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The Cocktail: Our Contribution to Humanity’s Salvation

ISSUE:  Spring 1980

Little doubt exists that the cocktail party is a phenomenon well entrenched in American life. Once a rather formal gathering demanding tie, coat, low-cut gown, and satin and lace, in the past decade or so the precise term “cocktail party” has been discarded for a simple invitation “to come over for a drink,” which usually can be translated plural. Even Hallmark greeting cards, both purveyor and guardian of middle-class mores, now markets a W. C. Fields number reading “Please join a select group for an evening of warm friendship, stimulating conversation, and . . .let’s see . . .ah, yes . . . BOOZE!”

If such get-togethers have lost some of their glamour and style amid shorts, Le Coste shirts, and similar gear, from Washington to San Francisco the end result is much the same. Whether this means a group of Capitol Hill employees inhaling mixed potables after a frustrating day spent trying to make inept bosses look good in constituent eyes, a swinging singles set boozing it up in some high-rise tower, or well-to-do business tycoons and their women folk chatting lustily and swilling rare potions in much the same manner, it all adds up to a cocktail party.

In its purest sense, this is a gathering of at least two sexes swallowing intoxicants of some sort diluted with water, ice, soda, fruit juice, or certain wines and liqueurs. At the same time, those present make polite small talk and nibble on bits of this or that such as crackers, cheese, olives, oysters, shrimp, meat scraps, and pickled vegetables. This convivality may or may not precede dinner, at least not in the same environs. The time of such activity usually is about sunset, although this frolicking can continue until after midnight (without dinner anywhere, in fact), and even the so-called “nightcap” after an evening on the town can develop many of the attributes of a cocktail party if a sufficient number of players are involved; if limited to only two participants, the “night-cap” usually is a preamble to something else.

Of course, almost every culture in any age has indulged in social gatherings enlivened by fermented grains and distilled spirits, but this bisexual ritual of hors d’oeuvres, soiled napkins, ash-flecked carpets, high-pitched laughter, and outer garments piled in a bedroom seems to be uniquely American and 20th century to boot. According to H. L. Mencken (The American Language, Supplement One), many foreigners think the cocktail is “the greatest of all contributions of the American way of life to the salvation of humanity.” The sage of Baltimore concedes that its origins are vague but then cites no less than seven possibilities.

The most persuasive of these hail from New Orleans and France. Apparently Antoine Amédéé Peychaud, an apothecary who fled the Santo Domingo unpleasantness, opened a shop at 437 Rue Royale in the Crescent City shortly before 1800. There he often entertained his Masonic Lodge pals with a highly flavored brandy toddy served up in a double egg cup (coquetier) which Americans called a “cocktail.” This word also may trace its roots to a mixed drink known as a coquetele long favored by residents of Bordeaux and perhaps introduced into America during the Revolutionary War by French officers.

Other explanations, most of them much less satisfactory, include a British creation called “cock-ale,” a variety of drinks somehow associated with cockfighting which either were given to the participants or swallowed by their admirers, and mixing the residue of several kegs or bottles (the “cock-tailings”) into a cheap swill sold by saloon keepers. One form of “cock-ale” is especially repulsive. To flavor a new keg of ale, it is said, one added a red cock pounded to a pulp in a bag along with raisins, mace, and cloves; then, the bloody mess was allowed to steep for a week or more before bottling.

In any case, as Mencken and others make clear, during the first half of the 19th century the word “cocktail” was used throughout the United States to describe a variety of mixed drinks. One of the earliest printed references appeared in a Hudson, N. Y., newspaper in May 1806. According to the editor of The Balance, a cocktail was a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind together with water, sugar, and bitters. It was, he said, vulgarly called “a bittered sling,” adding that it was especially useful to any democratic candidate for public office, for any person who downed a glass of it was ready to swallow anything.

A half century later, on the eve of the Civil War, Lord Lyons, Queen Victoria’s minister in Washington, lamented that his secretaries were gathering at the Hotel Willard bar and becoming slaves to “the pernicious local habit of swallowing cocktails.” And, in 1864, Major General William Farrar “Baldy” Smith (United States Army), a kindly, considerate West Point graduate, often dispatched servants armed with champagne cocktails to awaken guests lodged at his quarters near Cold Harbor and Petersburg.

An anonymous Yankee traveler writing about English hotels in 1868 complained that, although genuine American drinks admittedly had strange yet comprehensible names (brandy smash, mint julep, sherry cobbler, etc.), in London all was confusion. One could get a “Haymarket corpse-reviver” at some bars; at others, mixed drinks (not yet called cocktails) were known simply as “that thing” or “that other thing.” By the end of the century, however, the word “cocktail” was recognized, if not widely used, at most upper-class watering holes in England and on the Continent.

In 1900, William T. Boothby published the second edition of his very valuable guide, Cocktail Boothby’s American Bartender. This compendium (printed in San Francisco) really was for the professional, not the amateur do-it-yourselfer. It provided basic recipes and hints on deportment as well: always be on time to relieve the watch, keep your fingernails clean, appear pleasant and obliging, sell all the liquor you can—but use as little as possible yourself, polish all glassware before departing, and “avoid conversations of a religious or political nature.”

During the next two decades the cocktail thrived in various forms at the most fashionable hotel bars in both America and Europe, but it was generally shunned in saloons and pubs, where men who were men drank only beer or straight liquor and left cocktails to sissies and limp-wrist types. At the same time, the cocktail was appearing at afternoon “hen parties” given by well-to-do matrons and their debutante daughters.


It was Prohibition (1920—1933) and the new female freedom of the 1920’s that brought cocktails and cocktail parties together in the now traditional sense. The reasons are obvious. Much of the hootch of those years was so bad that something had to be done to disguise both taste and color, a task which fruit juice, ginger ale, soda water, mint leaves, olives, orange and lemon slices, and similar garbage performed admirably. Also, as the middle class—often as a form of protest against federal regulations—began to drink more than ever before, men and women of similar social status mingled together over cocktails for the first time, and much of this mingling was done at home, where one was relatively safe from the raids of revenue agents.

In such surroundings the cocktail party became an attractive, even “smart” way to entertain and pay off social obligations. Few members of the new affluent middle class had a staff of servants, but with the assistance of a caterer, a few friends, and a bootlegger, almost any housewife could whip up a cocktail party. Although rural, small-town America (and especially the South—Charleston and New Orleans excepted) did not embrace the cocktail party per se with much enthusiasm, similar gatherings certainly began to appear in scattered towns and cities throughout the nation. However, since hosts usually knew and trusted their source of supply, less need existed to fancy up essentially stable, reliable spirits, and old favorites such as “bourbon and branch water” often retained their regional sway unchallenged. Nevertheless, the results were much the same: a new form of social gathering in the home which was, no matter what one chose to call it, “a cocktail party.”

This innovation of mixed living room drinking soon exerted profound affect upon family life. Until World War I or thereabouts, the head of the household might get sloshed at his club or at a corner saloon and come home to face the ire of his mate—or, as noted, some well-to-do women were enlivening luncheons and bridge parties with a swig of gin now and then. Their offspring, however, rarely saw the results of this imbibing. When ma berated pa, the young usually were in bed asleep, and no respectable society matron would drink to excess on any occasion.

With Prohibition and the development of late afternoon or evening cocktail get-togethers in the home, children became an integral part of the scene, perhaps even serving drinks at times. Whether this encouraged them to drink in later life or tilted them down the teetotaler path is debatable; the fact is, during the 1920’s the cocktail party emerged as a recognized mode of entertaining in thousands of American households, and Hollywood helped to popularize it in both silent and talkie productions. Yet, since this activity was forbidden by federal statute, the cocktail party remained somewhat of a poorly kept secret. No one talked much about it or advertised the fact they were participating.

In June 1925 a New York Supreme Court justice (Judge John Ford) broke this veil of silence when, speaking from the bench, he censured an attorney who equated cocktails with adultery. In the midst of sensational divorce proceedings, Ford digressed to note that America’s mode of social conduct was changing. His daughter, he emphasized, told him that “nice people” were going to cocktail parties and she admitted she sometimes entertained in that fashion. “And there, gentlemen,” Ford said, pointing to the spectators in his courtroom, “is the young lady herself who gives cocktail parties.”

These remarks caused a momentary flurry in the press, ministers rising in indignant wrath and editors suggesting Judge Ford stick to the issues at hand and forgo such extraneous comments. Ford and his daughter refused to back down. Esther Ford Wait said she actually favored Prohibition but saw no harm in a drink or two now and then. Her father observed that cocktail drinking and smoking cigarettes were matters of manners, not morals. “I don’t like either, but nice women are doing it. Everybody knows it, but won’t admit it.”

John T. Flynn, writing in Collier’s (Sept. 1, 1928), said gin drinking probably peaked in 1923, but as gin became unreliable and even unsafe, the cocktail crowd turned to whisky and rum whenever such were available. Sales of ginger ale in the Boston area, he reported, had doubled since 1920 and in New York stores one could buy 35 types of cocktail glasses, 14 kinds of shakers, and 18 varieties of hip flasks, as well as wine glasses in many shapes and sizes. In 1927 a Manhattan emporium even furnished a lucky customer with a solid gold cocktail set (shaker, twelve large glasses, and a dozen cordial cups) which cost a mere $4,000.

Two subsidiary but vital trends also are evident during the decade which gave birth to cocktail parties: increasing confusion concerning the precise meaning of the word “cocktail,” much of it fostered by staunch Prohibitionists themselves, and popularization of the cocktail in London, Paris, Rome, and other European capitals. Officially at least and apparently with straight face, in the mid-20’s several U. S. magazines still considered cocktails to be fruit or vegetable appetizers. By the close of that era, however, most editors conceded that cocktails actually were beverages of some sort.

In 1930 Mrs. James M. Doran, wife of the national Commissioner of Prohibition, greeted New Year’s in Washington with a complicated brew served up in sugar-frosted cups. Her “1930 Cocktail,” as she called it, consisted of grape and pineapple juice, ginger ale, mint leaves, limes, and other fruit. Later that same year Mrs. Doran and various Cabinet wives published a booklet entitled “Prohibition Punches,” which featured numerous nonalcoholic “cocktails.” These delights, some of them reprinted in the Ladies’ Home Journal, included a tea concoction supplied by General Smedley D. Butler, commandant of the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Virginia. Mrs. Herbert Hoover, it was noted, preferred her punches made with plain spring water, not doctored up with fizzes and ginger ale.

B. K. Sandwell, in a facetious article appearing in Harper’s Monthly (January 1931), saluted what he called “The New Gastronomy.” It came about, he said, as he pondered whether to serve loganberry juice or pineapple crush with his wife’s Navarin printanier. After consulting several cookbooks, Sandwell concluded that publishers had not kept up with the restrictions imposed by the Volstead Act and seldom told what beverage might be served with each course. To rectify this grievous oversight, he proceeded to suggest the following liquids for a rigorous, full-fledged Prohibition Era dinner party: appetizer—”a very light Coca-Cola with sardines, anchovies, and tunny fish,” but perhaps a rich, fruity orangeade with oysters and chocolate ice cream soda with cantaloupe; soup or fish—chilled malted milk or lemonade; main course—ginger ale (chilled, not iced) with most meats, though perhaps a zesty grape juice with lamb; cheese course—Postum or root beer.

This daring gourmet cautioned that American ginger ales differed greatly from one part of the nation to another, depending upon soil and growing conditions. “I know a little town in Arkansas where the ginger ale manufactured in 1927—the year the dam of an upper reservoir broke down— possesses a tang, a vivacity, which to me and to many other connoisseurs to whom I have introduced it seems quite unrivalled.” Efforts to reproduce it, he added sadly, had failed miserably.

Sandwell even tackled the perplexing problem of after-dinner liqueurs. Why not offer guests homegrown, American counterparts such as Smith’s Blood Bitters, Jones’s Snakeroot Extract, Robinson’s Slippery Ellum Bark, or Miller’s Mysterious Indian Remedy? These colorful potions mixed and topped with cream, he boasted, would equal almost anything Old World monks could produce.


Yet, while the content and true nature of the cocktail was becoming muddied in America by both drinkers and nondrinkers and cocktail parties occurred largely in secret behind drawn shades, on the other side of the Atlantic the cocktail was a booming public success, so much so that it became the object of criticism by some doctors. In June 1921 a London barman lashed back: “It is remarkable that the United States of America has been a cocktail drinking nation for over 100 years, yet today, when they can get all the whisky, wine and beer they want [in England] they still worship the cocktail. Americans do not seem to have ruined their stomachs after all these years, but I must remind the learned M. D. that there are cocktails, and there are cocktails, and may we be saved from cocktails made by barmaids.”

At that time cocktail bars were appearing throughout London, but women, it was said, usually ordered “soft quality” drinks. The most popular were the “pussyfoot” (white of an egg, grenadine, lemon and orange juice) and the “Alexandra” (crème de cacao, grenadine, and cream).

In September 1924 the French Academy refused to accept the word “cocktail” into the French language. One judge (who was voted down) suggested it be spelled “coquetele.” “Cocktails,” a New York Times correspondent observed, “must be content to remain alien, which, however, will probably not affect their popularity to a noticeable extent.” A year later the French Academy of Medicine approved the research of a Dr. Tardieu who argued that the “coquetele” was a native of Bordeaux.

Despite Tardieu’s gallant efforts, criticism of the cocktail continued on both sides of the English Channel. It was, some said, simply part of the “American Peril” posed by Detroit motor cars, Hollywood movies, slang, chewing gum, and horn-rimmed glasses. A French physician claimed the cocktail hour among the well-to-do was causing “undue excitement, gastric troubles, depression, epileptic attacks, and was the direct cause of numerous motor accidents.” Most of these gastric disorders, the New York Times wrote, probably were suffered by French chefs as they watched guests and customers down cocktails immediately before their great creations were served up.

It was in London, however, that the cocktail finally came into its own. In September 1930 hundreds gathered for the First International Cocktail Competition. The judges (restricted to only five drinks) were divided into six-member panels with two representatives from the general public and one each from the alcohol trade and the press, an experienced wine waiter, and a maitre d’hotel. The winning concoction was the creation of Tom Buttery (a teetotaler), who presided over the fashionable bar at the Berkeley. It consisted of two parts Calvados gin and one part each of orange juice and apricot brandy. Dubbed a “Golden Dawn,” it seemed an omen of better days ahead.

Admittedly, it was a long way from brandy in double egg cups and bittered slings to Martinis, Manhattans, dimly-lit chrome and leather lounges, and all of the accouterments of the cocktail age, but once more in the best Yankee tradition an underdog had won out against seemingly insuperable odds. The cocktail—if not of the New World by birth, certainly by widespread usage—now was accepted in the Old World as well. And the cocktail party, most assuredly an American invention, soon would burst out of the closet and, with the end of Prohibition, enjoy a well-deserved and hard-won legitimacy. What better way to salute this brilliant new era than with a “Golden Dawn”?


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