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a seat in the legislature, marked under the head of Loss, 25 do. Cock-tail. Will you be so obliging as to inform me what is meant by this species of refreshment? Though a stranger to you, I believe, from your general character, you will not suppose this request to be impertinent.” “I shall not hesitate to gratify the curiosity of my inquisitive correspondent: Cock-tail, then is 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.” First printed on Tuesday 13th May 1806 in New York’s Balance & Columbian Repository this exchange details the definition of the Cock-tail. Whilst there is no definitive literature that explains the origins of the term, this repartee clarifies exactly what was to be expected of a beverage of its type. Nowadays it is the norm to classify all mixed drinks with three or more ingredients as a Cock-tail; however the Cock-tail was classically a morning drink, a pick-me-up or an eye-opener if you must. At a time when drinks families had clear definitions, the one detail that separated the Cock-tail from other families was the crucial inclusion of bitters. So what are bitters I hear you ask? Put simply, they are a compound of herbs, roots, barks, spices and spirit which were originally used as a medicine. The final product should have layers and layers of flavour with a pronounced bitter, or bittersweet, flavour. It is worth noting that there are two common types of bitter, potable and non-potable, and it is advisable to understand the differences. Potable bitters, the likes of Campari, Fernet Branca and Jägermeister which can be consumed on their own, typically act as digestifs. Non-potable bitters such as Angostura Aromatic, Peychaud’s Aromatic, Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Boker’s or Regan’s Orange #6 are not intended to be imbibed on their own, but instead are typically dashed into drinks to act as a flavouring agent and binder. Our interest for the moment is in this non-potable variety. Historically bitters were lauded for their ability to cure a vast number of ailments with many bitters producers making absurd claims that their product could cure a variety of illnesses. With that said, what is undeniable is their ability to aid digestion. When bitter flavours come into contact with the human tongue it stimulates a sequence of events that culminates in the flow of digestive juices to the stomach, liver, duodenum and pancreas. Many doctors believe it is the lack of bitter flavours in the diet of some United States citizens that is a contributory factor to digestive related health issues prevalent in the US. When you compare their digestive problems to the lack of such in Germany and Italy who are regular imbibers of bitter drinks such as Underberg and Campari, it appears that they may indeed have a valid point. Although bitters were traditionally consumed for their medicinal properties, they later found their way into food and primarily drink as a flavouring agent and digestive stimulant. Due to the many layers of flavour they contain bitters assist in the integration of flavours found within cocktails, bridging gaps between the various components and adding layers of complexity, depth and character. Think of food without seasoning and you are on the way to understanding why bitters play an essential role in many mixed drinks. Some refer to bitters as the salt & pepper of cocktails, and although I don’t feel that entirely does them justice I fully understand where they are coming from with the analogy. Bitters were a mainstay of mixology throughout the 1700s and early 1800s in spirituous drinks such as the Cock-tail. At their peak during the 17-1800s there were literally hundreds of bitters on the market such as Hostetter’s, Stoughton, Caroni, Celery, Pepsin and Schroeder, et al. In the mid-1800s, sometime after 1840 and likely the early 1850s, the Cock-tail as it was known would experience
something of an Evo-lution [shameless plug]. Joseph Santini, the recently appointed manager of the New Orleans City Exchange, took the classic Cock-tail and added lemon juice, ice in place of water, Curacao and a sugarcrusted rim, thus giving birth to the Crusta. The Cock-tail would never be the same again. In the late 1800s, with vermouth and maraschino added to a bartender’s armoury, the likes of the Martinez, Improved Cocktail, Martini and Manhattan were born. Perhaps the greatest example of the Cock-tail’s development was witnessed in 1887 when the Morning Glory Cocktail first went to print in Jerry Thomas’ rewritten bartender’s guide. The name alone spells out this drink’s intentions to act as a corpse reviver of sorts. Take the classic Cock-tail of spirit, sugar, water and bitters, in this case brandy, whiskey, gum syrup, ice and Boker’s. Add to that some dashes of Curacao and Absinthe, two more favourites of bartenders in the late 1800s, a twist of lemon peel and stir with ice. Strain into a small highball to remove the ice, top with soda water and finish with a teaspoon of powdered sugar which will add some froth and fizz to the drink. And there you have a hangover cure as prescribed by Professor Jerry Thomas. These relatively simple changes to the Cock-tail gave us some of the greatest drinks ever created, with bitters at the heart of all these libations. Sadly, this was arguably the pinnacle of bitters’ influence on mixology as it was about to enter a period which would signal the death-knell for many US-based bitters companies. As we moved into the early 1900s the palates of bar patrons were ever-evolving with an increasing demand for lighter drinks that were predominantly citrus led. Bitters were not the only product to suffer during this time, with Old Tom gin and Dutch Genever losing favour to London Dry gin, and dark, funky rums falling behind light rums. Couple this with the passing of the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906, which stipulated that patent medicines (the distinct classification that many bitters fell under due to their questionable medicinal properties) could no longer be sold with misleading labels or as a product which had no substance to their alleged claims, and the writing was on the wall: even more so when you consider what was about to happen in the succeeding years. Those companies that were fortunate to survive these troubled times were dealt the final nail in their coffin with the passing of the Volstead Act in 1919, which we now commonly refer to as Prohibition. This act prohibited the sale, manufacture, transportation, import and export of alcohol and alcoholic beverages and was in effect in the United States of America between 1920 and 1933. The lasting effects of Prohibition, the details of which are too lengthy to go into just now, were to be felt for decades, not just in the US but across the World with Cock-tail culture falling by the wayside until recent years. Thankfully two bitters producers survived this traumatic period, Peychaud’s Aromatic from New Orleans and undoubtedly the most famous bitters of them all, Angostura Aromatic, originally of Venezuela but nowadays based in Trinidad. It is the survival of these bottlings that has ensured the importance of Cock-tail bitters has never been forgotten, leading to the bitters renaissance we are currently experiencing. Across the globe bars and bartenders are experiencing something akin to a second coming of the Cock-tail, with many revisiting and rediscovering the lost arts of the 17-1800s, combining them with new-found methodologies, techniques and a deeper understanding of the history of the Cock-tail. Whereas before we would pick up vintage cocktail books and only dream of Tom Bullock’s Celery Sour with Celery Bitters, or Jerry Thomas’ Japanese Cocktail with Boker’s Bitters, or a Martini with Orange Bitters, we can now reproduce these classics and sample a little bit of history for ourselves. During the first Golden Age of the Cock-tail in the 1800s, bartenders had access to a variety of bitters with which they created a number of timeless libations such as the Martinez, Crusta, Manhattan, Sazerac, and Japanese Cocktail, to name but a few. The good work of a certain Dr. Adam Elmegirab and companies such as The Bitter Truth, Regan’s, Scrappy’s, Bob’s, Bittermen’s and Fee Brothers, who have all reformulated bitters that were lost to the sands of time or have themselves created new
bottlings, has meant the baton has now been passed from our forefathers to the bartenders of today so they can create their own classics in this new Golden Age of Cock-tails… Sláinte!