Ah, the cocktail.
Today the word conjures up images of sophistication and elegance, of well-dressed men and women sipping at elegant stemmed glasses in darkened bars—but it wasn’t always that way. While cocktails themselves (or mixed drinks, anyway) have been around since at least the late 1790s in Europe, their association with sophisticated nightlife comes directly from the glittering high-end American speakeasies of the 1920s, where the addition of ingredients like sugar or bitters helped mask the harsh taste of bootleg hooch—and cemented the cocktail as a classic part of American drinking culture.
Besides making bad booze taste better, cocktails appealed directly to Jazz Age sensibilities as well. William Grimes, author of Straight Up or On the Rocks: A Cultural History of American Drink, even goes as far to call the 1920s “the cocktail years,” where “America, rich and confident, stepped into the center of history’s spotlight, impossibly glamorous, stylish, and, above all, modern.”1 For this new fast-paced America, the cocktail shaker was the “metronome” who’s “frantic back-and-forth” kept tempo for the decade.2 Mixed up in stainless-steel shakers, doled out in tall, elegant stemmed glasses, and bursting with rich colors and exotic flavors, cocktails were modern, fast, and fun. And when gin burst onto the Prohibition scene—particularly the crappy, homemade variety—Americans began to see their cocktails as coming mostly in two ways, says Grimes: “quick-and-easy, for fast intake” and “thick-and-sweet, to disguise the poor quality” of the bootleg gin being used.3 Cocktails like Martinis, which are just straight-up booze with an olive thrown in, were one product of this environment–and their propensity for getting people smashed quickly encouraged recklessness. After all, since drinking was illegal, and it took a lot of new effort to get your hands on the good stuff, why hold back when you had the chance to binge? A cynical fake cocktail “recipe” of the time sums up this new attitude pretty well: “Take three chorus girls and three men, soak in champagne till midnight, squeeze into an automobile. Add a dash of joy, and a drunken chauffeur. Shake well. Serve at 70 miles an hour. Chaser: a coroner’s inquest.”4
All this mixed drink enthusiasm led to another modern drinking innovation: the cocktail party. Since it was still legal to drink in the confines of your own home according to the Volstead, many people ended up doing just that, rather than risk getting arrested in a speakeasy raid. With just a few key ingredients and whatever extra flavorings you had lying around, anyone could whip together enough drinks on their own to keep all their friends soaked to the gills. Soon “mixing a mean cocktail became one of the manly arts, like carving a holiday turkey.”5 Even women could get in on the act, mixing up drinks for their bridge party gals without needing hordes of servants to set up tables of mint juleps or something.
Unsurprisingly, the drinking accouterments industry exploded in response. Reporter John T. Flynn, writing for a 1928 edition of Collier’s, noted that at one New York store he spotted 35 types of cocktail glasses for sale in plain view, including 14 kinds of shakers, 18 varieties of hip flasks, and all manner of wine glasses.6 Another store had so many kinds of “wine glasses, champagne glasses and…whiskey glasses I lost count.”7 A 1929 Chicago Tribune article even mentioned offhandedly that “cocktail glasses with matching glass plates for service of appetizers, and liqueur sets…in distractingly(sic) lovely colors” make great Christmas gifts for friends if you’re at a loss for ideas.8 Mixing guides also made it into the hands of enterprising party hosts. Older books from before the Great War were reissued, and bar-tending guides from Across the Pond were reprinted by American publishers in New York and Chicago for eager readers.
So why all this talk about cocktails, you ask? Well, I’m taking a class for the next five weeks, so I thought I’d do a short series on popular 1920s cocktails during that time. Each week will feature some different period cocktail recipes, along with a little history about each drink. After that, I’ll be going back to more varied postings. Hope you enjoy the series.
Grimes, William. 1993. Straight Up or On The Rocks: A Cultural History of American Drink. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. p 49.←
Grimes, pp 102-103.←
Grimes, p 95.←
Grimes, p 96.←
Moore, John Hammond. December 12th, 2003. “The Cocktail: Our Contribution to Humanity’s Salvation.” VQR, Spring 1980. http://www.vqronline.org/essay/cocktail-our-contribution-humanity%E2%80%99s-salvation←
Grimes, p 96.←
Lunn, Sally. November 29, 1929. “Ornaments for the Table Make Clever Gifts: Let Them Solve Christmas Problems for You.” Chicago Tribune. p 30. ←