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Cocktail Culture: How it All Started

Drinks writer David Wondrich once described the cocktail as "America's first culinary tradition." This well-served tradition originated in the eighteenth century, when freedom of assembly was practiced in the most homespun of places, the local tavern.

Back in Colonial times, most taverns served toddies—warm drinks flavored with sugar and spices. In 1767 artificial carbonation was achieved, marking the first point in which innovation influenced what was served in saloons. Soon fizzy water was served with whiskey, the beginnings of mixology.

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, early refrigeration emerged and bartenders began serving cold cocktails. The availability of ice proved to be a milestone in cocktail culture. Ice made for cold, mixed, slightly diluted drinks—the modern cocktail as we know it.

In fact, the word cocktail first entered print in 1803 in the pages of Farmer's Cabinet, an early American newspaper. Although the origins of the word cocktail are debated, its birthday is celebrated on May 13, the date when an editor at another newspaper, The Balance and Columbian Repository, defined it as "a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters."

The word cocktail was part of the American vernacular by the mid-1800s. Spirits, which were easier to transport and less perishable than beer, became the drink of choice for pioneers in frontier saloons. However, not all these saloons lived up to their cowboy lore. Booms in industry saw the emergence of extravagant hotels and bars throughout the country in the second half on the 1800s. Yet change was in the midst for these establishments.

Prohibition sent cocktail culture into the underground and it wasn't until after WWII that spirited drinks began to resurface. The postwar years saw the rising popularity of vodka, the most common spirit used by mixologists today.

These days, the Internet has had a far-reaching effect on cocktail culture. The availability, and easy sharing, of drink recipes allows bartenders in taverns throughout the world to share information globally.

diffordsguide. Simon Difford. London: Sauce Guides Limited, 2007.