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.

Camparinete/Campari-Mixte Cocktails vs. the Negroni Cup

Not Negroni

Is the drink above a Negroni? It certainly is not. I can tell just by looking at it.

I see a lot of ‘study’ on the origins of ‘the’ ‘Negroni.’

When we take the name we have for a drink and project it onto mixers and recipes that never used that name for the drink, we are making the story about us and our notions.

That’s fine. But, it’s not good scholarship.

What actually happened is not that the mixers and namers of the very similar, both-1929-published, Camparinete Cocktail and Campari Mixte Cocktail ‘invented’ ‘the first Negronis.’ They didn’t use that name and would have thought it strange for anyone to suggest that they should. Their drinks have clear chronological priority over any extant evidence of any drink called ‘Negroni.’ Biographical data about any of the historical men with the name ‘Negroni’ is not evidence for the existence of the drink during any of their lifetimes. If I call a new drink tomorrow the Lincoln Cocktail… well, you get the point. We have to stick to the textual record. Here it is (you might want to click on the chart to enlarge it):

Camparinete Cocktail vs Negroni Cup chart

It is not the problem of the first mixers of the Camparinete and Campari Mixte Cocktails that the name of an altogether different drink from the 1940’s has been applied to their drinks.

Don’t be fooled by the superficial similarity suggested by the simple listing of ingredients between the Camparinete or Campari Mixte Cocktails and the Negroni Cup. Make either of the two cocktails and then make the cup and witness how different types of tipples can express the same liquors to rather different effects. [I don’t know… perhaps I’m just a super-taster.]

Camparinete Cocktail

Negroni Cup

This mentally-lazy lumping of all sorts of things together under the blanket misnomer of ‘cocktails’ is an intellectual crime that gets well-intended people to waste a lot of time trying to find the ‘original’ drink recipes for tipples as we misunderstand them today.

Don’t get me started on “the” so-called “Old-fashioned!”

The Rise of the Spurious Cocktails, or, 1910: The Year the Cocktail Fell

When I first began teaching mixology according to the old, American tradition back in 2008, it was perhaps a bit more surprising to bar-tenders that anyone would keep to the purist idea of what a cocktail is. It was not unusual for the objection of “Cocktails have changed” to be lodged. My response has not changed since those days. It’s not that true cocktails have changed. They really haven’t changed very much. It’s more the case that the use of the word ‘cocktail’ has changed to include many types of drinks that were formerly known by different names.

There was a time when I supposed that this change in the use of the word ‘cocktail’ was due to the Volstead Act and the period of ‘prohibition’ that it ushered in. But, that is not the case. Around 2009, I began to notice from pre-Volstead Act sources that the change in the use of the word cocktail had clearly begun before 1920 (when the Volstead Act went into effect).

When it comes to objects, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘spurious’ as:

“3. Superficially resembling or simulating, but lacking the genuine character or qualities of, something; not true or genuine; false, sham, counterfeit:”

In this post, I will trace the rise of the spurious cocktails — those single-serving drinks of other genres that are often served in stemmed glassware and always falsely called cocktails. Their names are legion and well-known: Sidecar, Whiskey Sour, Cosmopolitan, Daiquiri, etc. Of course, for a sour (a punch, really) such as all those are — or even a flip or a blossom — to be called a cocktail required the breaking of the traditional drink-related understanding of the word. And so, this post will also trace the breaking of the American cocktail.

This posting should not be misunderstood as suggesting that the only good drinks are true cocktails. Neither should this posting be taken as evaluation of any of the historical drinks or published recipes in any way other than for the genre they actually belong to as published in their sources. This will be an evaluation simply of what the authors (and therefore many of the readers) of the historical publications meant (or didn’t) when they used the word ‘cocktail.’

I cannot strongly enough advise reading this post through. It will give you understanding of an important aspect of old drink books (and the historic loss of traditional mixology) that, so far, has escaped the notice of every last celebrated name hired to write the forwards for the contemporary reprint editions of these books.

Here is the key by which to understand the indication of true recipe item types throughout this post. [Click on any image in the posting to enlarge it for better reading.]

RSC 001

If the names of the above genres are unfamiliar to you, it will suffice to notice as you read this post that the more colored highlighting of drink names in any source below, the farther that author was from the traditional concept of what a cocktail is. It is also worth noting that the non-highlighted drink names that appear in italics are for non-bittered slings. If the cocktail is just another name for the bittered sling (which it is), then omitting the bitters from a drink that is otherwise like a cocktail means that the drink is just a sling of some sort, and not a true cocktail. True cocktails are just one sub-genre of the slings. They will be indicated here by being underlined.

Spurious cocktails have been published in books going all the way back to Jerry Thomas. The so-called Soda Cocktail was nothing more than bitters added to cold soda water or lemon-flavored soda water.

RSC 1862 Thomas

92.3% of the items named ‘cocktail’ in Jerry Thomas’ 1862 book, How to Mix Drinks, actually are cocktails according to traditional understanding. I would say that it has a cocktail accuracy rating of 92.3.%

Next, let’s look below at the relevant entries from Harry Johnson’s 1882 book, Harry Johnson’s New and Improved Bartender’s Manual. Its cocktail accuracy rate is 90.9%

RSC 1882 Johnson

Below are the relevant items from O.H. Byron’s 1884 book, Modern Bar-Tenders’ Guide. It has a cocktail accuracy rating of 95.5% (the all time high, as far as I know).

RSC 1884 Byron

Next is the 1887 book, Jerry Thomas’ Bar-Tender’s Guide. It is doubtful that the book was actually written by the then-late Jerry Thomas. The authors removed the so-called Soda Cocktail from the cocktail section and put it in the “Temperance Drinks” section — where it belongs. They also indicated in a note under the so-called Coffee Cocktail (actually fitting the flip sub-genre of the possets) that they did not consider the drink to truly be a cocktail. With that in mind, one could argue that this book has a cocktail accuracy rating of 100%. However, since the drink (and its recipe) was left in the cocktail section, I find that the cocktail accuracy rating of this book is 94.7%. Below are the drinks in question.

RSC 1887 Dick & Fitzgerald

Below is the information we want from Harry Johnson’s 1888 book, Harry Johnson’s New and Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual. It has a cocktail accuracy rating of 92.3%. The rating is higher than Johnson’s earlier book since he added more true cocktails without adding any spurious ones.

RSC 1888 Johnson

Next, below, is the pertinent data from William Boothby’s 1891 book, American Bar-Tender. Its cocktail accuracy rating is 85.7% — the earliest here to slip from a ‘A’ grade to a ‘B.’

RSC 1891 Boothby

Next is William Schmidt’s 1892 book, Flowing Bowl. It seems to have been the first to list any non-bittered slings and even punches in the cocktail section. Schmidt was very much ahead of his time in so blurring the concept of the cocktail. The non-bittered slings are closely related to cocktails, but no one before him had called such drinks cocktails. Neither does any source after Schmidt call such drink cocktails for another decade. Schmidt’s book has a cocktail accuracy rating of 80%.  If we feel like being generous and count the non-bittered slings together with the bittered slings as ‘cocktails’ (which I do not favor), the book would have a cocktail accuracy rating of 92%. Below are the relevant items.

RSC 1892 Schmidt

Next, below, we have one of my all-time favorite books on tipples, George Kappeler’s 1895, Modern American Drinks. Its cocktail accuracy rating is back into the ‘A’ grade territory. Kappeler was the first drink-writing American bar-tender to include food items as cocktails, the so-called Clam Cocktail and the so-called Oyster Cocktail. But, his book also represents a sort of zenith in the history of the true cocktail. He remains mostly as faithful to the traditional cocktail as the books that came before him, and gives us a massively increased repertoire of them.

RSC 1895 Kappeler

Below is the pertinent data from Tim Daly’s 1903 book, Daly’s Bartenders’ Encyclopedia. It is very rooted in the old tradition and has a cocktail accuracy rating of 91.9%

RSC 1903 Daly

Next, below, is the great little Gorham Cocktail Book of 1905. As far as I know, it is the only true cocktail book that has ever been published. It was a book that only gave recipes for cocktails — not sours, coolers, blossoms, punches, highballs, fizzes, daisies, etc. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that its cocktail accuracy rating is also in the ‘A’ grade range with an even 90%. Below are all of the recipe items from the entire book.

RSC 1905 Gorham

Below is the information from Charles Mahoney’s 1905 book, Hoffman House Bartender’s Guide. Mahoney lists a punch and a non-bittered sling as cocktails. It seems no one else had done that since William Schmidt thirteen years earlier. Mahoney’s book has a cocktail accuracy rating of 83.7%. If we count the non-bittered slings as cocktails, the rating becomes 86%.

RSC 1905 Mahoney

Next, below, is the data from William Boothby’s 1908 book, World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them. In this book, Boothby explicitly wrote, “The idea of making any liquor into a cocktail was conceived only for the purpose of removing the sharp, raw taste peculiar to all plain liquors.Therefore it is not necessary to use a combination of cordials, essences or lemon juices as some ‘bar creatures’ do…” Of all drink writers of yore, only Boothby bothered to write out what was widely understood about the cocktail, it should strike the palate as little more than the liquor(s) it is made of, only slightly sweetened and diluted and with bitters added to remove the fumatic harshness of the ethanol. Thank you, William Boothby, for preserving that common bit of knowledge so that contemporary ‘bar creatures’ today might yet learn and repent! Boothby’s 1908 book is massively important for anyone studying American tipple tradition. It includes the oldest-known recipes for the Bronx Cocktail, the Sazerac Cocktail, and the Gibson [sling].

That said, Boothby’s 1908 book included as cocktails two non-bittered slings — the Gibson and the Zaza. Previous bar-tenders would have added bitters to Boothby’s two non-bittered slings and made them cocktails, since that’s what they were called. For the Gibson, Boothby even felt the need to explicitly write, “No bitters should ever be used in making this drink, but an olive is sometimes added.” He knew many bar-tenders would otherwise want to add bitters. And, yes, that’s an olive, not an onion. The Gibson is the original name for what people today call the ‘classic’ Martini.

Boothby’s 1908 book has a cocktail accuracy rating of 81.4%. If we feel like being generous and count the non-bittered slings together with the bittered slings as ‘cocktails’ (which I do not favor), the book would have a cocktail accuracy rating of 86%. Either way, the grade is a very-solidly passing ‘B.’

RSC 1908 Boothby

Up until this point in history, no blossoms (liquor modified by lesser-or-equal parts succulent juice) had been called cocktails in any tipple book. That is because they were a relatively new type of drink. It seems like no one knew what to call them at first. Some writers called them punches and others called them cocktails. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1930’s that the term blossom seems to have become accepted in published sources as name for a type of drink. In Jacob Grohusko’s 1916 edition of his book, Jack’s Manual, blossoms are listed as cocktails and there are quite a few of them. As you can see below, Grohusko’s book presents a wild expansion of the meme of listing non-bittered slings as cocktails. It really isn’t clear that Grohusko ever did know the traditional concept of the cocktail that Boothby published just before. Grohusko’s 1910 book has a cocktail accuracy rating of 47.4%. This number quantifies a drastic falling away from tradition by this source, and would be marked as a failing ‘F’ grade. If we want to be generous and include non-bittered slings as cocktails, the book’s cocktail accuracy rating would be 86.9%

RSC 1910 Grohusko

We can see that the cocktail is broken in Grohusko’s 1910 book in about the same way as it is now — just not quite as extremely so. But, was that the turning point?

The next source below, Jacques Straub’s 1914 book, Drinks, reinforces the then-new paradigm. It includes more drinks called ‘cocktail’ than any other pre-1920 book. It’s cocktail accuracy rating is 42.7% — again a failing ‘F’ grade. If we generously include non-bittered slings as cocktails, the grade rises to 87.5%

RSC 1914 Straub

In 1916, Grohusko published an up-dated edition of his book, Jack’s Manual. The 1916 edition is actually the one wrongly sold as the 1910 reprint — tisk, tisk, tisk. As can be seen below, the 1916 edition has a cocktail accuracy rating of 43.8% — still a failing ‘F’ grade. Counting non-bittered slings as cocktails boosts the rating to 83.3%

RSC 1916 Grohusko

Below is the information from Thomas Bullock’s 1917 book, Ideal Bartender. It has a cocktail accuracy rating of 32.4% — a failing ‘F’ grade. If we count non-bittered slings as cocktails, the rating rises to 64.9%.

RSC 1917 Bullock

Finally, below, we have the evaluation of Hugo Ensslin’s 1917 book, How to Mix Drinks. Instead of Grohusko’s practice of running all drinks together in roughly alphabetic fashion, regardless of genre, Ensslin returns to having a dedicated cocktail section. But, that seems to amount to very little. Look at the colored highlighting of so many drinks from his cocktail section. Each one of those is something not only other than a cocktail — they aren’t even slings. Sadly, Ensslin’s concept of what a cocktail is seems just as befuddled and empty as that of post-1920 books such as Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book (sic). Ensslin’s book has a cocktail accuracy rating of just 30.7 percent — a miserably failing ‘F’ grade worthy of books from the 1930’s! Even if we are generous and allow the counting of non-bittered slings as bittered slings (cocktails), the book only reaches a rating of 61.3%.

RSC 1917 Ensslin

In summation, I think that it is clear that whether we say that the (concept of the) American cocktail was broken in 1910 or not, by 1917 it surely was. That means that it really is not accurate to carry on accusing the Volstead Act of being the culprit. The American cocktail was broken before ‘prohibition’ ever got its hands on it.

The question is: why? I have thought very much about what broke the cocktail around 1910. It is possible that the growing fame of the cocktail had already driven enough people to seek them out that there were more people with interest in cocktails than those with awareness of what they were. It’s also possible that the preference among some (undoubtedly alcoholic) men for the un-bittered, stiffer, alcoholic sensation of the Gibson and other non-bittered slings was the first crack in the cocktail. Perhaps the growing stigmatization of drinking alcohol had some negative affect on the profession and training standards of tending bar. Perhaps all of these were factors. I have no really substantial hypothesis.

Let’s not wait for some celebrated drinks historian to realize that they haven’t even begun to understand this historic phenomenon. They still seem too busy wrapping themselves up in the glamorous veneer and positive social bias associated by many with the word cocktail to have anything worthwhile to say about this. But, perhaps one of you, my readers, will have some insight on this history and share it.

Now, go stir up a good Whiskey Cocktail, strain it and drink it — but, for Bacchus’ sake, not from a coupe!

Cushion Subscriptions Still Open and a Brief History of the Good Times Coach

Before Elemental Mixology was relocated to Portland, there were almost always more people intent on becoming cushion subscribers than there was room for. Here in Portland, plenty of cushion is available for subscription. By the autumn, that will probably no longer be the case!

MB 07

Between 1898 and 1900, a group of plutocrats that commonly ensconced themselves at the bar in the Waldorf Hotel in Manhattan, New York, maintained a coach, driver and horses to take them from the Waldorf bar to other exclusive drinking establishments and back to the Waldorf Hotel at their whim. They named the coach the Good Times Coach. The Waldorf Hotel Bar’s Good Times Cocktail (later generations of debased drinkers might think of it as the ‘classic’ gin Martini with orange bitters) was named after the Good Times Coach. In 1900, the Good Times Coach was awarded first place in the luxury road team category at the national equestrian exposition at the Madison Square Gardens. In what may have been the most sophisticated pub-crawling of all time, the few men who contributed to the cost of the maintenance of the Good Times Coach had use of it to travel between drinking destinations all over New York City. Those men were referred to as cushion subscribers.
An Elemental Mixology Annual Cushion Subscription enables the full attendance and participation of all courses and symposia (except for the shorter Brief and Casual classes) for the duration of the subscription.
After a year of Elemental Mixology, just about any cushion subscriber will be intimately aware (beyond a master’s level) of:

1) Elements, their ingredients, nature and how they present in drinks in all possible proportions.

2) Traditional genres of drinks, which elements they depend upon for their best character, and how to mix them without needing to memorize recipes.

3) All specific drinks that have been important in American bars, saloons and hotels from 1750 to present will be second nature. Many of these drinks are now almost impossible to order in any bar, and real advantage attaches to being able to make them well and with familiarity.

3) The important aspects of various liquors, including much knowledge that is often glossed over or not fully understood by most in the industry today. The main flavor-making stages of production will be understood: duration of fermentation, type of distillation and aging. The two major overall types of liquor production, the wasser and geist methods, will also be fully understood. Liquors selected to elucidate specific qualities differences will have been tasted numerous times.

4) Many other items of knowledge and experience that will not be laid out here for various reasons!

For anyone making full use of an Elemental Mixology Cushion Subscription, the discount is massive.

Get a Cushion Subscription here.

Whence the Mai-Tai? — Hey Vic, Step Aside for the Lady!

Bergeron - 1956 letter detail 002

Though the Mai Tai drink is mentioned in newspapers as early as 1955, the earliest extant recipe for the Mai-Tai is in a letter that ‘Trader Vic’ Bergeron wrote in May of 1956. Someone had written, apparently asking for the recipe for the drink she had encountered while at Bergeron’s Hawaiian establishment. The sole subject of Vic’s reply letter is the Mai Tai drink, but he simply referred to it as “the Mai Tai as served here and at the Royal Hawaiian.” He does not in any way claim the drink as being his own creation in the 1956 letter. Around 1970, Bergeron did forcefully claim to be the drink’s originator, and that he had done so in 1944 using old, traditional rum (17-year old Wray and Nephew Jamaican rum).

I have long suspected that Bergeron was being less than truthful in 1970. I suspect he mentioned a discontinued rum to allege an earlier creation of the drink. I further suspect that he put his own idea of the meaning of the name into the mouths of a couple of ‘white’ American friends to give the name a mythos that made sense to him while supporting his allegations. This couple allegedly spontaneously described the drink in Polynesian language (because they had supposedly in 1944 been visiting Tahiti) as being “mai tai,” and so on, as the oft-repeated-and-uncritically-swallowed story goes.

Because he had such an obvious motive, and because to me his 1970 story claiming creation of the Mai Tai seems both a little too convenient and a little too contrived, I have doubted Vic’s honesty in this matter.

So, I wondered what person or thing named anything like Mai Tai might have had enough cultural currency in no more than a decade before the earliest known mention of the drink and recipe in 1956.

There are items in newspapers from that period that mention a cat being named Mai Tai and other items about a sailboat named Mai Tai. Both come in the middle of the 1950’s and before the earliest known mention of any drink bearing the same name. To me this suggests the possibility that the cat, the boat and the drink were all named after another Mai Tai.

Mai Tai Sing was a Chinese-American dancer and actress. She was born in Oakland, California and in the late 1940’s was working as a lead dancer at the Forbidden City. She is pictured at center-top in the following photograph.

Mai Tai Sing and the Forbidden City Dancers

The Forbidden City was a Chinese-American-owned nightclub that was also a destination for those caught up in the post-war explosion of tiki culture. The place is specifically mentioned in work exploring the contribution of Chinese-American nightclubs to the development of tiki culture.

Further amplifying her exposure at the time, Mai Tai Sing appeared as a dancer in the 1951 movie, the Golden Horde – and played the role of Soo Lee in 1953’s Forbidden (starring Tony Curtis).

All of this puts Mai Tai Sing in the right time and very much in the right place – both geographically and culturally.

After decades of managing nightclubs such as the Rickshaw in San Francisco and Trappers in the Hyatt Waikiki, Mai Tai Sing is now retired. She might be asked by someone if she remembers ever hearing that a drink had been named after her. Of course, it could have been without her ever knowing it.

It should be noted that her given name is Mai, and her married name is Tai Sing. But, in the 1940’s and 1950’s, she was usually presented as “Mai Tai Sing” and a great many people not familiar with Chinese names might have referred to her as “Mai Tai.”

The evidence that the Mai-Tai drink was named after Mai Tai Sing is not conclusive in any way. It is circumstantial, but strongly so. It satisfies the need to show ‘motive, means and opportunity,’ so to speak. I also find it to require less of a leap of faith than to believe the account supplied very late in the day (1970) by someone (‘Trader Vic’) whose ego was clearly involved in getting the public to believe his story of being the drink’s creator (back in 1944, allegedly) instead of Don ‘the Beachcomber,” with whom Vic was was chief participant in a battle between two cranky, old men over past glory.

I suspect that neither of them created the drink. I have a feeling that it was made by some unsung, non-Chinese, bar-tender working in a tiki establishment in the San Francisco Bay area some time between 1949 and 1953. My hunch is that the drink was good enough that it quickly outpaced the moderate and localized fame of its namesake — the beautiful Mai Tai Sing.

Mai Tai Sing