The Bittersweet History of The Cocktail

To puzzle together the history of the cocktail, which can be as blurry as recalling a boozy night out, one first need to know the history of one of its main ingredients, sugar.

For centuries people have been mixing alcohol-charged juice bowls, but it wasn’t until the mid 18th centuries that the cocktail became all the rage. At the time a cocktail referred to a specific drink rather than a category of mixed drinks and would normally consist of bitters, alcoholic and sugar, topped off with a dash of soda or water. Today we know this classic mixture as the Old Fashioned cocktail.

Classic Old-Fashioned Cocktail

anhof61504366173 The Bittersweet History of The Cocktail

Mix your own Classic Old-Fashioned Cocktail.

By 1798 The Morning Post and Gazetteer in London became the first known publication to use the word “cocktail” and reported on a hungover “lounger” who ordered the drink, citing it as “excellent for the head”.

White Gold

This increased popularity of the cocktail can, to a great extent, be accredited to the availability of sugar at the time. Before Western Europeans first discovered the “sweet new spice” during the 11th-century crusades, sensory sweetness was mostly confined to the consumption of natural produces like fruit and vegetables. If you were lucky you could snatch a forbidden apple and forever repent your sweet sins. Naturally, most drinks before the cocktail were bitter in taste – a flavour we were accustomed to since early hominoids started exploring the open savannas of Africa. These early adventurers used their sense of taste as a survival tool. Bitter indicated danger or poison, sweet indicated nutrient-rich and save-to-eat. Even today we are still genetically programmed to like sweet stuff where an appreciation for something bitter only develops with experience and age.

As Western European trade expanded to the east during the 15th century, limited sugar imports started to trickle down to the wealthy aristocrats, but with the arrival of sugar cane to the Caribbean in 1493, a more lucrative trade route was established.

Over the next 250 years, sucrose sugar became readily available in Europe and by 1750 the 120 refineries in Britain produced a modest but steady 30,000 tons of the stuff per annum. “White gold”, as it was referred to, was mostly used to parade affluence and opulence. The wealthy commissioned artists to create sculptures from it, while governments slobbered over the luxurious commodity and taxed it heavily. Dropping a cube of sugar in your drink then, was the equivalent of scooping a dollop of caviar on the salty-crack today.

The First Cocktail Book

Meanwhile in the south of the United States sugar was more easily obtainable. Established sugar cane plantations in Virginia and Louisiana gave bartenders the opportunity to experiment with variations on the original cocktail. A 32-year-old flamboyant bartender and entrepreneur from New York called Jerry Thomas took the time to pen down some of these delicious concoctions during his extensive travels and in 1862 published the first ever cocktail recipe book titled The Bar-Tender’s Guide. It consists of a variety of mixed drink recipes, including 10 cocktail recipes that would ultimately become the blueprint for future cocktail manuals. The book also marked the beginning of what is today referred to as “the golden age of cocktails” that lasted until the prohibition of alcohol in America in 1920.

The American Bar

In the midst of this golden age, opulent American hotels quickly became the envy of business tycoons on the other side of the pond. One such man was impresario, Richard D’Oyly Carte, who in 1884 started construction on what would become Britain’s most luxurious hotel. Complete with air-conditioning, electric lights and a telephone in each of the 268 rooms, The Savoy Hotel opened its door on Strand street in London on the 6th of August 1889. Carte’s Yankee obsession extended to the hotel bar, which he modelled after an “America bar”, referring to a bar serving mixed or ‘American’ style drinks, also known as cocktails. He ingeniously named it The America Bar.

Under the expert management of Swiss hotelier César Ritz, the hotel and bar became the jive of the town, attracting the distinguished and wealthy. The America Bar went on to become one of the world’s most celebrated cocktail bars and also the birthplace of a bunch of South African centric cocktails.

A couple of years after the First World War in 1920, The American Bar appointed its third head bartender, Englishman, Harry Craddock, who stepped into the position when his successful career in the US got stifled by the prohibition. He would go on to mix drinks for royalties and celebrities at The America Bar for the next 13 years. In 1930 the hotel management asked him to compile a cocktail book as part of the Savoy’s first-ever marketing drive. Although Harry never earned a single penny from it, the Savoy Cocktail Book is today seen as one of the most important cocktail manuals of the 20th century. It preserved many old recipes as well as some of the 240 cocktails that Craddock claimed to have created during his lifetime.

South African Cocktail Chronicles

The Biltong Dry, The Capetown, The Joburg, The Transvaal, The Jan Smuts and The Cape Cocktail, were just a few of the South African themed drinks published in the book, all based around a uniquely South African Vermouth-like spirit called Caperitif. One can easily image Winston Churchill downing a few Jan Smuts cocktails at one of his legendary supper club parties at The Savoy.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, the state-owned distilleries producing this fynbos infused beverage stared cutting down on production as demand turned towards sweet sodas, beer and brandy. By 1960, Caperitif production completely ceased and just like that these classic South African cocktails vanished from the bar counters of the world. Combining our sensory approval for anything sweet and a surge in cheap fructose sugar in the following decades, bitter ingredients like Caperitif looked doomed forever.

For more than 50 years these uniquely South Africa cocktails were relegated to the history books until sugar started falling out of favour with the health-conscious millenniums of the last decade. Without sugar, consumers reconnect with the bitter flavours of artisan coffee, IPA beer and old-school cocktails. Bartenders around the world revisited these classic cocktail books for inspiration and soon Danish mixologist, Lars Erik Lyndgaard Schmidt, found many references to the “ghost ingredient” Caperitif. After failing to obtain the elusive elixir, Schmidt decided to partner with pioneering Swartland winemaker, Adi Badenhorst, to recreate Caperitif. In 2015 the duo introduced the world to their Kaapse Dief Caperitif and with it opened a portal back to these classic South African cocktails.

Today the cocktail is more than a simple libation. As much as it holds stories of our past, it signifies a shift in the human race’s willingness to explore risky and adventurous flavours once again.

Published in Cheers Mag Nov / Dec edition.