The origin of cocktails

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Happy birthday for the house

From the AP

Tomorrow may just be May 13 to you. If it is, you would be technically correct. But more importantly, it's the best known and most widely accepted date for the first printed use of the word "cocktail," which makes it not only a great day in history but also providential for the purposes of Morning File. Two hundred years ago tomorrow, in the May 13, 1806, edition of the Balance and Columbian Repository newspaper in Hudson, N.Y., cocktail was defined as "a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters -- it is vulgarly called a bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said also to be of great use to a Democratic candidate: because a person, having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else."

The fact that last year a certain Dr. David Wondrich discovered an earlier notation about cocktails buried in "The Farmer's Cabinet" publication of April 28, 1803, is virtually irrelevant for our purposes except that the quotation is most entertaining. "Drank a glass of cocktail -- excellent for the head ... Call'd at the Doct's. Found Burnham -- he looked very wise -- drank another glass of cocktail."

New World customs with a twist

Christopher Columbus brought sherry with him to the New World, and Magellan spent more on sherry for his circumnavigation of the globe than he did on weapons, which turned out to be a bit shortsighted. Before the Mayflower brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock, it ferried alcohol between Spain and England. It wasn't surprising, therefore, that American colonists brought alcohol with them to America, mostly in the form of scotch, rum and gin. Alcohol was appreciated more for its curative and preventative powers than its ability to provide a buzz by those early arrivals, but that didn't last long. The young country's first temperance movement began in the early 1800s after production and consumption of alcohol led to a surprising spike in public disorder. At the head of that nascent movement was Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who advocated so effectively for temperance that he is known as the father of the American movement.

The domino effect

The cocktail first gained wide popularity during Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, when the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act were in effect. Speakeasies during that time utilized flavorings and other ingredients to mask the telltale smell of liquor. Not surprisingly, cocktail parties came into vogue during this time, too. That meant women needed something chic to wear, and just like that, the cocktail dress had arrived. Within minutes, there was a demand for accessories: tiny bags encrusted with sequins and rhinestones, slipper shoes, gloves, small hats. The "little black dress" didn't make the scene until the 1930s. Men's fashions were much simpler: Something without obvious stains was generally sufficient.

By any other name

Mixologists argue about this all the time, but the first cocktail made in this country was the Sazerac. The credit goes to Antoine Amadie Peychaud, a Creole apothecary. An immigrant from the West Indies, he settled in New Orleans at the beginning of the 19th century. According to, Mr. Peychaud dabbled as a chemist in the loosest sense of the word, cobbling together patent medicines which were essentially alcohol. One of his customers' favorites -- a proprietary mix of aromatic bitters said to relieve ailments -- was Peychaud's Bitters. Soon enough, friends were gathering at the store to sample his mix whether they had ailments or not. The drink's official name of Sazerac came from its use of imported Sazerac cognac called Sazerac de Forge et Fils. Did we mention it was served in an egg cup, which in French is coquetier? Some historians think the word cocktail comes from a mispronunciation of the word. Others believe the mispronunciation comes from one too many Sazeracs.

By any other name

Granted, it takes some imagination to come up with drinks named Harvey Wallbanger, Fuzzy Navel or Zombie. But cocktail history looks down its nose at trendy monikers best suited for the days of fern bars and discos. Like sports and politics, cocktail history chronicles its own mythological heros.

Take Albert Hernandez Sr., for example. You may know him better as el Papa de la Margarita, the concoction he created in 1947 that is now a staple at not only every Mexican restaurant in the U.S. but also most Texas border bars and roughly 43 percent of backyard shindigs. Mr. Hernandez, who died last month at 91, made his margaritas in La Jolla, Calif. Initially, he handed out free pitchers to garner content suggestions before eventually perfecting his formula of 1 ounce of tequila, a half-ounce of orange liqueur, lemon juice and shaved ice. His boss suggested the salted rim.

What's that? says it was a Dallas socialite named Margarita Sames who created the margarita in 1948? Some say she was hosting a poolside Christmas party in her Acapulco vacation home when she combined three parts tequila, one part triple sec and one part lime, and promptly got everyone so snockered the drink's fame spread across the country.

Apocryphal story, no doubt. Not unlike the one claiming the margarita was born at the Caliente Racetrack Bar in Tijuana, Mexico, in the 1930s. Or our final entrant in this sweepstakes, the one that begins with showgirl Marjorie King and her allergy to nearly all alcohol except ... tequila. On a fateful day in 1938 she asked the bartender at the Rancho Del Gloria Bar in Rosarito Beach, Mexico for a tequila cocktail instead of a shot. He poured the tequila over shaved ice, added lemon and triple sec and named it Margarita, Spanish for Marjorie.

Steve Levin can be reached at or 412-263-1919.


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