Cocktail alchemy

Posted by Martin Field on 21 December 2009 in Wine, Wine Tasting

The sub-tropical clime of Noosa has led to a marked change in our drinking habits. In Melbourne, it was mostly beer and red and white wines, winter and summer. In Noosa’s summer heat and humidity, the drinking diet has varied somewhat and now includes a fair whack of mixed drinks and cocktails, as well as the tried and true.

After some research, the bar is looking well-stocked: a stainless steel cocktail shaker from the local op shop, Angostura Bitters, vermouth, all sorts of spirits and liqueurs. No teensy umbrellas. And in the fridge, the usual tonic water, dry ginger, and soda water. Not to mention various cordials, and limes and lemons and buckets of ice.

Mostly it’s traditional fare, like G&Ts, Margaritas, Dry and Dry, Daiquiris (black banana, mango variations are good), Pina Colada and similar. I should add that vulgarly named cocktails, like the ones seen boosted in upmarket bars, are of little interest. Nor are numbers involving eggs, cream or milk. Nor is the dry martini, which leaves me cold and with a numbed palate.

It’s great fun though, playing the alchymist (alcohol chemist I think that means). Trialling multiple variations on the themes of colour and content. And alcoholic strength: more than one cocktail at a time and I’m on a moving stairway to legless hell.

A footnote to the history of the word cocktail

Most historical references concerning the word cocktail cite European literature from the beginning of the nineteenth century as the first recorded use of the word to describe a (mixed) drink. (As distinct from actually referring to a rooster’s tail, that is.) For example, my edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary places the earliest usage of cocktail in the United States in 1809.

But, using Google Books Search, I found quotes – in French – mentioning cocktail as a drink dating back to 1767.

Elle boit un cocktail,’ one reads. That is, ‘She drank a cocktail.’

See it here, in Abbe Dumanet’s Nouvelle histoire de l’Afrique Françoise. I would argue that if the word was known in France at that time, it was certainly in usage, if not commonplace, in England during the same period.

A trivial point to some of course, but no doubt the cocktail pedants amongst us will be stirred, if not shaken, by the discovery.

Update 

We’ve had correspondence from experts in the history of the development of cocktails. They say that they cannot confirm information posted in Google Books about the earliest use of the word ‘cocktail’.

We emailed Google Books with a query to verify and confirm their linked ‘snippet’ but so far have received only a bland non-informative reply. The link remains active – we are no wiser.

Ice to the third power

This research (modest ahem) has a certain gravitas and is probably on a par with the formulations of that speedy, enlightened cocktail master Harry Einstein.

He it was, you will remember, who came up with the memorable formula, E = mc ice-cubed.

(Where E equals a dry martini, m equals gin, and c equals dry vermouth. Ice cubes are ice cubes, any way you look at them.)

Tags: alchemy, Cocktails, Einstein, history of cocktails, tropical drinking

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