With American Independence Day right around the corner, American history is at the forefront of our minds. Though the United States is a relatively young country, when compared to the rest of the world, a lot has happened since our founding fathers came together and signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776.
Between numerous wars, technological advancements, civil rights movements, and the Kardashians, America has had a long and tumultuous journey. Among these truly American developments sits an often overlooked, but incredibly important contribution to the world: American cocktails.
America’s influence on cocktail history is due, in no small part, to the country’s nature as a melting pot of different cultures. Thanks to immigrants from all across the world, American bartenders in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had access to all kinds of liqueurs and spirits, allowing them to express their full creativity. You may think that prohibition, the period in the 1920s when the United States banned all production, sale, and consumption of alcohol, would have put a stop to these talented bartenders, but you’d be wrong. Some of the most popular American cocktails were popularized during the prohibition era, like the Bee’s Knees, Tom Collins, and Last Word.
It may be hard to believe, but the entire concept of cocktails is inherently American. Today, the word “cocktail” refers to pretty much any mixed alcoholic beverage, the original definition of a cocktail was much more specific. In 1806, a cocktail was defined as “a combination of a spirit, water, sugar, and bitters.” Sound familiar? The Old Fashioned, a cocktail consisting of whiskey, sugar, ice, and angostura bitters, is a direct variation on the original cocktail recipe.
While several bars claim to have originated the Old Fashioned, all we know for sure is that it first came around in the late 1800s, most likely in the southern United States. In a time when American whiskey was just starting to get its footing, the Old Fashioned helped to establish the true American spirit as a force to be reckoned with in the cocktail world.
The original Old Fashioned recipe involved muddling sugar and bitters into the bottom of a rocks glass, adding ice, whiskey, and a lemon peel, and stirring. This results in a damn good cocktail, but the Old Fashioned's you’ll find in cocktail bars today have undergone several key improvements. The modern version of the cocktail usually opts for simple syrup over sugar, for a smoother mouthfeel.
Orange peel is also usually substituted for lemon peel, as it gives a more mellow finish. Many drinkers still choose to enjoy their Old Fashioned, well, the old fashioned way. However, our recipe for a modern Old Fashioned is simple and effective, resulting in a delicious and balanced cocktail every time.
As cocktails evolved and became more popular, its definition gradually expanded to include other ingredients, such as juices, liqueurs, citrus, and vermouth. If you’re not in-the-know, vermouth is a type of aromatized, fortified wine. It can be sweet or dry, but usually consists of a wine base, flavored with spices and botanicals, and proofed-up with a neutral spirit. Vermouth quickly became a cornerstone of many classic cocktails, but not just in America.
Vermouth originated in Ancient Greece, but became popularized as a beverage in Italy, as early as the mid 18th century. It’s a key ingredient in classic cocktails such as the negroni, and, ironically, the americano. However, both sweet and dry vermouth began to appear in classic American cocktails in the early 20th century.
Some of the most recognizable cocktails of all time, like the martini and the Manhattan, use vermouth as key ingredients.
Nobody quite knows for sure where the Manhattan officially originated. Some say it came from the Manhattan Club in New York, around the 1870s. Others say it came around 10 years earlier, from a bar on Broadway street. Regardless, it’s likely that it originated in the Manhattan area of New York (surprise!), towards the end of the 19th century.
A traditional Manhattan cocktail is made with 2oz whiskey, usually rye, and 1oz sweet vermouth, with a few dashes of bitters. This makes for a delightful cocktail, with a sharp bite from the whiskey, and warm spices from the vermouth and bitters.
However, today we’re going to elevate the Manhattan just a bit. 👇
Begin by combining your whiskey, vermouth, syrup, and bitters in a mixing glass. Add a generous amount of ice, and stir until the drink is chilled, and the ice is beginning to melt. Because the manhattan is served up, meaning without ice, you can be a bit more liberal when stirring than with the Old Fashioned, since the cocktail won’t continue to dilute once it’s in the glass. Once properly chilled, strain into a martini glass or coupe, and garnish with several delicious cherries, skewered on a cocktail pick.
In the early 20th century, grenadine became a popular ingredient in cocktails, adding a rich, tart pomegranate flavor. Wait, pomegranate? I thought grenadine was cherry-flavored! Most people know grenadine from the classic kiddie cocktail, the Shirley Temple, consisting of sprite, grenadine, and cherries. In fact, modern dive bar grenadine usually tastes more like cherries than anything.
However, traditional grenadine is a rich, sweet pomegranate syrup. It’s a key ingredient in classic American cocktails like the Jack Rose and the Ward 8. This brings us to our final Classic American Cocktail: the Clover Club.
The Clover Club cocktail originated in the late 19th century, in Philadelphia’s Bellevue-Stratford hotel. It is a sweet, tart, and fruity drink with a creamy mouthfeel, making it very sippable.
There you have it! On a day that’s all about American history, let’s make sure we all tip our hats, and our cups, to American cocktails. Without the bartenders of old who pioneered these timeless beverages, the world truly wouldn’t be the same.