping gloss had set in so early! I remember assuming that the title must be the work of some contemporary re-publisher — such as is the case when the old books are reprinted with silly blurbs like “A Pre-Prohibition Cocktail Book.”
But, no, the original 1905 title was the Gorham Cocktail Book. Le shock! I felt something almost like despair.
But that feeling melted away and became joy as soon as I started reading the book.
There are fifty recipes in this little book. And, actually, not all of them are true cocktails. Two are food items already called cocktails at the time — the so-called Clam Cocktail and the so-called Oyster Cocktail. Three of them are drinks that are decidedly not cocktails, but that had already been called so at the time. They are the so-called Chocolate Cocktail (a flip, really), the so-called Coffee Cocktail (another flip), and the so-called Soda Cocktail (actually a soft-drink).
The other forty-five recipes are for true cocktails. That’s ninety per-cent!
So, yes, there was a book before the Volstead Act that was titled a ‘cocktail book.’ But, it actually is a cocktail book! You won’t find any cobblers, Collinses, coolers, fixes, fizzes, highballs, juleps, punches or sours in it. The majority of today’s so-called ‘craft cocktails’ (most of them actually sours or other short punches) would not have passed muster to get into the Gorham Cocktail Book.
I don’t mean to imply that other types of tipples are unworthy. I simply believe that to really have an understanding of drinks worthy of being called ‘mixology,’ one cannot lump all drinks together as cocktails. Doing so has shifted the emphasis from mixology to memorization — and it fails to fully respect the other great, historically-established, drink genres.
I wonder if the Gorham Company (a silver works) ever meant to publish a punch book.
You can read the Gorham Cocktail Book here: