As I’ve started working more with the Museum of the American Cocktail to organize their wonderful cocktail events, I find myself thinking more and more about the resurgence of the “cocktail culture.” The history of this cocktail culture is fascinating, and shows just how much the impact of government policies, popular trends, and a few determined people have on what we consume.
The tale of the cocktail (sorry! it’s that time of year…) has been oft repeated in recent years, so much that I’m sure you know it yourself. The gist of the history is that the “cocktail” consisting of alcohol, sugar, bitters and water, was officially born in the early 1800s, creating a whole new genre of drink.
Then came the “Golden Age” of cocktails, as Dale DeGroff describes in this NPR interview in 2005. Martinis, Manhattans, fancy, delicious drinks in beautiful glasses with bartenders who looked like this (Jerry Thomas, from Wikipedia).
Just as everyone was getting comfortable in their newly acquired drinking habits, the US government (for possibly the first public time!) decided to listen to a very vocal group of women who thought that alcohol should be made illegal. They might have been happier if they had been able to just divorce the low life-husbands they had who spent all of their time and money in the bars and died from alcohol poisoning, but in any case, Prohibition started in 1920.
After 13 years of gangsters, women learning how to drink, and even worse cases of alcohol poisoning due to “bathtub gin” (see Boardwalk Empire for a detailed documentation of this period), Prohibition was repealed, leaving behind a very different drinking world. The lack of legality for such a long period of time led to the demise of many companies, and many specialty products disappeared. The necessity of using strongly flavored juices and other mixers with the awful tasting liquor produced illegally during Prohibition changed everyone’s palates. Drinks like Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane were invented, tropical drinks were introduced by everyone who “vacationed” in Cuba, and flavorless spirits seemed to take hold. Everything started going downhill from there.
Finally, in the late 1990s, a few bartenders who were tired of using sour mix decided that things could be better in our bars. The revolution began. Fresh squeezed lime and lemon juice, housemade bitters, quality spirits and carefully thought out menus suddenly have become commonplace in bars across the country. I remember clearly when Cure, the first modern craft cocktail bar in New Orleans, opened right around the corner from my house. I was so excited, not only because I’d just turned 21, not only because I wanted to actually try a craft cocktail after reading about them for so long, but because above all, I wanted to be a part of IT. I wanted to look cool, to have a fancy drink in my hand as I fashionably slouched in the poorly lit booth. And damn, did it feel great. It took about 20 minutes for the drink to be ready and I think I could have downed it all in one sip, but the flavors were intense, the booth was comfy, and the people were beautiful.
This experience, as well as many others, has convinced me that, from Prohibition forward, the rise of the coolness of drinking cocktails is the reason for their continued evolution. Do you remember when Bond orders a martini in Casino Royale? It’s worth another watch. He’s so damn suave. Ordering and then drinking a martini like that means that you are in control of the party. That’s a timeless aspect of cocktails you can see in nearly any form of cultural representation. Ernest Hemingway becomes almost effusive when he describes what his characters are drinking and how they make their drinks, the number of cubes and the precise proportions, his sparse phrasing creating that very same sense of control, exacting standards, and above all, coolness. When Don Draper pours a quick cocktail at work, when Carrie Bradshaw orders a Cosmo, when your friends pull out the glass glasses instead of the plastic for the party punch, there’s an element of style that elevates the simple act of drinking to something closer to something classy.
As the craft cocktail culture has gone more mainstream, the coolness and the art factors become very easy to exploit and exaggerate, as parody group Smog and Fog show in this video, Mixologist. They have a point. When did drinking good cocktails turn into a fellow wearing pince-nez looking like he walked out of a Civil War re-enactment using a pipet to drip in an essence of something unpronounceable? Not every craft bar is like this, obviously, but there are a few who seem to have taken the trend too far. In reality, I feel that most drinkers these days may enjoy the gentrification of their drink and their surroundings, but they still want that classic, simple elegance that has been glorified in so many ways throughout the years. This recent cocktail renaissance is in its best form when bartenders make simple cocktails well. And honestly, there are a lot of bars in New Orleans where that has happened for generations, and will continue to happen. I feel that in this city, we have avoided most of the pretension and overblown attitudes of some of the worst “Mixologist” examples.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter much what you drink and how you drink it, but that you enjoy your drink. And if you think you look cool while you’re doing it, give thanks to the cocktail culture we have created.
Kelsey’s favorite cocktail bars to be “cool” at.