Modern cocktails can contain an array of artificial ingredients mixed in with the liquor, the base spirit that helps take the edge off the day. Your drink may be colored a neon shade of green that doesn't exist in nature or have a tiny umbrella sticking out of it. While you're enjoying such tippling concoctions, you may also wonder how people mixed drinks before things like plastic cocktail stirrers, chemical food dye and high fructose corn syrup existed. Turns out, in the 19th century, folks were doing quite well in this regard -- so much so that many are replicating their old methods in the modern age.
The Original Cocktail
A cocktail today could mean any number of mixed drinks, but in the early 19th century, it was a specific drink. The original cocktail consisted of a base spirit -- commonly whiskey -- with a bit of sugar, a dash of bitters, water and ice. "Wait, ice?" you ask. Yes, in wealthier households and establishments where cocktails were served, ice was available, even in southern climes, before mechanical refrigeration was invented. The ice trade of the 1800s is a fascinating and forgotten slice of history and well deserving of its own article, but ice helped to make the original cocktail a popular adult beverage of the times.
Evolution of the Cocktail
By the time Abraham Lincoln was president, the cocktail had evolved. In fact, it had become downright complex. A how-to book published in 1862 entitled, "How to Mix Drinks," by Jerry Thomas, contains a wide array of cocktail recipes and pointers for mixing drinks. Mixers included fancy syrups, fruit, liqueurs and even ginger beer, among other items. Since these items weren't available prepackaged in stores and ready for mixing like they are today, bartenders had to create their own mixers. The 1862 guide included a manual for making your own mixers. Vodka and tequila weren't available in the U.S. back then, so these spirits didn't appear in mixed drinks of the time. The rise of bourbon replaced rye as the base spirit of many mixed drinks in the latter part of the century.
Old Fashioned Confusion
If you order an Old Fashioned today, chances are the barkeep won't serve you an authentic version of the drink, but rather a modern variation. The original Old Fashioned was the original cocktail, a very simple but enjoyable drink. As trends changed and tastes expanded, people in the latter part of the 19th century began to order their drinks "fancy" or "improved." For those who wanted a simple cocktail, they had to say they wanted it made the old-fashioned way, meaning without all the fancy syrups and garnishes. In the 20th century, the Old Fashioned became something else entirely -- it was a hybrid drink served with a muddled cherry, topped with club soda and garnished with an orange slice, a far cry from the original cocktail.
Old Ways Become Trendy Again
In the 21st century, higher end bars and restaurants don't just staff bartenders and wine stewards anymore, they also employ "mixologists," those who are well versed in the fine art of making classic cocktails. When you order an Old Fashioned in these types of establishments, you just might get the real deal, or perhaps your server will clarify what you mean. Be prepared to wait a bit longer for your drink, not because the place is busy, but because your mixologist is crafting your cocktail, right down to such details as using one large carved-out chunk of ice.
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