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Tipplers Toast the Cocktail on Its 200th 'Anniversary'

Here’s to the cocktail!

May marks the 200th anniversary of the mixed drink, or at least the first published definition of the mixed drink. And though martinis and cosmos can be found in bars from London to Tokyo, it turns out the cocktail is as American as apple pie.

“They’re made in America,” said Phil Greene, a board member of the Museum of the American Cocktail. “We did something that the Europeans had never done before: We started mixing ingredients because our own heritage is sort of mixed.”

Cocktail aficionados gathered on May 13 in New York and Las Vegas to toast the bicentennial of the mixed drink and swap tales and recipes from its history.

While it's unclear when the first cocktail was actually mixed, 200 years ago this month, a puzzled reader of the Balance and Columbian Repository newspaper in Hudson, N.Y., wrote the editor to inquire about the word "cocktail."

The editor defined the drink as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.”

"Bitters was the defining ingredient that changed it from a sling or a punch," said Dale DeGroff, a mixologist and author of the book "The Craft of the Cocktail."

Fuzzy Origins

When dealing with the history of a substance used to help people unwind, details can be, well, fuzzy — beginning with the origin of the word “cocktail” itself.

“There must be more than a dozen different explanations of where it came from, and nobody really knows,” said Gary Regan, a mixologist from Cornwall on Hudson, N.Y.

Mixologists and cocktail historians agree that the most plausible explanation comes from a British term for a mixed breed horse — the cocktail — so-called because horse owners would dock the tail of the horse.

After all, the cocktail is a mixed-breed drink of sorts, said Dave Wondrich, a contributing editor at Esquire magazine.

“It was a well-known term in horseracing circles, so I’m assuming the kind of people who drank cocktails were also the kind of guys who’d go to the races, support boxers — a generally sporty crowd,” Wondrich said. “That’s the most rational explanation I’ve seen.”

The addition of bitters — any herb-infused alcohol — to what was commonly thought of as a sling (liquor, water and sugar) revolutionized 19th-century drinking palates, mixologists say.

But the concoction really took off when stateside bartenders started fiddling with different alcohols.

“Everybody comes to this country with a traditional spirit,” said Audrey Saunders, a mixologist who runs the Pegu Club in New York. “And the whole idea of the blending of these spirits from all over the world into one, it’s like the melding of the cocktail.”

The addition of ice helped, too.

“Immigrants, especially down South, weren’t used to the weather, so ice became a really highly desirable commodity. And cold drinks were somewhat peculiar to America, so the cocktail couldn’t have developed anywhere else,” Regan said.

A Political Past

“Whenever you talk cocktail history, it’s always the Democratic party that’s involved, Lord knows why,” Wondrich said.

The initial definition of the cocktail in the Balance and Columbian Registry noted that the drink “is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head.

“It is said also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else,” according to the paper.

At least one famous cocktail — the Manhattan — had its origin in a Democratic club. It was the toast of the Manhattan Club around 1880, Wondrich said.

Its Own Museum

The cocktail’s latest cheering squad is the Museum of the American Cocktail, a nonprofit organization that documents the history of the mixed drink.

At the Balance, a watering hole in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City named for the Hudson, N.Y., newspaper, old cocktail shakers and recipe books from the museum’s collection grace the walls.

One book advertises a compass-like device that purports to tell the user when they've consumed too much.

The museum had operated out of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum until Hurricane Katrina struck. It has moved much of its collection temporarily to an ongoing exhibition at Commander’s Palace, Las Vegas, but it returns to New Orleans from July 19-23 for “Tales of the Cocktail,” a five-day cocktail seminar.

Greene, an attorney from Washington, D.C., became interested in cocktails after researching his ancestor, Antoine Peychaud, the pharmacist responsible for a brand of bitters used in the Sazeracs cocktail.

Greene likens the concocting of cocktails to fine cooking.

“We could eat boring food, we could drink boring drinks,” he said. “But just like in cooking where we have classic dishes and new dishes that are popular for a while, we have classic cocktails that could be improved upon over the years, and we always have the cornerstone of what the drink is.”

And though these cocktail historians and mixologists still haven’t pinpointed when the very first cocktail was raised, they agree that anytime is a good time to celebrate.

“It might not be the cocktail’s birthday, but you could say it’s like the cocktail’s bar mitzvah,” Wondrich said. “Two hundred years ago, it became a man.”