Magazine article The Spectator

Easy Mixers

Magazine article The Spectator

Easy Mixers

Article excerpt

THE first time I saw a cocktail was in a grainy version of the film The Thin Man with the fiber-urbane William Powell. Powell, as private detective Nick Charles, was standing at a slippery-shiny chrome bar and telling the man behind it how to mix drinks. A Manhattan, he said, must be shaken to foxtrot time; a dry martini to waltz time. He then proceeded to drink five, while tossing off wisecracks as dry as the martinis.

From then on, cocktails were associated in my mind with sartorial elegance and witty remarks. While wine tended to induce a coarse and lurching sort of drunkenness, a mixture of gin and vermouth appeared to concentrate the mind. As Robert Benchley quipped, `Let's get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.' Cocktails were about aphorisms and glamour; about dancing chicto-chic in nightclubs with polished floors.

Once every few years someone says that a cocktail revival is on the way. We are going through such a time now, with hotel bars in the West End of London offering cocktail happy hours. But the truth is that, apart from the egaliterian beer-swilling Seventies, there has always been a cocktail revival. Not everyone has been aware of it, but we aficionados have kept the flame burning.

Mixed drinks have existed since the time of the Greeks, who invented retsina by mixing wine with resin. Spiced wines and those with other ingredients were known long before spirits came to Europe. In Britain, drinks were being mixed as early as the 14th century, when ale was combined with mead and called 'a bragget'.

The mint-julep was first made in l8thcentury Virginia. Mint sprigs were put into rum or brandy and served as morning eyeopeners. The word 'cocktail' - meaning a horse with a cocked tail; that is, one cut short and made to stick up like a cock's tail - appeared in the first decade of the 19th century. Apparently, rooster tails were used to stir the drinks served to gamblers on the Mississippi.

The first appearance of the word in print has been attributed to a newspaper in Hudson, New York, which in 1806 described the cocktail as 'a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters'. Victorians knew about cocktails, imbibing Gum Ticklers and Corpse Revivers - a mixture of brandy, calvados and sweet vermouth. In 1851 the first cocktail bar was opened at Gore House, near Hyde Park, in London.

An American barman, Jerry Thomas, produced the first book of cocktail recipes in the 1860s. A decade later someone invented the dry martini, arguably the greatest of all mixed drinks. H.L. Mencken said that the martini was the `only American invention as perfect as the sonnet'. Soon the clear, cold, diamond liquid was exciting the imagination. The first literary reference to a martini was in a short story of 1896:

One of the jeunesse dore tipped his chair back as indication that he had retired from the argument and, as he sipped his martini, a faraway look came into his baby-blue eyes.

The cocktail hour became a compulsory rite during Prohibition when a great deal of creative thinking was devoted to inventing new and imaginative ways of making what alcohol could be found into something drinkable. Demon alcohol could be mixed with, and disguised by, more innocent ingredients. The writer Diana Trilling, recalling her courtship with Lionel Trilling in 1929, said, `Neither of us was entirely sober when we were together.' Their romance was lubricated with Brandy Alexanders (creme de cacao, brandy and double cream). …

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