A Good Drink that is Also Laughable


I often chuckle while witnessing bar-tenders today mimicking advances in drink-making that were revolutionary in 1855 – and thinking them to be new.

One example is as using sugar syrup (instead of dry sugar) in true cocktails and stirring them cold through plenty of ice.

Today, bar-tenders imagine that applying the above methods to the Old-fashioned Whiskey Cocktail improves it. They are right – but the improvement was already done within a few years of 1855. It was then that method for making the Whiskey Cocktail were changed to take advantage of pure water and ice suddenly becoming cheap and plentiful, allowing for simple syrup to be cheap and plenty of ice to be available for stirring with and straining from.

Modern bar-tenders, you’re almost there. All you have to do now to catch up with 1855 is to strain your Whiskey Cocktail just as you would a Manhattan Cocktail – and, for the same reasons.

Of course, if you don’t know the traditional meaning of the word cocktail, you probably are a little lost here. Come take my classes.

Suffice it to say that once the Whiskey Cocktail was made with sugar syrup and stirred with ice and strained into a goblet for a perfectly cold drink that would never get further diluted, the older, inferior way of making the Whiskey Cocktail produced the drink that after 1855 was called the Old-fashioned Whiskey Cocktail.

Yes, I am saying the the Old-fashioned Whiskey Cocktail (probably just “Old Fashioned” to some benighted readers) is inferior to the Whiskey Cocktail. Between 1860 and 1900, the Whiskey Cocktail, made the modern way and strained and served without any ice, was one of the most commonly-served drink in American bars. It was served more commonly during those forty years than the Old-fashioned Whiskey Cocktail. What a shame that the inferior of the two is the only one that is easy to obtain in our own time.

Now modern bar-tenders are making the Whiskey Cocktail almost as good as it was in 1855 (if only they would stop serving it on ice) and imagining that this is something new and the product of sensitive consideration. It is laughable.

Likewise devoid of any traditional knowledge is the imagining that there is something new – down to giving it a new typological name – to the so-called Lift.

Truth be told, this type of drink goes at least as far back as 1883. An American bar-tender from then would look at the so-called Bourbon Lift and recognize it to be an especially-fancy reworking of the Bourbon Puff. If had I been the bar-tender that created it, I would have made clear through naming it that I understood American mixological tradition and history enough to call if a Puff – instead of making up a new name that suggests ignorance of tradition. I also would have understood it to be far too fancy to just call it the Bourbon Puff. I might have called it the Special Bourbon Puff or maybe the Bohemian Cowboy Puff. But a plain name for a fancy drink, combined with an obvious ignorance of American drink types (a consequence of the grasping overuse of ‘cocktail’), shrouds the publication of a very good drink in the mists of ignorance.

Take the Traditional American Mixology Quiz!

I sometimes get inquiries from bar-tenders as to whether they would actually learn anything from an Elemental Mixology Course.

The answer is always, “Yes.”  It would be a resounding ‘yes’ even if the bar-tender asking were Eric Alperin, Matthew Biancaniello, Julian Cox, Aidan Demarest, Vincenzo Marianella, etc.

In fact, I would give any of the bar-tenders I mentioned a money-back guarantee to take either the Standard Mixing Course or the Master Mixing Course.  If they could look me in the eye at the end of the course and tell me that they had not leaned plenty, I would be happy to refund them.

Well, we know that won’t happen.  But, what about the less-famous bar-tender that isn’t sure whether there is really that much to learn?

I have set up a Traditional American Mixology Quiz.  Anyone who scores a perfect 100 percent on the quiz might already be familiar enough with traditional, pre-prohibition, American mixology that they would be wasting their time and money at Elemental Mixology.  Everyone else would have their understanding-and-making of mixed drinks revolutionized and impassioned by the course.

Find out if that includes you.  Take the twenty-question Elemental Mixology Traditional American Mixology Quiz!

Humorous Responses to the So-called “American Bar” of Europe

Paris by Sunlight and Gaslight, by James Gabny McCabe, 1869: “A splendid display of gilt letters along the front of the handsome balcony informs the passer by that it is an ‘American Bar-room,’ where American drinks, pure and simple, are sold…  The ‘drinks’ sold here may be American in principle, but they are not so in fact.”

The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain, 1869: “We ferreted out another French imposition — a frequent sign… ‘All Manner of American Drinks Artistically Prepared Here’…  ‘We will take whiskey-straight’  (A stare from the Frenchman.)  ‘Well, if you don’t know what that is, give us a Champagne Cocktail.’  (A stare and a shrug.)  ‘Well then, give us a Sherry Cobbler.’  The Frenchman was checkmated.  This was all Greek to him.  ‘Give us a Brandy Smash!’  The Frenchman began to back away… shrugging his shoulder and spreading his hands apologetically…  It was plain that he was a wicked impostor.”

Nasby in Exile, by David Ross Locke, 1882: “There are a few bars in London that make a specialty of American drinks, which are very curious. The names they palm off as American are very funny to an American, because they are never heard of over there.”

Jerry Thomas, as quoted in David Wondrich’s book, Imbibe, talking to a reporter of the Dramatic Mirror, circa 1882-1884: “Then I’ll teach the Britishers what’s what.  Then there’ll be no need to brew bogus Yankee drinks.  No, sir, for I’ll give them the full benefit of my inventions, and they shall see what kind of a boy a New York bartender is.  I’ll revolutionize the bar in England when I go over, you bet your boots!” [Since Thomas never went to England, his quote on this subject seems to take accounts he had heard of American bars in England as a launching point for his own arrogance.]

How to Travel, by Thomas Wallace Knox, 1887: “A few drinking establishments in London have sought to attract the patronage of strangers from the United States by advertising ‘American drinks,’ but those who have tried them say that the British concoctions are base counterfeits of the great originals.”

The Expatriates – A Novel, by Lilian Bell, 1901: “‘Why, from the number of ‘American Bars’ seen all over Europe, one would think nobody drank anything but American drinks,’ said Lida.  ‘Oh no!  Besides, these so-called ‘American Bars’ couldn’t mix a drink that an American would recognize…”

The Preposterous Yankee, by Montague Vernon Ponsonby, 1903: “Many persons who have never been to America, but who have visited the American Bar in London, and consumed what is there called ‘American drinks,’ feel a spirit of resentment against the United States.  They think that there must be something abnormal or criminal about a nation that will imbibe such liquids.  This is unfair to America.  As a matter of fact, the “American drinks” sold in London are strange concoctions invented in Whitechapel, and which no American would drink if he could get anything else.”

How Paris Amuses Itself, by Frank Berkeley Smith, 1903: “The only thing American about this ‘American Bar’ was the sign over the door, beneath which appeared a long list of American drinks with weird names, translated to him [the owner] from a bartender’s guide published on the Bowery in the early sixties [Jerry Thomas’ book], not one concoction of which he had ever been able to mix.”

Denmark, Norway and Sweden, by William Eleroy Curtis, 1903: “At the Grand Hotel in Stockholm is an ‘American bar,’ similar to those to be found in London, Paris and Berlin.  It is attended by a young man, who mixes what are alleged to be American drinks.”

Everybody’s Magazine, Volume 18, January 1908:  “Thus the core of Paris, the tourist Paris…  The American bar flourishes.  It is called an American bar because there is nothing like it in America and because somebody in it can make what he fondly calls a cocktail.”

The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 185, Issue 1, 1912: “Personally I prefer the brand of American who can go abroad and sample the peculiar institutions of England, such as the Tower of London and Shakespeare’s Birthplace, and the kind of cocktail they sell in the American bar of the Savoy Hotel — and still return home with the true Americanism of his speech unimpaired.”

Samuel Francis Batchelder, addressing the Harvard class of 1893 dinner in 1913: “I attempted to celebrate by going out and getting a real American cocktail.  Now you who have tried that experiment in Paris will perhaps appreciate my difficulty.”



Let’s Have a Drink and Talk About It

Traditional Cocktail

In his passage above, Boothby is referring to the fact that the bitters in a cocktail will mitigate the sensation of the fumatic harshness of alcohol, and that the desired nature of a true cocktail is that it should strike the palate as little more than a tamed version of the alcoholic product(s) it is made from.  This is actual mixology in a way that memorizing a few dozen recipes for so-called ‘classic cocktails’ never will be.  The true cocktail was just one type of the many types of mixed drinks intimately understood by American bar-tenders and drinkers of yore.

Boothby probably had no inkling that people would ever mis-read cocktail for mixed drink in his passage, but, the word has gathered a lot of cultural baggage since then.

Fussell Drink 001

Fussell Drink 002

Fussell Drink 003

We can see that, like the TWA menu he encountered, even Fussell was prone to forget himself.  He suggests that the impulse toward fake elegance would cause the middle class to say, “Let’s discuss it over drinks.”  He seems to have failed to think fully in the fake-elegant way of the middle-class and has forgotten to abandon drink in favor of cocktail – even though that is exactly the conversion he suggests in the first passage.  The more completely fake-elegant saying would be: “Let’s discuss it over cocktails.”

Fussell Drink 004

Think of this when, after pointing out that a drink is not a cocktail according to traditional mixology, you are told by some bar creature: “Cocktails have changed.”

True cocktails still exist in the original mixological sense.  They include the Old-fashioned Whiskey Cocktail, the Sazerac (or Zazarack) Cocktail, and, since there is sugar in vermouth wine, the Camparinete (a.k.a. Negroni) Cocktail or the Manhattan Cocktail.

It’s not that cocktails have changed so much as that fake elegance has taken up the word cocktail – and has made it almost meaningless.

If julep had been the drink-word taken up by middle-class fake elegance, we would today have julep napkins, julep dresses, julep waitresses,  julep specialists, julep books, julep parties, Tales of the Julep, craft juleps, julep bars, julep culture, the julep renaissance and the Museum of the American Julep.  Yes, that is how ridiculous all of those phrases sound to me with the word cocktail in them instead.

Several years ago, in an online forum, someone indicated to me that, while he understood the original mixological meaning of the word cocktail, he saw no problem with using it to mean mixed drink.  He then added, “But, Martini is a whole nuther thing [sic].”  To that, my good friend and bar-tender Greg Bryson exclaimed, “It’s exactly the same thing!”

The bar creature on the forum probably didn’t realize that he was only making a distinction in the lexicon of fake elegance rather than in mixology.  In some circles, it seems that the word cocktail can be used with empty, fake elegance, but not the word Martini.

It really can’t be denied that a bar-tender who knows better but still clings to the willy-nilly use of the word cocktail for drinks such as the Whiskey Sour, the Sidecar and endless others (as well as everything related to mixed drinks) is doing nothing more than maintaining fake elegance — and the vocabulary thereof.