The story of America in 15 cocktails
People drinking alcohol blew up in a time when they didn’t trust water; just ask Ben Franklin which he preferred. Since colonies started forming in North America the cocktails people chose to drink have been defining the history of the continent. Captain Morgan kept his men drunk with grog to both motivate and control them, while President Washington led troops to squash the Whiskey Rebellion, and on to Prohibition when the cocktail really came of age. From early settlers’ rum to Ernest Hemingway’s daiquiris the origins of cocktails all tell a story that is ingrained in history. We’ll even include their recipes.
1. Grog (Ingredients: Rum, water, fresh lime juice or brown sugar)
Like most alcohols on this list, rum’s origins are disputed. A French distiller, Portuguese settlers in Brazil, and even a chemist in India all claim to have invented “Kill Devil” as it came to be known. But the island of Barbados is where it exploded, and in 1655, a sailor arrived that who would shape the way we look at rum.
Henry Morgan was a British captain when he first stepped foot on Barbados in 1655, which is the same year the British made rum part of daily rations to sailors. In a few short years, Captain Morgan sailed under the British flag as a Privateer, and that’s when things got really out of hand.
2. Grog (To mix: Pour water, pour rum, touch of lime, or dash of brown sugar)
Captain “Black Beard” Morgan was basically given a license to disrupt, attack, and plunder any enemy of the British crown (a gig he took with pride). He ransacked towns and villages for gold and silver, then would pause to have his men drink up all the rum in town.
Add a little citrus to the “hot, hellish, and terrible liquor,” and sailors and pirates found Grog as a way to fight off scurvy. Captain Morgan also used it for other purposes, which involved keeping his men in order. When they arrived in a friendly port, or were just partying in Port Royal, he needed them to drink up all their gold so they’d beg him for another plundering.
3. Flip (1 cup stout beer, 2 tbsb. Molasses, 1 oz. Jamaican rum)
Nicholas Cresswell, a British traveler in North America, noted in his journal on January 6, 1776 that he was “feloniously drunk,” then the next day, “stupidly drunk,” and then later, “most feloniously drunk. This is a bad preface to the new volume of my diary.” The culprit cocktail in this instance: Flip.
Benjamin Frankliln once noted that, “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria.” Out of this literal fear of water came a need for alcohol drinks, and when rum arrived in the American colonies, they were ready to graduate from already popular beer to something a little harder.
4. Flip (Mix ingredients, heat fire poker, stab into drink until foaming ceases, serve hot)
True fact: In the late 1700s, the average American drank the equivalent of five shots of rum everyday. It was consumed in many forms, as it was mixed with everything from milk to mint, but the most popular mixture was decidedly concoctions known as “flip.”
Flip was a defiant, American drink, as the British version involved the same mixture of ingredients in a large cauldron before serving. But the American version involved a loggerhead, which is a device for heating tar. It was heated up and thrust into the drink thus giving it a smoky, burnt flavor that tasted like American freedom.
5. Bombo (2 ozs. Rum, 2 ozs. Water, ½ tsp. molasses, nutmeg)
One April evening in 1775 a man named Paul Revere pulled up his horse to the home of Captain Isaac Hall. Revere pounded on the door until Hall opened it and let him inside. Revere was a bit shaken up, as he had just outrun two British soldiers.
Captain Hall was the head of the Medford militia, and he was also the owner of one of 150 rum distilling operations in New England. Many historians believe Revere stayed for a few minutes, and had one, or maybe even a couple drinks to steady his nerves. Did Revere ride out drunk after the encounter? Well, it might explain why he got captured and the others got away.
6. Bombo (Mix ingredients, dust with nutmeg)
Captain Hall’s rum was known to be so strong that it could make “a rabbit bite a bulldog,” but it was also in very high demand because Medford rum was known to be the best. That’s why historians believe that Revere stopped to imbibe, and of course later he was captured, but that certainly wasn’t the first time taking a drink led to a bad night, nor would it be the last.
A quote from John Adams sums up the effect of rum on the colonies perfectly, “I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses were an essential ingredient in American independence. Many great events have proceeded from much smaller causes.” Amen, and there’s another rum drink that was even more popular than flip.
7. Planters Punch (1/2 Lime, 1 ½ oz. Rum, 2 ozs. water, Nutmeg, bitters, any citrus fruit)
Pirates and sailors may have avoided scurvy by adding a little lime to their rum, but medical purposes aside, they certainly did not stop there. The first global cocktail is decidedly Planters Punch, and it was often mixed with citrus fruits, sugar, nutmeg, and then doled out on ships or in taverns.
Any discussion about the rum trade brings up the wicked practice and harsh realities of slavery in the Americas. Growing sugar required a massive labor force, and plantation owners hideously bought and sold slaves to tend their fields. But the slaves on Barbados and other places were given rum too.
8. Planters Punch (Mix ingredients, squeeze lime, grate nutmeg, dash of bitters, add fruit)
Rum was a source of wealth for plantation slaves. On English plantations, slaves were given up to a gallon and a half a year. Mostly it was used for bartering, but it was also consumed by slaves to keep them content, lest they were given too much rum that resulted in more than a few slave revolts.
The Triangle Slave Trade, as it’s known, fizzled out by the time of American independence in 1776. New England planters were responsible for 1% of the overall slave trade by then, but even that had catastrophic effects for generations of Africans. But there is another alcohol that has a much cleaner history than rum, and it is good old fashioned American made whiskey.
9. Demon Rum (whiskey, ‘nough said)
By 1800 rum production had been cut in half in the United States, so Americans in their brand new country looked to the future. As it turned out, the future was whiskey. One in every 20 patents issued in the US between 1802-1815 had to do with whiskey distillation.
As Americans began moving west a surplus of grain and corn had Americans tinkering with new recipes. In 1802 Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton imposed a tax on whiskey, which led to open rebellion in New England. It might’ve been a lot worse had President Washington not rode ahead of an army to quell the angry distillers.
10. Demon Rum (over ice, or neat)
The Whiskey Rebellion was a very American sort of thing to do, as distillers were angry for the government profiting from taxing their work. Whiskey’s hold on the country was indisputable as American drinking habits continued to rise well into the 1800s.
By the 1850s, temperance movements were springing up all over the country, especially in New York. America’s experiment with prohibition was beginning in small towns, and by 1920, it would be the law of the land. And of course, Americans hate being told what to do, so when alcohol became illegal, they hit back with the cocktail boom.
11. Tom Collins (2 ozs. Gin, 1 oz. lime juice, ¾ oz. syrup, soda, orange)
Before we get to Prohibition, which led to the cocktail boom, there is one honorable mention that came about in the 1800s. One of the reasons it does get a mention is because a Tom Collins is a cocktail that is like the ones we drink today, but oddly enough, this cocktail started out as a prank.
In New York City, where the prank originated, it went something like this: target your most inebriated friend, or even just someone who’s hand a little too much to drink on the street, and tell them that a man named “Tom Collins” has been saying some awful things about them.
12. Tom Collins (Mix ingredients, pour over ice, add soda, garnish with orange slice)
The drunk person would then proceed to go from bar to bar looking for the man they intended to set straight. But since Tom Collins never existed, they were never able to find him, and the conversation always ended with asking the bartender.
Savvy bartenders caught on to the prank and decided to make a cocktail after it. That way, when drunks approached the bar looking for a man named Tom Collins, they’d get a drink instead of the same name. The prank eventually fizzled out, but the drink was so good it stuck around, and was a popular cocktail during Prohibition, when so many other famous cocktails were invented. At least the was some reprise for being the butt of a joke.
13. South Side Fizz (2 ozs. gin, ½ lime, sugar, water, mint, cucumber, soda)
Whiskey kept American drinkers busy and contented for over a century, and it wasn’t until Prohibition that cocktails as we know them today began to take shape. Alcohol produced in the Prohibition period was unregulated, and often times it was at best awful, and at worst straight up poison.
Since the alcohol served in speakeasies was inconsistent in both taste and strength, bartenders had to invent new ways to mask the especially rancid taste. From 1920-1933, gangsters kept speakeasies open and patrons lubricated, and the favorite drink of the most notorious gangster of the era was the South Side Fizz.
14. South Side Fizz (Muddle mint and cucumber, mix sugar and water, shake ingredients)
Al Capone made a ridiculous amount of money selling illegal booze during prohibition (estimates are in the billions), and his speakeasies were (and still are) legendary in the city of Chicago. His cocktail of choice was the gin-based South Side Fizz and may have been the reason for his first arrest, when he drunkenly smashed his car into a parked taxi cab.
Capone never really cleaned up his act and engaged in many a drunken night. His love of ladies of the night and booze got him in more trouble than the law ever could, as he died years later from syphilis. But that shouldn’t be knock on the South Side Fizz. because it’s a good drink, just like Ernest Hemingway’s drink of choice, the Daiquiri.
15. Daiquiri (Light rum, ½ lime, 2 tps. sugar, crushed ice)
“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut,” said Ernest Hemingway. One of his favorite drinks was the Daiquiri, which is another cocktail that rose to prominence during Prohibition, even though it was born outside the United States on the island of Cuba.
One day Hemingway walked into a bar in Havana (we promise this isn’t the start of a bad joke), and watched as a bartender with dazzling skill mixed cocktails like a showman in a circus. Hemingway took a sip, and liked the daiquiri so much he ordered another one, but this time he wanted less sugar, and double the rum.
16. Daiquiri (shake ingredients, strain when pouring over crushed ice)
A later, customized version of the daiquiri was called the “Hemingway Special,” and included a little grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur. Hemingway spent nearly a third of his life in Havana and the bar where he first tasted a daiquiri, which was called El Floridita.
Hemingway loved El Floridita, and often came in dressed…comfortably…wearing swim trunks, a shabby shirt, and no shoes. He would sit still so as to not grab any attention (not depicted in the photo above), and spent long hours quietly gulping down strong libations while writing prose that would echo through the ages.
17. Rum and coke (1 ½ oz. rum, coca-cola, lime)
It’s amazing how much world events will effect what kinds of drinks people consume. In the case of rum and coke, a humble enough cocktail, it was WWII that brought it to the forefront. While whiskey still reigned supreme, production was cut for the war effort, and thirsty drinkers still needed cocktails.
While whiskey distillers were ordered to make high grade alcohol for airplane fuel, rum distillers in Puerto Rico were allowed to keep distilling. The reason was because their economy relied too heavily on rum production, and this created an opportunity for companies like Bacardi to make huge profits.
18. Rum and coke (Add as much coke as you like, garnish with lime, serve over ice)
Rum produced during WWII was still quite putrid, and before Coca-Cola came on the scene, it was mixed with anything people could find. With over 10 billion cokes being served to soldiers alone during the war years, it’s no wonder the two were mixed and forever married. Not to mention they make a pretty decent combo.
But what really made the rum and coke popular was a singing trio named the Andrews Sisters. One day, when they were fooling around in the studio, they recorded a song they called “Rum and Coca-Cola.” It became the third biggest hit of the 1940s and was adopted as “the National Anthem of the [soldiers’] camps.”
19. Margarita (2 oz. Blanco tequila, ½ lime, ½ oz. orange liqueur, ½ oz. agave syrup, salt)
Rum and coke ended up winning the day in WWII, but tequila just missed out on being the American staple during the war. Although it rose to popularity during Prohibition, it never really gained a foothold, because tequila in those days smelled like rotten eggs.
The “Mexican itch” was developed to help thirsty drinkers take it down. Prior to taking a shot of tequila, drinkers would lick salt off the back of their hand, then suck on a lemon to mask the taste of the shot. A refined version of the “Mexican itch” still exists today, but no one can say for sure when the transformation occurred.
20. Margarita (Mix ingredients in shaker, shake, strain over ice, lime for garnish, salt the rim)
The “Mexican itch” is important as it also pertains to the development of the margarita, as the cocktail basically shares the same ingredients. The legend of this cocktail is disputed, but most credit a man named Carlos “Danny” Herrera for creating the Margarita.
Danny was a bartender in Tijuana in 1938, and had an actress friend named Marjorie King that was allergic to every hard alcohol except tequila. He dreamed up the margarita cocktail to help her take down the cantankerous liquor. As tequila distillers got better at their craft it, became far more palatable, ensuring the rise of the sweet, sour, and salty cocktail.
21. Mai Tai (1 oz. Jamaican rum, 1 oz. medium rum, ¾ orange Curacao, ½ lime, ¼ oz. orgeat)
Now we’re talking! The Mai Tai is a delicious blend of ingredients that’s origins are very much in dispute. One thing that is not disputed, however, is that it came out of the “tiki bar” craze that swept the nation after WWII.
Whether it was Trader Vic or Donn Beach, we’ll probably never know. What we do know is that Donn Beach invented the tiki bar. Arriving in Los Angeles after prohibition was over, he started a small bar that was decorated in the fashion of the South Pacific, and chose to create rum based drinks because it was the cheapest alcohol.
22. Mai Tai (Mix ingredients, shake, strain, serve over ice, garnish with fruit or mint)
The watering hole “Don the Beachcomber” was small and dingy, but patrons loved Ernest Gantt’s signature cocktail, known as the Sumatra Kula. Gantt soon opened a bigger “Don the Beachcomber,” prepared more cocktails for his menu, and even changed his name to match the name of the bar.
After WWII, he moved his operation to a little-known beach in Hawaii called Waikiki. It took off, and countless other bars, restaurants, and night clubs copied his model. When he died in 1989 at age 81, an obituary credited him with creating 84 cocktails, including the Mai Tai. Tiki bars and Mai Tai… pretty great legacy.
23. Mojito (2 ozs. rum, mint leaves, 2 tps. ½ lime, sugar, simple syrup, soda)
Had it not been for Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba in the early 1960s, Cuba would be a budding center of rum production and cocktail mixing. Instead, Bacardi uprooted nearly a century of operations when the island went communist, and left behind millions of dollars’ worth of distilling equipment.
That’s too bad, because just like the Daiquiri, the Mojito was created in Havana, and also just like the Daiquiri, the Mojito was created during Prohibition (seems like a lot of the greats were created when alcohol was expressly illegal). But the Mojito shares a common ancestry to another cocktail on this list that is not the Daiquiri.
24. Mojito (Muddle mint and sugar, pour rum, pour soda, add ice, garnish with mint)
It’s interesting because the Mojito is effectively a Tom Collins but made with rum instead of whiskey, yet the Collins was definitely invented in the United States. It’s not disputed that the Mojito was created in Havana, and was popularized by some iconic figures in the 1950s.
Singer Nat King Cole, Errol Flynn, and even Fidel Castro all visited La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana in the 1950s. The Mojito made it’s way to the United States before rum distillers ran from the island, but the Bodeguita del Medio survived the communist takeover, and still hosts busloads of tourists to this day.
25. Manhattan (1 ½ oz. rye whiskey, ½ oz. vermouth, bitters, cherry)
We’re bound to ruffle some feathers with this American favorite, as claims from all over New York say they invented this cocktail and hold strong on it. And while historians debate its origins to this day, the Manhattan Club in New York City still contends it created the famous drink.
According to sources, the first mention of the cocktail Manhattan in written record dates back to 1891, but the Manhattan Club claims to have created the cocktail, long before that, in 1874. That is when Mrs. Churchill, pregnant with her son Winston, threw a party in Manhattan for the ages.
26. Manhattan (Mix ingredients, 2 dashes bitters, stir, add cherry or orange rind)
Samuel Tilden won the Gubernatorial election in New York in 1874, and that Jennie Churchill was a huge supporter. She decided to throw a party at the Manhattan Club to celebrate the victory for the Democrat party. According to legend, the bartender created a new cocktail especially for the occasion, and the rest is history.
The only problem with the theory is that this party would have taken place in November 1874, and Winston was born at the end of that month. We don’t judge, but perhaps his mother imbibed, as he indisputably had a lifelong propensity to fine whiskey.
27. Martini (2 ½ oz. gin or vodka, ½ oz. dry vermouth, lemon, olives)
The Martini is a very similar drink to the Manhattan except its primary ingredient is vodka or gin instead of rye whiskey. While there are claims that the cocktail comes from the same place also, it seems that this sophisticates’ cocktail may have actually been born on the West Coast.
The reason California gets to claim this cocktail is because it was based on an all too similar cocktail that already existed. But that has not stopped some New Yorkers to claim it was created at the Knickerbocker Hotel by the world famous bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia, for whom the cocktail was named.
28. Martini (Mix ingredients, stir, add lemon rind, garnish with olives)
A note on the preparation of this cocktail and to Mr. Bond across the pond. A Martini should never be shaken as James Bond prefers. A Martini needs to be stirred, and the fact that he prefers his shaken means he’s a rebel rouser, which is what Ian Fleming was trying to have us learn about him when he wrote that line.
James Bond probably never set foot in Martinez, California where the Martini was originated. According to Martinez legend a miner was served the cocktail during the 1849 gold rush. When he woke up from a long night he headed to San Francisco where he spread the word, and over time the “Dry Martinez” simply became the Martini as we know it today.
29. Sazerac – (Absinthe, 1 ¼ oz. cognac, sugar cube, Angostura bitters)
We’re going to end our discussion about how cocktails shaped North America with what is regarded as “America’s first cocktail.” The Sazerac has a decidedly agreed upon origin (unlike others on this list), and that happened in 1838 in the bustling port city of New Orleans.
While other versions of cocktails existed before the Sazerac, the Sazerac was the first to take on cocktails’ modern form. And unlike the other cocktails on this list, the origins of the key alcohol is not in the United States. It was in fact absinthe, which was created in Switzerland sometime in the late 1700s.
30. Sazerac (1 glass dash bitters over sugar cube and crush, 2nd glass rinse with absinthe, add cognac, pour into 1st glass)
Absinthe was especially popular in France in the early 1800s, and that may explain why it was prevalent in a city in North America where the French were still very much present. And that’s why a bartender named Antoine Peychaud is said to have created the drink in the French quarter.
In 1838 the drink was made with American rye whiskey, but 35 years later it was replaced with French cognac. The man who made this change, Leon Lamothe, is the one credited with creating the Sazerac, as he also added the absinthe rinse, which gained him the title “Father of the Sazerac.”