Mixology Research: Cocktail History and Tools

Mixology Badge, Step 1

cocktail mixology badge

We had a great time learning all about wine in our first Badge! It upped our wine knowledge immensely and tastings have been more fun as a result. We knew another alcohol-based badge was in our future. We are excited to learn all about cocktail history and how to master the art of mixology!

This badge is a natural fit with my love for hosting gatherings. A gathering with cocktails automatically elevates the event and makes it a bit more special! In this post, you will learn some basic cocktail and mixology history from our research. We will look into common mixology tools (is shaken really better than stirred?) and share fun facts about other cocktail accessories!

You can see the Mixologist Badge Guide, or “recipe” for the badge here. Each Badge Guide contains three steps to be completed in order to earn the badge. These steps can be done on your own, but we encourage you to grab a few friends and learn together!

Step 1 is always focused on research. Look up the topic online, watch videos to learn a skill, or visit your local library.  You can read about the resources and fun facts we found below.

Mixology History

To complete Step 1 and begin the research part of the Mixology Badge, I looked into the history of cocktails. I began by looking up the definition.  What exactly is a cocktail? Vocal Media reports that by definition a true cocktail has four ingredients: liquor, water, sugar, and bitters.  But this definition has become much more lax over the years. Nowadays any mixed drink can be called a cocktail. 

cocktail vintage

The first official mention of the definition appeared in a New York newspaper in 1806 which claimed a cocktail was a “stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters”.  Bitters were added to the precursor of the cocktail to create the “stimulating” effect.  

Bitters  [ bit-erz ] noun (used with a plural verb) A liquid, often an alcoholic liquor, in which bitter herbs or roots have steeped, used as a flavoring, especially in mixed drinks, or as a tonic.

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/bitters

Although the word cocktail did not appear in print until the early 19th century, the term was certainly used prior to that.  Through its multiple appearances in literature it is clear that the cocktail was considered an American drink often associated with New York City.

Even though cocktails are associated with NYC, the origin of the cocktail can be traced to Europe.  Bars popped up where people would gather, mingle, and drink punch typically made from a variety of liquors and sweet fruit juices.  (I love a great punch bowl). These punch bowls were developed as party drinks and were served at “punch houses”. These houses brought about the earliest forms of bartending. 

punch house vintage England

The 19th and 20th century brought about a standardization of drink recipes. Named cocktails quickly followed with the creation of recipe books or bartenders guides. According to Vine Pair, the first comprehensive recipe book printed in the United States was Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide which was published in 1862. You can still purchase this guide on Amazon!

Along with increased travel and industrialization, ice helped spur the popularity of the cocktail!  Prohibition did damper the cocktail movement here in the US but because many talented bartenders moved abroad, prohibition in the US helped spread cocktail culture overseas.  Increased travel and the world wars exposed Americans to other cocktails which they brought home with them. An example of this is the Tiki culture which relied heavily on rum drinks.

By the mid-1950’s, cocktail culture was having a resurgence in the United States (think Mad Men), only to lull again in the 60’s and 70’s. The late 80’s and 90’s brought a resurgence with the help of the Tom Cruise movie hit “Cocktail” and famous cocktail lounges opening in New York (e.g., The Rainbow Room). The decades following the 1990’s have seen a mixology renaissance.

Videos on the History of Mixology and Cocktails

This informative video discusses the origin of the word “cocktail”.  It reports that it came from the French word “coquetel” which means egg cup. Apparently people were serving medicinal drinks in egg cups in New Orleans! I love the idea that a party host long ago was looking for a decorative glass to serve a drink in and decided that an egg cup was the perfect option! Or perhaps they had a sink full of dirty dishes and the egg cup was their only choice?!?

This video (below) answers the question “What is a cocktail”?  They define it as a stimulating elixir (I love the word elixir- it reminds me of the green elixir from Wicked) composed of four ingredients: any spirit, sugar, water, and bitters.  In contrast to the previous video they are less clear about where the word cocktail came from. You will also get the chance to look inside an original speakeasy in Venice California that still operates as a bar today.  The video also discusses modern mixology and craft cocktails.

Mixology Tools

There is a whole world of items that go along with mixology and cocktails. Every good mixologist needs the right tools! Below find a list of recommended tools and a brief history of the items found on this site.

Jigger:  A measuring tool that helps bartenders pour exact amounts (1.5 oz and 1 oz).  The word jigger is an old term for roughly 1.5 oz. Named either by the British Navy for their daily ration of alcohol after the fourth mast on a sailing ship (the jiggermast) or as a derivation of the word “thingamajig”.  No one is really sure.

cocktail shaker

Shaker: Versions of the cocktail shaker have been used for thousands of years.  The shaker as we know it today first appeared in the US after the 1840’s.  The Boston shaker is part glass part metal cup. The French or Parisian shaker is a two part metal shaker. The origin of the name of this tool is pretty obvious!

Strainer: Strainers may be related to Chinese tea strainers.  They are a more recent addition to the bar scene becoming more prevalent with the increase in ice use.  The strainer seems to have risen in popularity with the Mint Julep. Some report the strainer was originally used to keep men’s mustaches dry!  The commonly used strainer today is called the Hawthorne which includes a spring around the edge.  

Swizzle Sticks: Tales of the Cocktail reports that the infamous Swizzle Stick originated from two drinks: the Switchel (a molasses and water drink common in the New World) and the Swizzle (a rum based drink).  The Swizzle drink is named not for the ingredients or flavors but based on the motion of making it-swizzling. The practice of using a small branch from the Swizzlestick Tree to stir these drinks lead to the modern Swizzle Stick.

In the 1920’s Queen Victoria used the swizzle stick to stir the bubbles out of her champagne in an attempt to prevent embarrassing “air” later.  The swizzle stick became a modern bar essential in the 1930’s when plastic manufacturing could easily produce plastic sticks. At this time post prohibition bars were seeking ways to advertise and the martini needed a way to hold its olives!

cocktail napkins and swizzel sticks

Swizzle sticks became popular things to collect in the 1950’s.  I wish I would have nabbed my grandmother’s collection! Today swizzle sticks are less popular as forms of advertising but are fun to collect.  You can find many classic collectables on Ebay and Etsy. To learn more about swizzle sticks, check out the Swizzle Stick Collectors website and the International Association of Swizzle Stick Collectors.  

swizzle sticks vintage

The return of Tiki culture gives me hope for a resurgence of swizzle sticks! We are excited to try out the new Tiki Bar near us: Max’s South Seas Hideaway in Grand Rapids. I really hope they have swizzle sticks!

Cocktail Napkins and Coasters: Eckel and Vaughn report that cocktail napkins surged into popularity alongside the rise of the cocktail culture in the 1950’s.  These napkins are typically 5” x 5” squares, a perfect size for most glasses. They are common today and are often used as promotions for the drinking establishment.  

cocktail coasters

Coaster Prince reports that drink coasters were first produced in Germany for beer mugs to help protect tables in bars.  Coasters are also commonly used as promotions for the bar/restaurant and types of beer and alcohol. They also make great free keepsakes.  On a recent trip to Germany our mom pocketed many a drink coaster to help document her trip. I wonder what she did with all those beer coasters?

We couldn’t help but pick out a few cocktail napkins to share. There are so many clever and cute options out there. There are also a ton of customizable napkins and coasters available online.

Join us for Step 2 of the Mixology Badge as we continue our research at a Fall Cocktail Making Class! We visit a distillery and learn to create two fall themed cocktails, wonder about bitters, taste test some simple syrups….and ask a lot of questions! Coming soon.

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