Though Memorial Day wasn’t officially recognized as a federal holiday until 1971, historical records show evidence of various versions of this holiday being observed all the way back in 1868, when General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic called for a “Decoration Day,” to remember those who lost their lives in the American Civil War.
General John A. Logan
Since the occurrence of both World Wars, the day has become more of a remembrance of all military personnel who have died in the line of service. While the American military doesn’t have any official spirits or cocktails to call their own, there is undoubtedly a connection between military history across the world and the history of cocktails and spirits.
Without certain military forces throughout history, we wouldn’t have some of the most famous cocktails we know and love today, like the gin and tonic, or the French 75. We’re going to dive into some of these military-cocktail connections, so you can make sure you’re observing this Memorial Day properly.
Decoration Day, a precursor to Memorial Day
Historians often say that the British Empire was built on rum. This is because during the time of England’s massive colonial expansion, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, thirsty British soldiers were given a daily ration of rum. Before the introduction of rum to these soldiers’ provisions, they were typically given beer or brandy.
Rum, Royal Navy
But thanks to the cheap rum prices in the Caribbean at the time, and the higher proof that rum offered, the British military could save money and precious space by switching their soldiers over to rum. It is here that we should mention a dark and powerful force in the economic reality of colonial rum consumption-- slave labor. The prevalence of slavery in the Caribbean drove down labor prices in the production of rum which, combined with already plentiful sugarcane and the high commercial and consumer traffic in the region at the time, was the perfect recipe for a cheap and readily available booze.
Serving out the Grog
The prevalence of rum on these navy ships led to a practical issue. These spirits were stored in barrels on board, oftentimes right next to the barrels of gunpowder needed to fire guns and cannons. On a particularly rocky voyage, rum would often leak and spill into the gunpowder, rendering it unusable.
This problem was solved by increasing the proof, or alcohol concentration, of the spirit. Once the rum was strong enough to soak into the gunpowder but still allow it to ignite, it was deemed “gunpowder proof,” or as it’s known more commonly today, navy strength. At the time, there was one other spirit required to be deemed gunpowder proof: gin.
While the average soldiers and sailors guzzled their daily rum, navy officers were sipping gin. Gin made its way into the bellies of the British military through their encounters with the Dutch in the 1500s. Though gin’s origins can be traced back as early as 70 AD when juniper, gin’s trademark ingredient, was combined with wine to combat chest ailments. However, much later on the Dutch produced a spirit called “genever,” distilled from malted wine and, you guessed it, juniper berries.
As genever made its way to England, its recipe gradually changed to something more akin to what we know as gin today, and its name was shortened and anglicized to be more easily pronounced by slurring British gin drinkers. With the popularization of gin in the British military, we have one-half of the recipe for one of the most storied and influential cocktails of all time: the gin and tonic.
The Military Spirit
If you’re a tonic connoisseur, you’ll likely be familiar with tonic water’s signature ingredient: quinine. Quinine is what gives tonic water its distinct, slightly bitter flavor. However, it was not initially used to flavor drinks or food; its original use was entirely medicinal. Quinine was first used by the Quechua people of Peru, who extracted it from the bark of the cinchona tree and used it as a muscle relaxant.
Cinchona Tree Bark
Fast forward to the 18th century, a Scottish scientist by the name of George Cleghorn decided to study quinine’s effects on Malaria and found it to be a viable treatment. Thus, British soldiers visiting India were instructed to consume quinine in order to ward off disease.
However, in the quantities needed for medicinal effects, quinine is incredibly bitter and unpleasant. British soldiers solved this problem by mixing their quinine solution with sugar, lime, and of course, gin. Here we see the origin of the gin and tonic cocktail. For our elevated Gin and Tonic recipe, we’re going to be using Liber & Co’s Premium Tonic Syrup, in lieu of tonic water.
Though the French 75 is not strictly a military cocktail in the same sense as the gin and tonic, its name is certainly inspired by military history. The French 75 is a reference to the French 75-millimeter light field gun, a deadly and formidable part of the French Army’s arsenal during World War 1.
This field gun was used as an anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapon, capable of firing up to 15 rounds per minute, unheard of at the time. Around the same time, a French bartender who began mixing cognac with champagne, named his cocktail the “Soixante-Quinze,” or the Seventy-Five, in reference to the sinister power of its namesake weapon.
French 75-millimeter light field gun
Gin and cognac are interchangeable in the standard French 75 recipe, but we’ll be opting for gin for our elevated take on the French 75.
The origins of the Sidecar cocktail are shrouded in some mystery, but it’s generally agreed upon that it evolved from a New Orleans cocktail in the early 20th century called the Brandy Crusta.
While the Crusta has some differences from the classic sidecar, namely the addition of maraschino liqueur and angostura bitters, it’s likely that the sugared rim of the Brandy Crusta carried over to the Sidecar. Even the origin of the Sidecar’s name is debated, but a popular legend states that it was named after an Army captain who frequented a Parisian bar and frequently ordered an early version of the Sidecar.
This Army captain was typically chauffeured to and from the bar in the sidecar of a military motorcycle, and the bartender decided to name the drink after his number one customer’s preferred method of transportation. For our elevated take on the Sidecar, we will be using Liber & Co’s Blood Orange Cordial.
Memorial Day is supposed to be a solemn time of remembrance, but there’s no reason you can’t enjoy a cocktail or two while honoring those who sacrificed their lives. Judging by the deep and rich history of cocktails and spirits in the military, it’s what they would have wanted.