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Know Your Booze: The History Behind These 3 Classic Cocktails

Know Your Booze: The History Behind These 3 Classic Cocktails

A cocktail is so much more than just a mix of booze with some other stuff in a glass; it’s a wonderful concoction—a magic elixir, really—that when made correctly, can completely change the way we feel about our day. Or perhaps a particular colleague, bumbling father-in-law, disobedient child (How does one fail Spelling Class when you speak the language?!), etc. Of course, there’s no special occasion for a good cocktail either. Sometimes (and by "sometimes" we mean “often”), we drink them just because we can.

But if there’s one thing we love more than a good cocktail, it’s the story behind it. When was the first time someone decided to dissolve some sugar in water, toss in some bitters, a drab of whiskey, garnish it with a twist of orange peel, and pour it over a couple ice cubes? Or who—and how drunk—was the genius that decided a good martini should be a drop of Vermouth and a whole lot of gin/vodka, and what on earth made him decide to throw a couple olives in there?

How did some of the most famous and well-regarded cocktails come to be?

Well, we put our nose to the grindstone and tracked down the stories behind three of the world’s most famous—and favorite—cocktails. Enjoy!

The Old-Fashioned

The whiskey drink described in the second paragraph above a classic Old-Fashioned. Of course, if you’re a cocktail guy, you already knew that. What you probably didn’t know was that the first drink ever to be called an Old-Fashioned actually didn’t have whiskey in it at all, but gin. It’s first appearance was in 1862, in a book titled Jerry Thomas’ Bardenders Guide: How To Mix Drinks. The recipe is pretty much exactly what we know today as the standard Old-Fashioned, but substitutes whiskey with "one jigger" of Holland gin.

The Old-Fashioned as we know it was most popularly invented in 1880 by a bartender in Louisville, Kentucky, at the famous Pendennis Club—an aristocratic social club that still exists today—in honor of one of its members, James E. Pepper, himself a third-generation bourbon connoisseur. Pepper delighted so much in the drink that on one of his trips to New York City, he introduced it to the world via the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar.

From there, the rest his history, and the Old-Fashioned has since become such a cocktail staple that it was named one of the six basic drinks listed in David A. Embury’s famous The Fine Art of Mixing Cocktails.

The Martini

By any measurable standard, if your liquor preference leans toward the clear variety, the martini is the perfect cocktail. A tiny bit of dry white vermouth , a lot of gin (or vodka, if you absolutely must), garnished with either an olive or, if you’re in the mood for something crisp, a twist of lemon. A clean and concise drink for clean and concise men.

The martini’s history, however, is not so clearcut.

The first origin story, of quite a few, really, hails from San Francisco, where a folklorishly talented bartender named Jerry Thomas encountered a gold miner who was on his way back home to California. He asked that Thomas make him a special drink in exchange for a solid gold nugget; something to commemorate his journey home. Thomas served up what he would later call the Martinez (named for the city to which the miner was returning): A dash of bitters, two dashes of maraschino, a whole wine glass of vermouth, sweetened gin (usually Old Tom), and a quarter slice of lemon. It is the polar opposite of what we consider today’s martini, but many consider the Martinez to be, at the very least, a late predecessor to it.

(Quick Fun Fact: In the old days, martinis were actually served very "wet," meaning they were packed with a ton of vermouth. So, it’s not all that farfetched to imagine the Martinez in the same category.)

An Italian immigrant bartender named martini di Arma di Taggia, of the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City, claims that he was the original inventor of the first actual martini. He said that his concoction of equal parts gin and dry vermouth, with a dash of orange bitters, pre-dates WWI, and any other mention of the martini.

There’s also the Marguerite Cocktail, first published by Stuart Thomas in Stuart’s Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them, which called for two parts gin, one part vermouth, with a dash of orange bitters, which is closer to a real martini than both Taggia’s and Thomas’ concoctions.

Nevertheless, the martini rose to further prominence during prohibition because, as it happens, gin is fairly easy to produce in a bathtub—far easier to make than dry vermouth, in fact, which we imagine is when and why the dryer variety started to make its way into peoples’ livers.

The rest is history.

The Sidecar

Another entrant on Embury’s six basic drinks list, we cannot, for the life of us, understand why we never encounter more people ordering simple-but-delicious Sidecars. This cognac-based cocktail is made using nothing more than cognac, triple sec, and lemon juice, but it is far-and-away one of our favorites. Garnished with orange in the warmer months, or with a dash of nutmeg sprinkled on top in the winter (or nothing at all, if you’re not into frills), the Sidecar is an all-season cocktail that’s mellow enough on the pallet for non-cognac drinkers, but goes down just right for those of us into the wondrous spirit.

Like the martini, several people lay claim to the Sidecar. Unlike the martini, we can say with relative certainty that everyone is lying except the folks at the Ritz Bar in Paris. The most likely story is this:

For context’s sake, Harry MacElhone was a famous inventor of cocktails like the Bloody Mary, the better version of the White Lady, and the Monkey Glan who was in Paris after WWI. In 1923, he purchased a bar down the street from the famous Ritz Bar called New York Bar, which he aptly renamed to Harry’s New York Bar. That same year, he also released what would be his famous mixologist handbook, Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails.

Now, as the story goes, in the years following WWI, a U.S. Army Captain would cruise around Paris in the sidecar of his buddy’s old army motorcycle. One particularly early evening, the two stopped into a bar and the Army captain wanted cognac. But back in those days, it was considered tacky to drink a spirit like cognac so early in the evening. Not wanting to refuse a paying customer, the bartender instead mixed cognac with some Cointreau and lemon juice, and served it chilled. And so the Sidecar was born.

The story itself isn’t subject of contention. The U.S. Army captain came into a bar, requested the drink, and then it was officially named after the sidecar he rode in. But which bar he entered is up for debate.

Many people say the Army captain ordered the drink at Harry’s Bar. However, the drink first appeared in MacElhone’s book in 1923, the same year he took over and renamed the bar. But the staff at The Ritz Bar (now named Bar Hemingway after one of its indubitably most famous patrons) lay claim to the drink, and maintain that the events took place at their bar.

The timeline of events seems shaky at best, and Harry obviously had something to gain by laying claim to the famous drink, as it would give his bar some kind of namesake early on. That’s why we’re inclined to believe the original events transpired at the Ritz Bar, which eventually made its way to Harry’s, and then Harry’s book.

We can’t tell you the exact story because no one really knows the truth. Either way, we’re grateful for the beautiful bastard who did it first—whoever he be.