Alcohol and drinking culture have quite a long history. From the time humans fermented fruits and inadvertently produced the world’s first intoxicating liquid until today where you can find small-batch, organic, artisanal, fair-trade liquors, we, as a species, have always found ways to get buzzed.

While it’s great to look forward and innovate, it’s also good to look back every once in a while to see how far we’ve come. I’ve decided to take a trip down (alcohol-induced) memory(-loss) lane to over a hundred years ago to see how alcohol and our complex relationship has evolved.

THE CLASSICS 

As with things that weren’t extensively documented and whose details were only passed on through word of mouth, it’s difficult to determine the true origin of the term “cocktail.” There are many theories. It is said that it came from the term used for the leftovers in casks of ales, called cock tailings. The leftovers from other spirits would be mixed together and sold as a substandard concoction. Another horse’s tale tells us horse trainers would prepare and mix a concoction of spirits so strong, it would make their horses cock their tails and run faster. Another story (rooted in New Orleans) goes that Peychaud (yes, the bitters) used a French eggcup called coquetier to serve a mixed brandy drink. People called it coquetier and the term eventually became “cocktail.”

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A coquetier is a French egg-cup. The inventor of Peychaud bitters Antoine Amédée Peychaud used a vintage version of this cup to serve brandy mixed with his bitters in the late 18th century

Now that that’s been covered, let’s move on to the classics. What classifies a cocktail as a classic? Wikipedia states that it is “any cocktail which appeared in the publication of Jerry Thomas’ 1862 book, Bar-Tender’s Guide, and most other cocktails created between then and the publication of Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930.” If you can’t wholeheartedly trust Wikipedia, then who can you trust, right? (Insert sarcasm emoticon here.)

@Jerry Thomas’ 1862 book, Bar-Tender’s Guide
Jerry Thomas’ 1862 Bar-Tender’s Guide book

I suppose that definition is technically correct since the classic cocktails hail from this time period. For a cocktail to be called that, it has to be well known. You can hardly call an obscure drink coming from a secluded part of the globe a classic. It also has to be made pretty much in any bar in the world. A classic has global reach and accessibility, and has a simplicity that is notably absent in most current cocktails that have too much going on. The staples like the Old Fashioned, daiquiri and Dark ‘n Stormy fall in this category.

PROHIBITION

The bartenders of that time had a flair for the dramatic, especially the (considered) father of American mixology himself, Jerry Thomas, who made bartending a form of entertainment. His signature drink, the Blue Blazer, was a cocktail he’d light on fire and pass back and forth between two glasses to make a blazing arch, reportedly with two white rats on his shoulders. Talk about showmanship. This kind of theatrics, coupled with the new tasty, intoxicating concoctions, helped the popularity of and demand for alcohol. But it was also blamed for the people going overboard on the boozing, causing people to view alcohol as a societal ill. This then led to a dark period (I suppose that depends on how you look at it) in the partying history of America: The Prohibition Era.

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Thanks to “dry” crusaders, who sought to cure the ills of society, the prohibition of alcohol production, transportation, and distribution was enacted by President Woodrow Wilson under the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the Volstead Act in 1920. It was a “noble experiment” aimed at reducing crime and corruption, solve social problems, and generally make life better for everyone in America. Spoiler alert: it failed.

UNTOLD STORY

The brewing business grew throughout the end of the nineteenth century. With the popularity of lager beer brought in by German immigrants and technological advancements in communication (telegraph) and transportation (railroad) and refrigeration, it’s not hard to believe that beer surpassed distilled spirits as the principal source of alcoholic beverage in America by 1890. It was practical to have lots of different bottles of spirits in a bar/saloon, but not really practical to carry different barrels of brews from competing breweries.

Wagon

Now these big breweries wanted to maximize profits and to do that, they built so many saloons to offer their wares (one saloon for every 150-200 people). The accessibility of drinking places, entertaining bartenders, freebies offered by saloon owners (who got compensated by “Big Brew”) to entice customers proved too much for people to refuse. This kind of over-the-top drinking culture wasn’t good for society. People really went overboard with their drinking and were being jailed for public intoxication; fathers were absent because they spent all their time in saloons. The reaction of “dry” activists seems reasonable, considering the circumstances. It’s a cause and effect situation that resulted in unintended consequences.

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES 

The Prohibition Act was borne out of good intentions. (We all know that’s what the road to hell is paved with, so can just imagine where I’m going with this.) However, it actually caused more harm than good.

Some of the most popular movies (The Untouchables) and TV shows (Boardwalk Empire) are set in this iconic time period. I think apart from the solid acting and production design, what people take away from their viewing experience is the violence and a crash course on how organized crime and corruption flourished.

During the Prohibition period from 1920 to 1933, it was one of only 10 brands authorized for lawful production (for medicinal purposes).[3]
Old Forester was one of only 10 brands authorized for lawful production (for medicinal purposes) during the Prohibition period from 1920 to 1933. The brand is the longest running Bourbon in the market today

The prohibition of alcohol did not stop people from wanting to drink, or making a buck. Bootleggers, who made and sold homemade booze (hooch, moonshine, bathtub gin), saw the opportunity to capitalize on the demand for intoxicating liquids. And because these were illegal substances, they were not regulated and the people who made them could not be held liable if what they produced was inferior or even deadly. People would get sick from tainted hooch and they would have no legal recourse. In some cases, these alcohol poisonings would result in death.

PROHIBITION LEGACY

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, blood and death. There were good things that have come out of this period as well. The influence of the Prohibition period is felt in this modern world through the resurgence of speakeasies that have peppered the world’s nightlife scene, among other things.

Necessity really is the mother of invention. People couldn’t go to regular bars (because they were non-existent) so speakeasies were created to take care for the demand for a safe space to enjoy a tipple or two. This innovation – the secrecy and exclusivity – basically set up a model in bar concepts. And the bad-tasting, unregulated, homemade booze needed to be mixed with other ingredients to mask the unsavory taste, giving birth to more cocktails (like the Screwdriver).

THE END OF PROHIBITION

The Great Depression of 1932 made the legalization of liquor more appealing, because that would create more jobs. Coupled with a clamor to lift the alcohol ban, Congress adopted a resolution for a 21st Amendment that would repeal the 18th (which started this whole experiment), and the Prohibition Act was abolished on December 5, 1933. You can just imagine the parties after the booze ban was lifted. I’m pretty sure they were partying for days after that.

One would think that the cocktail culture would just soar after the Prohibition Era, but World War II put a damper on that. Once the Prohibition Act was lifted in 1933, a new age in drinking had to take over. These things come in cycles (as with everything else in life), and what took over from the Prohibition Era of speakeasies and bathtub gin was the elaborately designed, Polynesian-influenced Tiki Bars.

The trend took up where the Prohibition left off. I’ll tackle the two main people who drove this style of bars, and the reasons why the Tiki Bars became popular and why they declined.

WHAT ARE TIKI BARS?

Tiki bars are Polynesian-themed drinking establishments that serve elaborate, mostly rum-based drinks and decorated with dark wood, rattan, bamboo, plus an assortment of other South Pacific-inspired decors. The golden age of Tiki could be placed at the end of Prohibition to the dawn of Disco.

DON THE BEACHCOMBER

Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, who is best known as Don the Beachcomber (and later changed his name to Donn Beach), is credited for starting Tiki cocktail culture. He spent several years in the Caribbean and South Pacific and learned about drinks. He came back from his travels with suitcases filled with souvenirs and a head full of drink ideas and set up the world’s first Tiki bar called Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles in 1934. The idea to bring the vacation and South Pacific lifestyle to people during a time when international travel was uncommon proved to be a successful one. People came in droves, including the Hollywood elite.

An old postcard from Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles
An old postcard from Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles

Gantt is credited for creating the zombie (supposedly so “manly” men would be enticed to drink the fruity Tiki cocktails) among 70 original cocktails in the 1930s. At that time, no one wanted to drink rum, as it was associated with sailors and poor people. Don learned to mix rum drinks in the Caribbean and tweaked them to make some pretty innovative concoctions. The Planter’s Punch (from Jamaica), used multiple syrups and citrus fruits and used multiple rums as well, which was a new idea at the time. Rum is more varied, in the sense that there are so many different kinds, from dark rich heavy rums to light dry floral rums. Don was one of only a few people who knew all the nuances of these rums and no one had tasted drinks like his.

TRADER VIC AND THE RIVALRY

Imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. A visit to Don the Beachcomber prompted “Trader” Vic Bergeron to open a similar bar in Oakland (renaming his bar from Hinky Dinks to Trader Vic’s) in 1937. You can thank him for coming up with the quintessential beach drink, the Mai Tai. Because of the popularity of the Tiki concept and the cocktails that they produced, all sorts of questionable behavior sprouted as well. Bartenders were getting poached by rival bars, recipes were being stolen, accusations sprung left and right. This prompted bar owners to write recipes in code and kept them under lock and key to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. Sounds a bit like a spy movie, don’t you think?

TIKI COCKTAIL CULTURE

Apart from the novelty of new drinks and design aesthetic, there were several reasons why the Tiki bars grew popular. The people who were stationed in the South Pacific during World War II found familiarity with the breezy, beachy, Tiki bar atmosphere and began patronizing them. The post-war economic boom made the drinks affordable to people who wanted to escape the humdrum of city life, even momentarily. It became very chic. Hollywood artists who did film sets designed restaurants and furniture, leading to homes being decorated in the same Tiki bar style. There was Tiki fever everywhere.

@Tiki

The Tiki drinks were sweet, colorful, and ornately garnished. It wasn’t uncommon to see cocktails garnished like a garden. But they weren’t all for show, though. The ubiquitous tiny paper drink umbrella is said to prevent the ice in the drink from melting too fast, as it protects the drink from the sun’s rays (as the drink is meant to be savored by the beach).

DECLINE 

The end of the Tiki bar came around the 1970s. While previously the idea of a remote island beach seemed appealing, the horrors of the Vietnam War no longer incited relaxation and vacations. Soon enough, the Tiki fad was over.

Trends in cocktail culture come and go, but over the past decades Tiki has had its resurgence. Today, there are new generation of mixologists and bar tenders who are reviving Tiki drinks and if done the right way you’ll end up sipping these summery drinks the entire night.

Restaurateur, expert drinker, creative proprietor of steam punk bar Hooch, SMITH Butcher and Grill Room, Ebeneezers, Poulet Manille, and Ampersand. She wrote The Standard newspaper’s Tipple Tales cocktail and spirits column and co-hosted the Manila episode of the Travel Channel show Booze Traveler with cocktail connoisseur Jack Maxwell. She is DrinkManila’s resident mixology expert.

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