Although normally considered an American blend, the roots of the legendary Cocktail bounce back to 18th century London. As cocktail trend-setters, Thirsty Barber thought it was apt to look back on the drink’s curious, home-grown foundations and share its story with our clientele…
Contrary to popular belief, evidence proves that the cocktail has British roots. 17th century London switched from drinking ale and cider almost instantaneously, in 1688, when King William of Orange was crowned, he was confronted with an enviable Catch-22 situation. Years of good harvests left the country with leftover grains, which in turn, shot down prices. To take advantage of this abundance, he reduced taxes on distillation, allowing British distillers to produce approximately 500,000 gallons of neutral grain spirit the following year.
In 2010, it was discovered that the earliest-known use of the word “cocktail” was referenced in a long-defunct London newspaper, The Morning Post and Gazetteer on March 20th, 1798. According to the paper, on March 16th, the landlord of the Axe & Gate tavern at the corner of Downing and Whitehall, returned to his establishment and removed his regulars’ tabs with a mop “in a transport of joy” after winning a share of a lottery.
Days later, the paper published a sardonic article listing who owed for what drinks in the core of British politics. Toward the bottom, William Pitt the younger owed for “L’huile de Venus”, “perfait [sic] amour”, and a less French drink: “‘cock-tail’ (crudely called ginger).” One was only able to assume what this implied through inference.
The most common use of the term “cocktail” at the time was in reference to a horse with its tail cut short to signpost it was of mixed breed. Back in the day, horse traders implemented a technique referred to as ‘gingering’, to get higher prices for their cocktails. A horse with a spring in its step, wide-open eyes and, most importantly, tail held high would sell for more. A good portion of peeled ginger produced the desired effect, until the horse was sold.
As the States grew prosperous, the number of American tourists visiting London multiplied. The limited “American Bars” that had budded had enough business to brood a trend in cocktail spots. Young British barkeepers working in them quickly used their flair for creativity, inventing a myriad of new drinks, many of which found their way to the States, eventually being introduced to Europe a few years later as authentic American drinks.
In 1869, William Terrington’s Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks – the first British book containing cocktail recipes, was published. This reached back to that first use of the word cocktail, his first recipe was for a Gin Cocktail made with brandy or gin, ginger syrup, aromatic bitters, and some water.
The term “American Bar” was embedded in European vocabulary, by the beginning of the 20th century. American Bar nights were prevalent society functions presented as charity campaigns. Hotels and restaurants in London caught on to the trend too, one of the most influential being The Savoy.
When the 18th amendment to the US Constitution was approved and America embarked on Prohibition, bartenders and thirsty tourists arrived in London in hordes. Still, Americans felt it was unfitting for women to work in bars. In response, Rupert D’Oyly Carte, The Savoy’s owner, fired a certain Ada Coleman, nicknamed ‘Kitty’, who was considered the Savoy’s first female bartender, despite the fact that she wasn’t. Later Carte promoted Harry Craddock from a service bar post to the American Bar’s head barman.
Harry, allegedly mixed the last legal cocktail in the United States and owned a box with 2,000 recipes which was eventually published into the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book. Nevertheless, this “American” had a well-kept secret: He was originally from Stroud, Gloucestershire, and had moved to the States about 25 years earlier. He received his naturalisation papers in 1916, just four years before he returned home to be extolled for his undeniable talent. His book has been reprinted a dozen times over the years and is referenced by bartenders around the world.
Just like the telephone and television, the cocktail is unmistakably a creation whose roots are somewhat ambivalent. Whatever its origin however, one thing’s for sure here at Thirsty Barber, we whip up some of the best cocktails on the island. So we recommend you to pop by and try our deliciously colourful concoctions!