The derivation of the word “cocktail” seems to be shrouded in mystery and though there are several stories connected with the origin of this delicious and subtle little apéritif, these stories differ so widely that none of them seem worth quoting. But it is interesting to know that the cocktail habit was more or less established in America so early as 1869 and in a manual on the subject of mixed drinks, written about that time and now relegated to the Dead Language Department of American bookshops, one finds an amusing paragraph concerning ice: “Of late years, artificial ice has taken to some extent, largely in the Southern States, the place of the natural product.”
Things have changed since those days and icebergs, like solitude, are becoming elusive. The method of mixing a cocktail has altered too, for the shaker was unknown at the time of the first cocktails, which were mixed in a glass and stirred with a spoon, a process far less satisfactory than that of our present day.
To the making of cocktails there is no end, nor is the art likely to perish from the earth. The word “art” is used advisedly, for the compounding of a cocktail is a delicate business. There is as much art in the blending of flavours in a glass as in the blending of colours on a canvas or in a scheme of decoration. Even the choice of the appropriate cocktail for any occasion betrays the hostess’ savoir faire—one might better say savoir boire—or her lack of it.
Those who despise the cocktail, who denounce cocktail-drinking as a pernicious habit, are out of their own mouths condemned. The person who absorbs six or more cocktails at a sitting is no more and no less a commendable member of society than would be he who, as a prelude to dinner, consumed a pound of caviar or six dozen oysters, or in the middle of the afternoon regaled himself on a box of salted almonds or a barrel of olives. Over-indulgence in cocktails betrays a gross spirit and an utter lack of understanding of the role of the cocktail.
Our forebears were wont to pursue the party spirit, which they called conviviality, through a procession of bottles of sherry, claret, champagne, port and whatnot, marching steadily athwart the repast and after; that pursuit ended only too frequently in the recumbent forms of those same valiant drinkers being swept up with the crumbs in the morning. What was worse, not infrequently those convivial souls grew quarrelsome, and your three-or-more-bottle man found himself, without quite knowing how he got there, on the dueling ground, while in his ears echoed the grim order: “Pistols for two and coffee for one.” Not that the duel was the ineluctable last green of a promising drinking career, it was purely incidental, a bunker by the way; but with gout looming ahead as the inevitable 18th hole of a triple-bottled course, the expectation of life must have been distinctly poor. One may doubt, too, whether the cause of conviviality was truly served by those prodigal potations.
Your modern diners-out and above all the hostess who entertains them, are no less imbued by the party spirit but they prefer greater economy of means and, reversing the ancestral process, choose to begin dinner, not only to end it, on good terms with themselves and the world. As an introduction to the modern, more brilliant and certainly less uproarious conviviality, the cocktail stands supreme. Nothing else so adequately bridges the dull interval between the guests’ arrival and the announcement of dinner, not to mention that awful first quarter of an hour when, uninspired and forlorn in a cocktail-less house, one casts about in one’s mind for a subject unconnected with the weather with which to open conversational battle with one’s neighbour. Sherry will not do the trick, nor yet the experience of the most accomplished hostess, charm she never so wisely. These specifics work slowly, and by the time their virtues begin to tell, dinner is a third over. But start the proceedings with a cocktail and see how, as if by magic, your guests unbend from their proud estate, mark how their tongues wag, and with what lively interest they engage their respective partners ! It would be interesting to learn how many hostesses owe their reputation for brilliant and successful entertaining to that modest ally, the cocktail.
Do not forget, however, that there are cocktails and cocktails. Many of them are not everybody’s meat, and a few are poison to some. The dry cocktail has its votaries, and to these a sweet concoction is anathema, while the lover of sweet flavours will make a medicine-taking face on tasting the purest gem of a dry collection. Consider well your company, the menu and the occasion before selecting the appropriate cocktail which should be as inevitable as the mot juste. It is a subtly artful affair, this process of selection. One cocktail will make an admirable prelude to champagne, another will attune the palate to hock or cider cup, but neither of these would be the proper introduction to claret or burgundy, while whisky-and-soda, though apparently a neutral drink, requires a different herald. Does the party threaten to prove heavy in the hand, leaven its lumpishness with an absinthe cocktail, a Green Devil or a Kingston cocktail, and watch the result.
Concerning the menu, as a general rule the richer the food the stronger and brighter the cocktail, and vice versa. There is, you see, more in this question of choice than meets the eye. Many a good dinner has been ruined by the wrong cocktail.
The proof the pudding may be in the eating, but the proof of the cocktail is not only in the pleasure in sipping its subtle deliciousness, but also in the enlivening, slightly exhilarating effect it has upon the drinker. Considered in its relation to the dinner or supper party, it is as the patch on a powdered beauty’s cheek, the deft touch that gives piquancy to a frock, the opening phrase that rivets one’s attention to a story, the high light in a picture.
But the cocktail needs no apology. Nothing-succeeds like success, and the success of the cocktail has long since been recognised by those who use it with discrimination in its proper place. It is not the mission of the cocktail to allay thirst or to while away the afternoon or evening hours. For that purpose exists the legion of long drinks, alcoholic or otherwise.
For leisurely consumption during a hot afternoon or evening a gin rickey or mint julep, iced tea or coffee, a rum punch, a fruit or other long drink will refresh both mind and body, while hot punch or toddy lend charm to the coldest of winter evenings if served to the accompaniment of a good fire. Conversation in both cases will take care of itself, and that, oh hostess, is the secret of successful entertaining.
Selections from the book “Drinks-Long & Short” by Nina Toye & A. H. Adair. London: William Heinemann, Ltd.. First Published, 1925. Printed in Great Britain by Woods & Sons, Ltd., London, N. 1